History of the
American Field Service in France
"FRIENDS OF FRANCE", 1914-1917, TOLD BY ITS MEMBERS
Ah, Malmaison, unhappy child of Fate!
FORREST B. WING
IN the light of such modern war machinery as the aeroplane and the tank, it seems a bit prosaic to marvel over a motor truck. There is certainly nothing romantic about its appearance, for the war truck has nothing to boast of as to beauty of line or finish. But when the tale is told in quieter times than these, there will be a substantial tribute paid to these ungainly plodders, for they have often made possible the sure and rapid transport of troops and all war material in zones where the railroad dared not show its smoking stacks or winding rails. Furthermore, the truck has marché when the horse-drawn convoy was no longer able to battle with bad roads and fatigue.
With the arrival of the American Expeditionary Forces in France, came the "passing" of the volunteer organizations. Naturally and logically, they were absorbed into the American war machine. But there are those who will give the memory of the volunteer days first place when all war experiences have become memory . In the ambulance sections, there was a twofold joy in service; just being a volunteer, and the sacred trust of caring for the sick and wounded. Early in the spring of 1917, the French Automobile Service sent out an S.O.S. to the Field Service for men to drive the motor trucks in one of their largest and most active munition reserves. The appeal was so urgent that it could not be refused. Some of us were called in from our ambulance sections to undertake the organization of the new arm.
The story of those first days, with their wonderful enthusiasm, their training, and their many ceremonies, has already been told in picture and written word in the war periodicals all over the world. Our purpose here is not to gloat over being the first armed Americans at the front, nor is it to apologize for leaving the work of mercy for which we came. It is rather to tell a bit of how we took up the new duty that came to us, and what befell during these wonderful days of the late summer and early fall of 1917
To begin with, we went out with youth and strength and experience, for there was scarcely an American lad in France who did not know something about the automobile game; many played it as experts. And we found big-hearted, horny-palmed, French territorials trying to man five-ton camions single-handed. Most of these men were from forty-five to sixty years of age, worn with three years of war-weariness; and many had never handled a piece of machinery more complicated than a one-blade plough. Our first amusement quickly passed into honest pity; and our first joy was that of bringing relief to these-fine, gray-haired veterans --- many of whom were released to go back to their farms or to military service less taxing strength and endurance.
To the average American, whose automobile knowledge is bounded by the exasperating simplicity of the "Flivver," the sluggish staid ways of the motor truck must appear as altogether commonplace and uninteresting. It took us just about forty-eight hours to discover that a five-ton truck is not a toy, that it has scarcely anything in common with a touring car, and that the business of conducting and caring for it is a great big "he-job."
Our first convoys were ragged, and were marked by frequent losings of the way, occasional ditching, and even a few minor smash-ups. Our amusement at the failure of our worthy French predecessors was soon tempered by a practical understanding of their difficulties. At first, the gendarmes were shocked beyond words at our seeming disregard of the consignes of the routes gardées. Then their speechless astonishment changed to the stormy, arm-waving wrath that is the glory of the gendarmerie. Finally they realized that we were untutored and not vicious, and then they threw up their hands, muttered, "les américains," and let us pass. In a few weeks we had mastered the verbless jargon of the poilus, and had picked up a fairly good idea of roads and directions. Then the "five-ton truck idea" began to penetrate and our pannes dwindled to occasional minor difficulties with carburetors and ignition. Once acclimatized, we pronounced the work to be easy and interesting. It came fairly regularly, and occasional days of repos gave us ample opportunity to enlarge on our experiences for the benefit of the "home folks," to say nothing of the "home-town journals," which expanded our accounts into tragic reality. And so the first of the summer months slipped away, and chill nights announced the coming of the quatrième hiver. Early in the fall we got our first taste of real war work.
It is not given to many to take part in the preparations for a great offensive. Now that "it" is over and the glorious French troops are storming their way toward Laon, we can tell a bit of that which censorship would otherwise forbid. For weeks we had been carrying small lots of munitions and génie material such as barbed wire, iron ingots, planks, logs, and sacks. Often our run took us within three or four kilometres of the lines, where we were able to see the many interesting sights of reoccupied territory and watch the daily aerial skirmishes.
