History of the
American Field Service in France
"FRIENDS OF FRANCE", 1914-1917, TOLD BY ITS MEMBERS
Mittlach, December 1, 1915
THE other night, just as I was going to crawl in, three blessés arrived from the trenches, and another was down the road in a farmhouse waiting for the Médecin Chef; he was too badly wounded to go farther. They asked me to take the men to the hospital at Krüth, which is back over the mountains twenty miles. I dressed again --- I hated to because it was warm in the little log shack and it had begun to rain outside. I lit my lantern, and went out to the shelter where the cars were, got my tank filled with gas, and my lights ready to burn when I could use them. It was so black one could see nothing. We put two of the blesses on stretchers and pushed them slowly into the back of the car; the other sat in front with me. This we did under the protection of the hill where the poste de secours is located. When one goes fifty yards on the road beyond the station, there is a valley, narrow but clear, which is in full view of the trenches, and going and coming, it is necessary to pass over this road. In the daytime one cannot be seen, because the French have put up a row of evergreens along it which hides the road. I started and proceeded very carefully, keeping my lantern under a blanket, and we soon arrived at the house where the other blessé was waiting for the doctor. It was a little old Alsatian farmhouse. I pushed in the door and stepped down into the flagstone kitchen. On the floor lay the chasseur on a stretcher, his face pale under the lamplight from the table. The Médecin Chef was bending over him injecting tetanus anti-toxin into his side, and with each punch of the needle the poor fellow, already suffering from terrible wounds, would squirm, but not utter a word. The soldiers stood around the tiny room, their heads almost touching the brown rafters above. We took the man out to my car on the stretcher, carrying the light under the coat of one of the stretcher-bearers; for if the Germans see a light moving anywhere in French territory, they will fire on it if they think it near enough. I started up the mountain with my load of wounded. On either side of the road the French guns at certain places pounded out their greetings to the Boches; the concussion shook the road so that I could feel it in my car. I could light my lights after about a mile; so I proceeded slowly up the mountain in low speed while the heat from my motor kept the blessés and myself warm. About halfway up, we ran into the clouds, and it became so foggy one could scarcely see; farther up it became colder and began to snow. I had no chains on my car, and it worried me to be without them, especially with three helpless men inside and one out. However, I kept climbing up, and the higher I went the more it snowed and the harder it blew. Near the top it became veritably blinding --- snow, sleet, and wind --- a typical northeasterly American blizzard. The little car ploughed on bravely; it stuck only once on a sharp turn, and after backing I was able to get on by rushing it. But I could not see the road, the sleet was blowing so into my face and the snow was so thick. At last, however, I reached the summit where the wind was strong enough at one time actually to lift my car a little. On one side of the road was a high embankment and on the other a ravine sloping down at least a thousand feet. I was scared to death, for without chains we were liable to skid and plunge down this depth. The snow had been falling all day, and in places had drifted over a yard deep. Twice I took a level stretch to be the road, but discovered my mistake in time to back up. The third time was more serious --- I plunged ahead through a drift which I thought was the road, and finally I stuck and could move neither way. I could not leave these men there all night wounded, and the blizzard did not stop, so the only thing to do was to find help. I walked back to what I thought was the road and kept on towards a slight, glimmering light I could see at a distance. It turned out to be an enclosure for the mules which haul ammunition over the mountains; and I felt better again, for I knew there were a lot of territorial soldiers with them. I pulled them out of bed; it was then 10.30. They came with me and pushed me back on the road, also pushed me along --- ten of them --- until they got me on the descent, and from there on the weight of my car carried me down through the drifts. I arrived at the hospital at 12.30, the happiest man one ever saw to get those poor fellows there safely.
I WAS sent back to Mittlach the next day to get four more wounded. They were assis, not couchés, fortunately, for the snow on top of Trehkopf had been falling and drifting all day and night and rolling was not easy. When I got to the top of the mountain and started down, I found the roads had been broken and beaten down by munition wagons and were like a sheet of ice. I started down without chains, when the car, though all my brakes were on, began to slide slowly down the road. It even slid toward the edge of the ravine until the two front wheels went over; but there, fortunately, it stopped, and I got it back on the road again. I then turned the radiator into the bank on the other side and tried tying rags on the rear wheels to keep the car from sliding. Then a big wagon with four horses came behind me down the hill, which was so slippery at this spot that the horses began to slide down on their haunches, and the driver, even with brakes on, could not stop them. The horses came on faster, and faster, slid into the rear of my car, pushed it along for about six feet, and then nothing could stop it. It, too, started down the road going faster and faster. I yelled to the wounded to jump. They understood my poor French and piled out just in time, for the car ran across the road and plunged down into the ravine. There was a lot of snow on the side of the ravine, which had piled up in such a way that the car was stopped part-way down so that it was not injured very much, though it took nine men and as many mules to pull it out.
LUKE C. DOYLE*
*Of Worcester, Massachusetts; Yale, '09; in the Service during part of 1915 and 1916; Captain and later Major in U.S.A. Sanitary Corps.
December 31, 1915
SOME little time ago we received our first taste of winter, and my first experience made me put more faith in the rumors of larger falls of snow here than an American likes to concede to any country but his own.
