As the United States went to war in 1917, it was immediately understood that methods of moving men and materiel was of paramount concern. Never before in the history of the United States had it mobilised the number of men and equipment to a foreign shore as it did in 1917-18. New (and finicky) automobiles and trucks were used to convey everything from men, field equipment, supplies, kitchens and the wounded once in theatre. But a heavy reliance on the tried and true method of animal-drawn carts that were smaller, lighter, more robust and dependable also proved prudent. All types of conveyance were used to their utmost capabilities in the muddy fields of conflict known as World War I.
The ‘new’ heavy machine guns that were so important in the trench warfare of the time constantly needed replacing as older guns wore out or were damaged during the fighting or were needed as the front line advanced into new sectors. Machine gun companies were issued specific gun and ammunition carts for transporting machine guns, ammunition and accessories. The Model of 1917 Gun Cart, the Model of 1917 Ammunition C art and the Model of 1917 Spare Gun C art were all mule-drawn carts, having the same general construction and differing only in the assembly of ammunition racks, gun carrying cases, tripod supports and some other minor details such as placement of accessories and pioneer tools. The carts were manufactured by the International Harvester Company of New Jersey and built at the Deering Works in Chicago, Illinois.
Each cart has detachable left and right shafts which straddle the mule when in use and are hinged in the middle so they can be folded back out of the way when the cart is not in use or is being towed. One spare shaft is carried on the underside of the Ammunition Cart only. No spare shaft is carried on the Gun Cart. A metal towing pole and wooden cross pole are carried on the chassis of each cart. For towing purposes, the two side shafts would be removed and the metal towing pole would be inserted in a metal holder in the front centre of the cart. The cart could then be towed by hand, animal or machine. Another method of towing is by using the wooden cross pole. It is inserted through metal loops provided on the underside of the shafts just to the rear of the hinge. The cart can then be towed by hand with the shafts attached but folded at the hinge. These alternative towing methods are important because in actual field conditions mud invariably bogs things down and the mule can easily be injured, killed or eaten.
A prop is provided on the underside of the front cross sill of each cart which is hooked off to the side when not in use. This can be unhooked and allowed to hang free in a vertical position when the cart is not in motion. It will support the front end of the cart and remove weight from the mule’s back but it is not intended to support the cart when the mule is unhitched unless the wheels are blocked.
Pioneer tools are carried on each cart which include a short-handled shovel, a pick mattock and a 31b broad hatchet. The broad hatchet has one face ground flat so that it will rest flat in its holder, which is attached to the back end of the ammunition rack on the Gun Cart and on the front end of the ammunition rack on the Ammunition Cart. The short-handled shovel and the pick mattock are carried on the underside of the chassis secured by straps and clips.
Two carrier slats with straps are located in front of the ammunition rack on both carts and various different articles can be carried there, such as the cart paulin, collapsible water bucket, feed bag, emergency rope, etc. The belt filling machine box (with red stripe), the spare parts box (with blue stripe) and water box (with white stripe) may also be strapped there to provide more space for ammunition boxes in the ammunition rack if so desired.
The Model of 1917 Gun Cart
The basic concept design of the carts was taken from designs already in use by the French with their Hotchkiss and St Etienne machine guns and the British with their Vickers and Maxim machine guns. It is interesting to note however, that the design of the US gun cart is modular. The Gun Cart was designed to carry one of four types of machine guns and some of their accessories. It is best suited for the water-cooled Colt Vickers Machine Gun Model of 1915 and the water-cooled Browning Machine Gun Model of 1917. The cart can also be configured to carry the Colt Automatic Gun and the Lewis Gun. Since the cart was designed to carry four different types of machine guns, some of the features found on the carts would not be necessary if it was designed for just one gun. Thus, the cart had to be configured to a specific gun. (The two carts featured in this article are configured for the Colt Vickers Model of 1915.) This was done by determining which gun chest to affix to the cart to hold a specific gun, which side of the tripod foot retainer support to use and which spacers were used in the ammunition rack. The Gun Cart is equipped on one side of the ammunition rack with a gun chest for the machine gun with provisions in the box to hold a cleaning rod and a spare barrel. There are straps located on the outside of the gun chest to hold other items such as the Barr & Stroud range finder and its tripod. On the other side of the ammunition rack are the tripod supports and straps for the tripod.
The tripod foot retainer is recessed in different positions on the top and bottom so that different tripods can be used. One surface is recessed to accommodate the tripod for the Colt Vickers and Browning tripods while the other side is recessed for the Colt Automatic Gun tripod.
In the centre of the Gun Cart is an ammunition rack which will hold seven boxes; they may include ammo boxes, water box and belt filling machine box. The water box and belt filling box are the same size as the ammo boxes and would thus be interchangeable for placement in the rack. The ammunition rack is equipped with side retainers to which spacers are attached for holding the boxes of ammunition in place; each box contained a belt of 250 rounds. The ammunition rack will accommodate seven boxes except when the Lewis spacers are used. When the Lewis spacers are used, the rack will accommodate only six of the larger Lewis boxes. The retainers are marked ‘VICKERS’ that will accommodate both the Vickers and the Browning ammunition boxes which are of the same width, and ‘LEWIS’ and ‘COLT’ to accommodate their respective boxes. The retainers that are not being used are carried below the retainers being used with the spacers being turned down at an angle of 90° so that they do not interfere with boxes placed in the ammunition rack. By turning the side retainers of the ammunition racks so that all spacers are down, two ammunition cases containing 20 bandoleers (1,200 rounds each) may be carried in the ammunition racks.
The metal tool box bracket is located underneath the rear of the chassis and holds a removable metal tool box. The box is used to carry items such as two sets of mule shoes, three dozen mule shoe nails, a one-pound can of axle grease, a one pound can of harness soap, wood screws, bolts, nuts, washers, pins, chains, rivets, cotter pins, etc.
The Model of 1917 Ammunition Cart
The Ammunition C art is of the same construction as the Gun Cart and is basically identical except it is provided with a double ammunition rack with two tool chests, one located on each side. The location of the 31b broad hatchet is located in the front of the ammunition rack and a set of signal flags are located at the rear of the ammunition rack. The Ammunition Cart carries one spare shaft under the chassis along with the pick mattock, shovel and two types of tow bars. The ammunition rack will carry 14 boxes (two rows of seven). If the Lewis side retainers and spacers are used then their number will be reduced to 12 (two rows of six). If all the spacers are turned down then the ammunition racks will hold four ammunition cases (two each). Contents of the tool chests will contain a set of carpenter’s tools in a canvas tool roll, miscellaneous repair materiel, mule gas mask and a set of spare parts to be carried on the carts in the field.
Though thousands of these carts were built, very few have survived today. Through normal attrition due to war usage, the carts that remained were for the most part abandoned after the war with newer, lighter and more efficient carts being produced. Most that were left after the war were stripped of all boxes and frames down to the bare chassis and sold to farmers to be used as farm carts or hay wagons. As they were made of wood they were not very durable and most have simply rotted away. The two carts featured here are truly unique in being complete examples of their type in a war fought over 90 years ago.