Have you ever stood upon an upland and watched the calm beauty of the ocean resting in summer sunshine? And have you seen it suddenly disturbed, chopped into white-caps, beaten into rollers, and finally hurled into glorious action? For weeks the war seemed far removed; the country lay all rich and beautiful in the changing colors of the fall. The ravitaillement trains came and went; and the convoys passed with the easy regularity which might characterize the conduct of an ordinary day's work. Then there came a strong wind that tore away the autumn leaves and seemed to speak to the sullen war machine which had been loafing on the job. Horses broke from an easy walk into a nervous trot; automobiles bearing the "big pots" appeared on the scene; small units of soldiers drifted in and began helping at the parcs and dépôts; traffic conditions became complicated to an annoying degree, and special road police took the places of the not-too-intelligent gendarmes. On a sudden, the hillsides along the front seemed alive with workers digging positions for guns and clearing parcs for ammunition. And the Boches knew; their sullen saucisses had not been floating in the gray distance for nothing. Soon they began to harass the workers with arrivées more or less accurately directed. Avions appeared in great numbers and tried all the bombing tactics that are known. And the strong wind blew more fiercely and the roads were blocked with great processions of troops; lines of artillery, with pieces of all sizes, chasseurs à pied, squads of cavalry, sleek Alpines---crack regiments, huge four-wheel-drive tractors dragging the grosses pièces. It was about this time that we felt the first lash of work; many of us had never known it before. We had some eighteen-hour days worming our way through traffic that would make Fifth Avenue, between 23d and 70th Streets during the matinee hour, look like an ocean boulevard at eight o'clock on Monday morning.
The fall rains set in in earnest before the offensive "broke." There is so much genuine misery caused by these rains that it seems a shame to mention ours. Skid chains are défendus unless your car is ditched, for, as yet, no one has invented a tire that will stand up under a ten-ton load with skid chains fixed. So we armed ourselves with two ropes and cables and went about the job of "pulling out" as though it were a game. There is surely a lot of satisfaction in getting out of a bad hole. It makes you feel as though you were once and for all the master of all inanimate objects. After a while, we got expert at it; and the crowning disgrace of the camp was to get "in" badly enough to need the assistance of the tractor. We had one lad who boasted too frequently that he had never been stuck. One day he got "in" for fair, and we broke two inch-and-a-half ropes trying to move him. After a while, we gave it up and left him to wait until we returned with empty cars to take his load. We had not been at our unloading station more than an hour when he drove in. Underneath the mud, there was the smile that never knows defeat. He had walked back about a kilometre and begged the assistance of a steamroller that was repairing some recent shell-holes. After this we let him crow to his heart's content.
There is just one night that stands out so clear in all our experiences that it must be told. We left camp soon after lunch with fourteen camions; we got our load about five o'clock. It had rained for nearly forty-eight hours and the early darkness foretold a bad night. Our point of discharge lay within eight hundred yards of the lines; and the only road was one which had been heavily shelled for several days. All lights were défendus and by seven-thirty we could n't see a thing. My Sergeant walked with me in front of the convoy and we "searched" the road with a carefully guarded vest-pocket flash. In some places the water was over a foot deep and the wind had blown the camouflage in all directions, so that there were wires and logs and burlap at every turn. We had a seventy-ton load and the outlook was bad. First we encountered some ammunition caissons which had lost the way and were returning in the wrong direction on our road. We had to back on to perilous edges until these squeezed past. Then we got all the second drivers together and stationed them at the shell-holes and bad places in the road to call directions to the men as they came up. This worked fairly well for a time, until a whole battery of French "155's" started a barrage; and we couldn't hear another sound. At last we had to stop the convoy and take the cars in, one at a time, to the dépôt. Soon the Boches began "searching" for the French guns, and for nearly two hours we were soundly bombarded. It was after midnight when we got unloaded; for the corvée made frequent retreats to near-by abris. We had to turn round in a mud bog; and, before we got all the cars headed in the right direction, we had ditched nine of them and broken five tow-ropes. just then, two other motor convoys came in on the same road and tied the traffic so that no one turned a wheel for two hours. Most of the boys were wet to the skin, and none of us had eaten since noon. Many slept on their cars while they were waiting. When we did get a start, the last camion got crowded off the road by a passing cannon, and was so badly "in" that we had to leave it for the tractor. This would have been a terrible disgrace, had not two of the French tractor men been killed by shell-fire while they were pulling it out. These are the incidents that take all the joy out of the game. Thirteen cars got back to camp after four-thirty; and there we found orders for a twelve-car convoy at seven-thirty the same morning. It is in a place like that that you see what fine stuff there is in men. We asked for volunteers and nearly every man responded. Most of us had been up for twenty hours and many worked all the next day. With it all, there was never a man who complained of the work or lay down on the job.
