History of the
American Field Service in France
"FRIENDS OF FRANCE", 1914-1917, TOLD BY ITS MEMBERS
||JAMES R. McCONNELL|
||CARLYLE: H. HOLT|
||FRANK HOYT GAILOR|
||EDWARD NICHOLAS SECCOMBE|
||CHARLES BAIRD, JR.|
||JOHN R. FISHER|
||WILLIAM H. C. WALKER|
||JOHN E. BOIT|
||HENRY D. M. SHERRERD|
||HARMON B. CRAIG|
||EWEN MacINTYRE, JR.|
||EDWARD NICHOLAS SECCOMBE|
SECTION TWO left Paris for Vittel, the headquarters of the French Army of the East, in the middle of April, 1915. It was almost immediately assigned to service in the region of Bois le Prêtre, being quartered first at Dieulouard, then at Pont-à-Mousson. It remained in this sector, which at that time was fairly active, for nearly ten months. In February of 1916, when the great battle of Verdun was imminent, it was moved to that sector, where it remained for more than a year and a half. It was first stationed in the hospital grounds at Le Petit Monthairon. In March the Section was attached to the rapidly growing hospital at Vadelaincourt; in June it moved for a month to Bar-le-Duc; on June 27th it returned to Le Petit Monthairon; on September 2 to Rampont, where it remained until November 8, leaving on that date for Ville-sur-Cousances; after two months of activity at this point, the Section was sent for repos to Glorieux near Verdun on January 10, 1917. On the 19th of the month the entire Section started for La Grange-aux-Bois; thence to Dombasle-en-Argonne on the 25th of June, and on July 30 for repos to Nançois-le-Grand. On August 16 the Section went on a three days' repos to Sommaisne. This was followed by a brief stay at Souhesme. It was on September 26 at Sivry-la-Perche that the Section enlisted in the American Army as Section Six-Twenty-Six.
Yet sought they neither recompense nor praise,
Nor to be mentioned in another breath
Than their blue-coated comrades whose great days
It was their pride to share, ay! share even to death.
Nay, rather, France, to you they rendered thanks
(Seeing they came for honor, not for gain),
Who, opening to them your glorious ranks,
Gave them that grand occasion to excel,
That chance to live the life most free from stain
And that rare privilege of dying well.
(From a poem written by him in memory of American Volunteers fallen for France, upon the occasion of a memorial service held before the Lafayette-Washington statue in Paris, May 30, 1916)
Pont-à-Mousson, August 1915
IN August, 1915, we were quartered in a building which had not been occupied since August, 1914. There were countless rooms already furnished, while those on the first floor had been so cleaned up that the Section, which consisted of twenty-four men, had "all the comforts of home." There was a large mess-hall, kitchen, writing-room, library, general office, dormitory, and a good generous vaulted cellar of easy access. This last adjunct was important, for the town was one of the most frequently bombarded places in the line, and very often big shells that wreck a house at one shot made it advisable to take to the cave. The atelier of the armurier with its collection of tools and fixtures, now served as a perfect automobile repair shop. We had also running water, and, at first, enjoyed both gas and electric lights; but shells eventually put both systems out of commission. Naturally the telephone line got clipped every few days, but was quickly repaired. Behind the headquarters was a gem of a garden containing several species of roses, and, as fortune would have it, new wicker chairs. At first all this seemed too good to be true; we could not realize that such an amazing combination of comforts could exist in the war zone, and still less could we realize it when we looked down the street and saw the German trenches in full view on the crest of a hill fourteen hundred yards distant, where at night rifle flashes were seen. To the volunteers who had hibernated and drudged along at Beauvais some thirty-five kilometres behind the line until April, 1915, it was a realization of hopes beyond belief.
The men in the Section had been billeted in Dieulouard, eight kilometres below, at houses where they slept when not on night duty; but when the French Section was ordered away, a number of the men elected to move up to Pont-à-Mousson and were given excellent quarters in the various vacated residences of the town. Why, instead of just rooms they had suites, and the commander had an apartment in the show place of the town!
THE regular daily service was arduous enough in itself, for one was either on duty or on call all of the time. Then there were periods following an attack when the men rested neither day nor night, when one got food only in snatches, and frequently days at a time would pass when one was on such continuous service that there was never a chance to undress. Then there was the other aspect, the ever-present danger of being killed or wounded that one is under at the front, for Section Two worked and lived in a heavily shelled area.
In spite of the danger, the American ambulanciers rendered their service with fidelity at any and all times. A French captain once remarked that, no matter how much the town was being shelled, our little field ambulances could be seen slipping down the streets, past corners, or across the square on their way to and from the postes de secours back of the trenches. I remember one day that was especially a test of the men. The town was being shelled, and it happened that at the same time there were many calls for cars. The Germans were paying particular attention to the immediate surroundings of our headquarters, and the shells were not falling according to any time-table known to us. A call came in, and the "next man" was handed his orders. He waited until a shell burst and then made a run for it. Several cars had been out on calls and were due to return. There was no way of giving them a warning. We heard the purr of a motor, and almost immediately the sing of a shell very close to us. There was an instant of anxiety, an explosion, and then we were relieved to see the car draw up in line, the driver switch off his motor and run for our entrance, holding his order card in front of him as he ran, and just as he entered another shell hit near by. It reminded me strongly of a scene in a "'ten-twenty-thirty" martial play. All the hero needed was some fuller's earth to pat off his shoulders when he came inside.
IT is difficult to take any one day's work and describe it in the attempt to give an adequate picture of the routine of the Section, for with us all days were so different.
Six-thirty is the time for bread and coffee, and the long table in the flag-decorated mess-room begins to fill. Mignot, our comrade orderly, is rushing to and fro placing bowls in front of those arriving, and practising on each the few English expressions he has picked up by association with us. Two men of the Section enter who look very tired. They throw their caps or fatigue hats on to a side table and call for Mignot. They have been on all-night service at a hamlet where the most active postes de secours are located.
"Much doing last night?" asks one of the crowd at the table.
"Not much. Had only sixteen altogether."
"Yes; Fritz eased in a few shrapnels about 5.30, but did n't hurt any one. You know the last house down on the right-hand side? Well, they smeared that with a shell during the night."
"By the way," continues the man in from night service, addressing himself to one across the table, "Canot, the artilleryman, was looking for you. Says he's got a ring for you made out of a Boche fuse-cap, and wants to know if you want a Geneva or Lorraine cross engraved on it."
The men in the Section leave the room one by one to take up their various duties. There are some whose duty it is to stay in reserve, and these go out to work on their cars. Others are on bureau service, and they remain within call of the telephone. Two leave for the town eight kilometres below, where their job is to evacuate from the two hospitals where the wounded have been carried down the day and night before.
IN front of four or five of the low masonry houses a Red Cross flag is hung, designating the postes de secours where the wounded are bandaged and given to the ambulances. An American car is backed up in front of one, and the khaki-clad driver is the centre of interest for a group of soldiers. Some he knows well, and he is carrying on a cheerful conversation with them. It is surprising what a number of French soldiers speak English; and there are hundreds who have lived in England and in the States. Some are even American citizens who have returned to fight for la belle France, their mother-country. I have met waiters from the Café Lafayette, chefs from Fifth Avenue hotels, men who worked in New York and Chicago banks, in commission houses, who own farms in the West, and some who had taken up their residence in American cities to live on their incomes. It seems very funny to be greeted with a "Hello there, old scout!" by French soldiers.
"Well, when did you come over?" asks the driver.
"In August. Been through the whole thing."
"Where were you in the States?"
"New York; and I am going back there when it is over. Got to beat it now. So long. See you later."
A few companies of soldiers go leisurely past on their way up to the trenches, and nearly every man has something to say to the American driver. Five out of ten will point to the ambulance and cry out with questionable but certainly cheerful enough humor, "Save a place for me to-morrow," or, "Be sure and give me a quick ride!" Others yell our greetings, or air their knowledge of English. "Camarade américain," said in a very sincere tone and followed by a grip of the hand, has a very warm friendship about it. Yes, you make good friends that way. Working along together in this war brought men very close. You found some delightful chaps, and then ... well, sometimes you realized you had not seen a certain one for a week or so, and you inquire after him from a man in his company.
