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01/31/2012 10:17 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

"Elizaberth Ford" - A Model T Truck in France

A few weeks ago, I got a call from a friend who asked me if I had any knowledge of the use of motorized transportation during World War I. This may seem rather an odd question, but while employed at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, a large part of my work was devoted to the wheeled and tracked vehicle collection. I had done a substantial amount of work on just that subject, and it is a fascinating one! My question, however, was, " In what aspect of motor transportation in World War I are you interested?"

His response made me laugh. It was a story I knew well... that of a Ford Model T truck given to the 6th Marines and lovingly nicknamed "Elizabeth Ford." Well... sort of named "Elizabeth Ford."

The Model T Truck donated by Mrs. Elizabeth Pearce, Mrs. Charles Childs and Miss Willard.

When the guns of August thundered into action in 1914, the principal means of military transport was what it had been since the dawn of organized warfare -- the backs of men or animals, or wagons drawn by them.

At the onset of World War I, horses were used for the transport of ammunition, supplies and weapons.

At the outset of World War I, the faithful horse and mule were still indispensable for the movement of artillery, ammunition and the vast array of other supplies that modern warfare demanded. The motor vehicle had been in use for several years by 1914, but it had undergone only limited testing under field conditions. It soon became apparent however, that motorized transport was the coming into its own. Extensive testing found that at least one month was required to put an animal in working condition after a two or three month period at sea; an engine had only to be warmed up.

The American Expeditionary Force was the first truly motorized force ever fielded. It is estimated that some 60,000 vehicles saw service with the A.E.F. Of those, more than 15,000 were Model T Fords.

Introduced in 1908 by the Ford Motor Company, the Model T had established its reputation as a rugged and dependable machine. By 1914, it had changed very little. It featured a 100 inch wheelbase, and weighed between 1200 and 1500 pounds. Its four cylinder, 20 horsepower engine was capable of top speeds of 45 miles per hour. (Perhaps down hill with a strong tail wind!) It was deceptively light, earning the nickname "Tin Lizzie," and most military authorities believed it to be too light for military use. Despite that belief, and Henry Ford's zealous opposition to war (He was one of the leading figure of the "Keep America Out of the War" movement), the Model T was destined to find its way to the battlefields of Europe.

Henry Ford (Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

There are reports of Model Ts being used in the opening campaigns of World War I. These were privately owned vehicles, commandeered by both sides as needed.

The Allies were able to purchase a limited number of Model Ts, mostly through established Ford agencies in Britain and France. (Although vehemently opposed to the war, Ford did not go as far as to refuse to sell running chassis to the military.  He did insure that the military body parts were not manufactured by the Ford Motor Company. Ford supplied the chassis, engine and running gear, including the bonnet and firewall. These were then taken to various body and carriage makers who made the appropriate body for its usage.)

The first force to make wide use of the Model T was the American Field Service, which provided motor ambulance service for the French Army. In 1915, they decided to standardize on a light ambulance based on the Model T. The History of the American Field Service (Vol. 3) makes the following notation:

So we adopted the Ford motor for the standard ambulance and in the years before the United States Government was lending support to the Allied cause, we imported into France approximately twelve hundred (Ford) chassis. Here let it be said that in doing so we received no favor or assistance from their manufacturer, who with his peculiar ideas of philanthropy, was adverse to any assistance to war activities, even to the relief of suffering entailed from the war. From him we could not even obtain the favor of wholesale rates in the purchase of cars and parts, and for every Ford part imported (to France) from America, in those difficult days before America came into the war, we were obliged to pay, not the dealer's price, but the full market price charged to ordinary retail buyers.

A Model T Truck used by the American Ambulance Service in France. (Photograph courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska)

The American Field Service also procured some 200 other Model Ts included touring cars for command purposes and utility trucks for general service. When the Americans arrived in France, all vehicles and personnel of the American Field Service were incorporated into A.E.F. ranks.

The French Army had Model Ts from the onset of the war. There were a number already in France and more were assembled from American made parts by the Ford agency in Paris. Among these were those utilized during the First Battle of the Marne. In all, more than 11,000 Model T Ford's were procured by the French Army. British and Empire Forces are believed to have acquired between 20,000 and 30,000 Model Ts for use, not only in France but also in campaigns in Africa and the Middle East.

It was with the U.S. entry into the war, however, that the Model T came into full bloom as a military vehicle. Official records and unit histories record several types of Model Ts used along the Mexican border in 1916-1917. By the time the United Stated declared war on the Central Powers on 6 April 1917, the Model T had made a deep impression on officers of the U.S. Army. Along with those that came into the A.E.F. with the National Guard and the American Field Service, thousands more were ordered from Ford Motor Company.

Despite his earlier opposition to the war, once the United States had entered the World War I, Henry Ford completely supported the war effort. Ford Motor Company delivered huge numbers of Model Ts from stock on hand and out of current production. Among the first delivered to the U. S. Army were passenger cars. Of the 5-6,000 ordered approximately 2,344 were shipped overseas. These generally served as command and staff cars.

It should be noted that Marines were authorized no vehicles prior to their departure for France.  One noted exception was a Model T Ford donated to the 6th Marines by Mrs. Elizabeth Pearce, Mrs. Charles Childs and Miss Willard (no first name given.)   In a book entitled Dear Folks at Home..., published in 1919, this Model T is well-remembered in a letter written to Mrs. Childs by Major Frank E. Evans on 22 June 1918.