So it went, and the wind blew into a great storm of activity; and, when the French "went over" the Chemin des Dames for the splendid victory of October 25, there was joy in the hearts of every one of us that we had helped in some small part, and all of the monotony and irksomeness and fatigue were forgotten in that joy.
PAUL F. CADMAN*
*Of San Francisco; University of California; S.S.U. 8, and T.M.U. 133; later Captain, U.S.F.A.
WHILE our five-ton camions were being loaded with barbed wire and trench timbers, the Sergeant let us go for an old-fashioned swim in the little river Vesle. After that --- at about four in the afternoon, to be precise --- our convoy wound northwards out of the valley and started for the not-too-distant front. I was at the wheel, but I am afraid it received very little attention. For it was my first trip, and I was more interested in the sights about me than in the car.
We crossed, for the greater part of the way, one of those countless plateaus which characterize northeastern France. As far as we could see, the land dipped and rose in slow swells quite peacefully. But, if the plateau itself was peaceful, the immediate vicinity of the road was very reminiscent of the business we were about. To begin with, all along our course we were protected from view and from viewing --- by two fences of loosely woven burlap; camouflage is the technical name. The monotony of this would be broken by occasional munition dépôts, or by immense heaps of brass shell-cases piled up for return to the rear. Again, in every little hollow we passed, a village was hidden, or what had once been a village; the ruins always occupied by swarms of poilus waiting their turn to go into the trenches.
Villages and their inhabitants seemed prosy, however, beside the road itself. We were lumbering on in a dust-cloud thicker than a Sahara sandstorm. Out of this would emerge interminable field batteries, which passed us with a great rattling and creaking. Supply wagons followed; stupid-looking affairs, for the most part, except for those which were going very close to the lines. These were painted in jaunty greens and brown to harmonize with the landscape. Battleship gray staff cars shot by like spectres now and then, leaving only a memory of gold braid and jangling Klaxons. Then, for at least three miles, we passed marching troops; a regiment of gigantic Senegalese, black as I never imagined human beings could be; and a battalion of chasseurs, very trim in their double-breasted jackets of navy blue.
I was convinced that a gigantic offensive must be under way. Illusions like that are hard to break.
We descended at last into the valley of the Aisne, crossed a canal in which barges sunk three years ago crowded the brackish water; waited our turn to crawl over the shaky bridge which spanned the river itself, and then ran westward along the foot of the northern hillside. Not very far away, countless batteries of seventy-five's kept up an untiring racket; the veritable drum-fire, which formed, I was told, a barrage for one of those raids which are an everyday affair along the Chemin des Dames. As we passed near one battery, I detected a sickly smell like rotting weeds.
"Lacrymogène," Bob explained to me. Two weeks of the work had made him sophisticated. "The gas," he went on, "the Boches use to blind artillerymen."
"Not very. If there were much of it here, the motors would stop."
Ten minutes later, our convoy halted along the main street of Braisne and we climbed out with our mess-kits for a leisurely meal.
The refectory we chose was no less a place than the churchyard, which occupied the highest land in the town. From the top of the principal monument, we could look northward along a narrow valley that wound toward the lines. Both its slopes were full of concealed batteries, flashing continually like fireflies in a hedge. Above us, the air was alive with avions flying to and from the German trenches, back of which is the real air battle-line. Little clouds of smoke from bursting shrapnel hung about many of them. For the most part, those from German shells were black; those from French shells white. Once we saw a German sausage balloon come down in flames, while the observer in a parachute --- to us he was a barely visible dot --- floated above it. And again we heard distant machine-gun fire in the air; a French plane had attacked an albatross from above. A minute, and the latter dropped slowly like a piece of torn paper. In the street below us, the poilus were shouting their approval. The cheers proved premature, however, for after a thousand-foot drop, the Boche recovered himself and darted off toward home. He had performed the famous "leaf fall" which is the latest sensation in aviation.
Later I explored the town. Its streets boasted certainly of nomenclature cosmopolitan enough. The main thoroughfare was the "rue Kitchener"; it was crossed by the "rue de Londres" and the "rue de Rome." One shabby street corner was the "place Roosevelt." All that seemed typical of the way the war is forcing the outer world into many a quiet village of northern France.
Talk with a French camion driver elicited the reason of our halt in that particular town. Every evening the Boches shelled a bridge half a mile beyond, and the crossing was not considered safe until nine o'clock. As we talked, a German "240" rushed over our heads with a noise like the Twentieth Century Limited and burst in plain sight by the bridgehead.