"Where is Bosker, or Busker? --- I don't know how you pronounce it. You know, tall fellow with corporal's galons who was always talking about what a good time he was going to have when he got back to Paris."
"He got killed in the attack two nights ago --- pauvre gars," is the answer....
A KILOMETRE up the climbing winding road was a lone poste de secours in the woods just off the highway. The approach and the place itself were often shelled. There were times when the drivers were under a seriously heavy fire on night duty; times when trees were shattered and fallen across the road and huge craters made in the soft earth of the adjacent fields. A kilometre beyond was another point of call, and from there one could look directly into one of the most fought-over sections of ground in the long line from the sea to Belfort. It is a bit of land that before the war was covered with a magnificent forest. Now it is a wilderness whose desolation is beyond description.
Section Two performed its duties so well that the work of an adjacent division was given to it, and the little cars began rolling past the last-mentioned poste de secours over to the exposed plain beyond and into the zone of its newly-acquired activities. The American cars literally infested the roads in the day. They buzzed along on calls to the postes, returned from evacuations, and kept so busy trying to accelerate the work that a casual observer might have imagined that a whole division had been annihilated overnight. There are times when men die in the ambulances before they reach the hospitals, and I believe nearly every driver in the Section has had at least one distressing experience of that sort. Early one morning there was an urgent call for a single wounded. The man's comrades gathered around the little car to bid their friend good-bye. He was terribly wounded and going fast. "See," said one of them to the man on the stretcher, "you are going in an American car. You will have a good trip, old fellow, and get well soon. Good-bye .and good luck!" They forced a certain cheerfulness, but their voices were low and dry, for they saw death creeping into the face of their comrade. The driver took his seat and was starting when he was asked to wait. "Something for him," they said. When the car arrived at the hospital, the man was dead. He was cold and must have died at the start of the trip. The driver regretted the delay in leaving. Why had they asked him to wait? Then he saw that the ambulance was covered with sprigs of lilac and little yellow field flowers. The men knew that the car would serve as a hearse.
Americans have a faculty of adapting themselves to any service they may be called upon to perform, and many times we undertook on our own initiative various missions that were not in strict accord with our military duties. For instance, after a bombardment, we very often transported dead civilians. During one bombardment a considerable number of women and children were killed. A couple of the American ambulances were on the spot immediately after, and the men were silently going about their sad work. The little children who were accustomed to cry out to us as we passed, gathered around holding to their mothers' trembling hands. They said, "Américains," when they saw the khaki uniforms; but on this occasion their tone was hushed and sad instead of loud and joyous, and had a surprised note, as if they had not expected to see the Americans at such a task.
IT took us a long time to learn the value of prudence. At first during the bombardments we would rush to the street as soon as a shell landed and look to see what damage had been done. Then, when some éclats had sizzed uncomfortably close to our persons, we became a little more discreet and waited awhile before venturing out. But experience finally discounted the popularity of orchestra seats during an exhibition in which shells larger than "77's " appear.
The men did what was asked and gladly, for there was no work more worth while than helping in some way, no matter what, this noblest of all causes. One did not look for thanks, there was reward enough in the satisfaction the work gave; but the French did not let it stop at that. The men from the trenches were surprised that we had voluntarily undertaken such a hazardous occupation, and expressed their appreciation and gratitude with almost embarrassing frequency. "You render a great service," said the officers, and those of highest rank called to offer thanks in the name of France. It is good to feel that one's endeavors are appreciated, and encouraging to hear the words of praise; but when, at the end of an evacuation, one drew a stretcher from the car, and the poor wounded man lying upon it, who had never allowed a groan to escape during a ride that must have been painful, with an effort holds out his hand, grasps yours, and, forcing a smile, murmurs, "Merci, " --- that is what urged you to hurry back for other wounded, to be glad that there was a risk to one's self in helping them, and to feel grateful that you have had the opportunity to serve the brave French people in their sublime struggle.
October 26, 1915
THE head of the Sanitary Service of the French Government, accompanied by three generals, made a tour of inspection of all the units in this sector to-day.
WE had the first snow of the season to-day. All the morning it snowed and covered the fields and trees with a thick coating of white. In the roads it melted and they became stretches of yellow slush.
WE received a telephone message in the morning asking us to go to the mairie to meet a high official. Four of us went over. A number of large cars were drawn up in the place. One bore the flag of the President of France. We were to meet Poincaré. We formed a line inside the sandbag barricaded arcade. The President and his entourage passed. He stopped in front of us. "One finds you everywhere," he said; "you are indeed devoted." Then he shook hands with each of us and passed on. We wandered on down the arcade to watch the party go down into the shelled area of the town. A sentry standing near us entered into conversation. He addressed himself to Pottle. "Did he shake hands with you?" he asked. " Oh, yes," replied Pottle, who had taken the whole thing as a matter of course. "Bon Dieu! " said the sentry, "he is n't a bit proud, is he?"
THANKSGIVING --- and we celebrated it in the American style. We had purchased and guarded the turkeys, and they were prime. One of our men did wonders with the army food, and it is doubtful if any finer Thanksgiving dinner was eaten any place in the world than the one we enjoyed to-day, only two thousand yards from the Huns.
THE writer, with two others of the Section, was crossing the place after dark. As we passed the breach in the sandbag barricaded roads we were lighted up by the yellow glare coming from the shops next to the mairie. The sentry there on duty saw us. "Pass along, my children, and good luck to you; you are more devoted than we are," he cried out to us. I was startled by the voice out of the darkness and the surprising remarks. I glanced towards the sentry's post, but the light blinded me and I could not see him. From his voice, however, I knew he was old --- one of the aged territorials.
"Oh, no," I answered, for lack of anything better to say.
"Yes, you are. We all thank you. You are very devoted," he replied.
"No, not that, but I thank you," I said, and we were swallowed up in the darkness. Then I was sorry one of us hadn't gone back to shake hands with the kind-hearted old fellow. It seemed to me that it was the spirit of France speaking through him, voicing, as usual, her appreciation for any well-intentioned aid, and that we should have replied a little more formally.
JAMES R. McCONNELL*
*Of Carthage, North Carolina; University of Virginia; was in the Field Service during 1915; subsequently went into the Lafayette Flying Corps and was shot down near Ham, while on a reconnaissance during the Somme advance in July, 1916. The advancing troops found his body several days later.
Pont-à-Mousson, June 17, 1915
THIS is a dear little town with about eight thousand inhabitants. After breakfast I was asked by one of the men if I would like to look about. We turned to the left and entered the famous Bois le Prêtre where the artillery had not been. Here was an officers' cemetery, a terrible, sad sight, --- six hundred officers' graves. Close by were also the graves of eighteen hundred soldiers. The little cemetery was quite impressive on the side of this lovely green hill with the great trees all around and the little plain wood crosses at each grave. As we waited, a broken-down horse appeared with a cart-load of what looked like old clothes, but which was really des morts. I had never seen a dead body until that moment. It was a horrible awakening --- eight stiff, mangled, armless bodies --- all men like ourselves with people loving them somewhere, all gone this way. A grave had been dug two metres deep, large enough to hold sixteen. One by one they were lowered into the grave.
Pont-à-Mousson, Monday, June 28
I HAD to go to Auberge Saint-Pierre at about two o'clock this morning. It was a sad trip for me. A boy about nineteen had been hit in the chest and half his side had gone. " Très pressé," they told me. And as we lifted him into the car, by a little brick house which was a mass of shell-holes, he raised his sad, tired eyes to mine and tried a brave smile. I went down the hill as carefully as I could and very slowly, but when I arrived at the hospital, I found I had been driving a hearse and not an ambulance. It made me feel very badly --- the memory of that faint smile which was to prove the last effort of some dearly loved youth.
All the poor fellows look at us with the same expression of appreciation and thanks; and when they are unloaded it is a common thing to see a soldier, probably suffering the pain of the damned, make an effort to take the hand of the,American helper. I tell you tears are pretty near sometimes.