The car I was to relieve got a trip late one night in what was, even at Mittlach, a terrific rainstorm. The next morning it continued raining, but I could see the peaks of the mountains covered with snow. Late in the afternoon, just after dark, the familiar sound of a Ford brought me out of the poste de secours, and I found Rice, with his car covered with snow which even the rain had n't yet melted. His story was of helping the car I had relieved, and of having worked all morning, in their efforts to pull it back on the road from which a heavy ammunition wagon had pushed it, neither vehicle being able to stick to the icy road. Farther on, he had met continual snowdrifts. His eagerness to bring me chains, my only chance of getting up, persuaded him to keep on, and he eventually got through with everybody's help on the road. We decided to wait until the storm was over --- our only alternative --and proceeded to make ourselves as comfortable as we could, which means a stove, somewhere to sleep, and plenty of books to read and tobacco to smoke. It was four days before the snow let up and we had visions of a long and lonely winter; but as soon as the storm broke we started up, and, as it proved, in the nick of time, as the five kilometres along the crest were again swept by snow and sleet and drifts were beginning to form. The Mittlach service had to be abandoned after this, although in late November and early December a car could go through, but it was impossible to assure the service and it was found better to have sleighs and wagons do the work.
*Of New York City; Harvard,'10; joined Section Three in 1915 in Alsace; later adjoint at Headquarters to Mr. Andrew, and second in command of Service; first a Captain, then a Major in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service, when the United States took over and continued the Service.
WE left Alsace one morning early in February, 1916, when the valleys were filled with tinted mist and the snowy hill slopes were glowing pink with sunrise, and we hated to leave. We still look back upon it as the Promised Land. We formed a convoy of twenty-three cars, in which 170 was placed immediately behind the leader, an arrangement to which twenty-one persons objected. Every time the side-boxes came open and the extra tins of gasoline scattered over the landscape, or when the engine stopped through lack of sympathy with the engineer, three or four cars would manage to slip by. It was a sort of progressive-euchre party in which 170 never held a winning hand.
No one concerned had the least idea whither we were headed. The first night we spent at Rupt, where there is an automobile park. We took it on hearsay that there was an automobile park, for we left the next morning without having seen it; but when two days later we joined the Twentieth Army Corps --- " the Fighting Twentieth" --- at Moyen, we were reported as coming straight from the automobile park at Rupt. Consequently we were assumed to be ready for indefinite service "to the last button of the last uniform," but when we had explained that mechanically speaking our last uniform was on its last button the Fighting Twentieth shook us off.
We spent a week at Moyen however --- in it up to our knees. The surrounding country was dry and almost dusty; but Moyen has an atmosphere of its own and local color --- and the streets are not clean. Yet to most of us the stay was intensely interesting. At that time it lay just back of the high-water mark of German invasion, and the little villages and towns roundabout looked like the broken wreckage tossed up by the tide --- long streets of roofless, blackened ruins, and in the midst the empty skeleton of a church, whose tower had been pierced by shells, and with the broken chimes blocking the entrance. Nothing had been done to alter or disguise the marks of invasion, The fields surrounding Moyen were pitted with shell-craters, which had a suggestive way of lining the open roads, along whose edges were rifle-pits and shallow trenches filled with a litter of cartridge-boxes and bits of trampled uniform and accoutrements, blue and red, or greenish-gray, mixed together; and always and everywhere the long grave-mounds with the little wooden crosses which are a sadly familiar feature of every landscape on the Western Front. The Moyen region lacked, perhaps, the bald, grim cruelty of Hartmannsweilerkopf, but it is a place not to be forgotten.
From Moyen we moved on to Tantonville, a place not lacking in material comforts, but totally devoid of soul; and from there we made our round of postes --- of one, two, or four cars, and for two, four, or eight days. At some postes, the work was fairly constant, carrying the sick and second-hand wounded from poste to hospital and from hospital to railroad; in others, one struggled against mental and physical decay.
At Oeleville, we saw the class of 1916 called out --- brave, cheerful-looking boys, standing very straight at attention as their officers passed down the line, and later, as we passed them on the march, cheering loudly for "les américains" -and so marching on to the open lid of hell at Verdun. The roads were filled with soldiers, and every day and all day the troop-trains were rumbling by to the north; and day after day and week after week the northern horizon echoed with the steady thunder of artillery. Sometimes, lying awake in the stillness of dawn to listen, one could not count the separate explosions, so closely did they follow each other. The old man who used to open the railway gate for me at Dombasle would shake his head and say that we ought to be up at Verdun, and once a soldier beside him, told him that we were neutrals and not supposed to be sent under fire. I heard that suggestion several times made, and one of our men used to carry in his pocket a photograph of poor Hall's car to refute it.
THERE was a momentary thrill of interest when a call came for four cars to Baccarat --- a new poste and almost on the front, where was an English section in need of assistance; and we four who went intended to "show them how." But it seemed that the call had come too late and the pressing need was over --- the last batch of German prisoners had been brought in the day before and the active fighting had ceased. We stepped into the long wooden cabin where they waited --- the German wounded --- and they struggled up to salute --- a more pitiful, undersized, weak-chested, and woe-begone set of human derelicts I hope never to see again in uniform; and as we stood among them in our strong, warm clothes, for it was snowing outside, all of us over six feet tall, I felt suddenly uncomfortable and ashamed.
Once we were startled at lunch-time, while we were eating the rarity of blood sausage, by an explosion near the edge of town, when three of us stepped to the door, but the fourth man kept his seat to help himself from the next man's plate, a striking example of coolness under fire. As we looked out there came a second explosion a little farther off, and then in a few moments a telephone call for an ambulance, with the news that a Taube had struck a train. When I reached the place, the train had gone on, carrying ten slightly wounded to Lunéville, while I brought back the other two on stretchers --- one a civilian struck in a dozen places, but otherwise apparently in excellent health and spirits; the other, a. soldier in pretty bad shape. It must have been excellent marksmanship for the Taube, since we had seen nothing in the clear blue sky overhead nor heard the characteristic whirr of the motor, and yet both shell-craters were very close to the tracks.