An old lady got me some drinking-water, which sometimes is a scarce article near the lines. She had not left her village during the whole war, she said, although up to this spring the lines had been only a short mile away.
The Boches had been there twelve days. No, there had been no atrocities. They had been marching all the time . . . first toward Paris, and then back again. . . . After that had come the English, who had stayed thirty-four days. She elaborately counted the time on her fingers. They had been very brave, but they had been killed like flies.
As she gave us this information, two more shells lumbered on toward the bridge. . . .
Nine o'clock came; and we passed the bombarded bridge, running a hundred yards apart and at top speed. Through the camouflage we could see the shells still breaking a few hundred yards away.
We went forward through the interminable summer twilight. Now we were passing the walls of the immense park of the Château de Soupir.
They extended on and on, broken by shell-holes, bordered by abandoned dugouts. We caught glimpses within them of a landscape once as well ordered as a New England parlor. Fauns and nymphs, gods, kings, and philosophers were grouped at appropriate intervals; an artificial lake had been fixed just where it was needed to break the monotony. The château itself, in harmony with its park, had been of that ornateness which is somewhere between mere ostentation and real splendor.
At present, it was only a gutted shell. Half the ornamental poplars and yews were shot down; the busts had gone, many of them, to form parts of abris, while those that remained were peppered with shrapnel. Quite unfeelingly, the German artillery had scattered about shellholes without any regard for decorative effects. Yet in all its ruin, the park was unconquerably polite and rococo. It reminded one strongly of the powdered marquises who preserved on the scaffold the manners of the drawing-room.
As night finally set in, we drew into the dépôt of the engineering corps, which was our destination, and waited to be unloaded. Midnight was past before we started for home by a totally different road, something a little difficult, considering that headlights are forbidden at the front.
The apparent confusion on the highways by day had been very impressive. By night, however, they had a quality entirely different. The dust in the afternoon had been pictorial; now it became something tangible, which sifted through one's clothes, and stopped the breathing and shut off all sight of the stars. Out of the gloom interminable batteries still moved, but now they were always hurrying, hurrying. Once, four "220's," mounted on automobiles, unlimbered in a field very close to us and opened a fire that, at every deafening report, made the dust luminous, and reflected back flames from invisible clouds. Again there were ambulances, always loaded and always silent.
We threaded our way through- the almost invisible ruins of what had once been a large town. Here, I thought, there must be many batteries, for the explosions were constant. About our way we were a little doubtful. I heard the sergeant accosting a sentinel to ask the road. His French was not the best.
"Quelle route . . . est-ce que nous . . . que nous voudrez prendre d'ici à là ? "
The answer was a little surprising. "You take the road to the left," the soldier told him in English tainted with New York, "and you go damn quick because they are knocking hell out of the town."
We followed his instructions to the letter, and moved toward the river along a deserted road that narrowed into a causeway. I was still tingling in useless fright.
The going was difficult, and we slowed down gradually. At the point where we crossed the river, I found out later, an iron bridge and three of wood had been shot away in succession. At last, the crossing had been moved two hundred yards upstream. Of this fact the Boches were not yet informed; but, unfortunately, their fire was wild and was as apt to hit the new bridge as the old.
Even after the leading string --- the first division of eight cars --- had made its way over, there was some delay. And, as we waited, a heavy marmite burst in front of us and a little to the left. Some of the red-hot pieces fell very near and lay smoking in the road. Immediately the American craze for souvenirs came to the fore; and a half-dozen of the boys were racing for the fragments, and picking them up gingerly in their helmets.
We moved forward. Right by the bridge I saw something lying across the road. Bob, who was driving, swung out.. As we passed, I turned a flashlight toward the obstruction. A middle-aged Territorial in the nondescript clothes of those old warriors, who serve as laborers along the front, was lying there in a little spot of bloody mud. A fragment of shell --- probably from the very last --- had torn a great hole in his side.
I turned the light away, and we went on in silence. . . . Then other ruined villages we passed, and other marching troops; all the time, star-shells rose and flamed over the lines. I was not watching them much, however. I was remembering the man at the bridgehead. For, after all, the dust and the galloping batteries, Soupir grand in its ruin, marching troops, and star-shells formed only the panoply of war; that middle-aged Territorial lying in his own blood was its immediate reality.
*Of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Harvard, '18; joined the Field Service in May, 1917, serving with T.M.U. 526 until November, 1917; subsequently entered U.S. Field Artillery.
