...The Negro in the Service of Supply
A Vast Army of Colored Stevedores in France---Their Important and Efficient Work---Essential to the Combatant Army in the Trenches---Their Loyalty and Cheerfulness---Important Lessons Learned in the War ---The Labor Battalions--- Well-Earned Tributes to These Splendid Colored Workers Overseas.
War is not all "death and glory." For every soldier who gets even a glimpse of the enemy or risks his life within range of shellfire, there must, in all modern warfare, be from twenty to thirty men working at such commonplace and routine tasks as loading and unloading ships, building piers, laying railroad tracks, making roads, in a thousand other ways making it possible for the fighting men to get to the front, and for the necessary food, ammunition, and other supplies to reach them. But what man would want to render such service? It was somewhat exciting news for the Negro population of the United States to learn that only about twenty per cent of the colored draftees were to be trained to fight while the remaining Negroes in the military service would constitute noncombatant divisions in the Service of Supply, or other non-fighting organizations. On June 23, 1918, when 237,000 Negroes had been called to the colors, it was estimated that the battalions of the noncombatant to the combatant troops were in the proportion of about four to one.
This vast army of Stevedores in France was composed mostly of men who volunteered when the call was first sounded. The first men who went over early in June, 1917, were with a civilian contract company, experienced as stevedores in America. They served one year and finishing their contract in June, 1918, returned to America. During the early days of July, 1917, other companies of volunteer men arrived, so the army grew until the Stevedore Camps at base ports in France became one great industrial army, numbering about fifty thousand.
The army of Stevedores had all the equipment, regulations,. and military rank and uniform that the infantry had. Though industrial in its nature, all the life and workings, and details of procedure, were according to military law and order. This vast army of workers was divided into companies and regiments and had their individual camps regularly officered and numbered. Anything by the way of uniform and ration that other men received, the Stevedore shared equally. They were soldiers and took great pride in the fact that they belonged to Uncle Sam's Army. Including all the display that goes with drills, reviews, and inspections, saluting an officer, flag-raising, and perchance, the grand parades, with companies swinging into line, and the martial music of bands, the Stevedores always stepped proudly and lively enough to suit the keenest military eye for discipline and fine training.
The Stevedores also took great pride in their companies, their camps, and all that belonged to the Army, and because their work and contribution were always emphasized by officers as being essential to the boys in the trenches, the name "Stevedore" finally became a dignified and distinguished term, representing an important part of the great American Army.
To the Negro soldiers of the American Army fell a large part of the work of this "Service of Supply," or, as it was known in Army slang, the "S. O. S." The work of the Negro Stevedore Regiments and Labor Battalions, and their unremitting toil at the French ports---Brest, St. Nazaire, Bordeaux, Havre, Marseilles---won the highest praise from all who have had an opportunity to judge of the efficiency of their work. Every man who served his country in one of these organizations was as truly fighting to save his country as though he had carried a rifle and killed Germans.
The following are the Negro organizations, other than combat troops, that served overseas:
Butchery Companies, Nos. 322 and 363.
Stevedore Regiments, Nos. 301, 302 and 303.
Stevedore Battalions, Nos. 701, 702.
Engineer Service Battalions, Nos. 505 to 550, inclusive.
Labor Battalions, Nos. 304 to 315, inclusive; Nos. 317 to 327, inclusive; Nos. 329 to 348, inclusive, and No. 357.
Labor Companies, Nos. 301 to 324, inclusive.
Pioneer Infantry Battalions, Nos. 80l to 809, inclusive; No. 811 and Nos. 813 to 816, inclusive.
At the same time, there were 207 Labor Battalions in France composed of white soldiers.
As there were not sufficient colored officers to command the colored regiments and no efforts were being made to train colored officers for this purpose, there was much apprehension among the colored people as to how these Negro laborers in the military service would be treated. Some said it meant the re-enslavement of the Negro race. An effort was then made to increase the facilities for military training offered to colored draftees in the various camps to supply this peculiar need of the Service battalions, and some encouragement and some actual deeds to meet this demand followed. It was argued not only that officers to be placed in charge of these noncombatant troops should be well trained themselves, but that the Negro laborers should be given an opportunity to be trained in military tactics. A memorial was, therefore, made to the Secretary of War by the CENTRAL COMMITTEE OF NEGRO COLLEGE MEN, recommending that the noncombatant units excluded from the officer training privileges be allowed through the extension of training privileges to supply their own quota of noncombatant officers, and that for the general good of the service such troops be given at least one month's military training before being assigned to their specific duties.