Tuesday, 5 P.M., July 6
I CARRIED over forty wounded yesterday a distance of a hundred and sixty kilometres and at nine o'clock turned in; to be waked up at two o'clock to go to Auberge Saint-Pierre. The Major was there to receive us, and so interested and appreciative is he that any one of us would do anything for him. Just as I was starting down with a full load I found I had picked up a nail, and a puncture was the order of the day. Two fellows ran forward; explained that in peace time they were chauffeurs, and refused to let me work on it; while the Major made me sit on a fallen tree by the roadside, smoke a cigarette, and talk to him. We are, of course, mere soldiers, but to be treated so kindly and so thoughtfully makes us feel that we must go on forever!
Later I had a German wounded couché given me and I probed out the fact that there were some six or eight French waiting to be taken. "Oh, but he is severely wounded --- take him first! " I shall always remember that in France the German went before the less wounded Frenchmen!
THE Governor, or Prefect, of the Department of Lorraine, sent us from Nancy, for July Fourth, the following tribute:
"On this day, when you celebrate your national independence, at the same hour that France in violent combat defends her independence against an enemy whose madness for domination threatens the liberty of all nations, and whose barbarous methods menace civilization, I send you the expression of the profound friendship of the French for your great and generous nation; and seize this occasion to assure you once more of the deep gratitude of the people of Lorraine for the admirable devotion of all the members of the American Ambulance of Pont-à-Mousson."
Pont-à-Mousson, July 26
OUR whole Section has been cited by order of the Division. Here is the translation:
"The American Ambulance, composed of volunteers, friends of our country, has been continually conspicuous for the enthusiasm, courage, and zeal of all its members; who, regardless of danger, have worked without rest to save our wounded, whose affection and gratitude they have gained."
Pont-à-Mousson, August 15
YESTERDAY was a red-letter day for me. The American mail arrived! I was brought back to actualities by the voice of a young French soldier of about twenty-one who stood beside me:
"You have just got some letters?"
"Yes, not even opened them yet."
"All those! You are to be married, perhaps?"
"No, mon ami."
" Surely it is your mother, then, who has written you so often."
"Only this one is from her," I answered. And then a strange silence fell. I did not feel like speaking, for, glancing up, I noticed that he was still looking at that one letter in my hand. Then, after fumbling for a few minutes in his uniform, he pulled out a packet of earth-stained letters, and said:
"These were from my mother; but I can't look for any more. She died last month."
A SAD thing happened the other day to a friend of mine, a poilu who has been helping me to get specimens of perfect, empty shells. I had many a long talk with him. He used to like to tell me about his girl and how happy they were together before the war, and how the day peace was declared, he was going to marry her. Lately I had noticed he looked depressed, and one day I found out the reason. The postman came to the door. He looked at my friend, who had become silent, and shaking his head, said, "Pas encore." My friend became very white, and presently confessed to me that he had had no letters for six weeks. A few days after, I saw him again and asked if he had heard from her. He said "No," very sullenly, and later, over a glass of beer, mentioned that his father had written him that she had been misbehaving herself. The poor fellow seemed stunned with the news. After vainly trying to cheer him up, I went back to dinner. The next morning I did not see him, but the following morning I was at headquarters when an urgent call came for an ambulance. My car happened to be just going, so I took the trip. "Where is the house? " I asked. "Just over there where the man is waving." It was the house of my friend. Need I end the story? A broken man, who had worked valiantly for twelve months under hellish conditions, to defend his country, had shot himself! We lifted him on to a stretcher and I sped away. Life was nearly extinct. I followed him into the operating-room, where he opened his eyes, and I think he recognized me. His lips moved --- but I don't know.
YESTERDAY I had a sudden call to fetch three badly wounded, one of whom was in great pain from a wound in the back, and the slightest jostle or bump I knew would cause him great agony. The doctor, pointing to one of the other two, said, "You must get him to the operating-room as quickly as you can." "But," I answered, "I dare not go fast, this poor chap is in such a bad condition." The doctor shrugged his shoulders. But the man who was suffering had heard. "Go as fast as you can, my friend; it won't kill me!" I did so, and the bumps were bad. The poor fellow could not help uttering cries from time to time. But before I arrived at Belleville, the cries had ceased, as the great pain had made him unconscious, while the badly wounded man had died. "C'est la guerre," said the doctor to whom I told the story, as he washed his hands for the operations.
The other day I paid a visit to a neighboring hospital, where one young fellow about my own age had had his left leg amputated. I sat by his bed and chatted with him. He told me of his wife --- they had been a year and a half married --- and of his child whom he had not yet seen. He was so very eager that somehow the pity of it made me turn aside for a second, and look out of the window. Quick of perception, out went his hand to mine. Oh, she will understand, camarade," he said, smiling; she will love me just the same --- she is a Frenchwoman."
How can one help caring for France and French people, they have such a keen appreciation of the value of sympathy and gratitude? Here in the midst of torturing death, they at least are cheerful, and having put aside the barrier of selfishness are wholly simple and direct in their human relations. The fact that on every side there is daily evidence of this attitude, in spite of so bitter and costly a struggle, is high proof of the fineness of their civilization.
*A young Englishman, who was in the service during several months of 1915. Author of Ambulance No. 10. (See the Bibliography at the end of Vol. III.)
Pont-à-Mousson, May 20, 1915
ONE evening, about 7.30, after the Germans had been firing on this place and the neighboring villages for some hours, I was called to Bozéville, a village on the road to Montauville consisting of a small cluster of one-story brick and frame buildings constructed in 1870 by the Germans for their soldiers. When I reached this place it was on fire, and the Germans, by a constant fusillade of shrapnel shells in and around the buildings and on the roads near them, were preventing any attempt being made to extinguish the fire. To drive up the narrow road, with the burning houses on one side and high garden wall, thank Heaven, on the other, hearing every few seconds the swish-bang of the shells, was decidedly nervous work and anything but peaceful. But after picking up the wounded, I returned here where conditions were much worse. At this time the Germans were throwing shells of large calibre at the bridge over the Moselle, and to reach the hospital to which I was bound, it was necessary to take the road which led to this bridge and turn to the left about a hundred yards before coming to it. Just as I was about to make this turn, two shells struck and exploded in the river under the bridge. There was a terrific roar and two huge columns of water rose into the air, seemed to stand there for some seconds and the next instant spray and bits of wood and shell fell on and around us. A minute later I turned into the hospital yard, where the effect, in the uncertain and fast-fading light, was ghostly, as earlier in the evening a shell had exploded in the yard and thrown an even layer of fine, power-like dust over everything. It resembled a shroud in effect, for nothing disturbed its even surface except the crater-like hole made by the shell. On one side of the yard was the hospital, every window broken and its walls scarred by the pieces of shells; in the middle was the shell-hole, and on the other side was the body of a dead brancardier, lying on his back with a blanket thrown over him, which gave a particularly ghastly effect to the scene, for what was left of the daylight was just sufficient to gleam upon his bald forehead and throw into relief a thin streak of blood which ran across his head to the ground. Needless to say I left the place as quickly as possible.
ANOTHER scene which I do not think I will soon forget happened just after a successful French attack and shows war in a little different light, with more of the excitement and glory which are supposed to be attached to battle. It occurred at Montauville, a straggly little village of one and two-story stone and plaster houses built on the two sides of the road, situated on a saddle which connects one large hill on one side of it with another large hill on the other side of it. The village is used as a dépôt and resting-place for the troops near it. On this particular day the French had attacked and finally taken a position which they wanted badly, and at this time, just after sunset, the battle had ceased and the wounded were being brought into the poste de secours. The tints of the western sky faded away to a cloudless blue heaven, marked here and there by a tiny star. To the south an aeroplane was circling like a huge hawk with puffs of orange-tinted shrapnel smoke on all sides of it. In the village the soldiers were all in the streets or hanging out of the windows shouting to one another. The spirits of every one were high, and they well might be, for the French had obtained an advantage over the Germans and had succeeded in holding it. At this moment a French sergeant entered the town at the lower end and walked up the street. At first no one noticed him; then a slight cheer began, and before the man had advanced a hundred yards the soldiers had formed a lane through which he strode. He was a big fellow, his face smeared with blood and dirt and his left arm held in a bloody sling, while on his head was a German helmet with its glinting brass point and eagle. He swaggered nearly the entire length of the village through the shouting line of soldiers, gesticulating with his one well arm and giving as he went a lively account of what had happened. Thereupon some one started the Marseillaise and in a few minutes all were singing. I have heard football crowds sing after a victory and other crowds indulge in song, but I have never listened to such wild exultation as on this occasion. It was tremendous. I wish the Germans could have heard it. Perhaps they did, for they were not so far away and the sound seemed to linger and echo among the hills for some minutes after the last note had been struck.
