Pieces of Our History – Training the Citizen Soldier in 1917

By Kevin Shannahan

Kevin’s Gallery

My mom always had great taste in presents. When I was an ROTC cadet in the early 1980’s my parents gave me a 1914 edition of the “United States Army Field Service Regulations” and the April, 1917 printing of a “Manual of Military Training” by Major Joseph A. Moss. Both books were owned by one “John J. Roberts 3rd P.T.S.” I have, particularly as I grew older, wondered about the young man, presumably a junior officer, who owned the books. Who was he? Did he see combat in France in WWI? Did he return home safely if he did? What journey took the books to an antique store in Rochester, NY in 1980? In the years since that Christmas, the books have followed me around the country. Seventy years after John Roberts inscribed the manuals, I was a young lieutenant in an ICBM squadron in North Dakota. In April 1987, the anniversary of the United States’ entry into WWI, I took them on alert with me.

The books are a how-to manual for the young men who were to lead an army of citizen soldiers. In the words of Major Moss: “Intended, primarily, for use in connection with the instruction and training of Cadets in our military schools and colleges and of COMPANY officers of the National Guard and Officer’s Reserve Corps; and secondarily, as a guide for COMPANY officers of the Regular Army, the aim being to make efficient fighting COMPANIES and to qualify our Cadets and our National Guard and Reserve Corps officers for the duties and responsibilities of COMPANY officers in time of war.” (emphasis in the original.)

Major Moss’ book was in its sixth printing since the first edition in October of 1914, one month after WWI broke out in Europe. My copy was one of the 30,000 published in an updated second edition in May of 1917. As the U.S. Army expanded far beyond its pre-war strength, these manuals served to educate a generation of young men who were to lead their fellow citizen-soldiers on to victory.

The manuals are largely familiar to anyone who has served. Drill and ceremonies have not changed all that much in 100 years, with the notable exception of a lot fewer horses. There is an extensive section on rifle marksmanship and bayonet fighting. Here, the author brings in lessons learned from the British Army “from their experience in the present war.” The section on knots, signaling and lashing was an interesting reminder to this former Scoutmaster that those skills once had a much more practical day to day use.

Some of the advice is a bit dated. Enlisted men no longer speak to officers in the third person. Using carbon tetrachloride to remove stains from a uniform just isn’t a good idea, now or in 1917. Tempting though it might be to an aggrieved first sergeant, bucking and gagging a drunk and disorderly soldier “until sufficiently sober to regain self-control and quiet down” has been removed from the leadership tool kit.

There is a brief section on “tanks”, even describing how they got their name from efforts to disguise them by labeling their containers“water tanks.”

The books are, by and large, practical guides full of useful information for a young officer who a few months before might have been a college student or office worker. The sections on leadership and the various roles of the men in the small units up to the company level hold as true today as they did then.

“The best way to avoid venereal diseases is to keep away from lewd women and lead a clean moral life” That piece of advice alone was worth the $2.25 cost of the manual!