Arduous Tasks for the Army
The tasks of these soldiers in the Service of Supply were numerous. On arriving at the ports they were called upon to handle bags of mail and freight sent to supply the Army. The Army had to be furnished with horses and mules, which had to be fed with forage and supplied with saddles and harness. The men needed ice, meat, bacon, flour, and lard, and for comfort shoes, clothes, matches, ipecac, and gasoline. When our Army was in full swing in France we had to hurry up the shipments of millions of rounds of ammunition and large supplies of blankets, rubber-boots, hay, and medicines to carry out the great work of promoting the war.
When brought to the various ports, an unusual number of laborers were required to unload such supplies. When unloaded the task of transporting them to the various points for distribution among the divisions of the Army was a still greater task. As railroads were not always available and railway connections had been broken up by the penetration of the Germans almost into the heart of France, automobile transportation was a necessity. In this same service French cattle cars, the ox-cart, the motorcycle, side-cars, aeroplanes, and human beings as beasts of burden were used.
The task was rendered somewhat easier later when these same men increased sufficiently in numbers to be detached for the special service of building Yankee railroads. This made possible an easier handling of these supplies through storage depots located at various places in France. The storage depot at Gievres, through which millions of American wealth passed in the Army like water over a milldam, covers six square miles. It was started in the fall of 1917 and when the war ended the Army had there about twenty miles of warehouses and shops of modern construction and about 25,000 men handling the enormous masses of stores distributed from that point. From such warehouses were distributed everything except artillery, heavy ammunition and aeroplane products, which had supply depots of their own at Mehun and Romorantin. This depot is diamond-shaped, with 140 miles of interior railroad lines within the reservation for the handling of freight.
How the colored American Stevedores in France worked is told in a report by the Reverend D. Leroy Ferguson, Rector of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Our Merciful Saviour, Louisville, Kentucky. He paid a high tribute to the American Army of Colored Stevedores in a lengthy account which tells of their patriotic deeds.
On the same day that the American Infantry, treading in the wake of the
retreating Germans gained the outskirts of Fismes, says he, Colored Stevedores
unloading a ship at one of the base ports, unostentatiously won an important
victory by discharging 1200 tons of flour in 91/2 hours, setting a record
for the A. E. F. and a pace which is rarely excelled on the best-equipped
docks in the United States. The same group of Stevedores over a period of
five days discharged an average of 2000 tons of cargo a day from
With the same force with which American line units made their début in a big scale warfare, did the other branches of the service upon whose efforts depend the potency and effectiveness of the men in the trenches accomplish their less spectacular but equally important work;---more work was accomplished in the S. O. S. by an appreciable percentage during July, 1918, than in any previous month. More dirt was excavated on the rail lines of communication, more steel was laid; more warehouses were constructed; and more conspicuous still, at the base ports, more men were landed, more freight was discharged from incoming ships, and the efficiency of its handling was materially increased.
Most of the American colored Stevedores had never seen a ship until they started for France, but they proved their worth as cargo handlers. Working in the hold of a ship, with the August sun raising heat waves from the deck, was not the easiest job in the Army, but they broke records at it, and it did not dampen their sunny disposition either.
How splendidly the Stevedores measured up to military standards of efficiency while "making good," and with what great affection their officers regarded them and their work, Dr. Ferguson had opportunities to witness. And Col. C. E. Goodwyn in a letter expresses this fact most admirably. His can be taken as a special standard, because Colonel Goodwyn for over a year was in charge of the largest camp of Colored Stevedores in France.
"It is with many keen thrusts of sorrow," said he, "that I am obliged to leave this camp and the men who have made up this organization. The men for whose uplift you are working have not only gained but have truly earned a large place in my heart, and I will always cherish a loving memory of the men of this wonderful organization which I have had the honor and privilege to command."
That Colonel Goodwyn was also held in high esteem by his men, may be judged from a conversation which was overheard one day. After the armistice a group of the boys were discussing what they had in mind to do first after returning to America. One ambitious fellow said, "I'm going to marry right away, and get me a fine little boy stevedore!" Another remarked that "Of course his name will be Abraham Lincoln." "Oh, no," replied the first speaker. "There's too many Abe Lincolns in America now; my first boy's going to be called 'Colonel Goodwyn.'"