CARLYLE H. HOLT*
*Of Hingham, Massachusetts; Harvard, '12. Served in Section Two from February to August of 1915.The above are extracts from two letters written to Field Service Headquarters.
IT gave us rather a wrench to leave Pont-à-Mousson. The Section had been quartered there since April, 1915, and we were attached to the quaint town and to the friends we had made there. The morning of our departure was warm and clear. Walking along the convoy which had been formed in the road before our villa, came the poilus who shook hands with each conducteur. "Au revoir, Monsieur." "Au revoir, Paul." "Bonne chance, Pierre." We took a last look at the town which had sheltered us during the most dramatic moments of our lives. Above the tragic silhouette of a huddle of ruined houses rose the grassy slopes of the great ridge crowned by the Bois le Prêtre, the rosy morning mists were lifting from the shell-shattered trees, and a golden sun poured down a springlike radiance. Suddenly a great cloud of grayish white smoke rose over the haggard wood and melted slowly away in the northeast wind; an instant later, a reverberating boom signalled the explosion of a mine in the trenches. There was a shrill whistle, our lieutenant raised his hand, and the convoy swung down the road to Dieulouard. "Au revoir, les Américains!" cried our friends --- a little mud-slopped, blue-helmeted handful, that waved to us till we turned the corner. "Au revoir, les Américains !"
Late in the afternoon we were assigned quarters in the barracks of Bar-le-Duc, where we found an English Section that had been as suddenly displaced as our own. Every minute loaded camions ground into town and disappeared towards the east, troops of all kinds came in, flick, flack, the sun shining on the barrels of the lebels, a train of giant mortars, mounted on titanic trucks and drawn by big motor lorries, crashed over the pavements and vanished somewhere. Some of our conducteurs made friends with the English drivers, and swapped opinions as to what was in the wind. One heard, "Well, those Frenchies have got something up their sleeve. We were in the battle of Champarng, and it began just like this." Round us, rising to the full sea of the battle, the tide of war surged and disappeared. At dusk a company of dragoons, big helmeted men on big horses, trotted by, their blue mantles and mediaeval casques giving them the air of crusaders. At night the important corners of the streets were lit with cloth transparencies, with "Verdun" and a great black arrow painted on them. Night and day, going as smoothly as if they were linked by an invisible chain, went the hundred convoys of motor lorries. There was a sense of something great in the air --- a sense of apprehension. "Les Boches vont attaquer Verdun."
ON the 21st the order came for us to go to Petit-Monthairon (the Boches had made their first attack that morning, though this we did not then know), and near by we found a rather unlovely eighteenth-century château standing in a park built out on the meadows of the Meuse. The flooded river flowed round the dark pines, and at night one could hear the water roaring under the bridges. The château, which had been a hospital since the beginning of the war, reeked with ether and iodoform; pasty-faced, tired attendants unloaded mud, cloth, bandages, and blood that turned out to be human beings; an overwrought Médecin Chef screamed contradictory orders at everybody and flared into crises of hysterical rage.
Ambulance after ambulance came from the lines full of clients; kindly hands pulled out the stretchers and bore them to the wash-room, which was in the cellar of the dove-cote, in a kind of salt-shaker turret. Snip, snap went the scissors of the brancardiers who looked after the bath, --- good souls these two --- who slit the uniforms from mangled limbs. The wounded lay naked in their stretchers while the attendant daubed them with a hot soapy sponge and the blood ran from their wounds through the stretcher to the floor and seeped into the cracks of the stones. A lean, bearded man closed his eyes over the agony of his opened entrails and died there. Somebody casually tossed a blanket over the body.
Outside, mingling with the roaring of the river, came the great, terrible drumming of the bombardment. An endless file of troops were passing down the great road. Night. came on. Our ambulances were in a little side street at right angles to the great road, their lamp flares beating fiercely on a little section of the great highway. Suddenly, plunging out of the darkness into the intense radiance of the acetylene beams, came a battery of "75's," the helmeted men leaning over on the horses, the guns rattling and the harness clanking, a swift picture of movement that plunged again into darkness. And with darkness, the whole horizon became brilliant with cannon fire.
WE were well within the horseshoe of German fire that surrounded the French lines. It was between midnight and one o'clock, the sky deep and clear, with big ice-blue winter stars. We halted at a certain road to wait our chance to deliver our wounded. It was a melee of beams of light, of voices, of obscure motions, sounds. Refugees went by, decent people in black, the women being escorted by a soldier. One saw sad, harassed faces. A woman came out of the turmoil carrying a cat in a canary cage; the animal swept the gilded bars with curved claws, and its eyes shone black and crazily. Others went by pushing baby carriages full to the brim with knickknacks and packages. Some trundled a kind of barrow. At the very edge of earth and sky-was a sort of violet-white inferno, while the thousand finger-like jabs of the artillery shot unceasing to the stars, and the great semi-circular aureole flares of the shorter pieces were seen a hundred times a minute. Over the moorland came a terrible roaring such as a river might make tumbling through some subterranean abyss. A few miles below, a dull ruddy smouldering in the sky told of fires in Verdun. The morning clouded over, the dawn brought snow. Even in the daytime the great cannon flashes could be seen in the low, brownish snow-clouds.
On the way to Monthairon, two horses that had died of exhaustion lay in a frozen ditch. Ravens, driven from their repast by the storm, cawed hungrily in the trees.
We slept in the loft of one of the buildings that formed the left wing of the courtyard of the castle. To enter it, we had to pass through a kind of lumber-room on the ground floor in which the hospital coffins were kept. Above was a great dim loft, rich in a greasy, stably smell, a smell of horses and sweaty leather, the odor of a dirty harness room. At the end of the room, on a kind of raised platform, which ran along the wall over our heads, was the straw in which we lay --- a crazy, sagging shelf, covered with oily dust, bundles of clothes, knapsacks, books, candle-ends, and steel helmets. All night long the horses underneath us squealed, pounded, and kicked.
I see in the lilac dawn of a winter morning the yellow light of an officer's lantern, and hear the call, "Up, boys, there's a call to Bar-le-Duc." The bundles in the dirty blankets groan; unshaven, unwashed faces turn tired eyes to the lantern; some, completely worn out, lie in a kind of sleepy stupor, while a wicked screaming whistle passes over our heads, and the shell, bursting on a near-by location, startles the dawn.
Later, the back of the attack was broken, and we began to get a little rest. But during the first week our cars averaged runs of two hundred miles a day, over roads chewed to pieces, and through very difficult traffic. In several of the villages there were unusually formidable shell gauntlets to be run.
IT is night. You can imagine how lonely it is here under the black, star-swept sky, the houses only masses of regular blackness in the darkness, the street silent as a dune in the desert and devoid of any sign of human life. Muffled and heavy, the explosion of a torpedo inscribes its solitary half-note on the blank lines of the night's stillness. I go up to my room, and sigh with relief as my sulphur match boils blue and breaks into a short-lived yellow flame. Shadows are born, leaping and rising, and I move swiftly towards my candle-end, the flame catches and burns straight and still in the cold, silent room. The people who lived here were very religious; an ivory Christ on an ebony crucifix hangs over the door, and solemn-eyed, the pure and lovely head of Jeanne d'Arc stands on my mantel. What a marvellous history, hers! I think it the most beautiful mystic tale in our human annals.
