By: Brian E. Miller
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Historians agree that the United States was generally, if not wholly, unprepared for the First World War in 1917. Summarizing the views of the vast majority of historians in The United States and the First World War, historian Jennifer Keene asserts that, “Considering the test to come, the American army appeared woefully unprepared to fight the modern war raging in Europe.” Leonard Shurtleff, in his article titled “Doughboy’s Rifle: It Wasn’t Necessarily a Springfield” in the Journal of the Western Front Association, argues that, “the Army in particular was woefully unprepared” in 1917. America was short of virtually everything needed by a modern army, including infantry rifles. At the time of the United States’ entry into the First World War, the U.S. Army numbered at about 210,000 regular army and National Guard soldiers. Indeed, the U.S. Army ranked sixteenth, just behind Portugal, among the armies of the world. Some of the reasons for America’s lack of preparedness for a modern war were strong isolationist public views and President Wilson’s belief that he could bring the belligerents to the peace table through U.S. diplomacy.
While historians have done a thorough job of explaining why the United States did not have a large standing army, they have spent less time and effort considering how America’s lack of preparation impacted battle-readiness and experience of ordinary soldiers. This paper will focus on one aspect of this subject matter, namely, the shortage of infantry rifles, which remain the most important and personal weapon of the soldier in battle. Contemporary military leaders recognized the difficult choices they had to make in order to provide enough rifles to the rapidly growing number of U.S. forces after the war declaration. America could retool existing plants to manufacture its standard infantry rifle, in which case the American rifle program would be hopelessly delayed. Another option considered was to immediately adopt a British Enfield rifle design already being manufactured in the U.S. for England. In this case American troops would carry inferior rifles with them to France. A final course of action, which was ultimately chosen by military leaders, was to, “take a relatively brief time, accept the criticism bound to come from any delay, however brief such delay might be and however justified by the practical conditions, and modify the Enfield to take our ammunition, in which case the American troops would be adequately equipped with a good weapon.” The criticism of the delay in getting the modified Enfield into the hands of the troops did, in fact, occur in late 1917 and early 1918.
On April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, the U.S. Army indeed possessed what was thought to be the best and most accurate infantry rifle in the world, the Model of 1903 (M1903) Springfield. However, instead of toting the Springfield rifle, the vast majority of American soldiers in France during World War I carried a U.S. produced rifle of British design, the Model of 1917 (M1917) American Enfield. With the capable Springfield infantry rifle already on hand, why did the United States produce and issue the American Enfield in higher numbers than the Springfield rifle to soldiers of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.)? As this paper will show, the primary reason for the development, production, and use of the M1917 Enfield infantry rifle by the U.S. Army was that the United States was vastly unprepared for a modern war in 1917. This lack of readiness resulted in a shortage of modern infantry rifles as America geared up to fight in the First World War. The United States, however, was fortunate that its factories were producing a British rifle design that could be modified relatively easily to arm U.S. infantrymen, also known as the American Doughboys. The War Department made key decisions, from adopting the U.S. modified British rifle rather than retooling the existing manufacturers to produce the arguably superior Springfield rifle currently in use, to pushing for standardization of the modified British rifle and accepting delays in production as a result. The production of the American Enfield was the primary action taken by the War Department to address the shortage of combat rifles after America’s entry in World War I. As a result, all soldiers arrived in Europe armed with modern rifles of solid design. However, the lack of sufficient quantities of rifles negatively impacted soldier training, resulting in the deployment of ill-trained forces to France in 1917 and 1918. Even by the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the United States had not yet completely overcome this lack of preparedness due to the rifle shortages.
Considering that war had been raging in Europe for almost three years, why were America’s military forces unprepared when war on Germany was declared on April 6, 1917? The U.S. Army’s limited size and capabilities reflect the public and political views of the time. Prior to America’s entry into the war, there was a strong isolationist sentiment in the country. Most Americans believed that the United States did not need a large standing army since the state militia, or National Guard, could handle any emergency. However, these National Guard units were generally poorly-equipped and ill-trained. In Pershing’s Crusaders, historian Richard Faulkner refers to the pre-war U.S. Army as a “constabulary force built on rifles, horses, and a few field and coastal artillery pieces.” Since relatively few troops were required to accomplish this policing role, the United States did not feel the need to possess a large standing army in the pre-World War I years. Congress instead favored maintaining a small military force in great part due to the high cost of maintaining a large standing army. There was little public support for maintaining a large standing army that was viewed to be primarily defensive in purpose. One business newspaper, in opposition to an expanding army, sarcastically wrote that anything was possible: enemies might invade the New Jersey Coast or a volcano might flood Staten Island with lava. Neither was likely though.