In Alsace these Taubes were constantly in sight, but seldom attacked and almost never scored a hit, while the French gunners seemed perfectly happy to fire shrapnel at them all the afternoon with the same indecisive result. One could not even take the white shrapnel clouds as a point of departure in looking for the aeroplane, though the French artillery is very justly famous for its accuracy of fire. In this instance, as in all air raids, the success scored seemed pitifully futile, for it was not a military train, and most of the wounded were non-combatants, while it added its little unnecessary mite of suffering, and of hatred to the vast monument which Germany has reared to herself and by which she will always be remembered.
WALTER KERR RAINSFORD*
*Of Ridgefield, Connecticut; Harvard, '04; in the Field Service during the greater part of 1916; subsequently Captain in Infantry, U.S.A.
OUR journey from the Lorraine front carried us to a small village where was quartered the État-Major and which was situated directly on the main Verdun road. There was no mistaking our destination now. The first impressions in that village will always be clear and distinct. Here was the first evidence of the immensity and awfulness of a modern battle --- the Verdun road. The village itself was nothing; simply a spot through which passed the Verdun road. This was a broad street, and it well needed to be. It was rough, too, for the constant churning of the thousands of wheels that passed upon it destroyed any surface as fast as it could be made. Where were all these trucks with their loads of men and material going? To Verdun!
There they come now. First appears a squad of twenty, thirty, or fifty French trucks, loaded down with men; close upon them is another squad, larger even, of American Whites, said to have been captured by the British fleet on their way to Germany; then another squad of an Italian make; then a French make; then the Americans again; and so the never-ending line moves on. An ambulance slips by; the men are beginning to return already. Were we to be doing that soon? Now a staff car rushes on and another passes returning. A truck comes by bearing the compressed hydrogen for the many artillery observation balloons. And so this terrible traffic of the awful business of war pressed back and forth --- an almost unending stream. Such was the first impression of the Verdun road.
Our stay in the village was short. Two or three days passed and we were again on the move, stopping this time at a little town called Sousbrienne, well off from the main Verdun road. Here we waited five or six days to be sent up finally to near Nixéville, whence we did the work of removing the blessés back from the fight around Verdun. Our cars were parked on the slope of a small hill rising to the north of the village. A short walk brought one to the top of it, where could be distinctly heard the tremendous battle tune of the cannon, and at night the bright flashes of the larger guns would appear.
Across the hollow in which was built the town and on a level plateau was situated the aerial station, whence flew the battle planes to do the service about Verdun. This was real flying and made what we saw near Nancy seem nothing. All the machines here were of the fastest type and the pilots were in a class with Navarre. It was a wonderful sight to see three or four Nieuports swooping about in the air, looping the loop, or doing the leaf-drop or the war-hawk swoop. Like swallows they seemed, not only in numbers, but in dexterity. On one side we had these birds of war and their nest --- the aerodrome ---rising from just beyond the top of the hill; below us was the village full of soldiers; and beyond it the fields filled with wagons and horses, and to the right the same.
In front of us, up the hill, and to our right, lay Verdun and the immense area of fighting that was involved in the defence of it. Here was that steady sound of guns which, like the pounding of the sea, made one stop in awe to wonder why it is and whence come the great forces that drive it on. At times, as one questions how best to describe the one small chapter of the story of Verdun with which one is familiar, there comes a terrible feeling of disgust that any attempt should be made to put into words things that have been recorded already in the blood of some members of practically every family in France. It is a sacrilege to make the attempt, and any one who reads such efforts to describe this terrific struggle must remember that words do not count, but that the real story, the real evidence, is found only in the pain and suffering and loss of life of a nation's great.
THE first night of our service at Verdun began. Fifteen of our twenty cars "rolled" along the main Verdun road past the long line of camions, ammunition wagons, and soup kitchens; then into the city itself, through the ruins of the heavily shelled district and across the river to a small poste just in the outskirts of the town. All about us in this suburb of Verdun were batteries of "75" or "105 " or "220" guns, all firing at regular intervals up over the projecting cliff and upon the German positions beyond.
Occasionally the Germans sent an answering shell, and the men in the neighborhood would seek safety in the many abris close by. That night the Germans were making a gas attack, and they threw thousands of gas-shells upon the French trenches and beyond, to interfere with the ravitaillement. The gas reached us, and men not equipped with proper masks began to cough and choke and gag, and were sent deep into a cellar where the air was still fresh. The time for us to go to the advance poste and start bringing in the wounded arrived; but the road had been blocked by incendiary bombs which had set a house on fire. About an hour later this was cleared and we could begin our work. Happily also at about that time there was a severe thunderstorm, the breeze and rain of which cleared away the gas.
This road to the advance poste, Bras, ran along the side of the river a short distance, when it turned to the right off over the field, passing between a row of trees, then through a wood, and finally over the fields again until it reached Bras. Due to the blockade earlier in the evening, this road was covered with traffic of one sort and another, and it was difficult, terribly difficult sometimes, to get through, the darkness of the night and the need for haste making the danger of a smash-up exceedingly great. One French phrase will always remain in the vocabulary of the American ambulance drivers even if every other word of the language be forgotten. It is "à droite, à droite," which has saved men and machines many times.
ON arriving at Bras, a town of mines, we found a great number of wounded and men suffering from gas poisoning. It was terrible to see their eagerness to get back and farther back from the horrors they had left. Our work lasted till daylight, when it was impossible to pass over the road as it was in plain view of the Germans. Once daylight came, however, there yet remained the task of carrying to Verdun those wounded we had brought down from Bras, and from Verdun back inland again to the first stationary hospital. This work kept us "rolling" on till nine o'clock in the morning when other men took it up and completed it later in the day.
