By Alexander F. Barnes
In the March 2016 issue of Military Trader (pp 32-3), we took a look at some of the in-depth or obscure details found in a photograph of a Third Army motor pool. In this short essay, we turn our magnifying glass on one of the barracks that the soldiers inhabited while serving in the German Rhineland from December 1918 to February 1923.
This image was most likely taken in the period 1920 to 1922 in the Coblenz (current day, “Koblenz”) area. From the earliest days of the occupation, Coblenz served as the headquarters for the Third Army and its eventual replacement, the American Forces in Germany (AFG). By 1920, the original 250,000 Doughboys of Third Army’s eight divisions, three Corps, and assorted support units were reduced to some 20,000 soldiers serving in three infantry regiments (8th, 5th, and 50th), a battalion of field artillery, and the associated combat support, combat service support, and aviation units.
- We have all heard of 16-year-olds lying about their age and joining the Army but this guy would have to lie about his age to pass as a 16-year-old. However, it is thanks to him we have two important clues proving that this is indeed an AFG image: His Third Army/AFG shoulder patch is clearly visible and he has collar disk backings which were most often found on soldiers serving in Germany. They appear to be very light in color perhaps indicating that they are Signal Corps orange? Cavalry yellow? Personnel Corps white? These collar disk backings have been subjects of discussion for quite a while; they were made of several different materials ranging from blue-colored crepe paper on cardboard to single or multi-layered felt. Behind him we get a glimpse into the hallway and can see that the wall plaster has been chipped in several areas.
- In the right-center of the photo we find these guys: The soldier in the middle is wearing his dungarees and “fatigue” hat so he has probably just come off of some detail or another, the soldier on the right has his collar up, chances are he has either just removed his tunic/coat or is getting ready to put it on – and is one of those soldiers who fold the wool shirt collar around the coat’s upright collar to prevent chafing. The solder on the left is wearing an unusual beanie of some sort.
- A familiar sight to all American servicemen of the 20th century – a framed poster reminding the barracks inhabitants of the importance of knowing their General Orders or, in later days, the Code of Conduct. In this example General Washington is mounted on his horse and bringing the point home. Also included in the background is evidence of basic geometric designs painted on the wall, most likely painted by the previous German inhabitants. Also of interest, behind the soldier holding a book, appears to be a small calendar or advertisement taped to the wall. Similar to later day American soldiers serving in Europe, it was possible to have beer, wine and soft drinks delivered directly to the barracks.
- And finally proof that there’s one in every platoon in every era: While all the other furniture is Government issue, this soldier has brought a lawn chair into the barracks to be more comfortable. Take note of his shoes—although they look like bowling shoes they are probably the 1920 version of “Air Jordans.” Also note his heavily oiled hair which was becoming popular due to the Hollywood movies of the period. Chances are pretty good he is staying in the Army in Coblenz because he knows Prohibition is now the law of the land back in the US.
And so this concludes a quick time-warp visit to a post-war Army barracks in Germany. Perhaps the greatest revelation of all is that these eight soldiers could be photo-shopped into a barracks image from Thule in Greenland or Camp Sherman in Panama, Camp Red Cloud in Korea, or Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and would not appear out of place. And that is a comforting thought.The smaller size of the American force meant that the soldiers no longer needed to be billeted in the homes of German families. Instead, they were now living in barracks buildings that had been previously used by the German Army. This photograph appears to be an interior shot of one such structure and gives a fairly clear look at the soldiers and barracks life of the period.
Alexander F. Barnes is the author of To Hell with the Kaiser: America Prepares for War, 1916-1918, Vols 1 & 2, (978-0-7643-4909-6 and 978-0-7643-4911-9. Schiffer Publishing, 4880 Lower Valley Road, Atglen, PA 19310; 610-593-1777; www.schifferbooks.com).