Prior to America’s entry in the First World War, Commander-in-Chief Woodrow Wilson did not support the expansion of U.S. military land forces. He was recently re-elected to his second term of office after his victory in the 1916 presidential election. Portraying himself as a supporter of neutrality and a peacemaker, President Wilson’s winning platform for the 1916 presidential election was, “He kept us out of war.” Following his election victory, President Wilson increased his efforts to end the Great War in Europe through a U.S. mediated, “peace without victory.” He believed that a significant U.S. military expansion would compromise his efforts to broker peace in Europe. In 1915, Wilson rejected Secretary of War Lindley Garrison’s plan to create a new and expanded Continental Army, and after his resignation, replaced him with antiwar leaning Newton D. Baker. In accordance with this presidential policy, the Secretary of War Baker instructed the U.S. Army staff not to plan for wartime military and industrial mobilization for a European intervention. Thus, when General John J. Pershing, the newly-appointed Commander of the A.E.F., arrived in Washington, D.C. shortly after the declaration of war, he was dismayed to find that little had been done to prepare for the war in Europe. Failing to understand the War Department’s obligation to abide by Wilson’s policies, Pershing blamed them for their, “inexcusable failure to do what common sense long before our entry into the war plainly indicated what should have been done.”
This is not to say that the United States took no action to improve the size of its army prior to entry into World War I. The National Defense Act (NDA) of 1916, passed by Congress on May 20th, authorized a modest increase in the strength of the Regular Army to 175,000 men to be reached at the end of five years. However, the NDA of 1916 was a result of concern regarding Mexican relations, not for a potential war in Europe. Because of the isolationist and defensive-minded views at that time, the NDA of 1916 placed more emphasis and funding on improving the National Guard, authorizing a ceiling of 400,000 National Guardsmen. These personnel increases were wholly inadequate for the task at hand in France. Around the time war was declared, Army planners estimated that the nation would need to enlist between two and four million men to deploy an adequate force to France.
Another reason for the unpreparedness of the U.S. Army for World War I was the confusion among political leaders as to what U.S. entry into the war meant. Even when President Wilson realized that America’s entry to the war in Europe was inevitable, he did not envision sending a large number of ground forces there. Wilson’s notion was that America would continue to provide material supplies to the Allies in France while using the more powerful U.S. Navy to help Great Britain at sea. He believed that all the belligerent powers were so exhausted by the ongoing stalemate of war that the mere entry of the United States would move them to a negotiated peace. Within days after the declaration of war by the United States, Senator Thomas Martin, the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asserted that, “Congress will not permit American soldiers to be sent to Europe.” However, as it turns out, American men were what the Allies needed most. Less than a month after the declaration of war on Germany by America, on May 2, 1917, French Marshal Joffre came to the United States to call on President Wilson. Joffre urged the president to send at least one U.S. division immediately to France. However, this was impossible because America had no organized combat division in existence at that time. The first division to be sent to the Western Front was not organized until after the United States’ entry into World War I.
In 1917, the United States military not only lacked manpower, it possessed insufficient arms and equipment, as well. In fact, the most critical shortages faced by the army in 1917 were that of arms and equipment. In U.S. Infantry Weapons of the First World War, Bruce Canfield asserts that the United States military was seriously short of all types of modern weaponry. Although lacking sufficient numbers of small arms, the army faced even greater shortages of artillery, machine guns, and other special weapons. At the outbreak of America’s war in France, the number of machine guns and artillery pieces in the army’s arsenal were few and mostly obsolete.
Contrastly, the infantry rifles in the U.S. arsenal were by no means obsolete. The M1903 Springfield was, “arguably the finest bolt action military rifle of all time,” writes Bruce Canfield. Senior military leaders at the time certainly thought so. In 1919 Benedict Crowell, Director of Munitions before and during America’s involvement in World War I, asserted that the Springfield was, “the most accurate and quickest firing rifle that had ever come from an arsenal.” Chief of Ordnance Major General William Crozier affirmed that the Springfield rifle, “is believed to have no superior.”
