Major (later Lieutenant) General James Guthrie Harbord was a career Army officer who entered the First World War as a Colonel on the staff of his mentor and great friend, General John J. Pershing. He served in important positions, as the commander of the 2nd Division briefly, but perhaps more importantly as the commander of the Marine Brigade during the bitter fighting at Belleau Wood. His most vital position, though, was as the chief of the Services of Supply, tasked with transporting, feeding, housing and equipping an Expeditionary Force that was intended to be 500,000 men — but came to be more nearly two million. They were supported mostly via steam power by ship and train, but sometimes by the newest and most venerable modes of military transport, the new motor vehicle and the ancient horse, and some cargoes even crossed the Atlantic under sail.
Fortunately for us all, at a century’s remove, Harbord was a firm believer that The Right Sort of People™ like himself ought not to be hampered by the censorship demanded by operational security, and he wrote copious letters home to his wife. (Emma Ovenshine Harbord was herself a general’s daughter, which might explain, beyond Harbord’s definite abilities, how a man who was not an Academy graduate reached such elevated positions in the Army of a century ago). Unwilling either to submit his letters to censorship or to leave his wife in the dark — he admired her sharp mind — he wrote her copious, long and frank letters, and sent them via the friends-and-family courier network, outside of channels. For her part, Emma Ovenshine Harbord saved the letters and the General was able to prepare and publish them in book form as Leaves from a War Diary in 1925.
Best of all, whilst we are working off the lovely-smelling vintage copy we found in an out of the way bookstore for little money, you may read this wonderful book — and it is a wonderful book, for reasons we will get to before we get to the Russians of the post title — at archive.org, or download it there in any of a number of ebook formats, including fascimile .pdf, .mobi (used by Kindle among others) or .epub (used by ibooks among others).
A Glimpse of Harbord’s Character
As Harbord was traveling around France — with General Pershing, who had just received a promotion — he had occasion to comment on the General’s loss of his campaign hat. The loss itself is fairly humorous, involving the language barrier, a portrait painter and a servant’s misunderstanding, but it is when the General seeks a new hat that the letters give a glimpse of two Harbord characteristics — a lively humor, which makes his letters a delight to read, and a strait-laced reserve:
After waiting a few minutes longer the concierge located the chauffeur who was supposed to have gone for the hat and belt, waiting at the corner. He had not gone for them at all, getting the idea in some way that the directions given him minutely by the General that afternoon were only intended to be acted upon when office was closed and that he was to drive the Chief around that way to get his property after he left the office. The General took the A.D.C’s hat and belt and we got away, leaving the latter to get his baggage and follow by the train next day.
St. Nazaire was reached next morning about seven, and after a breakfast in the station restaurant, and half an hour trying to buy a hat that would fit the Chief better than his A.D.C.’s, he pointing with evident satisfaction to the fact that his size was one- eighth larger than that of any member of his party,—to which I was tempted to reply that none of the rest of us had quite so much reason to have a large hatband, not having recently been made General of the Army, but I did not say it. He bought a Q.M. hat. I loaned him a gold hatcord, and we left St. Nazaire about nine for a run up through Brittany to one of our field artillery training camps, to return by a different road and another camp.1
And Let’s Meet the Russians
The First World War was a war of grand coalitions, in which the Russians, whose big-brotherhood to the fractious Serbs had produced German big-brotherhood to the obstreporous Habsburgs, which is to say, the whole war in the first place, did figure. And some Russian troops were present on the Western Front (by the time the US entered the war, France and England were bled white by trench war and dullard leadership; they needed warm bodies from anywhere). But by the American entry into the war, the Russian Empire had collapsed, and Soviet Russia had yet to take hold; we find ourselves in the chaos between two Russian Revolutions. The Russians show up, and this situation has had its impact on their discipline, as senior officers negotiate the politics of a Bastille Day parade.
The War Office asked originally troops for the Fourth of July and the Fourteenth, the latter the Day of the Bastille. Then they wakened to the fact that they had other allies who might wonder why Americans were invited on the Fourteenth and they not. The British, the little brunette Portuguese; the slippery and commercial Belgians; the Russians now in a state of discipline where they have had to be withdrawn from the front line, and a captain can enforce no orders until the president of the company has viséed them,—they are all Allies like ourselves, not to mention any wandering Cubans, Japanese, Liberians, Brazilians, Servians, Roumanians and Montenegrins that might blow along, and not omitting our ally that “sella de banan,” all of whom are enlisted in the sacred cause of Democracy like ourselves. So they decided to omit Allied participation in the Day of the Bastille, and invite US for our own Day.2
How Harbord formed this opinion of the Russians by June 1917 was unclear; it may have been by hearsay, rather than by direct observation. But by October, 1917 he was able to observe them first-hand, and his observations were, if anything, more negative than his prior opinion.