Silence, sleep, the crowning mercy. A few hours go by and morning comes. There is a call, "Monsieur Shin, --- un couché à --- " I wake. The night clerk of the bureau is standing in the doorway. An electric flashlight in his hand sets me a-blinking. I dress, shivering a bit, and am soon on my way. The little gray machine goes cautiously on in the darkness, bumping over shell-holes, guided by the iridescent mud of the last day's rain. A bright flash illuminates the road. A shell sizzles overhead. I reach the poste de secours and find a soldier in the roadway. More electric hand-lamps. Down a path comes a stretcher and a man wounded in arm and thigh. We put him into the voiture, cover him up, and away I start on my long, dark ride to the hospital, a lonely nerve-tightening ride.
The voice of war is the voice of the shell. You hear a perfectly horrible sound as if the sky were made of cloth and the Devil were tearing it apart, a screaming undulating sound followed by an explosion of fearful violence, bang! The violence of the affair is what impresses you, the suddenly released energy of that murderous burst.
When I was a child I used to wander around the shore and pick up hermit crabs and put them on a plate. After a little while you would see a very prudent claw come out of the shell, then two beady eyes, finally the crab in propria persona. I was reminded of that scene on seeing people come cautiously out of their houses after a shell had fallen, peeping carefully out of doorways, and only venturing to emerge after a long reconnoitring.
A NEW religion has arisen in the trenches, a faith much more akin to Mahomet than to Christ. It is a fatalism of action. The soldier finds his salvation in the belief that nothing will happen to him until his hour comes, and the logical corollary of this belief --- that it does no good to worry --- is his rock of ages. It is a curious thing to see poilus --- peasants, artisans, scholars --- completely in the grip of this philosophy. The real religion of the front is the philosophy of Mahomet. Death has been decided by Fate, and the Boches are the unbelievers. After all, Islam in its great days was a virile faith, the faith of a race of soldiers.
THE other day I climbed to the top of Vauban's citadel, and looked out over the forts, the buff-brown moorlands and the crumbling villages. To the west, a battle was taking place, dull-colored smoke lay close to the ground, and now and then a shell would break, a pin point of light, in the upper fringes of the haze. What in Heaven's name is to be the end of all this? What is the world to be like which will some day follow this cruel welter of savagery and pain? You know that I reject the pacifist case because I see war as part of the web of life; it is competition distilled to its ultimate essence, and will not be done away with until international competition is under some rigorous and centralized control. Yet how can such a despotism of power be established, and by whom? Certainly war cannot be eliminated from the mechanism of civilization by a folding of hands and a general promise to be good. Yet this sort of thing is civilization committing suicide. Is n't it appalling to think of France, "the land of the idea," being thus compelled to abandon her science and art and to waste her blood and treasure in this unspeakable massacre? We ought all of us, young Boches, too, to be fighting side by side in the endless war men must wage on the various cussednesses of nature. This cheerless life is acid to any one with memories of an old, beloved New England hearth and close family ties and friendships. To half jest, I am enduring war for peace of mind.
How lonely my old house must be when the winter storms surge round it at midnight. How the great flakes must swirl about its ancient chimney, and fall softly down the black throat of the fireplace to the dark, ungarnished hearth. The goblin who polished the pewter plates in the light of the crumbling fire-brands has gone to live with his brother in a hollow tree on the hill. But when you come to Topsfield, the goblin himself, red flannel cap and all, will open the door to you as the house's most honored and welcome guest.
A fusée éclairante has just run over the wood, the "Bois de la mort," the wood of the hundred thousand dead; and side by side with the dead are the living, the soldiers of the army of France, holding through bitter cold and a ceaseless shower of iron and hell, the far-stretching lines. If there is anything I am proud of, it is of having been with the French Army, the most devoted and heroic of the war.
*Of Topsfield, Massachusetts; Harvard, '09; served from August, 1915, to April, 1916; author of A Volunteer Poilu. (see Bibliography in the Appendix to Vol. III.)
SECTION Two left Pont-à-Mousson about February 21, 1916, and on Washington's Birthday our French Lieutenant gave us our "order to move"; but all he could tell us about our destination was that we were going north. We started from Bar-le-Duc, where we had spent a few days overhauling and painting the cars, about noon, and it took six hours to make forty miles through roads covered with snow, swarming with troops, and all but blocked by convoys of food carts and sections of trucks. Of course we knew that there was an attack in the neighborhood of Verdun, but we did not know who was making it or how it was going. Then about four o'clock in the short winter twilight we passed two or three regiments of French colonial troops on the march with all their field equipment. They were lined up on each side of the road around their soup kitchens, which were smoking busily, and I had a good look at them as we drove along. It was the first time that I had seen an African Army in the field, and though they had a long march, they were cheerful and in high spirits at the prospect of battle. They were all young, active men, of all colors and complexions, from blue-eyed blonds to shiny blacks, and wore khaki, and brown shrapnel casques.
After that we rode north along the Meuse, through a beautiful country where the snow-covered hills, with their sky-lines of carefully pruned French trees, made me think of masterpieces of Japanese art. In the many little villages there was much excitement and activity --- troops, artillery, and munitions being rushed through to the front, and there were also the consequent wild rumors of great attacks and victories. Curiously enough, there were few who thought of defeat, all sure, even when a retreat was reported that the French were winning; and that spirit of confidence had much to do with stopping the German advance.
At about six in the evening we reached our destination, some forty miles northeast of Bar-le-Duc. The little village, Petit-Monthairon, where we stopped had been a railroad centre until the day before, when the Germans started bombarding it. Now the town was evacuated, and the smoking station deserted. The place had ceased to exist, except for a hospital which was established on the southern edge of the town in a lovely old château, overlooking the Meuse, whither we were called as soon as we arrived to take such wounded as could be moved to the nearest available railhead, ten miles away, on the main road, and four miles south of Verdun. We started out in convoy; but with the conditions of traffic, it was impossible to stick together, and it took some of us till five o'clock the next morning to make the trip. That was the beginning of the attack for us, and the work of evacuating the wounded to the railway stations went steadily on until March 15, during which period it was left to the driver to decide how many trips it was physically possible for him to make in each twenty-four hours, for there were more wounded than could be carried, and no one could be certain of keeping any kind of schedule with the roads as they were then.
SOMETIMES we spent five or six hours waiting at a crossroad, while columns of troops and their equipment filed steadily by. Sometimes at night we could make a trip in two hours that had taken us ten in daylight. Sometimes, too, we crawled slowly to a station only to find it deserted, shells falling, and the hospital removed to some still more distant point of the line. Situations and conditions changed from day to day, --- almost from hour to hour. One day it was sunshine and spring, with roads six inches deep in mud, no traffic and nothing to remind one of war, except the wounded in the car and the distant roar of the guns, which sounded like a giant beating a carpet. The next day, it was winter again, with mud changed to ice, the roads blocked with troops, and the Germans turning hell loose with their heavy guns.
In such a crisis as those first days around Verdun, ammunition and fresh men are the all-essential things. The wounded are the déchets, the "has-beens," and so must take the second place. But the French are too gallant and tender-hearted not to make sacrifices. For instance, I remember one morning I was slapped off the road into the ditch, with a broken axle, while passing a solitary camion, whereupon the driver got down, came over and apologized for the accident which was easily half my fault. Then we unloaded four cases of "seventy-five" shells that he was carrying, put my three wounded on the floor of his car, and he set out slowly and carefully up the ice-covered road, saying to me with a smile as he left, "Don't let the Boches get my marmites while I'm gone." For some time I sat there alone on the road, watching the shells break on a hill some miles away to the north, and wondering when I could get word of my mishap back to the base. Then a staff car appeared down the highway, making its way along slowly and with difficulty, because, being without chains, it skidded humorously, with engine racing and the chauffeur trying vainly to steer. There was a Captain of the Service des Autos sitting on the front seat, who was so immaculately clean and well-groomed that he seemed far away from work of any kind. But when the car stopped completely about halfway up the little hill on which I was broken down, he jumped out, took off his fur coat, and using it to give the rear wheels a grip on the ice, he swung it under the car. As the wheels passed over it, he picked it up and swung it under again. So the car climbed the hill and slid down the other slope round the curve and out of sight. It was just another incident that made me realize the spirit and energy of the French Automobile Service.