The Model of 1903 Springfield rifle was a design based on lessons learned during the Spanish-American War. American ordnance officials recognized the superiority of the German-made Mauser rifles used by the Spaniards and evaluated their design carefully. The standard U.S. infantry rifle at that time was the Model 1896 Krag-Jorgensen bolt action magazine rifle. The most significant improvement of the M1903 Springfield was that it could be operated with a higher rate of fire than the Krag-Jorgensen because five rounds could be loaded into the Springfield rifle’s magazine all at once from a stripper clip rather than by dropping five separate rounds into the magazine of the Krag-Jorgensen.
The M1903 Springfield rifle’s design was based directly on the German Mauser Model 1893, a magazine bolt-action rifle that, with some minor modifications, later became the standard German infantry rifle of the First World War. Leonard Shurtleff bluntly states that, “the Model 1903 [was] patterned unabashedly on the Mauser.” So similar were some design features of the M1903 to those of the Mauser that the United States government had to pay patent royalties to Germany for the use of those Mauser-designed components.
First produced in 1903, the Springfield had a five round internal box magazine that was loaded using a stripper clip holding five rounds of ammunition. The combination of the bolt action and ability to rapidly reload the weapon allowed a trained rifleman to accurately fire around fifteen rounds per minute. The M1903 was a well-made and accurate rifle that was smaller and lighter than most rifles used by the European combatants. Thus, the American army possessed a modern standard infantry rifle that was at least as good as or better than those used by any of the European combatants.
The biggest problem with the M1903 Springfield rifles was that there were simply not enough of them. When the United States entered the Great War there were only about 600,000 Springfields on hand along with some 200,000 of the outdated Krag-Jorgensens in storage that they replaced. In 1917, M.W. Hanson, Vice President of the Colt Patent Arms Company and member of the Machine Gun Board of the War Department, asserted, “No finer gun ever was made than the Springfield, but there were not enough for all our troops.” Since Army planners estimated that the United States would need to raise between two and four million men to send an effective A.E.F. to France, it was obvious that there were not enough Springfield rifles on hand to equip the significantly expanding military forces. As Major General Crozier stated after the war, “our supply was entirely insufficient for the forces which we are going to have to raise.”
In addition to lacking sufficient numbers of infantry rifles to equip its rapidly expanding army, the United States also had a paucity of short-term production capability of the M1903 Springfield rifle. Assistant Secretary of War, Benedict Crowell, who was well aware of the daunting task of supplying the A.E.F. with rifles, emphasized, “the necessity confronting the Ordnance Department to manufacture shoulder rifles by the million…”
The Springfield rifle was originally manufactured at two government-managed facilities: The Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois and the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. However, at the time of war declaration in April 1917, the M1903 Springfield rifle was solely produced in reduced numbers at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. The rifle was only being manufactured at Springfield because in 1913 the U.S. government reduced appropriations for military expenditures, resulting in the suspension of production of the Springfield rifle at the Rock Island Arsenal. In order to begin production again, the Rock Island facility would require re-staffing and training, a task that would take considerable time to accomplish. Thus, production could not be expanded rapidly enough to meet the demands of a growing army. Even disregarding the time it would take to increase production of the Springfield rifle at the Springfield and Rock Island arsenals, these rifle manufacturing facilities did not possess the ability to produce the number of M1903 infantry rifles that were required. The amount of hand milling required to manufacture the M1903 limited its mass production. At maximum production, these two government-owned factories could not produce M1903 Springfields fast enough to equip the four million man army envisioned by planners. According to Benedict Crowell, Director of Munitions, the combined output of both the Springfield Armory and the Rock Island Arsenal at maximum production was still far insufficient for the demands of a rapidly growing military. Although there were sufficient M1903 rifles to arm the U.S. troops prior to World War I, clearly the production capacity of the rifles plants was not able match the needs of the A.E.F.
But maybe things were not as bleak as they appeared to be. On April 28, 1917, Secretary of War Newton Baker announced that he had found an unlimited supply of rifles that could be used until production of the American Springfield rifle could catch up with the increased demand. Secretary Baker was referring to rifles that were being manufactured by three U.S. companies under contract for Great Britain: the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in New Haven, Connecticut, the Remington Arms Company in Ilion, New York, and an affiliate of the Remington Arms Company in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. These manufacturers had been producing the Pattern 1914 Enfield rifle, or P14, starting in 1914. However, the contract was cancelled by Great Britain because by 1916 England’s factories were producing a sufficient number of rifles to supply the British army. A total of 1,235,298 Pattern 1914 rifles were produced by these three factories in the United States for Great Britain between 1914 and July 1917.