NORTHWARD through the open door of the barracks lies the Aisne Valley. Star-shells and searchlights still gleam fitfully in the semi-darkness and one knows that it is not yet dawn. But, around you, men are rising from their bunks, clamping on steel helmets, Canadian reefers, and the other paraphernalia of an early-morning run. You sleep on, that is if you are fortunate enough to belong to a section where the military is not emphasized and roll-call not a diurnal duty. We sleep, many of us, till ten o'clock or still later.
Now in camp, during the day, there are always two things to clean, one's person or one's camion, and which to do first is forever a problem. If the natural order be taken, namely, to bathe first one's person, it invariably follows that love's labor will be lost, for the Pierce-Arrow may be relied on to undo all that is accomplished and to make more grimy than ever the most spotless of faces.
On the other hand, should the car be put first in condition, greased, cleansed, renovated for new tests and inspection, it may be ordered out at noon, and why scrape off the dried mud of France with neatness and despatch that it may all appear again in the space of an hour? Furthermore, those of us who are crafty like well to hold in reserve the cleaning of our car as a trump card to play if requested to peel potatoes, or to do some other task more onerous than inspiring. And so, thus debating, the luncheon hour arrives. The meat often leaves much to be desired, but the gravy is always excellent. The bread is often like adamant and occasionally mouldy to boot, though this is not always true. According to the law of the land, upon the bread must be stamped the date of its baking, and we learn from experience that all bread less than six weeks of age may be taken and relished.
And there is other food such as vegetables, cooked as only the French know how, fruit or cheese every day, and confiture! The name of this latter article of diet is a term applied apparently in France without discrimination to any kind of fruit preserved in a sugary syrup; and it is compounded of most everything from apples to cucumbers.
And so endeth our midday meal, and likewise our supper unless one has bought chocolate in the village, chocolate the king of foods, and of all material comforts the foremost.
The poilu would differ with me concerning this praise of chocolate. To him pinard would come first, for pinard is a name to conjure with in the armies of the French Republic; and, that the supply may not be lessened, all vineyards of France suitable for this sort of wine are commandeered by the Government. But with us this French army wine has few takers. It is placed on our bench table, and twice daily we may consume it, but most of us don't use it, unless to wash dishes with it. There are many methods of washing a tin plate. One may cleanse it in hot or cold water, one may scrape it with a knife, one may rub it spotless to the naked eye with an old newspaper, one may also wash it with pinard, and this latter method long practice has taught me to recommend.
One cannot make a soldier overnight, and we are but semi-soldiers anyway. We wear all kinds of shirts and sweaters: "T" shirts, flannel shirts, khaki shirts, and cotton shirts, and sometimes no shirts at all, but jerseys and sweaters in their place. The poilu, trained in the manners of the Continental soldier, thinks it no shame to go shirtless, provided only that he wear his coat with high collar. We Americans, I often fear, shock him greatly with our costumes. The variegated colors of our college sweaters, the numerals and letters emblazoned on them, emblematic of athletic prowess, these perchance he may pass by, but that we should be coatless --- this is hard to forgive, even in an ally.
The day is still long before us. Our lunch has come early, eleven o'clock and there is no afternoon tea to occupy the time. Nor are there likely to be further afternoon duties. One camion with two drivers always sets out with a silly little trailer called a remorque, to fetch home water. Two hogsheads full will be brought from a distance of six miles to supply all of our needs, and until the remorque arrives we shall be waterless. Thus two men are occupied. Two others do police duty, burn up stray papers, and cut wood for the cook; but the rest of us may do what we like.
We have a few tame pets, dogs and cats, and a number of dirty birds whose wings have so long ago been clipped that they may become domesticated. The majority of the animals are welcome, for they are our friends, but this is not the case with all. For instance, there is Olive, the famous pig of Section "G." She is not a pretty pig, and what is more, neither her habitat nor her manners are attractive. But Section "G" cannot get rid of Olive for she is the property of certain Frenchmen who look after the welfare of the section. Expostulations are useless. They have been tried, but Olive was defended by several of her stanch upholders, all gesticulating and asserting simultaneously: "Bon Olive!" "Gentille Olive!" "Olive n'est pas un sale cochon!" So the attempt was given over. Olive remains with Section"G."
The dusk gathers and, with its coming, approaches the greatest joy of army life, the mail bag. The worst phase of service at the front is its stupidity, the deadly hours of waiting for action long delayed. But that has its compensation in the thought of home; and, for most of us a home that may yet be established. Hence the great longing for the mail. The average undergraduate is not unduly sentimental, at least not more so than the ordinary run of men. But place him in the Transport Service, let him wait three hours at a stretch for reservists to unload his camion, let him not either eat with or talk to a woman for three months running, and then behold a change! Lads of nineteen and twenty make their plans for future happiness, and in great detail. No more thought of college for them. We all become older overnight and in one month grow three years.