Cheerfulness in the Camps
Very naturally, many amusing stories and jokes, with the war and France as a background, featured the life of the colored boys over there. One heard many funny "bon mots" and puns and clever stories attributed to the Negro soldier, until it seems that they brought and made most of the humor connected with the grim, frightful war. Surely, in America, the jokes of their experiences and life in France, and foreign surroundings, their efforts to imitate or speak the French language, will, I imagine, serve to increase the record, which will be all the more laughable, as well as interesting, because of the new situation and circumstances that enter into the stories. It is very true that with that native talent and fun-making nature of his, the Negro soldier found many things in France that amused him, and made possible for him all sorts of jokes and clever expressions. Indeed, the Negro soldier was quick to see whatever was humorous over there; the war, the army, the firing line, even the serious and dangerous things, that make others sad, he made the basis of his jokes and ofttimes ridiculed, so that even his dangers and his tasks seemed to have been less difficult. No doubt these jokes and comic expressions will be beard over again and happily enjoyed in America when the boys return home.
As to cheerfulness, the Stevedore Camps had their share of songs, music,
and that gaiety which characterizes a cheerful race. One thing that most
impressed those who were willing to observe, was that all through. those
stressful days and anxious, when the train of work and the handling of cargoes
and ammunition for the front became really one long grind for the Stevedores,
morning, noon and night, one could see them through all sorts of weather
Frequently the base commander and other distinguished officers visited the camps and were seen at the public gatherings and Y. M. C. A. buildings. "I have heard them repeatedly emphasize," writes Dr. Ferguson, "how much the Army at the front depended on the work and loyalty of the Stevedores at the base. They also spoke to them in the highest terms about the way in which they were performing their difficult tasks' without the show, applause, and excitement that inspire the soldier at the front. They were doing the drudgery, the dull routine, the monotonous labor; still they were the foundation and groundwork upon which the whole Army was built. They also were American soldiers and heroes.
"With such patriotic sentiment always encouraging them, I believe the same acted as a spur to keep the morale up to the highest, and the energy with which they worked was all the more vital, because they responded readily to the principles of patriotism that urged them on, believing that through their efforts all the more quickly victory and peace would come. Even after the armistice was signed and their thoughts naturally turned homeward to their families and friends, a new appeal is being made to them, that the Army of Occupation now needs supplies and food, to which they are responding loyally, and the Stevedores are over there still at work, far into the night and even from the rising to the setting of the sun.
"When it is considered to what extent with regard to different States and communities the huge army of Stevedores was organized, and the various types and conditions of men represented, ranging from the young man of school training and city-bred, to those from hamlets and small farms way down South, and illiterate, it is remarkable how they were all brought together and welded finally into a fine industrial army that made such a wonderful record of work and efficiency. This credit belongs to the Army discipline and training they received. The traveler was often amazed to see this development of hundreds of young men from crude farmhands, very raw material, indeed, day by day improving under Army discipline, until in these days, after their months of training, they
stand forth, erect, alert, earnest, industrious soldiers; and in them is found a type of industrious and useful citizens for the future America. "
Lessons Learned in the War
They learned remarkable lessons in this experience of war times, aside from the broadening view of life that travel and foreign contact give. These are the lessons of self-control, cleanliness, promptness, obedience, efficiency, and the value of time. Another agency with the camp that greatly influenced the men and urged the development of mind, body, and soul was the Y. M. C. A. In each camp wherever the Stevedores were stationed there were soon established very home-like and commodious "Y" buildings, all equipped with the same regular, standardized furnishings and supplies as others, under the able direction of colored secretaries. That the men received additional help and advantage here also is well recognized. The programs were elaborate and interesting, consisting of lectures by eminent men and women, concerts by the leading musicians, singers, and actors that went the rounds of all the camps; moving pictures, athletics, circulating libraries, and educational classes in reading, writing, mathematics; besides regular instruction in French. All these fine influences must have reached the minds and hearts of the Stevedores, and scores of men who came to the Army illiterate were able, after the training received, to write their names and first letters home to wives, sweethearts and friends.