The next night there was no gas attack and we could begin our work promptly just after dark. But while we did n't have the terror of the gas, we were made to realize the terror of the shrapnel shells and high-explosives. One of our drivers had the front of his car broken open and two men were killed beside it, while he just saved himself by sliding under the car when he heard the whistle. Another man had a shrapnel bullet pierce his purse and stop; and another was bruised in the ankle by a stone driven by the near-by explosion of a shell. The cars, with the one exception just mentioned, were untouched, and the work went on till daybreak made it too dangerous to stay, when began the work of carrying the wounded, gas-poisoned, and burnt, back from Verdun.
The next night was much the same thing as the previous one; but as it is fairly representative, it is well to consider it in detail. The first man goes at about 9.30; then another, followed by two more. The first man returns and reports lots of wounded, shelling of the road, and much traffic passing out. Five other men go. They meet first some loose horses and then a man riding a horse at a gallop back toward us. A shriek, à droite, just keeps him from running into the cars, and as he passes he cries out in turn, "Tir de barrage." We soon come to a block of long lines of traffic, and are told we can't go farther. But by dint of much urging and squeezing, we finally reach the head of the line, where we find a terrible mix-up of dead and dying horses and men. Then begins the tir de barrage again, and the shrill whistle of an approaching shell gives warning that it is coming to kill. We crouch low, hoping nothing may happen. Then comes another and another, and one close enough to cause the rattle of pebbles about us; but the others are wild shots. Now they cease and for the moment we thank God for the darkness that hides us and the immense crowd of wagons about us from the eyes of the Germans.
Then some one takes a chance, finds there is room to pass in the ditch at the side of the road, and the block gradually clears. We are able now to move on, after removing the body of the man just ahead of us, and at last succeed in arriving at Bras. One of the five, however, remains behind to pick up the wounded from about the road. If luck had been with us we could have got a load and returned; but we are compelled to wait, and while we wait some German shells begin to find the town and we go to the cellar. A rattle of éclats and stones tells of one near shot. But now we can get our wounded and we start back, picking our way carefully about some of the large shell-holes that fill the roads in the town.
We roll on, but only to be stopped farther down by another block. This time we stay where we are, waiting for the block to be cleared, while the air is alive above us with the passing shells, both French and German. Beside us in the fields near the roads, batteries are going off at regular intervals. Far off to the right in the direction of Mort Homme, a terrific bombardment is on and the whole horizon is a line of flashing lights. Back of us are rising and falling German and French star-bombs which throw a light that to us seems enough to disclose our whereabouts.
The block clears, and we pass on and come without hindrance to the top of a long hill that leads down into the valley where lies Verdun. Below us is booming forth a series of sounds from the "105" French battery, and it seems as if the shells must graze us as they pass on toward their goal among the Germans. It is but a short distance then to the poste in Verdun, and we discharge our wounded to start on a second trip which repeats with little variation the experiences of the first. Then comes a third, and for one or two men, a fourth.
The next night the same things were repeated in varying degrees. Perhaps that night you did n't have the frightful tir de barrage, but you had a narrow escape from being smashed by an artillery wagon coming full tilt past the quarry which was often a mark for the German shells. Perhaps you had some frightful moments when, listening to the pleas of the wounded and nerve-shattered men along the road, you took a heavier load than a Ford could stand and then found yourself rocking and rolling and smashing through some deep shell-holes you had forgotten, amid the cries of the frightened wounded. Perhaps that night your machine was caught and held by tangled barbed wire and you had to be cut free. These were all part of some man's experiences if not the experiences of all of us.
Such in brief and very imperfect outline were some of the things we did and felt and saw during the eight terrible days of strain at Verdun; and when the moment came for our release, it was like casting off great weights of lead. But if the strain upon us, who really could not have seen more than a small part of the horror of this struggle, was so great, what must be said of the endurance and suffering of the soldiers who saw it all and endured it all?
*Of Charleston, South Carolina; University of Virginia; entered the Field Service in April, 1916, and served for nine months; later Captain, U.S.A. Sanitary Corps.
I HAVE noticed that French soldiers everywhere are most eager to talk and make friends with us Americans, and they are the most sympathetic, appreciative, and generous people I have ever known. They often run across the street just to shake hands with us or say a word or two, and invite us to have a glass of wine with them which they in their unbounded generosity always want to pay for. It hurts me to see them reach down into their jeans for their meagre change, and I can never allow them to treat me out of their small and hard-earned savings. Whatever they have, however, is yours if you want it.
Ligny, June 10, 1916
AS I was walking through the town to-day a French soldier called to me from across the street and said he had a present he wished to give me. He then produced from his pocket an English copy of "Robinson Crusoe," which in his simple and unconventional way he presented to me, after writing his name and a few words in the front of it --- a perfect example of the genuineness of the French spirit.
Condé, Monday, June 12
YESTERDAY dawned with heavy rain. I packed up my regular load of section material, which is allotted to me to carry from place to place as we travel, and we proceeded to Bar-le-Duc once more on our way to Verdun. We stopped there to eat, and after lunch we went on farther to the little town of Condé, recalling the Duke of Condé, and drew up our machines in a barnyard. I noticed that the lady at the farmhouse by which we had stopped was crying. At first we thought it was because she did not like us to stop on her premises; but we soon learned that she had more reason than that for her grief, for she had just received a letter saying that her only son had been killed on the battle-field. She recovered her composure soon, however, and extended rare hospitality to us. Wonderful people are the French!
It has rained here for more than a week, and the old story is certainly an apt one --- when a soldier walks in French mud and lifts up one foot, he is sure all of France is clinging to it, but finds he is mistaken, for when he lifts the other, he discovers that half of France is there! Here we see long files of troops going to and returning from the front.
