MIGHTY HISTORY

The American truck that received France's top valor award

The White Sewing Machine Company's Model A truck was known for reliability, so much so that when it over-performed at the 1918 Battle of Verdun, the units using it became the only French motor units to receive their country's highest award.

(U.S. Army)

During World War I, France created the Croix de Guerre to decorate its bravest troops, and it gave the decoration to members of foreign armies who took great risks or who achieved great things in service of liberating France from German occupation.


In the years following the Battle of Verdun, France issued the Croix de Guerre to units with 2,500 White Company trucks and named the vice president of the company, Walter C. White, as a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor in recognition of how important a humble truck was in France's ultimate victory over Germany, especially at Verdun.

White Motor Company trucks at Fort Riley. Full panoramic image available here.

(Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General)

The story of the White Motor Company is a strange one. In 1902, it was the White Sewing Machine Company, and the Surgeon General proposed that the Army Quartermasters purchase a motor vehicle to serve as an Army ambulance in future conflicts. R. H. White, already looking to diversify the company's offerings, pushed the company to take part in the competition.

But the competition never happened, because the quartermasters didn't embrace it. But the company decided to develop an ambulance anyway, debuting a steam-powered design in 1906 that the War Department later purchased. It could carry four litter patients at a time and hit 40 miles an hour on smooth roads. But, best of all, it was reliable. According to a 1906 article, it had traveled over 1,600 miles in testing with zero mechanical failures or breakdowns.

But the company wasn't done. They developed more truck designs and, in 1916, one of their trucks was upgraded with armor and sent on the Mexican Punitive Expedition. By the time World War I rolled around, White trucks were trusted by plenty of military men.

The automotive business proved to be a great investment for the company, and the White Sewing Machine Company opened itself a second company, the White Truck Company. This particular confederation of engineers and businessmen found themselves a ready market for reliable trucks and sold thousands of Model A trucks to France and other allied militaries.

From 1914 onward, France was sending these "Little trucks" into combat and seemed to have been more than pleased with the trucks' performance. In the 1916 Battle of Verdun, the trucks were used to transport supplies and troops. At the Battle of Château-Thierry in 1918, the trucks moved U.S. troops into position in time to stop a German advance.

But it was at the 1918 Battle of Verdun, when many of the same trucks returned to that blood-soaked stretch of land, that the trucks earned their major laurels.

White Trucks of Cleveland advertisement

(Thoth God of Knowledge)

It was there that France needed to move hundreds of thousands of troops to the front over a stretch of just a few days, and they turned to the 2,500 Model A trucks of Great Headquarters Reserve No. 1. The drivers and trucks carried 200,000 troops to the front, some for over 100-mile stretches.

According to a 1919 issue of Better Road and Streets:

The task was tremendous, the crisis very grave. A supreme effort was necessary to stop the German advance last March on the British front. Without this unprecedented movement of French reserves right into the teeth of the fighting, the issue might have been serious indeed for the Allies.

According to the same article, drivers often drove for 24 hours straight. One unit averaged driving 20 hours a day, and another pulled 60 hours straight of duty.

It was the only time that a motor convoy unit would be awarded the medal, and some chalked it up to the service of the trucks. According to Time Magazine in 1932, the only White trucks to break down in the battle were those disabled by shells and so, "The result was that 2,500 of them received the distinction of France's Croix de Guerre."

While this notation, implying that the trucks themselves had received the award, is obviously wrong, it remained a fairly common way of describing the success of the Great Headquarters Reserve No. 1. And, Walter C. White, then the vice president of the White Company, was inducted into the Legion of Honor as a Chevalier in 1919, in recognition of the company's contributions to France's war efforts.

This all worked out well for the company after the war. They posted record profits in 1917 and again in 1918. They suspended, forever, their automobile construction and focused on trucks. And they advertised the ruggedness of their vehicles with ads featuring the Croix de Guerre. They would create plenty for the U.S. and its allies in World War II, as well as half-tracks and other vehicles.