This John W. Thomason painting illustrates Marines under artillery fire. (Courtesy of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Art Collection)

    

And the Ford which Mrs. Pearce gave us will go down in Marine Corps history, at any rate. That "Elizabeth Ford," as the Regiment knows her, has had a unique career. Not only in Quantico, where I drove her, but in Bordeaux, and later up in our training area, she carried everything from sick men to hardtack. Then we had two months in the trenches near Verdun, and at the end of it it seemed as though she would have to go to the scrap heap. Her top was entirely gone, and we made a mail wagon of her. In some way the men, who have an affection for her that you can hardly comprehend, patched her together and we brought her down to our rest billets. A week later we had to go to another area, forty kilometers north of Paris, and in the long line of motor cars that made the trip, Elizabeth Ford sailed along without mishap and was the talk of the Division.

     Then we came up here and she rose to the heights of her service and her record. The night we took Bouresches with twenty-odd men, and news came through that others had filtered in and the town was ours, we shot out a truck load of ammunition over the road. The road was under heavy shell and machine gun fire. Later in the night we sent the Ford out with rations. For the next five days she made that trip night and day, and for one period ran almost every hour for thirty six hours. She not only carried ammunition out to the men who were less than two hundred yards from the Boches, but rations and pyrotechnics, and then, to the battalion on the left of the road, in those evil Belleau Woods, she carried the same, and water, which was scarce there. For these trips she had to stop on the road and the stores were then carried by hand into a ravine. I saw her just after her first trip and counted twelve holes made by machine gun bullets and schrapnel. At one time the driver, Private Fleitz, and his two understudies, Haller and Bonneville, had to stop to make minor repairs, and another time when they had a blowout, how she and the men escaped being annihilated is a mystery. The last time I saw her she was resting against a stone wall in the little square of Lucy-le-Bocage, a shell -wrecked town, and she was the most battered object in the town. One tire had been shot off, another wheel hit, her radiator hit, and there were not less than forty hits on her. We are trying every possible way to find new parts and make a new Ford of her. She is our Joan of Arc, and if it takes six old cars to make her run again we'll get those six and rob them. The men have a positive and deep-seated affection for her that is touching. The service she did us just when it was vital to get out to the fighting men ammunition, food and water can never be underestimated.

This story coincides with several historical accounts.

The battle for Belleau Wood is depicted in this painting by Frank Schoonover (Courtesy of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Art Collection)

Thursday, 6 June 1918, is a day that shall forever be remembered in Marine Corps history. It was the beginning of the battle of Belleau Wood. More Marines were killed or wounded on this single day than in the entire history of the Corps. Field Order No. 2, dated 6 June, outlined an attack in two phases-to take the Bois de Belleau and the railroad station at Bouresches. The fighting was merciless and the situation very confused. At 1700 the 3d Battalion, 6th Marines jumped off I in two columns just east of Lucy down both sides of the Lucy-Bouresches road. According to the official report, the battalion advanced according to schedule until about 2030 when enemy artillery and machine gun fire became so heavy that further advance was impractical. Casualties mounted. It soon became obvious that help was going to be needed. The 96th Company of the 2d Battalion was ordered to break through and take Bouresches:

"The advance of the 96th was made over six hundred yards in an open wheat field, under intense artillery and machine gun fire, with no Marine units on either flank. The 2d, 3d and 4th platoons went forward in a skirmish line, keeping up a running fire as they approached Bouresches. When the 2d platoon was within three hundred yards of the town, they went prone in an effort to secure superiority of fire. When the German fire got too hot to bear, the 2d and 3d platoons took refuge in the ravine to their right, but the advance continued. Robertson and platoon leader 2d Lt. Clifton B. Cates, with the remnants of one platoon, some twenty-four enlisted men, raced forward."

This drawing by John W. Thomason depicts a Marine company commander in World War I. (Courtesy of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Art Collection)

Cates, despite being knocked temporarily unconscious by a machine gun bullet that struck his helmet, proceeded to organize his few Marines and began clearing the town of Germans. As the Marines advanced, a hail of fire from a German Maxim gun took out six more Marines. Down to a handful of men, Cates managed to establish four positions in advantageous positions around the town. Within a short period of time, Marines of the 2d and 3d platoons made their way into the town. Sixty Marines would have to hold Bouresches.

Second Lieutenant Clifton B. Cates

Although subjected to artillery and machine gun fire for most of the night, they did receive rations and ammunition. A Ford Model T, driven by 2d Lt William Moore and accompanied by none other than Sgt. Maj. John Quick, a Medal of Honor recipient in the Spanish-American War,  made the trip over the "road" between Lucy and Bouresches under terrible German shelling and machine gun barrages. Both were awarded the Navy Cross for their actions in getting supplies to the beleaguered Marines.

(It has been suggested, however, that after the horrendous ride through enemy fire, the truck was unloaded and the supplies sat for four days, untouched.)

Despite that, the use of the Model T given to the 6th Marines is undeniable. Still, the question remains....if the Marines so lovingly referred to the vehicle as "Elizabeth Ford", why have I entitled this piece "Elizaberth?" The answer is quite simple...the battlefield skills of the Marines has never been in question. Their skill in spelling was, perhaps, not so extraordinary. Photographs located of the Model T clearly show that when painted, the Marines misspelled "Elizabeth." The truck bore the name "Elizaberth Ford."

Another photo of the Model T truck known as "Elizabeth Ford." A close examination of the photo reveals that the name was spelled incorrectly.

 

Beth Crumley is a regular blog contributor for the Marine Corps Association & Foundation. You can find more of her blogs at: www.mca-marines.org/blog.

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