LATE this afternoon Mr. Hill asked a few of us if we wanted to accompany him and the French Lieutenant on a trip to our future working-ground. We were eager to go, and taking our gas-masks with us and putting on our iron derbies, we set off. I was in the French Lieutenant's car --- a Berliet ---and here began what proved to be the most interesting four hours that I have had since I joined the American Field Service. We took a "switch road" to Verdun, getting onto the main road when we were halfway there. It was twilight and the countryside with the setting sun glow on it was beautiful. On the hillsides could be seen the French encampments and hospitals, and over the roads ---we were continually in sight of two besides the one we were on --- were passing constant streams of traffic to and from Verdun. Ahead of us and at the right could be seen continual flashes of light which grew brighter and brighter, and the cannonading grew louder and louder as we neared the trenches.
Passing through the outskirts of the city we came to the ancient walls, gateways, and moat of Verdun, and once in Verdun the sight was like a three-ringed circus, so many things claiming one's notice at a time that it was hard to determine just where to fix one's attention.
Verdun was absolutely deserted and in complete ruin; I saw no stores and but a few walls were left standing. Débris was piled so high on both sides of the road and took up so much space that there was only enough room left for one machine to pass at a time. There was not a light to be seen in the town, and no horns or klaxons were supposed to be used. Shells shot by us over our heads, but so near that the noise was deafening.
We finally drew up at an American Field Service poste in Verdun, where I saw the first signs of life anywhere. Here we met the American boys who had been doing the work we were about to begin. There were twelve of them who had had five days of it and were to leave in the morning. Each ambulance section is assigned to an army division, follows it to the front, and when it leaves, the ambulance section leaves also. The division sometimes stays until about forty per cent have been killed or wounded. During the past five days fourteen of their ambulance cars have been hit by shells or scattering fragments; two of the twelve men have been wounded, and I was not surprised to find them rather glad to get away from the lines.
THE road from Verdun to Bras is dangerous, filled as it is with deep shell-holes, and it leads along a very difficult way. There is a choice of two roads to Bras; but one was under constant fire, so we were forced to take the other, proceeding along this road up to the very top of a steep cliff, below which are the French guns and beyond which are the trenches. It was at this point that we heard explosions the din of which more than doubly eclipsed anything we had previously heard. They were simply tremendous. We were at that point which is the very muzzle of some big French guns, and because the Germans are most anxious to get the "battery," they direct their heaviest firing against it. We had to go as fast as we could in order to escape the shells, and yet we had to go cautiously enough to avoid the terrible holes in the road, some of which were five or six feet deep and as big as the machine itself. I was almost hurled from the back to the front seat of the machine when Mr. Hill, going twelve miles an hour, hit one of these holes. We got out of it soon, however, and approached a bridge, about the only bridge that the Germans have not taken in that locality, and they want that badly. It was under intermittent fire all the time, and we were supposed to stop if shelling were going on and wait for it to cease. All along the roadside was a deep trench into which we could go if the shelling became too severe. We soon approached Bras, where great rockets kept flashing out green, yellow, and red star-bombs, lighting up the sky and exposing the enemy's trenches.
Bras is simply a ruined village. At one spot just off the field of, battle is a sort of first-aid station to which the stretcher-bearers carry the wounded from the field. If anything can be done to ease temporarily their suffering, they are taken at once down into the cellar and treated. It is there that we are to get our blessés, and from there we are to take them back to the poste at Verdun. Every trip from Bras to Verdun has to be made between the hours of 9 P.M. and 2 A.M. No traffic goes over that road in daylight. The week before our arrival, an ambulance had been sent out during the daytime and as a result was shelled and hit twice. After treatment at the Verdun poste, the wounded are taken in daylight to Baleycourt beyond Verdun and put in the rear hospitals. It is at Baleycourt that our encampment is to be. There is a cellar at the Verdun poste where the boys can catch a wink of sleep, if possible, between trips.
Baleycourt, June 24
As per order we left promptly at 8.30 yesterday for Verdun. The camp which is to be our eating and sleeping place is in this little town of Baleycourt, about seven miles from Verdun. We pulled up here in the usual fashion, our ambulances lined up straight before the camp, and pitched our tent, in which we set the beds which we have carried all the way from Nancy. It was very hot, and being one of the first to arrive I pushed my cot up into the comer by the door so as to get plenty of air. Whenever we pitch camp, it always reminds me of a Western land-lottery in our own country. Every one rushes into the tent with some of his possessions --- suitcase, bag, or bed --- and flings them down in a desirable place, so that, later, his chosen spot is claimed by prior right of possession.
BEFORE going to bed last night I learned that I was to be on duty for the twenty-four-hour stretch to-day, and I went to sleep anticipating some new experiences, especially as the men sent out the night before had run into a heavy gas attack and had come back with their eyes inflamed, paining terribly, and their lungs choked up. I was called to work at seven this morning, and made the trip to the hospital at Baleycourt for a load of wounded whom I evacuated to Queue-de-Mala farther back. I had no sooner returned to camp than Clark suggested that I had better help him evacuate the wounded from Verdun, as that job was getting ahead of him. I accordingly started for Verdun, entered by the wrong gate, and was completely lost for some time. This is no fun, getting lost in Verdun, for there is scarcely a man to be seen on the streets, and if by chance you do see one, he is sure to be on the run to the nearest cellar. People know better than to promenade in Verdun! I finally got my bearings, and after getting some horribly wounded men, I returned to our poste, after which I made several of these trips. Often I would notice fresh shell-holes in the road, which had to be filled in, and quantities of débris, which had to be cleared away, before I could proceed, so narrow was the way. Occasionally a dead horse had to be put aside from the road. During one trip two of the poor fellows I had in my ambulance died before arriving at the hospital, and as the attendants took another out of the car they noticed that he looked deathly white and lifeless, when one of them said, "He is dead, is n't he?" "Yes, he is dead," replied the other as they proceeded to leave him; but the wretched soldier spoke up for himself at this point, and said feebly, "No, I am not dead," and so they carried him in with the others.