The service rendered by the Negroes of these battalions evoked many expressions of admiration and praise from all persons who saw the Army in action in France. It was observed that the spirit which animated the Americans engaged in the Service of Supply division was the same as that of those in the front-line trenches. The shiploads of products requiring usually four days for unloading were disposed of by these Negroes in half of that time. In fact they did everything on a gigantic scale and did their work quickly. The rapidity then with which the American soldiers were dispatched to France so as to excite surprise at home and abroad was due primarily to the unselfish and patriotic service of the thousands of Negro stevedores who cleared the ports on arrival in France.
Writing of these wonderful feats an observer asserted that when the greatest of American transports first came over, it took 52 days to unload it at Liverpool. Later this period was reduced to 28 days. On the third trip it was decided to send this transport to a French port where Americans could handle the freight in less time. It turned out that on the first arrival 10,000 men and supplies were unloaded and the ship coaled and sent back in four days. On the second arrival the same task was completed in three days; the third arrival in 48 hours, and the fourth arrival in 44 hours. In each case, 5,000 tons of coal had to be put on this large transport and loaded from lighters, as her 41 feet of draft kept her far out in the harbor.
Work of the Stevedores
Referring to the work done by these stevedores in France, Mr. Ralph W. Tyler, accredited representative of the Committee on Public Information, then in France, said:
"Figures just made available show that for the month of September, 1918, there were handled at the American base ports in France 767,64S tons, or a daily average of 25,588 tons, an increase of nearly ten per cent over August. When it is considered that colored stevedores handled by far the largest per cent of this tonnage, some idea can be formed of the very important service colored stevedores are rendering the Government here in France, and how necessary they are to the success of the Allies. The work of colored stevedores may be menial, and is laborious, but it is as essential as the manning of the guns at the front. The fact is, that without these stevedores first unloading and aiding in transporting the guns, munitions, and supplies to the front, there would be no manning of guns at the front. One who sees the stevedores' work notes with what rapidity and cheerfulness they work, and what a very important cog they are in the war machinery. The colored stevedore has greater endurance than the others."
At a Stevedore Camp
In another letter Mr. Tyler said:
"I have just returned from a two days' visit to a point where there are assembled, and at work, some twenty-five thousand service, or stevedore troops. I was particularly impressed with the arrangements, and with the
uniform cheerfulness and splendid morale of the men. During quite an extended conference, or audience, with the Colonel in command, he stated that he would not exchange his men, if it were a matter of option, for any command in the Army; that he was proud of his men, and that they not only responded to discipline readily, but most cheerfully. He further stated that he would like to lead his men into action, but that the work they were performing was urgently necessary to facilitate action at the front, and that his men accepted their duties, as I learned from the men themselves, knowing that their work, although non-combatant, was absolutely necessary to the prosecution. of the war.
"The erroneous opinion existing among many of the colored race, that only colored men are commandeered for the laborious, or manual work, would quickly be dispelled, among those who hold to such opinion, were they over here at the front and could observe the many thousands of white men in the Army performing the same class of work performed by colored men. In the assignment of duty over here, I find that men's racial identity is not considered; that duty is paramount. Between the commanding officer, at the point visited, and the colored stevedores there appears to be a bond of sympathy akin to that existing between a most considerate employer and satisfied and cooperating employees. Not only are our men, at this point, treated with marked consideration, without offending strict military discipline, but they are wholesomely and abundantly fed, and comfortably and sanitarily quartered. There need not be, back in the States, any concern whatever felt as to the treatment accorded, or the provisions made for the maintenance of the colored service battalions in France, so far as I have seen. Most of the men are faring as well as they did back in the States, and many of them are faring infinitely better than they did when at home, and the amusements and recreations provided for them are excellent.
"The relations existing here between these colored soldiers and the French people is fine. Absolutely nothing has transpired here among these more than 25,000 colored men gathered from every walk of life, and many of them from the ghettos, to arouse even the suspicion of fear in the most timid of white women. It was a long, tedious ride to reach this point, but what I have learned at this camp abundantly compensates me for the trip.
"Another pleasing thing, to me, about this stevedore camp, was that the guardhouse was, in size, but a small affair, and that its inmates constituted an astonishingly low number, and such as were confined in it were there for trivial offenses-mere infractions of strict military rules rather than crimes.