Like the Springfield rifle, the P14 Enfield rifle was a box magazine bolt-action rifle based on the Mauser design and had a five round internal box magazine that was loaded using a stripper clip holding five rounds of ammunition. The rifle utilized a .303 caliber British cartridge and was considered to be a good, strong design. A significant production characteristic of the Pattern 14 rifle was the lack of standardization between manufacturers. In other words, a P14 part made by Remington Arms may not be functional in a Winchester-produced Pattern 14 rifle. Parts interchangeability was and remains a desirable characteristic for rifles in the combat theater. Great Britain had provided the three companies with specifications for the Pattern 14 rifle but no single set of standardized engineering drawings applying to all manufacturers. As a result, the differences in parts specifications meant that those parts would only reliably function in that manufacturer’s rifles. Due to the problem of standardization, and the subsequent lack of interchangeability of parts, the Pattern 14 rifle was relegated to training and other secondary uses in order to free up British production of the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) rifle for front line use in France. Although the Pattern 14 Enfield rifle was not considered to be as good as the M1903 Springfield, it was a reliable and strong design.
Because the War Department had to come up with a way to quickly make up the deficit in M1903 Springfield rifle production, “eyes immediately fell on” the factories that had been producing the Pattern 14 rifle for Great Britain. On April 29, 1917, the New York Times reported:
Newton D. Baker, Secretary of War, announced today that the [War] department contemplated ordering the British Enfield rifle in the equipment of the second million men raised under the army draft. These are men who would be called to the colors during the year 1918… The greater facilities for the production of the Enfield rifle coupled with information regarding the use of this rifle along the French front, convinced the War Department that it would be wise to order this type of rifle, modified to use the United States service ammunition for the second army of 1,000,000 men.
It should be noted that Secretary Baker stated that the Enfield would be used to equip the second million soldiers drafted during the year 1918. It is apparent that at the time the decision was made to adopt the modified P14 British rifle for use by American doughboys, the War Department was not planning to equip the American soldier with the rifle until 1918, ostensibly after the supply of M1903 Springfield rifles was exhausted. It should also be clarified that the British rifle was not to be adopted “as is,” but modified to use U.S. ammunition.
Rather than accept the severe delay in rifle production by retooling these British Pattern 14 rifle manufacturers and training a workforce to manufacture the standard army M1903 Springfield rifles, the Ordnance Department decided to purchase American-made Pattern 14 Enfield rifles with one key change: the P14 rifles would be modified to shoot the standard American .30-06 cartridge rather than the inferior British .303 cartridge. The new modified Pattern 14 rifle was deemed the U.S. Rifle Model of 1917 American Enfield. Most historians agree that this was a good decision on the part of the Ordnance Department. Author C.S. Ferris argues, “There was little choice but to adapt the Pattern 14 rifle to U.S. ammunition and get it into production as soon as possible.” Bruce Canfield agrees, “Essentially by default… modifying the P14 to chamber the U.S. cartridge was selected… it seems clear that this was the only reasonable choice at the time.” Richard Faulkner asserts that by slightly modifying the Pattern 14 Enfield rifles currently in production to supply Great Britain, the manufacturers were ultimately able to provide most of the rifles required by the army.
The technical aspects of re-chambering the Pattern 14 rifle from the British .303 cartridge to the American .30-06 cartridge to be fired by the M1917 rifle were small and not particularly challenging. The re-chambering, by necessity, also included minor changes to other components. These small changes could be accomplished in a short time after which production of the modified rifle could begin. On May 10, 1917, each of the three manufacturers sent Pattern 14 rifles modified to fire the American .30-06 cartridge to the Springfield Armory for Army testing. Thus, the delay in modifying British P14 design to use American small arms ammunition was minimal, with the first rifles submitted for evaluation only one month after the United States’ entry into the First World War.
However, the Ordnance Department deemed the sample M1917 rifles submitted for evaluation in May 1917 to be unsatisfactory, primarily because they still had not been standardized to make parts interchangeable. Retired Colonel JNO Thompson of the Ordnance Small Arms Division wrote that the British P14 rifles were largely hand-fitted and could not be considered interchangeable in any one factory much less between the three plants. Thus, it was not surprising that this problem carried over to the manufacture of the modified Pattern 14 rifle, that is, the M1917 American Enfield. The Remington factories at Ilion, Eddystone, and the Winchester plants had not been required to make the Pattern 14 parts interchangeable by Great Britain but were now required to do so in producing the M1917 rifle. The Ordnance Department was willing to accept a delay in production of the American Enfield until standardization was established by the three manufacturers.