IT was six o'clock yesterday before I lay off for supper and a general fixing-up of my car for the evening work. When the time came for us to set out, we left in pairs at intervals of five minutes. Munroe and I started out together, and here began for me one of the worst nights I have ever experienced. We arrived at our poste at Verdun all right, and in half an hour we went on toward the Croix-de-Fer, which is two thirds of the way to Bras, to get the wounded there. I started back before Munroe was ready, with five wounded in my machine. Driving on a dark night over a narrow road full of shell-holes with five wounded mortals is bad enough, but when in addition to this it rains pitchforks and lightning flashes continually, it is much worse. The lightning absolutely blinded me so that I could not see an inch of the road, while all the time passing on both sides of me were great streams of infantry, cavalry, carts, and trucks; consequently many were the collisions and scrapings that night. We were never allowed to use our horns, and would press on desperately until, hitting some one, we would back up, get out of the mess, and start on again.
Finally, I reached my destination) filled my car with injured soldiers, and started back. Nearing Verdun I missed the road I was supposed to turn in on and lost my way entirely. Lost in the dead of night between Verdun and the trenches, my ambulance full of wounded men, I was desperate. I drove my car back and forth, in and out, in great confusion of mind, into all sorts of places. Failing to find the right way, I at last gave up in despair and decided to wait until it began to grow a little lighter, although I knew that this would be a dangerous thing to do. Then I thought of the poor fellows in my car and decided I must devise some way of getting them back. It at last occurred to me, if I could discover the railroad station in Verdun, I could, since I knew the location of that place, find my way onto the road I usually took. This I decided to do even though it was quite a distance out of the way; and after inquiring of several men who did n't seem to understand what I was trying to get at, I got one of the less injured soldiers in my ambulance to get information in French from one of them and in turn direct me how to go. In this way, although I was side-tracked several times, I made my way towards the railroad station. Before reaching it, however, I came, by accident, upon the old familiar road and made my way straight to our poste. When I arrived there I was in a state of nervous exhaustion.
In the French Military Hospital, Vadelaincourt
ABOUT four o'clock on the afternoon of June 30, we were all seated around our camp when we heard shells dropping within a mile of us and learned that our large front hospital was being shelled. Our work was to carry wounded from this hospital to one farther back, which was not so likely to be shelled. After leaving Vadelaincourt, I started out for Verdun at 8.45, and at 10 o'clock Dawson and I got orders to go to Bras. Before we started, Dawson said, "Barber, if we get into very thick fire, just stop and we will get under our cars and wait until it is over." I agreed and we started off. The night was very cloudy and the darkness was intensified by the heavy overhanging foliage of the trees. Everything went as well as ever at first, and I arrived at Bras before Dawson. I loaded three blessés into my ambulance and started back to Verdun.
I passed Dawson's car not far out, grimly standing by the roadside en panne. I had not gone far from Bras when the shelling became very heavy. I climbed out of my car, and after instructing the wounded soldier with whom I was sharing my seat to get under the car, I did so myself. We stayed there ten or fifteen minutes until shells began to explode back of us, and I thought it would be better for us to jump into the machine and make a dash for Verdun before another volley of shells was sent ahead of us.
I got out from under the car and walked around to the front of it. This, however, is where I made my fatal mistake, for no sooner had I left the protection of the machine than I recognized the shrill whistle and swish of what seemed to me to be the largest obus that I had ever heard. The loudness of the noise was probably caused by the nearness of the shell. I had stooped in front of the car's radiator to gain its protection and when the shell exploded, I saw for an instant a great band of flame around my stomach and for the moment I thought surely the end had come. I noticed that my car was ruined. The rear was completely demolished and every one of my three wounded men killed. Recovering a little from my dazed condition, I distinctly remember trying out my various faculties. I found out that I could still breathe, with difficulty, however, for every respiration hurt my lungs; I tried to walk and succeeded, with pain, however; I could see with both eyes and could swallow, and I still had my two arms.
At this point I began to feel a sharp, stinging sensation all over my body, became very weak and could only stagger along. I was in great pain. It was agony to breathe. My legs and back hurt, and I reasoned out that I must have been struck by pieces of shell in numerous parts of my body. I struggled along a few yards on the road and then fell prostrate. I thought if I could only get back to Verdun some way, I could be fixed up. As I lay there on the road helpless, it occurred to me that when the next ambulance came along I could call out the name of one of the drivers, get in an English word or two, and perhaps thus attract his attention. In about fifteen minutes one loomed in sight, coming down the road with great speed, whereupon I yelled out the first name I thought of, that of a boy in our Section, "Tison, Tison!" The scheme worked, and although Wheeler was driving he pulled up with "What's the matter here?" A soldier whom I had spoken to explained to Wheeler the situation, and I called to him from the other side of the road where I lay under a soup cart. When he found out that I was hurt, he jumped out of his car and helped me over to it. The shelling was continuing very heavily, and I thought we had better get under his car until it subsided a bit. We stayed under the car for a few minutes, but Wheeler finally dragged me out and placed me on the floor of the front seat of his ambulance. He was already sharing his seat with one wounded soldier, and another fellow, who was eager to be taken back to Verdun, climbed onto the car, too. Wheeler told him to get off, but he insisted that he would be needed to hold me on, which he did all the way back. This made seven in the car already, and in the excitement of the moment another had jumped onto the other side of the machine. In a hurry to get me to Verdun, Wheeler with his load went at top speed over a dark, muddy, thickly travelled road. It was a masterpiece of driving. I was by this time very weak; but we had come upon Bluethenthal,(1) who gave me water from his canteen, which revived me somewhat. Wheeler, intent upon getting me to Verdun as quickly as possible, got out of his car at the bridge over the canal, ran across, and succeeded in getting some passing troops to stop long enough for us to go over, so that we finally got through the gates of Verdun and drew up at our poste. There I was taken in, injected for lockjaw and my wounds bound up a bit, when it was found that I was hurt in over twenty-five places. Later at the Vadelaincourt Hospital I was laid on the operating-table and chloroformed, which was all I knew until I awoke the next morning, bound up in bandages, in a long room with a row of cots on each side.