But the Captain had not solved any of my difficulties. He had been too busy with his own to notice me or wonder why an American ambulance was sprawled in a ditch with four cases of shells alongside. So I waited there about two hours until an American came by and took back word of my accident and of the parts necessary to set it right. In the meantime, about noon, my friend came back in his camion to take up his cases of shells and reported my wounded safe at the railway station. We lunched together on the front seat of the camion, bread, tinned "monkey meat," and red wine, while he told me stories about his life as a driver.
As soon as we had finished lunch he left me, and I waited for another two hours until the American staff car (in other surroundings I should call it an ordinary Ford touring-car with a red cross or so added) came along loaded with an extra "rear construction," and driven by the Chief himself. It took us another four hours to remove my battered rear axle and put in the new parts; but my car was back in service by midnight.
This was a typical instance of the kind of accident that was happening, and there were about three "Ford casualities" every day. But thanks to the simplicity of the mechanism, and to the fact that, with the necessary spare parts, the most serious indisposition can be remedied in a few hours, our Section was at the front for a year --- ten months in the Bois le Prêtre, and two months at Verdun --- without being sent back out of service for general repairs. In the Bois le Prêtre we had carried the wounded from the dressing-stations to the first hospital, while at Verdun we were on service from the hospital to the railheads. In this latter work of evacuation the trips were much longer, thirty to ninety miles; so the strain on the cars was correspondingly greater. As our cars, being small and fast, carried only three wounded on stretchers or five seated, our relative efficiency was low in comparison with the wear and tear of the "running gear" and the amount of oil and petrol used. But in the period from February 22 to March 13, twenty days, with an average of eighteen cars working, we carried 2046 wounded 18,915 miles. This would be no record on good open roads, but with the conditions I have described I think it justified the existence of our volunteer organization, --- if it needed justification. Certainly the French thought so; but they are too generous to be good judges.
Except for our experiences on the road, there was little romance in the daily routine. True, we were under shellfire, and had to sleep in our cars or in a much-inhabited hayloft, and eat in a little inn, half farmhouse and half stable, where the food was none too good and the cooking none too clean. But we all realized that the men in the trenches would have made of such conditions a luxurious paradise; so that kept us from thinking of it as anything more than a rather strenuous "camping out."
FRANK HOYT GAILOR*
*Of Memphis, Tennessee; Sewanee and Columbia Universities; spent parts of 1915 and 1916 in the Service. Later served as First Lieutenant in the American Field Artillery.
Verdun, May, 1916
FOR two weeks the Section worked night and day with scarcely time for sleeping and eating, but when our labor slowed up, the men had time to catch up lost sleep. Sleeping quarters were in the loft of a barn between the lane, which was the entrance to the estate, and the chàteau. Due partly to the rainy and damp weather, and the hard work, many of the fellows were on the verge of illness, and at night the loft sounded very much like a consumptive retreat. Every available space was occupied by the sleepers, and a few of the Section found accommodations in a couple of small buildings in the rear of the château, on the edge of the park, a small shack used for storing fishing paraphernalia, and another near by which gave shelter from nothing but the rain and snow. One of the strangest things in that part of the estate was an "Old Town" canoe with a paddle made from a broken airplane propeller which belonged to an aviator from the flying field on the top of the hill. From time to time several of our fellows went canoeing in it on the Meuse which flowed close by.
The meals were served in a farmhouse on the main road, at the head of the lane, these eating quarters being the worst part of our life there. The owners still hung on, though they had been ordered to leave long before, and their presence did not add to the pleasures of the spot. The dining-room was the kitchen and living-room, and at eating times was jammed full of hungry Americans, Frenchmen who were trying to buy wine of the Madame, and the Madame's family of eight very dirty children. A table in the centre of the room was reserved for the Section, though there was scarcely place for half the men.
Plates and table hardware were seldom washed, and it often happened that nothing was cleaned for several meals, while to add to the unpleasantness of the situation, hostlers kept opening and closing a door which was the entrance to the foulest stable imaginable. Possibly there would have been a general "kick" on the part of the Section if it had not been for the fact that we were worn out from the hard work and long hours of driving, which sometimes amounted to over 200 kilometres per day per car.
The cars too were in a sad state and most of them fit for the "graveyard" in Paris. On March 4, one new car and two overhauled ones came out from Paris, and two days later, two more arrived. That night orders were received at eight o'clock to move to Vadelaincourt at once.
Heavy fighting was going on then between Hill 304 and the Meuse and there was such a stream of wounded pouring into Vadelaincourt that the hospital was swamped. There was no room at the château for the freshly operated-upon men, so they were taken at once to other hospitals in the direction of Bar-le-Duc and Révigny. One French sanitary Section and two British Sections had been doing the work, but there were too many wounded for these outfits and Section Two was called upon to help.
The majority of our cars arrived at the chàteau by 10 o'clock, and after throwing duffle-bags and blanket rolls into a barn, the men set to work evacuating and worked steadily at their task for nearly three days with no sleep. The first night every car evacuated to Révigny over the main Bar-le-Duc-Verdun road, which was a continual stretch of holes and ruts, so that no car could go more than fifteen miles an hour, due to the roughness of the road and the dense traffic. After the first four days the French Section and one of the British Sections left, the whole work now falling to our Section Two and to English Section Two. There was still plenty of it, but it could be run more systematically.
THE Section slept in its cars, which were parked on the side of the road near the hospital, and our kitchen was established in one of the rooms of a farmhouse, very close to a barn and a huge heap of manure. The dining-room, which was a sort of "lean-to" against the side of the house, was made of blankets and canvas and not very watertight. For three weeks we lived this way, and then, during a spell of good weather, erected a tent (borrowed from the head French military doctor, who was a very good sort) in a lot across the road from the aviation field. However, most of the Section by that time had found sleeping-quarters in two rat-infested barns, everybody however, taking the unpleasant life philosophically. One of the barns was also occupied by the English Section, and when one night it caught fire near the essence tanks, and burned to the ground, several of the men had very narrow escapes and five of the Americans lost all their blankets.
Night work at a triage on the main Verdun road was now being taken up every other night, in addition to the labor of evacuating from Vadelaincourt, which meant long runs to Froidos, Chaumont, and sometimes Révigny, all, however, interesting in their way.
On April 8th, Frank Gailor ("Bishop") left us to the regret of everybody. "Bish" was one of the most popular men of the Section and told most interesting stories of his work in Belgium at the beginning of the war, when he was a member of the Relief Committee. What his "farewell party" lacked in elaborateness was made up for in the sincere feelings of regret which each man felt.
After eating in our "lean-to" by the manure heap for three weeks, the same French doctor, already mentioned, offered us, as our dining-room, the use of a spare tent which was erected in the field opposite the aviation field. The kitchen, too, was moved into a small tent which was rigged up between two pine trees a few feet from the dining-tent. A table in the form of a "T" was built, and with the addition of a set of shelves, known as the "American Bar," built in one corner, everybody was satisfied with our prandial arrangements. "Bishop" Gailor's farewell party, by the way, occurred in these new quarters, and also took the form of a "housewarming," with speeches by Emery Pottle, Graham, Harold Willis and one or two others. A quintet formed with Pottle, Nolan, Graham, Willis, and Seccombe made its initial appearance on this occasion, and the party broke up at a late hour with everybody more or less convinced that he was the next thing to a Caruso.
For a few days thereafter the weather had been ideal, but a change for the worse took place and the old tents had a hard time. There was no work to speak of and everybody spent the day "under canvas" around a small stove indulging in arguments on any sort of subject, while music by Nolan and Graham, on mandolin and guitar, caused the time to pass away agreeably. For three weeks we had nothing but rain, hail, and snow, and as the tent was pretty old, it leaked in many places. The field and side hill was a mass of slimy mud six inches deep, and ten or twelve men were required to push every car into the road.