Throughout the summer of 1917 some test rifles were submitted by the three manufacturers for evaluation by the Army Small Arms Division, each showing improvement in the interchangeability of parts. According to Assistant Secretary of War Crowell, the final specifications of the M1917 were received from the three plants by August 18, 1917, and approved by the Ordnance Department on August 24, 1917, after which production began. The three manufacturers did not deliver American Enfield rifles in appreciable quantities until about October 1917. Assuming that the rifles submitted to the Ordnance Department by the manufacturers on May 10, 1917 were otherwise acceptable, one can argue that the production delay caused by the Ordnance Department’s requirement for standardization of the M1917 was about five or six months. Even so, satisfactory standardization was not achieved until December 1917.
In August 1917, production engineer and editor of the American Machinist magazine, Fred Colvin, performed an inspection tour of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company Plant. He found no American Enfield rifles coming off the production line. The workers were playing games and reading newspapers while waiting for approval to begin production. Colvin felt that the Ordnance Department had held up rifle production for months while they resolved some design questions about parts interchangeability. He felt that no design problem could require months to solve. Shortly thereafter, the American Machinist published a scathing editorial criticizing General Crozier of, “inexcusable and dangerous loss of time” in the production of much-needed infantry rifles. On December 20, 1917 The New York Times reported that, “the modified type of Enfield rifle… was changed seventeen times by War Department officials… before the department finally allowed the manufacturers to know what character of gun would be required.”
Government officials also expressed their concerns about the delay. Beginning on December 13, 1917, members of the Senate Military Affairs Committee questioned General Crozier for five days regarding, among a number of other issues, the delays in production of rifles for the army. When asked why there were so many delays in production of the M1917, Crozier blamed it primarily on the lack of appropriated funds and the method of handling contracts that caused major delays. Over a month later on January 24, 1918, Senator Weeks, a member of the Military Arms Committee again criticized General Crozier:
He had constantly sought— justifiably so in ordinary times—for the best the market could produce, and in this case he was unwilling to modify that standard of perfection even though a modification would have greatly hastened the production of a satisfactory arm, and one which would have answered all purposes… But all of these arguments in favor of the change did not commence to overcome the advantage of immediately providing the largest supply of rifles possible— a rifle which has served England satisfactorily during three years of actual warfare.
Thus, in addition to being criticized for delays in M1917 rifle production due to what was deemed to be an unreasonable time to get the final specifications to the three manufacturers, the Ordnance Department was also criticized for the decision to make standardization a requirement in the first place.
Ordnance Department personnel defended their decision to require standardization of the American Enfield production by the three factories. In response to information requested by the Senate Military Committee, retired Colonel Thompson wrote on January 3, 1918:
It is firmly believed that this stand for increased quality of product resulted in getting the present quality of rifles and in finally increasing production of rifles modified to take the U.S. service cartridge. In one shop the average number of British rifles assembled by one man per day was… by the highest man about 50; whereas, the average assembled by 33 men in the same shop of the modified rifles now is 140, with the highest man 170.
Thompson further argued that the primary goal of standardization was to increase the rate of production of the American Enfield rifle. Interchangeability of parts was merely a “corollary.” General Crozier argued that no soldier was delayed in deployment to Europe due to the shortage of rifles, and that if any were sent with insufficient training, it was due to other reasons than a shortage of rifles with which to train. Assistant Secretary of War Crowell asserted after the war that despite the delay in the production of M1917 rifles due to the Ordnance Department’s requirement for standardization of manufacture, “all troops leaving the United States were armed with American weapons at the port of embarkation.”
What was the impact of the shortage of infantry rifles on soldier training and readiness? Were all Doughboys leaving America for France equipped with a U.S. rifle as argued by Assistant Secretary of War Crowell? The only assertion to the contrary found by this author is that of William Hallahan. In his book Misfire he states, “The first contingent of American troops arrived at the battlefield half trained, with no weapons.” However, this author can find no other evidence or assertions that U.S. troops arrived on the battlefields of France without rifles in hand.