All this predicates the coming of the mail. The sergeant brings it to us nightly. For two or three nights after the arrival of a liner, it bulks large. The names are read off, sometimes by candle light; and groans and cheers explode among the close-packed ranks as hands are outstretched for the precious paper. A letter from the wrong girl, and none from her we long to hear from, is a calamity worse almost than no mail at all. If some greedy man gets more than his full share of letters, a loud jeering, or in Section "F" a peculiar hissing, which is the Princetonian signal of disapproval, may be heard. Each man then goes to his separate corner with his letters, the best one saved till the last; while those who have been disappointed stolidly betake themselves to bridge or possibly to a tenth reading of some ancient missive, now all thumb-marked and greasy, possibly now two weeks in their possession.
It has grown dark. Once more, vivid evidence of the war may be seen in the night sky. Between us and the enemy, a score of searchlights, crisscrossing and intertwining with one another in fantastic and multiple combinations, hunt tirelessly for German aircraft. Starshells burst in profusion like beautiful rockets, while the roar of the artillery intermittently continues, and the lone guard sallies forth with his rifle that the camions may be safe while the rest of us sleep.
WALTER PHELPS HALL*
*Of Princeton, New Jersey; Yale, '06, Columbia, Ph.D., '12, and a professor at Princeton; T.M.U. 133; served five months in the Field Service; subsequently with the Y.M.C.A.
IT is midnight, and at that hour begins the most dreary watch of the night. The air, though clear, is bitter cold, and the collar of my bulky fleece-lined overcoat is warm and soft as it rubs against my ears. In a half-awake condition, with an unloaded rifle under my left armpit, I count the camions of our section. Each of the Pierce-Arrow giants swells into an ugly black mass as I approach. An occasional cat jumps from the underbrush at the side of the road and darts off at the sound of my crunching footsteps. No living creatures but glowworms remain in sight, but they only increase the loneliness. When near the camp I hear the low, mingled breathing of my comrades. And, frequently, a distant whistle and a faint rumbling reach my ears. All is very peaceful, to be sure, unless one thinks of the destination of those supply trains that rumble on and on.
The glowing hands of my watch are often consulted, for the time is heavy and dull. The meditations of those long hours pierce every memory, every hope, every ideal. Perhaps I curse the system which forces me to parade this cold night, a worthless procedure, as it seems to me. And then I catch sight of a momentary glimmer on the horizon, and begin to think of the sufferings and the glories of the front. Conversations with poilus that I had the day before return to me, and I again feel the deep sympathy which their words awakened. How little America realizes the vastness of the conflict. Her villages are not in ruins. She has no cathedrals filled with praying, black-clad women, no cities without lights and café music; no farms worked by girls and crippled men. A Belgian who, before the war, had been a student at Louvain, told me with tears in his eyes that he had no university to return to. And his loss is a drop of moisture in the clouds of a mighty tempest.
And often my eyes follow involuntarily the path pointed out by the Great Dipper to the North Star --- a path impressed upon the receptive mind of my childhood by a sea-going relative, --- a path which sets me first rejoicing, then bemoaning over the contrast between America and France.
The crash of a bursting bomb breaks into the stillness; two other crashes follow and indicate to one familiar with war-time noises of the night that a German air raid is being conducted against some town near by. Soon the dark starlit heavens are streaked with beams from several searchlights, which play about at first in efforts to discover the aircraft. Then the streaks of light cease to flash aimlessly, but become steady in their action, and .converge toward a definite spot in the sky where they .have spotted the enemy. And, as he moves, the lights move with him, while possibly other German aircraft are followed by other searchlights. Shells of "75" calibre explode in or near the spot where the beams converge, and their reports reverberate around the countryside. Starshells and rockets lend their aid in locating the marauders.
A French soldier has stopped to watch with me this illumination; and we have been discussing the last air raid, in which fifteen men were killed in a hospital six kilometres away. We talk in the low, hoarse whispers which persons conversing at night instinctively use. At intervals we can hear the purr of aeroplane motors; perhaps Frenchmen are also in the air, for the familiar noise is near and toward the south.
"Mitrailleuses!" whispers my comrade, as a lively machine gun patters.