28 October 1917
To-day we ran out about forty miles from Bordeaux to a camp where we are thinking of putting one of our divisions if they get to coming fast. It is now occupied by a small French garrison and a brigade of Russians. When the Russian Empire fell Russia had a division of soldiers on the Western front,—good soldiers too, it is said,—but they raised the red flag, murdered some of their officers, and started the same idea of military command and administration by committees that has ruined their army at home, and had to be withdrawn from the lines. Withdrawn they began to murder, burn and plunder the surrounding country, General Petain told General Pershing that he had sent them away from the Zone of the Armies. We later heard of them as having been divided in two classes, the good and the bad. The former were sent to where we saw them to-day. The French officer in command has black Senegalese troops.3
OK, so these are what the French consider the good Russians that Harbord is about to describe.
We asked something about the Russians not working, the camp being in rather a low place with the drains stopped up and overflowing. He said they would not work, and could not be made to work. Starving them was suggested, which he said would not bring them to terms. It was then suggested that lining them up and shooting every hundredth man would probably bring the remainder to their senses. We visited the stables, for the Russian brigade has 900 horses with it, and found the horses poor and uncared for, standing in mud to their fetlocks. I never saw a dirtier place than that camp. Finally, in our conversation, it developed quite incidentally, in speaking of them, that they still have their rifles and ammunition, and that the French have never disarmed them. That put a different phase on why they will not work. No wonder, when they outnumber their guards and are armed with rifles, that they do as they please. It had never occurred to us, General Pershing or myself, that they had not been disarmed when they were sent away from the Zone of the Armies. It is something we cannot now understand. They are not only armed and refuse to work, but the French are paying them wages, their usual pay. We certainly do not see things from the French standpoint.
As we left the camp, two Russian colonels approached and introduced themselves, one being the Chief of Staff and the other a regimental commander. Both wore decorations given them by the empire, and the regimental colonel a Croix de Guerre bestowed by the French. The General, the staff officer said, had gone to Paris to see when they were going to allowed to go to the front. Our General asked if he thought they had discipline enough to be allowed to take over a secteur of the front, to which he replied yes. J. J. P. then delivered him a few remarks on a state of discipline which permitted a camp as filthy as that, and the reply was that it was just like that when they took it over from the French. They have committees to run the administration of the companies; dictate how much work if any shall be done; how much drill there shall be; the function of the officer being to command at drill, purely a tactical role. Drunk, absolutely drunk with liberty!4
He had one more Russian sighting, that very day.
We returned to Arcachon, a very attractive little summer resort city on an arm of the sea, and had luncheon. Several Russian officers, well dressed and prosperous-looking, and wearing empire decorations, were in the dining room. We had a fine luncheon and were about to go when the proprietor with much groveling and apologizing asked the General to write in his Golden Book. Then a very nice-looking girl who spoke English, and said her mother was English, asked if he would not write in hers, and he did: “To my fair Ally!!!!” Smooth!5
What became of these displaced Russians was not known to us. It seemed likely that most of them returned home, perhaps as individuals more than as units, and some stayed in France among the flow of White Russian exiles for which interwar Paris would be known. (We actually did find out, and we have the story for tomorrow).
The Russians made one more impact upon Harbord, when one of their officers proposed that the US Army take their officers on board. As this excerpt is already very long for a blog post, we’ll address that one tomorrow — at the same time, 1100 Eastern Daylight Savings Time.
After the war, Harbord served as President Wilson’s fact finder in matters of the Armenian genocide in Turkey, and after retiring from the military became President and later Chairman of the Board of the Radio Corporation of America, RCA, where he was succeeded by an engineer who would go on to have considerable military impact himself, David Sarnoff. He published a second book, and his Armenia report is an important primary source on a bleak moment in human history.
- Harbord, pp. 183-184.
- Harbord, p. 82.
- Harbord, p. 191.
- Harbord, pp. 191-192. As far as the suggestion of a reduced decimation goes, the French Army used similar measures on mutinous units that year, executing selected ringleaders or just random troops. J.J.P., of course, refers to Pershing.
- Harbord, pp. 192-193
Harbord, John G. Leaves from a War Diary. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1925.