THEN followed three or four of the most uncomfortable days I have ever spent. I was comfortable in no position, my body paining me on all sides, and the ringing in my ears continuing. For three days I was not allowed to eat or drink. Some French officers came into the hospital a few days later, inquired for me, came up to my bed, said a lot in French which I did not understand; this much, however, I did get: "In the name of the French Republic, we have the honor to confer upon you, as a reward for your services, the Médaille Militaire" --- which they then and there pinned on my nightshirt, shook hands with me, and departed. This was quite a compliment, although I could not feel that I deserved such a distinction, since I had done no more than the other boys. Some of them came in to see me every day, and General Pétain, commander of the army of Verdun, visited the ward and shook hands with me.
At my second operation the surgeon took out of me a piece of my Ford radiator as big as the end of my middle finger. My radiator always had given me trouble! Some of the boys who came to see me brought with them a handful of shots which they had taken out of my car the day after I was wounded, and said they could have brought me a basketful. Every once in a while, little pieces of shell would be removed from my body, but I had no more serious operations.
The ambulance I had been driving was given by Mr. and Mrs. Allston Burr, of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, in memory of their nephew, Francis Hardon Burr, and as soon as they learned that it had been demolished, they immediately replaced it by a new one.
When I began looking around me in the hospital, I recognized several blessés whom I had carried in my ambulance on previous days. I spent a peculiar Fourth of July, the only feature of it for me being a small American flag which my nurse gave me and which I stuck on the wall by my bed.. In the evening, an American from Section Four came in to see me and brought me a bottle of champagne and a sack of apricots. He was the cheeriest fellow I ever met, and though he stayed but five minutes with me, the spirit he put into me remained with me for the rest of the night. Balsley, the American aviator who was seriously injured in his encounter with three German airplanes at once, was in the same hospital. He wrote me a very friendly note and sent me some of his magazines to read, and I sent him in return a London newspaper giving details of his own experiences and those of Chapman, who was on his way to get oranges for Balsley when he was killed by a German shell. I had not been long in the hospital at Vadelaincourt before the Section, in which I had been, moved back to Ligny, and though I missed their coming in to see me, I was glad for their sakes that the dangerous part of their work was over for a while at least.
WILLIAM M. BARBER*
*Of Toledo, Ohio; Oberlin, '19; left college May, 1916, for ambulance work in France; was severely wounded during his first month at the front and invalided home; received the Médaille Militaire. In 1918 became an aspirant in French artillery.
June 22, 1916
TWELVE of our men were out last night on the Bras service and struck the edge of a gas attack. One of them gave me a cigarette this morning from the case he had carried, but it reeked so of gas that I couldn't smoke it. The air here was tainted with gas all the morning, but whether from the patients or from the occasional shell that struck in the woods above, I could not tell. The gas patients are in a terrible state, those less affected coughing and choking continually; but the others are far beyond that. Two of us took the less desperate cases on to the evacuation camp at Queue-de-Mala; the others went down the hill on stretchers --- uncovered, for treatment --- with blanketed face, for burial. After twelve hours' work and about ten trips apiece, we came in for supper, utterly unrecognizable in our masks of dust.
Bras, June 30
DURING the shelling of the road last night, I found myself repeating the chorus we had sung those long months ago in Mirecourt:
We shall have only one night more here. As I waited for my last load, sitting on the end of the sandbag wall, I looked about me. A pace inside the doorway rose the piled débris and wreckage of the house, and above it a weird perspective of broken beams and masonry against the morning stars. I wondered if I should ever return to walk in safety up these dark hills of fear. We are leaving to-morrow, and very soon I am leaving France --- leaving it with a fading memory of things unreal, and with a great gladness that in some slight way I have been able to bring a message of sympathy to her in her time of agony and travail.
WALTER KERR RAINSFORD(2)
Verdun, June, 1916
IT is an extraordinary and exhilarating feeling to be actually taking part in the greatest battle of history, in a front-row seat, so to speak. Those who declare that there is nothing picturesque about modern warfare are all off. It is gorgeous.
OUR run from Verdun to Bras was over a road which was shelled intermittently every night. Looking back on those ten days (we are now en repos), I feel that it was perfectly miraculous our getting away with only one man badly wounded. Half the cars have holes in them from éclats, two or three men were grazed by shrapnel, and one bullet actually lodged in Waldo Peirce's pocket-book in the most approved melodramatic manner.
The night after our arrival, the Germans launched a gas attack, which is about the most unpleasant thing imaginable. Fortunately, we had been equipped with gasmasks that really fitted and which were entirely effective; but it was impossible to see through them clearly enough to drive a car, so that when actually on the road we had to go without them. Most of the gas was of the "lacrimogène" variety, which merely makes your eyes run and your throat sting; but out toward Bras one got a whiff of the chlorine, which is fearful. Many of those whom we brought in overcome died soon after in horrible agony. We all noticed, as a curious after-effect of the gas, that for days afterwards cigarettes tasted like the most horrible sulphur fumes, and all liquor like powerful acid.