More bombs are dropped. The beams of the searchlights are shifting. We can hear the boom of the antiaircraft guns and the bursting of the shells, and frequently we hear the swish and thud of an unexploded one which has landed in a field near camp.
And so the spectacle continues, till the Boches no longer threaten. The last searchlight gives the heavens a final flash and leaves the stars alone. My comrade of the moment has gone, and I am left to my own meditations once more.
A quivering glow marks the horizon, and, gradually fading into the darkness, stretches out far to the right and to the left. It quivers like the gleam of a mighty furnace, responding momentarily to the intensity of the fire beneath. Rockets shoot across this band of brightness and into the blackness beyond. Star-shells form new and ever-changing constellations. And along with it all, are the murmur, the frequent rumble, the undulations of the distant cannonading.
Such was the spectacle the guard of our section was watching when a company of infantry, coming from repos, drew toward him. The lieutenant on horseback, at the head of the column, gave the guard a brief glance, and the soldiers laboring under their packs and made drowsy by fatigue and the heavy atmosphere of the night, scarcely noticed him. At last, a few two-wheeled voitures passed by, and then the company kitchen, rattling with loose tin and ironware. Here the train halted, so that the guard could feel the warmth reeking from the horses that drew this last vehicle. Two figures were on the driver's seat, one holding the reins, while the other was almost entirely lost in a huge army-blue overcoat, the collar of which was so high that it doubled up a lengthy moustache. Surmounting this mass of blue wool was a small fatigue cap, beneath which a pair of eyes glistened sharply in the dark. They were gazing at the guard; and their owner, after a moment of mental laboring, asked gruffly: "Qui êtes-vous? Anglais?" "Non," said the guard; "américains."
The man on the seat, who had not hitherto disturbed a wrinkle of his great coat, jumped from his voiture and exclaimed "Ah ! camarades!" grasping the guard's hand and then hastening to the head of the column to proclaim his discovery to the other Frenchmen.
Throughout the ten or fifteen minutes that the infantry train was waiting, the guard was greeted and questioned by many of the weary soldiers. They were delighted to hear his smattering of their language and enthusiastic to learn of the coming of American troops, poilus, as they termed them. He was shown the large pots of potage ready to be heated and the little grate below filled with wood.
A whistle blew and the train recommenced its march. There was more handshaking and a shouting of "Au revoir, camarades. Bonne chance."
Then the long line of infantry, after this trifling incident, perhaps the only break in their monotonous journey, continued on their way toward the north ---toward that bright flickering glow on the horizon. The rumbling of the voitures grew fainter, till it could no longer be distinguished from the noise of the distant guns.
I had been pacing the roadway in front of the camp, counting and recounting the camions, and had become very hungry. Besides I wanted to rid my mouth of the taste of French tobacco, for I had consumed several of the famous red package cigarettes in order to keep awake. Consequently, when I approached the camp kitchen for perhaps the fortieth time that night, I yielded to temptation, to hunger, and to the sense of taste, and decided to raid Henri's "holy-of-holies," the remorque where the cook stores his food.
I rested my rifle against the wheel, and then swung myself over the tail-board, which was closed up. My legs were straddling the board, one on the inside and the other out, when my overcoat became caught, so that I could not move. I was searching for the cause of my uncomfortable position, when some noise on the gravel startled me. Listening for a moment, I could hear nothing but the breathing of "Ko-Ko," Henri's pet owl. Again I tried to free my overcoat, and again I heard the same noise on the gravel. This time it was nearer and more distinct --- it was the sound of footsteps only six feet from me. I dropped the curtain which covers the end opening of the remorque, so that my body was concealed from the outside; but, as the curtain reached only to the top of the tail-board, my truant leg was still in view.
Through a small tear in the curtain, I could see the figure of the cook just outside. Chocolate and butter in abundance were within my arm's reach, yet I had no energy to take them, since my nervous system, strained with anxiety, was throbbing like a high-power dynamo. I thought of the great traditions of "Système D"; but they would be of no avail under these circumstances. And then, to my horror, Henri lit his briquet, and the details of the kitchen were in full illumination, and I knew my leg was as plain to see as the coffee kettle near by.
I was about to deliver myself up to Henri, when a rifle shot startled us both. After the cook had darted off to learn the cause of the report, I leapt to the ground, freeing my coat at the same time, though it cost me an ugly rip. About fifty yards away, a Frenchman and the guard of the neighboring section were violently addressing each other, and the former, judging from sound, seemed to be gaining the upper hand. The road was lit by the headlight of a motor-cycle, The young American on guard held a smoking rifle in his hands, and the Frenchman clinging to his motor-cycle, seemed extremely afraid of it. I admit I was a little surprised to learn that one of our rifles had actually been loaded when used on guard. Henri had already joined the group when I approached.