The weather became better about the first of May, and as the aviators became more active, we got better acquainted with Navarre, Boillot, and Guynemer. This aviation field, by the way, was one of the largest on the whole front and had every type of plane then used by the French. Navarre was then flying a bright red Nieuport and never failed to give a thrilling exhibition whenever he took the air.
On Sunday, May 21, everybody attended an open-air funeral service for the burial of three aviators, one of whom was Boillot. An altar was erected between two trees and the service, which was very impressive, was largely attended by artillery and aviation officers, some three hundred of whom followed the bodies to the cemetery.
The last of the month the fighting grew worse about Fort de Vaux and Fort Douaumont and the Section worked every night and most of the days at the triage.
THE 31st found the Section moving to Bar-le-Duc, where it was to be outfitted with new cars and where it was also supposed to be en repos. But as we took the place of and did the work which an English section had been doing, this was far from being a rest, for during the twenty-seven days there, an actual record of 10,500 men carried was one of the things the men pointed to with pride. It meant that a man was on duty fifty-three hours at a stretch, sleeping at one of three places---wherever he was working --- and then going off duty from 1 P.M. until 8.30 the next A.M.
THE second day in town, the Boche planes raided Bar-le-Duc at 1 P.M. and the Section saw some exciting work. There were many narrow escapes in driving round picking up the dead and wounded, Barclay(1) having the closest call when a bomb exploded back of his car and a huge piece went through the body close to his head. Twenty-four planes were counted in all, and 36 dead and 132 wounded were the results. On June 16 and 17, there were two more raids, but they were not so severe as the first one.
Our living quarters at Bar-le-Duc were in an old building built in 1575 and once a monastery, but now used to quarter troops in. The whole edifice was in the form of a square with a large courtyard inside, where were always every night a hundred or more poilus on their way to and from the front. Towards the end of June was a change of French officers, Lieutenant Maas being replaced by Lieutenant Rodocanachi, who became the most popular commander the Section ever had.
At this period, many men used to have lunch with the Lafayette Escadrille, which was stationed just outside of town, where Victor Chapman was killed on the 23d, and, Balsley badly hurt a few days before. Walter Lovell left on June 19 to enter the training school of aviation. He had made a fine Chef de Section and everybody hated to see him go. Oliver Wolcott was made Chef, but was recalled to the States when the Mexican trouble started, and so filled the post only a week.
JUNE 27 the Section moved back to Petit-Monthairon, where it did evacuation work until September 2, and where we had a small house with sleeping-quarters, dining-room and kitchen, officers' rooms and bureau which were fairly comfortable. There was not much work to do at this moment so several ball games were played with Section Eight and a Norton Section, all of which we lost, with one exception, but which furnished good fun and exercise. Several more new cars and men joined the Section there, J. M. Walker, our new Chef, being among them.
Sections One and Eight were in Dugny part of this time and a certain amount of visiting was done by all the Sections, Section Four, stationed at Ippécourt, sending a few men over to us from time to time. There were big parties on the night of July 4th and again on July 14. Then, too, Powel received a cardboard Victrola with records and gave evening concerts in the "loft," while we had good swimming in the Meuse along with plenty of mosquitoes. On July 29 we received a Hotchkiss workshop car and a new staff car.
On August 6, Mrs. Vanderbilt, who presented each of us with a box of cigarettes, visited the Section for lunch along with Mr. Andrew: everybody was "all dolled up" after spending the whole morning in brushing, polishing, and prinking in general. On September 2, the Section moved to Rampont and took over the postes at Esnes, and Hills 232 and 272, which Section Four had been working,
Section Four taking over the postes between 272 and the Meuse. Five cars were on duty every night, receiving orders at the telephone station at Jouy, three of the cars going to Hill 272 and the others to Esnes or Hill 232. For about ten days the poste in Esnes was the same old ruined château which Section Four had used, when a new poste was established on the outskirts of the town on the road to Béthincourt, where the cars had to run quite a bit farther through the centre of the town over a road full of shell-holes and wreckage off the buildings.
In September the French, in an effort to straighten their line made an attack on the Mort Homme. The artillery barrage started at 5 P.M., and an hour later the infantry "went over." The whole Section had been ordered to Jouy at 6 P.M. and at 7 P.M. the first call came for cars at Hill 272. Shortly after, the rest of the cars were called and we all worked until daybreak carrying in over 250 wounded.
EDWARD NICHOLAS SECCOMBE*
*Of Derby, Connecticut; served six months in S.S.U. Two in 1916; rejoined the Service in November, 1917, and remained in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service during the war.
Petit-Monthairon, August 9, 1916
WE are quartered in one of the farmhouses belonging to a château, which is now a hospital. You remember, no doubt, the French farmhouses --- a blank wall on the roadside with only an entrance to the courtyard; a dark kitchen, a few bedrooms and a loft, with a few sheds out back. The loft is divided into two parts. We sleep in one of them on stretchers propped up from the floor by boxes or our little army trunks. Some of the boys don't prop up their stretchers, but I find it better to elevate mine, as the rats run all over the floor and incidentally over you if your stretcher rests on the floor. The fleas seem more numerous near the floor, and there are spiders, too. I've been pretty well "bit up." But yesterday I soaked my blankets in petrol and hung them on the line in the courtyard for an airing, so I think I've left the vermin behind. I also sprayed my clothes, especially my underwear, with petrol, which doesn't make much for comfort, except in so far as the animals are baffled. Flies and mosquitoes are abundant, too. We all have mosquito nets which we put over our heads in the evening, making us all look like the proverbial huckleberry pie on the railroad restaurant counter. The poilus around us have adopted our methods, and you see them sitting about looking in the distance for all the world like Arabs. We are better off than the other Sections, though, for our house is very commodious, and near by we have a river to swim in every day. So it is no effort to bathe.
We carry the wounded from the château to the trains. Some trips are about seventeen kilometres one way, and others are more. As the roads are well used, they are rather bumpy; so you have to go very slowly. You can't dash at full speed with wounded. It is slow work, for, in addition to the necessity of making the trip as easy as possible for the blessés, you have to dodge in and out among the transports, which usually fill up the roads. There is a steady stream going and coming --- horses, mules, and auto-trucks.
I never saw so many --- thousands of each kind. Then there is no lagging or loafing; you blow your whistle and the driver of what is ahead of you gives you six inches of road, you squeeze through and take a chance that the nigh mule on the team coming the other way does n't kick. You well know how dusty the roads are. But we have to drive right ahead regardless of it; so you can imagine what sights we are when we get back to our farmhouse --- scarecrows, each one. The dust is powdery and comes off easily, however, so one can get comfortable in a short time.
The blessés are a quiet lot, especially after you give them cigarettes. I always pass around the cigarettes before starting, for then I'm sure those en arrière will be still. Every now and then you have a "humming-bird," that is, a blessé who is so hurt that the least jar pains him and he moans or yells. You can't help him any, so you just have to put up with it. However, I don't like "humming-birds," for you feel, when you are carrying them, that you hit more bumps than you really do.
I WENT the other day to a show in Trayon where some of the troops are en repos. It was wonderful, for there, right within range of the Boche guns, the French soldiers were giving one of the best musical performances I have ever seen. Among the performers --- men who only a little while before had been in the trenches --- were professional musicians, singers, and actors. It was not amateurish at all; in fact, it was highly professional. The theatre was fitted up more or less like the stage at the Hasty Pudding Club of Harvard. There was an amateurish back-drop, however; but everything else savored of the real Parisian touch. Among the audience were generals, colonels, underofficers, poilus, and five of us. We were invited, inasmuch as we had lent some of our uniforms for the actors. I saw my cap walk out on the stage on a fellow with a little head, so it did n't even rest on his ears, but rather on his nose. The soldiers who could not get in thronged the courtyard and cheered after every song or orchestra piece. The orchestra was made up of everything in a city orchestra, including a leader with a baton. You see each regiment is bound to have professional men in it and they get up these shows. On the whole, it was one of the most impressive sights I've seen, and on top of it all, there was a continuous firing in the near distance. Imagine it, if you can!