It is really an extraordinary experience to be right in the thick of the most acute stage of this terrific battle, where, second only to the wonderful fortitude of the French wounded, who are always magnificent, is the really heroic behavior of the brancardiers, who crawl out between the lines and carry in wounded on their backs. To me it seems that their work requires more real courage than any other branch of the service.
CHARLES R. CODMAN, JR.*
*Of Boston; Harvard, '15; member of the Field Service from March, 1915; subsequently entered the U.S. Aviation Service and was taken prisoner. These extracts are from home letters.
July 3, 1916
WE are back, far back of the lines, en repos, with the tattered remains of our French division. We have just come back from two weeks at Verdun and our cars are battered and broken beyond a year's ordinary service. It began strong. The first night I was off duty and missed out on one disagreeable experience --- a gas attack. One has to breathe through a little bag affair packed with layers of cloth and chemicals! The eyes are also protected with tight-fitting isinglass, which mists over and makes driving difficult. The road was not shelled that night, so things might have been worse.
The second night was my go. We rolled all night from the poste de secours back to the first sorting-station. The poste was in a little town with the Germans on three sides of the road and all in full view of them, which made daylight going impossible. The day work was evacuating from sorting-stations to field hospitals. There our work stopped. English and French sections worked from there back to the base hospitals. The road ran out through fields and a little stretch of woods, with French batteries situated on both sides the entire way, which drew the fire. Four trips between dusk and dawn were the most possible. The noise of French fire was terrifying until we learned to distinguish it from the German arrivées. It is important to know the difference, and one soon learns. The départ is a sharp bark and then the whistle diminishing. The arrivées come in with a slower, increasing whistle, and ripping crash. In noise alone it is more than disagreeable. The poste de secours was an abri in a cellar.
Of the town there was scarcely a wall standing --- marmites had done their work well. The road was an open space between, scalloped and scooped like the moon in miniature. We would drive up, crawling in and out of these holes, turn around, get our load, and go. When the place was shelled, we had time to hear the obus coming and dive under our cars. The drive back was harrowing. One was sure to go a little too fast on a stretch of road that felt smooth and then pitch into a hole, all but breaking every spring on the body. I'll never forget the screams of the wounded as they got rocked about inside. At times a stretcher would break and we would have to go on as it was. Of course we had to drive in utter darkness, with passing convois of artillery at a full gallop going in opposite directions on either side. Each night a bit more of tool box or mud-guard would be taken off. Often I found myself in a wedge where I had to back and go forward until a little hole was found to skip through, and then make a dash for it and take a chance. One night there was a thunderstorm with vivid lightning and pitch darkness. The flashes of guns and of lightning were as one, and the noise terrific. That night, too, the road was crowded with ammunition wagons. But worst of all, it was under shellfire in three places so that traffic became demoralized because of the dead horses and wrecked wagons smashed up by shrapnel. All our cars were held up in parts of this road. There is no feeling of more utter helplessness than being jammed in between cannon and caissons in a road under shell-fire. In order to get through, two of the men had to run ahead and cut loose dead horses; but no one was hit that night.
The next night was the climax of danger, as things eased off a bit after; but the strain was telling and our driving was not so skilful. For instance, next to the last night I collided with a huge ravitaillement wagon coming at full gallop on the wrong side of the road, with the result that the entire front of my car went into bow knots. But I landed clear in safety. This occurred under the lee of a cliff, so we went in search with a wrecking-car the next day. After twenty hours my car was running again, shaky on her wheels, but strong in engine. She goes to Paris soon for shop repairs. Poor old Alice! A wrecked car in so short a time! Patched with string and wire and straps, she looks battle-scarred to a degree. Her real battle souvenirs are five shrapnel balls embedded in the roof and sides. I don't believe in collecting souvenirs, but these I could not help preserving!
There were humorous incidents; that is, humorous when we look back on them safely in camp. One goes as follows: Three cars running out to the poste about thirty yards apart. The whistle of shells and a great increase in speed in the cars. (Somehow speed seems to give the feeling of more security.) Road getting too hot --- shells falling between the cars--- as they run. First car stopped short and driver jumped about thirty feet into a trench by the roadside. Landed in six inches of water and stayed. Car No. 2 stopped, but not short enough to prevent smashing into tail-board of No. 1. Driver made jump and splash No. 2 into trench. Ditto for car No. 3 (me). Whistle and bang of shells, crash of hitting cars, and splash of falling men in water. Here we remained until the "storm blew over."
I am mighty glad we are through and out of it all. Whatever action we go into again, it cannot be harder or more dangerous than what we have been through. That will be impossible. I don't yet know whether I am glad or not to have had such an experience. It was all so gigantic and terrifying. It was war in its worst butchery. We all of us lost weight, but health and morale are O.K., and we are ready for more work after a rest.
EDWARD I. TINKHAM*
*Of Montclair, New Jersey; Cornell, '17; served in Sections Three and Four, and commanded in 1917 the first Motor Transport Section sent out by the Field Service; subsequently entered naval aviation, in which service he died in Ravenna, Italy, March 30, 1919
1. Arthur Bluethenthal, of Wilmington, North Carolina; Princeton, '13; joined the Field Service in May, 1916, serving with Section Three in France and Salonica until May, 1917, when he entered the French Aviation Service; he was killed in July, 1918, at the front, when his machine was shot down in flames.
2. The above is from Mr. Rainsford's diary.
Section Three in the Orient
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