There is, however, ample evidence that the shortage of rifles hampered soldier training at cantonments in the United States before their deployment with the A.E.F. to France. As a temporary measure, the army issued its obsolete Krag-Jorgensen rifles, purchased 20,000 Canadian Ross rifles, and 280,000 Russian Mosin-Nagant rifles for soldier drill training use only. General Crozier, in his statements to the Senate Military Committee on December 14, 1917, stated that the outdated Krag-Jorgensen rifles could be used for drilling and bayonet exercises but not safely for target practice. On December 31, 1917 he informed the Senate Military Committee that, “there is a good deal of training which can be done with rifles of other models than those intended to be ultimately carried, of which the troops in all cantonments have had a very considerable supply.” This assertion contradicted his statement two and one half weeks earlier, when General Crozier admitted to the committee that 17,000 rifles were needed to equip the men in training at each of the sixteen Army cantonments, but only 10,000 rifles were supplied to each camp.
Historical evidence refutes General Crozier’s statement that the U.S. training camps had sufficient rifles in late 1917. In some camps new soldiers drilled with broomsticks and wooden rifles. The 82nd Division Officers at Camp Gordon, Georgia, for example, contracted with local sawmills to create wooden dummy rifles that the doughboys contemptuously called the “Camp Gordon 1917 Model Rifle.” Some of the unit’s soldiers did not receive their rifles until February 1918, approximately six months after the formation of the 82nd Division in August 1917. Having insufficient rifles to adequately train its soldiers, the 36th Division rotated its rifles among its subordinate units so that soldiers would receive at least some marksmanship training. Rifles for the 39th Infantry Regiment and a battalion of the 58th Infantry Regiment arrived so late in training that their soldiers were unable to complete the basic firing course before sailing for France. According to a New York Times article on December 14, 1917, the Senate War Committee queried General Crozier regarding men having nothing but wooden guns with which to train. Crozier responded, “At first a number of men did not have anything but wooden rifles. That was corrected promptly.”
The impact of minimal rifle training from the lack of service rifles at the stateside training camps was also evident when the soldiers arrived in France. An observer noted that over forty percent of the infantrymen arriving in France had never fired their recently issued rifles. Many doughboys were not issued their rifles until the eve of their sailing for France. The lack of stateside marksmanship training manifested itself well into 1918. Lieutenant Hugh Thompson of the 83rd Division noted that twelve of his company replacements arriving just prior to the Saint-Mihiel Offensive in September 1918 had never fired their weapons. Those soldiers were allowed to fire one clip of ammunition, or five rounds, into the mud for “familiarization” training prior to going into combat. In September 1918 the 2nd Depot Division’s intelligence officer recorded that the 597 soldiers recently arriving from Camps Pike, MacArthur, and Gordon, had minimal or no training. He also recorded that, on October 29, 1918, doughboys coming from Camp Pike had only received a day or two of rifle training on the range. Clearly, a substantial number of soldiers arrived in France with insufficient or no rifle marksmanship training. Many received their personal American Enfield or Springfield rifles just prior to leaving the United States to join the A.E.F. The task of combat for the well-trained Doughboy was risky enough in the First World War, even more so for a poorly-trained infantryman. In U.S. Infantry Weapons of the First World War, Canfield states that M1917 Enfield rifles were sent to France as fast as the availability of shipping allowed, in addition to large numbers sent to training camps. Still, the numbers of rifles getting to the troops may have been sufficient to arm those imminently leaving for France, but was insufficient for adequate marksmanship training at the U.S. cantonments in preparation for deployment.
The size of U.S. ground forces expanded exponentially from around 210,000 total troops in April 1917 to over four million soldiers by the time of the Armistice in November 1918, an astounding feat. The production of a sufficient number of infantry rifles, namely the M1917 American Enfield, to arm these soldiers was a monumental task of production. These rifles had to be manufactured by the millions. And they were. By November 9, 1918, American arms manufacturers had produced a total of 2,506,307 rifles. Of this total number, 312,878 were M1903 Springfield rifles produced by the two Government arsenals. The other 2,193,429 rifles were M1917 American Enfields produced by the Eddystone, Remington, and Winchester factories. The A.E.F. went to war predominately armed with a rifle of British design, the M1917. In a five month period, from August through December 1917, a total of 414,696 Enfield and Springfield rifles were produced. In the final five full months of World War I, a total of 1,126,442 rifles of both types were manufactured; an increase of approximately two hundred and seventy one percent. It is clear that by the time of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the three manufacturers were hitting their stride in production of the standardized M1917 Enfield rifle. In the final five full months of the war, on average, over 6500 American Enfield rifles were coming off the assembly lines every day.