The Colored Motorcycle Riders
"There is a glamour about the combatant units of an army in war that very frequently causes the non-combatants who are most essential in war, to be overlooked," continued Mr. Tyler. "Among the non-combatants over here who have been overlooked in all reports are the colored motorcycle riders, who act as couriers and transporters, carrying messages, night and day, from front to front; from headquarters to the front line trenches and battle front, and back, or who rush officers, almost with the velocity of the wind, to distant points. It is really marvelous how these colored motorcyclists ride pell-mell, in the darkest nights, without headlights, along these strange, devious, forking, and merging roads of France, leaving towns, through which they pass, behind in an instant. It is marvelous how these riders so quickly learned these French country roads. They race along, at times, when the darkness is so thick one cannot see his hand before his face, with only their judgment, which never fails them, to tell them the right road to take, or how near a precipice they are riding. They race along these lonely roads at night, whose darkness is only pierced now and then by a bursting German shell just ahead or behind them, or at their side, at the rate of from 65 to 75 miles per hour. Frequently, as they race along, bearing an important message to the front, German shells fall and hit the road so continuously as to be incessant, but these daring colored motorcyclists, never daunted, ride on, indifferent to the shells, as if they were but covering a peaceful road with which they are perfectly familiar back in the states.
"I rode several miles with one last night, from one front to another, at a 65-mile-per-hour clip. He was indifferent to the burstings of American anti-aircraft shells, aimed at the Boche airplane in the sky above us; he was oblivious to the thunder of the German cannon, and their shrieking shells to our right; he merely had his mind, as he kept his eyes to the front, on getting me back to the point
which we had left a few hours before, a distance of five miles, in ten minutes. And he made it without slip or hit. When the history of this war is written some space, by right, must be given to telling .of the bravery, daring and speed of the colored motorcycle riders, seventy-odd of whom are with the colored division which I am with at present."
In appreciation of the unselfish service rendered by these colored men at one of these ports, General Pershing visited them and paid them a fine compliment. He said: "When this expedition first started, the question was: 'Do you want any colored men over there?' and I said, 'Yes, of course, I want colored men.' I said: 'Aren't they American citizens? Can't they do as much work in the line of fighting and as much work as any other American citizen?'" The General referred to the fact that he was raised in a town where three-fourths of the people were colored, and that he was proud to say that during the Spanish-American War he commanded a colored troop which did splendid work then, just as other Negro troops are doing splendid work now. He said on leaving: "I expect to come back here and organize a few volunteer units and give you guns and let you go to the front and try your band at it."
One of the largest camps in France, numbering nine thousand Stevedores, frequently had distinguished visitors, who brought greetings from America. How happily the boys heard them, and with what enthusiastic applause they were welcomed! Especially, they will remember Mr. Ralph W. Tyler, war correspondent for the colored press, who brought greetings from the Secretary of War, and their families back home; also, Mr. Julius Rosenwald, who brought to the boys greetings from the Governors of their states, whom the boys all applauded vigorously. Mr. Rosenwald liked so well what he saw that he donated one thousand francs to be spent among the boys. One American representative especially received prolonged applause and a hearty welcome from the stevedores, and that was Ella Wheeler Wilcox. And this because her words were so helpful and friendly. Moreover, this eminent poetess was able to see something of the heroic and splendid in the Stevedores, which inspired her to sing this martial, song:
We are the Army Stevedores, lusty and Virile and strong;
We, are given the hardest work of the war, and the hours are long;
We handle the heavy boxes and shovel the dirty coal;
While the soldiers and sailors work in the light,
We burrow below like a mole.
But somebody has to do this work, or the soldiers could not fight;
And whatever work is given a man, is good if he does it right.
We are the Army Stevedores and we are volunteers;
We did not wait for the draft to come, and put aside our fears.
We flung them away to the winds of Fate, at the very first call of our land,
And each of us offered a willing heart, and the strength of a brawny hand.
We are the Army Stevedores, and work as we must and may,
The Cross of Honor will never be ours to proudly wear away.
But the men at the front could not be there
And the battles could not be won,
If the Stevedores stopped in their dull routine,
And left their work undone.
Somebody has to do this work;
Be glad that it isn't you!
We are the Army Stevedores; give us our due!
---ELLA WHEELER WILCOX.
Chapter XXIII. "With Those Who Wait"
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