Diary of an Ordnance Officer Assigned to Postwar “Cleanup” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The diary of George Ludovic Alexander offers a glimpse of life in France immediately after the end of World War I. Alexander, an officer in the US Army’s Ordnance Department, and his companions were sent to clear battlefields of unexploded ammunition, a monotonous but dangerous task. Alexander worked at the scenes of the great battles of the Somme and Verdun. He took every chance he could to travel around the countryside and talk to the people he met, and his diary provides a variety of details about life in the countryside in the aftermath of war.

Summary Overview

The diary of George Ludovic Alexander offers a glimpse of life in France immediately after the end of World War I. Alexander, an officer in the US Army’s Ordnance Department, and his companions were sent to clear battlefields of unexploded ammunition, a monotonous but dangerous task. Alexander worked at the scenes of the great battles of the Somme and Verdun. He took every chance he could to travel around the countryside and talk to the people he met, and his diary provides a variety of details about life in the countryside in the aftermath of war.

Defining Moment

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, it had by far the largest army in its history. The American Expeditionary Force would have about two million men in the field by the armistice that ended the war on November 11, 1918. The Ordnance Department, in which Alexander served, was responsible for providing and maintaining supplies and equipment of all kinds, from weapons and ammunition to canteens and cutlery. When the United States went to war in April of 1917, the Ordnance Department had ninety-seven officers and 1,241 enlisted soldiers. By the end of the war, the department had grown to 5,954 officers and 62,047 enlisted soldiers. About one-third of those men served in France.

During the conflict, the Ordnance Department focused on supplying the personnel at the front with arms and ammunition. After the war ended, they were sent to some of the most active battlefields of the war to recover items of value left behind and destroy dangerous munitions. Alexander was assigned to the demolition department, specifically to a group that was responsible for destroying defective ammunition left on the battlefield. As many as one-third of the projectiles used in battles on the Western Front malfunctioned and remained unexploded after the war, presenting a serious risk to those living and working near the battlefields.

Alexander relied heavily on trucks as he moved around France after the war, and the Ordnance Department for which he worked was also responsible for supplying and maintaining the trucks on the front lines. World War I was the first conflict in which motorized transport was used on a large scale. In 1914, men and supplies were largely transported throughout Europe via horse, mule, or train; however, this soon changed as the benefits of motorized transport became clear. In one of the early decisive battles of the war, French forces managed to defeat the German army by commandeering taxis in Paris, filling them with troops, and racing to the front. The US Army had 2,400 trucks in service in 1917, made by more than two hundred different manufacturers. Supplying parts for those vehicles was difficult because of a lack of standardization and little coordination between manufacturers and the army. By the end of 1918, the United States had produced 227,000 trucks, which, along with rail, provided primary transport for troops. As Alexander’s diary makes clear, the vehicles were still unreliable and difficult to repair by the end of the war. The rugged terrain caused constant breakdowns, particularly tire failures, and some journeys required almost hourly tire changes.

The process of cleaning up the battlefields of France and the neighboring countries continued long after Alexander returned to the United States, extending into the twenty-first century. In Belgium, the annual plowing up of munitions in farm fields is known as the Iron Harvest. More than 150 tons of munitions were recovered from one battlefield, Ypres, in 2012, and fatal accidents involving unrecovered World War I munitions have continued to occur.

Author Biography

George Ludovic Alexander was born on October 2, 1895, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Alexander’s mother died just after his birth, and his father soon moved the family to Little Rock, where Alexander lived for most of his life. On May 9, 1917, Alexander reported to training camp at Fort Logan H. Roots in North Little Rock, where he trained to be an officer in the Ordnance Department. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in August. One year later, on August 31, 1918, Alexander sailed to France. After the armistice in November 1918, he remained in France for another eight months. Alexander became a property manager for Worthen Bank and Trust Company after the war and died in 1970 at the age of seventy-four.

Document Analysis

Though Alexander did not see frontline service during World War I, his diary is a valuable record of one soldier’s experience of the end of the war and the state of battle sites left in ruins when active fighting had ceased. This excerpt from Alexander’s diary begins with his time in Beaumont, a town that the Germans had just evacuated. Beaumont was near the front line and had seen some of the heaviest combat during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and Alexander and his men were tasked with locating and detonating “duds” left in the area. Though Alexander primarily worked near the sites of heavy fighting around the Somme and Verdun, his diary makes it clear that he had a keen sense of adventure and enjoyed traveling around France even when not required by his work. At one point he visited Sedan, a French region that did not see heavy fighting, as it had been captured and held by German forces early in the war. Alexander reports that he met some women in Sedan who had been “prisoners for four years.”

While staying in Montfalcon, a small village in southeastern France, Alexander’s only shelter was the one remaining room of a two-story house, with a collapsing roof and floor and a stretcher as a door. Alexander was then sent to be the demolitions officer in Verdun, a city near the Belgian border that saw almost constant bombardment. He comments on the destruction and desolation he saw all around him, taking note of “small villages that have been totally shot off the map” and “a mass of ruins.” Alexander also notes the frequent breakdowns that plagued his trucks as he traveled throughout France, particularly blown-out tires. On one trip of about three hundred miles, he and his companions “had five blowouts” and only made progress “after borrowing three inner tubes and stealing one.”

Despite these hardships, Alexander’s diary is that of an energetic, optimistic, fun-loving young man, who was determined to make the best of things despite the dangerous situations he found himself in. When sheltering in a collapsing house, he and his companions decided to “sit around the fire-place–and enjoy life.” Christmas, celebrated with a bottle of wine, was “most enjoyable,” even though his company was “in an open field of mud–living in sheet iron shacks.” He brought his men cigarettes and cakes and enjoyed the moonlight and snow on the “‘poor shot-up’ mountains” on Christmas Day.

Alexander’s diary also describes how the monotony of the work he and his men were doing made it possible to forget “that war had caused all this desolation.” He was reminded of the danger that surrounded him when a Minenwerfer mortar exploded, killing one of his men and injuring several others. Describing the injured men being carried from the field on stretchers, Alexander muses, “I guess I have see[n] it all now–war in all its phases.” For those responsible for destroying munitions, battlefields continued their deadly work long after the fighting ended.

Essential Themes

Alexander’s diary is an evocative record of the experience of a young officer at the end of World War I. Alexander describes the work that was yet to be done after active fighting ended, and he provides details about life in the postwar countryside, but in addition, his diary reveals a great deal about how a generally optimistic, enthusiastic young man coped with the deprivations and struggles of wartime. Alexander worried about the state of his equipment and the needs of the soldiers under his command. In addition to the injury and death of some of his fellow demolition workers, he had to cope with news of the sudden pneumonia-related death of a friend back home. He and his men were in constant danger, and life remained fragile and uncertain even after hostilities ended. Despite these obstacles, Alexander took time to celebrate with his friends and marvel at the beauty of the countryside, which even four years of war could not destroy.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Rubis, Karl L. “Mobile Ordnance Repair Shops: The First Contact Truck.” Ordnance Magazine (Winter 2012): 16–18. Print.
  • Strong, Paul, and Sanders Marble. Artillery in the Great War. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2011. Print.
  • “U.S. Army Ordnance Corps History.” United States Army Ordnance Corps and School. US Army, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.
  • “World War I: American Expeditionary Forces Get Motorized Transportation.” Historynet. Weider History Group, 12 June 2006. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.
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