How did the new M1917 Enfield rifle compare with the M1903 Springfield? Edward Crossman’s evaluation of the American Enfield in the December 1, 1917 issue of the Scientific American titled, “Uncle Sam’s New Infantry Rifle,” was positive. Crossman opined that the M1917 American Enfield rifle was generally superior to the M1903 Springfield. He ends the article praising the M1917 rifle, declaring that, “Uncle Sam’s new shooting iron [the M1917 rifle] stands without a superior in the infantry rifles of the world’s armies.” Most military historians agree that the American Enfield was a good design. Enfield Specialist, Ian Skennerton asserts that the M1917 was, “quite successful.” Faulkner claims that the, “M1903 and M1917 were both well-made and reliable weapons.” Canfield agrees, arguing that the American Enfield rifle was, “a strong, robust and reliable weapon that was the equal, or superior, of any other rifle of the era used by either our allies or adversaries.”
While the American Enfield rifle compared favorably with the Springfield, what were the fighting doughboys’ opinions of the M1917 Enfield rifle? In The M1903 Springfield Rifle, Leroy Thompson claims that examination of the memoirs of World War I soldiers reveals that many preferred the M1917 Enfield over the M1903 Springfield. However, Faulkner disagrees, arguing that most infantrymen preferred the M1903, primarily due to its lighter weight and shorter overall length. The M1903 Springfield rifle was approximately three inches shorter and around one half pound lighter than the M1917 American Enfield. Faulkner reports that some soldiers even “traded” their American Enfields for the Springfield rifles when they picked up M1903 rifles left by dead or wounded soldiers from other units. Canfield agrees with Faulkner, asserting that, while the M1917 rifle was a serviceable design, it was not as popular with most doughboys as the M1903. The Springfield was lighter in weight and, “better balanced with superior handling qualities.” While it appears that many soldiers preferred the shorter and lighter M1903 Springfield rifle, the M1917 Enfield did prove its worth on the battlefields of France during The Great War. Regardless of opinion, the American Enfield rifle armed an estimated seventy-five percent of all U.S. troops at the time of the Armistice. The M1917 Enfield rifle was adopted by the U.S. military, not because it was felt to be better than, or even as good as the Springfield rifle, but as a matter of necessity due to the great production capabilities of the three factories that had been producing the Pattern 14 rifle for Great Britain.
In 1918 Great Britain and France exerted great pressure on the United States to send large numbers of troops to France. Although the Germans were suffering much both at home and at the front, French and British military outlooks were bleak as well. There appeared to be no end in this great war of attrition that had claimed around four million casualties and one million lives by 1917 when the U.S. entered the war. Then, in 1917 almost half of the French army, fifty-four French divisions, “mutinied” and refused to offensively engage the enemy. Adding to the woes of the Allies in France, the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ subsequent rise to power resulted in Russia’s withdrawal from the war in October 1917. This relieved the Central Powers from fighting a war on two fronts. Germany could now divert resources and some three quarters of a million troops from the eastern front to bolster its army in France. In the view of the Allies, this made the deployment of vast numbers of American troops to France essential in order to withstand the full might of the German army.
Although Germany was no longer fighting a two-front war as a result of Russia’s withdrawal, the imminent arrival of hundreds of thousands of fresh American troops convinced German leaders that their nation must win the war in 1918 or eventually face sure defeat. Bolstered by additional troops transferred from the eastern front, Germany began its great offensive in the spring of 1918. Commonly known as the Ludendorff Offensive, the operation initially met with great success, advancing deeper into France than any time since 1914. However, by April 1918 the offensive stalled into a stalemate once more. As a result of the Ludendorff Offensive, “the cry went up in Europe for men” to boost the number of Allied soldiers to fight on the western front. The changing military situation in France and pressure from the desperate Allies resulted in a decreased timeline from that originally planned by the War Department for the deployment of troops to France. This placed even greater pressure on the U.S. armament industry, including rifle manufacturers, to produce even greater numbers of arms for the doughboys.