We have a cook and a servant, --- one of the poilus who is quartered here, too, and who earns a few sous on the side by serving us, --- also a French lieutenant who is really the head of the Section, a maréchal des logis, and a few other French retainers. They sleep in the same loft with us, and every night they chatter very late, kid each other about the fish they caught or did not catch in the river during the day, laugh and giggle at each other just like children. They are awfully amusing. By the way, all the poilus who are en repos fish, although there are only minnows in the streams about here. To-day I asked several how many they caught, and they said they were only fishing to pass the time. It seems to be a great diversion, for they all do it. Besides fishing the poilus en repos trap foxes, hedgehogs, rabbits, and other animals and then train them. Over across the road in one of the courtyards are two of the cutest little foxes I have ever seen, which play around and are just like little collies until we show up, when they scamper off and get behind a box or a stove and blink at us. We tried to buy one of them, but the owners are too fond of them to let them go.
They all bathe, too, every day --- the poilus. We go in with them, the mules, and the horses. Probably somewhere else in the same river the Boches are bathing. Such is life. We are extremely lucky to get a chance to wash at all and I'm afraid when we move from here --- for we shall soon be moved to poste duty --- we shan't have the comforts we are now enjoying.
I'll write again soon, but now I'm going to bed, --- that is, roll up in my blankets on my stretcher, for there is an early call for to-morrow morning, which means getting your machines over to the château at six o'clock, all ready for the day's work. It's great fun and I am awfully glad to be here. Moreover, there is a satisfaction in knowing that you are helping and that the French are very appreciative, from the poilu up to the highest officers.
CHARLES BAIRD, JR.*
*Of New York; Harvard, '11 ; served in both Sections Two and Three; the above extracts are from letters.
Petit-Monthairon, July 23, 1916
HERE we are in this quiet little French village. We move something over a hundred sick and wounded men a day from one hospital to another, or to the hospital trains that take them out of the military zone. I don't find the occupation trying. The men we carry have had hospital treatment and most of them are not in extreme pain; a fact that makes it easier for the drivers when the road is rough, as it generally is. The road service, however, is really excellent. Gangs of men are breaking stones all the time and steam-rollers crushing the stones into smooth hard highways. But the traffic is so enormous that it's only a week or two before the road is worn into little ridges, much like the waves in Florentine paintings.
The dust makes an added complication in driving. A convoy of camions raises a cloud of dust through which you can't see for five minutes after they have passed. This slows us up, for it makes it dangerous to cut around slow-moving vehicles. Even on your own side of the road you are n't entirely safe. To-day I was running along when out of the dust, perhaps twenty feet in front of me, I saw the radiator of a truck. Legally, I would have been justified in keeping on; but he was shut in by a forage convoy; so I did n't stay to argue the matter, but took to the fields, blessing the lightness of my car which made it possible for me to negotiate a pile of road material and a cultivated field.
I am getting quite blasé to the sights of the road, --- paying little attention to ammunition trains or soldiers on the march; but I still slow down when an aeroplane rises near me or when a fair-sized bunch of German prisoners go by.
WENT up to my poste de secours with my orderly. It was a mean night, gray and dark. We started early so as to get a little twilight and ran about a mile. Then I heard the whistle of a punctured tire. By the time we had that fixed it was really dark. Nevertheless we went the next mile to the central poste (Jouy) without trouble. Here we waited.
It is a dull place ---a little tiny village, headquarters for our division; after eight-thirty, no lights allowed in the streets or showing from the windows. One of our cars is always there on piquet duty. The two drivers of this car were playing checkers inside their ambulance by candle light. We watched them for awhile, then we went into the poste, which is merely a recording and telephone centre. The sergeant on duty sat at a desk reading a French novel. Another man was at one end of a bench with "Alice in Wonderland." He did n't do it from choice, he explained, but because he could n't find any other book in camp which he did n't know through and through. I sat on the other end of the bench and did exercises in French subjunctives.
A little after midnight a 'phone call for a car at Esnes came in. We were rather hoping it wouldn't, for it had begun to rain very hard outside, and it was impossible to see your hand before your face. However, we went out and got started. It was n't so terribly hard, though our eyes ached from the strain of constantly trying to see what we could n't possibly see. But we got along up the hill and along the level, passing innumerable artillery teams. It was hard to make out the road here and I was glad when I saw a gleam of light ahead and heard the clink of harness. I thought it was a driver lighting his pipe and steered for the light. In a minute my companion yelled and jumped; and my right wheel dropped down. I had run over a wall at the side of the road and my front axle was resting on the ground and the whole car was so canted that there seemed every chance of its toppling over at any moment. On investigation I found that the light I had seen was by the edge of an artillery caisson which had gone all the way down the bank!
We could n't do much by ourselves, but some teamsters came along and joined us heartily as French soldiers always do. We were really too few for the job, but we lifted with all our might and actually did get the car back in the road again. So we once more drove on in the rain, creeping ahead at low speed, however. I remembered the road pretty well from the night before, and finally pulled into our poste (Esnes). Luckily our wounded were n't so badly off and were able to sit up. We started back, passing long lines of soldiers returning from the trenches, who were very spooky in the black. But a minute or so later my right wheel dropped into a shell-hole where a big obus had just exploded. I was glad there were plenty of soldiers at hand. All of these who could find fingerhold lifted and the car pulled out. It seemed incredible but nothing was broken.
We got along slowly after that without accident. About two miles from the poste central it began to rain torrents and we could see nothing. It took real resolution to push on. I've seldom been so relieved over anything as when we made out dimly the houses of the village. From there on to the sorting hospital (Claires Chesnes) we could use lights and my one flickering gas burner seemed fairly to blaze. It had taken us three hours to do twenty miles.
I WENT up and got three men with no more trouble than dropping both rear wheels in a shell-hole as I turned around; but I got some poilus to push me out and returned to headquarters about 2 A.M. However, I had n't much more than gone to sleep before there was a 'phone call for Marre, which, is a long way over dark and lonely roads. I wallowed through a number of shallow shell-holes, turning over one spring-hanger thus pushing the body against one wheel and creating a contact brake, bad for the tire. Leaving the poste I dropped two wheels into a shell-hole and had to get my blessés out and have them help push. About halfway to the poste I ran out of gas. I put in a gallon from my reserve, and when I had got it in, found from the smell that it was kerosene. We were not far from a French battery and the road was fairly pock-marked with shell-holes; so, although there were no shells coming in at the time, I thought it better not to stay there, and ran on on the kerosene. You can do it on low speed, apparently. I got down to headquarters absolutely dead tired. Now I am home again also dead tired.
I'VE seen any number of regiments on the march and never yet heard the men singing or the bands playing. In Paris this may seem a little cold and uninterested, but here where the real work is done it is wonderfully impressive --- suggestive of endless determination and reserve strength. Now, determination and reserve strength without hysteria is just what France is showing. I am the more struck with this because severe fighting is going on close to us and I have been in the midst of the wounded coming into the big evacuation hospital. There were n't enough ambulances to go around and great crowds, with bloody bandaged heads and arms, came in the big motor trucks that carry the soldiers up to the line. All last night I saw them coming in, grim and suffering and uncomplaining. It was one of the great uplifting experiences of my life. I have seen nothing to match it for sheer courage, moral as well as physical. There is n't the rawest, most provincial driver in our work who has n't expressed the most unqualified admiration for the French poilus. Certainly, as I looked at them last night, they seemed to me sane, entirely sane men, terribly brave and unbeatable.
The rumors are that the victory was impressive and that Fort Douaumont is ours again. It's a fine achievement if true; but that seems less important to me now than the spirit I've seen. Out here at the front one does n't worry about the French Army.
JOHN R. FISHER*
*Of Arlington, Vermont; Columbia; entered the Service in May, 1916, and a year later was put in charge of the organizing of the Field Service Training Camp at May-en-Multien. Later Mr. Fisher became Captain in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.
1. Leif Norman Barclay of New York City; killed in French Aviation, 1917
Section Two, con't
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