It could be argued that the U.S. was better prepared regarding combat rifles than other types of arms such as artillery and tanks. At least America possessed a modern rifle design, the M1903 Springfield, which was comparable or superior to those used on the Western Front in France. What America lacked was a sufficient number of existing Springfield rifles, and worse, woefully insufficient manufacturing capabilities at the government-operated Rock Island and Springfield Armories, one of which was no longer in operation when America entered the war. When the decision was made to greatly expand the size of the U.S. land forces to create an A.E.F. it was obvious to military leaders that these two armories, even at full capacity, could not come close to providing the rifles needed for the projected multi-million man army. It was providential that the U.S. had three plants manufacturing the Pattern 14 British rifle with their production contracts ending shortly after the declaration of war by the United States. Retooling these production facilities to manufacture the Springfield would take too long. Thus, by necessity, the M1917 American Enfield was adopted by the U.S. Army Ordnance Department, not because it was a better design than the Springfield, but because it was good enough, could be made available in a relatively short time, and could be produced in great numbers. Once this decision was made to manufacture the American Enfield the army Ordnance Department required the standardization of components by the three manufacturers. Although delaying production of the rifle, standardization had a number of benefits. Rifles could be manufactured at a much greater rate because ‘hand-fitting’ of parts would not be required. The parts were interchangeable which, in addition to simplifying the assembly of the rifle at the factory, also enabled personnel to repair a rifle in the field rather than throw it away for a new one. This benefit is supported by the fact that the British decided not to use the unstandardized Pattern 14 rifle produced by the three American manufacturers as a frontline weapon in part due to parts interchangeability problems. In addition, when Winchester began producing a partially standardized M1917 Enfield before the Eddystone and Remington factories in August, there is evidence that those rifles were not wanted by U.S. doughboys in France due to interchangeability problems.
It must also be considered that, when the decision was made to send U.S. troops to France, these Enfield rifles were to arm troops deployed in 1918 and 1919. This was because leaders recognized that the U.S. would not be able to send an appreciable number of trained land forces to France until well into 1918 with predictions of the war continuing at least into 1919. However, as a result of pressure by the Allies due to changing circumstances in the war, such as Russia’s withdrawal, the “mutiny” of the French army, and the German spring offensive in 1918, the United States moved the timeline forward for sending U.S. troops to France. Had production by all three manufacturers immediately begun without standardization it is doubtful that any more rifles would have been produced by the time of the Armistice, and probably less had the war continued. Because of the great combined manufacturing capacity of the three American Enfield rifle producing plants, most doughboys carried the Enfield rifle.
As fast as the three Enfield factories and the two Springfield armories were producing rifles for the U.S. military, still they could not keep up with the greater increase in manpower. Thus, although by priority sufficient rifles were available to the A.E.F., there were not enough service rifles available for the numerous training camps and cantonments in the U.S. As a result, many new recruits received little or no rifle marksmanship training. The use of broomsticks and wooden rifles for drill training at Camp Gordon and other cantonments is evidence of service rifle shortages at the training camps. Reports of U.S. combat leaders in France also testify to poorly trained soldiers who had never fired their service rifles or did not complete marksmanship qualification training before their deployment to France. With regard to the number of combat rifles available for issue to U.S. soldiers, the gap between the prewar deficit and that of war requirements was so great that small arms manufacturers were only beginning to fully close that gap before The Great War’s Armistice on November 11, 1918.
Written in 1919, Benedict Crowell, Assistant Secretary of War and Director of Munitions, praised the decisions of the Army Ordnance Department to produce and issue Enfield rifles as well as the production capabilities of U.S. arms manufacturers:
The story of the modified 1917 Enfield, which was the rifle on which the American Expeditionary Forces based their chief dependence, is an inspiring chapter in our munitions history […] To get this weapon we temporarily forsook the most accurate Army rifle the world had ever seen and straightway produced in great quantities another one, a new model, that proved itself to be almost, if not quite, as serviceable for the kind of warfare in which we were to engage. It is the story of triumph over difficulties, of American productive genius at its best.
The United States was completely unprepared for entry into the First World War in 1917. America possessed insufficient manpower and a lack of modern weapons of all kinds, including infantry rifles. There were a number of reasons for the unpreparedness of the United States: President Woodrow Wilson’s views that he could broker a peace in Europe and that U.S. troops would not be sent to France, strong isolationist sentiment among the public, the high cost of maintaining a large standing army, and a prevailing view that a large national army was antithetical to maintaining a democracy. In the end, America addressed its overwhelming lack of preparation for war by using the Enfield rifle as a stand-in for doughboys until Springfield rifles could be produced to match the demand of World War I.
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