" Dis-donc," the Frenchman with the motor-cycle said to me, and then gave me a frightful lecture of which I understood not a word. He kept pointing to the other guard while speaking, but I experienced a shuddering sensation and felt that I was in some way being held responsible for a glaring crime.
But a French officer, who had drawn near, freed me from the abuse of the motor-cyclist, and after he had himself ascertained the facts of the disturbance (still unknown to me), he sent the guard with the smoking weapon back to his camp and told me to return to mine, though I was then as near to it as possible. However, I pretended to obey the officer by counting the camions once more, and forgetting my hunger and the taste of those vile cigarettes.
The next morning the following notice on the bulletin board attracted much attention:
"Firing at aeroplanes by the guard is forbidden."
I went to the kitchen to drink some of Henri's coffee, and discovered my rifle leaning against the remorque, where I had left it the night before. Henri pointed it out to me with a sly smile. I am wondering even to this day I if he saw my leg when he lit his briquet only six feet from me. Anyhow, he was pleasant enough to me and told me (in very slow French, to be sure) how the other guard had almost killed the motor-cyclist, believing him to be a German spy. The guard was a nervous, stupid fellow, and had thought his intended victim was signalling to a hostile aeroplane in the sky with his searchlight. In reality, there was an aeroplane very close at the time, and the Frenchman tried to spot it for no reason except his own amusement. The guard claimed he shot at the aeroplane, though the Frenchman showed a bullet hole through a bag he had tied to the motor-cycle seat. The officer had adopted the first theory; why he had done so, Henri did not know.
"It's good that fellow was a poor shot," said Henri, as he cut me off an extra piece of beurre.
"Yes, but I am glad that he fired," I said to myself, as I thought of my poor leg protruding from under the canvas curtain in the light of Henri's briquet.
ARTHUR C. WATSON*
*Of New Bedford, Massachusetts; Harvard, '19; T.M.U. 184.
THE camp in which we of the Camion Service were taught the theory and practice of driving Pierce-Arrow trucks, was located near part of the territory evacuated by Hindenburg in the retreat of the spring of 1917. And so it happened that the noteworthy event of our period of training in 1917 was the visit we were allowed to make to the abandoned German trenches and dugouts.
Just as they left their quarters in Nouvron-Vingre, not two months before, we found them: the corners cluttered with empty wine-bottles; a kettle filled with water on the improvised stove; the kitchen reeking with rotten potato peelings. We found shells still piled in the storehouse; rusty bayonets scattered along the path; clips of shells, signboards, and a cemetery growing with the flowers which they themselves must have planted the year before.
The road that we were following ran down a narrow ravine, and it was on the side of this ravine that the Germans had built and concealed their dugout city. Their habitations were cement caves roofed with sheet iron and covered with four or five feet of earth. These were only for the common soldiers, and were nothing in comparison with the quarters of their officers, which we later saw; but, even at that, they were palaces in comparison with the makeshift abris of the French.
There seems to be this difference between the attitude of the French and the Germans toward the war --- the Germans accept it as the normal state of affairs, and make the best of it. The French, on the other hand, are fighting to end it. While the struggle goes on, they seem to greet any hardships they may encounter without great effort to lighten them, for they look upon these as only temporary.
The interiors of the dugouts were filled with tables and chairs, and with bunks still containing improvised mattresses of chicken wire or of woven reeds. From the back of the living quarters, elaborate tunnels, fitted up with electricity, ran all the way, we were told, to the front line trenches. We did not explore them, mindful of what we had been told about pitfalls for the unwary. At last, we ourselves encountered one of their traps. Along the path at one place, a trench torpedo had been hung by a thin wire, ready to fall and explode when the wire was touched. A wren had built her nest in it, but that hardly made it seem any the less horrible.
A little beyond was a small café, built in concrete, stained green, and given some jovial Bavarian name. It was solid, permanent, comfortable, and littered with enough wine-bottles to show that the war has not yet forced prohibition beyond the Rhine.
The new graveyard held our attention longer. We found it elaborate and filled with sententious references to Kaiser, God, and Fatherland; and yet it was constructed entirely out of material stolen from the French cemetery across the road. It was, in other words, typically German.
Here, as everywhere else about the town, there seemed to be no doubt expressed as to the permanency of the German occupation; there were few makeshifts. Everything seemed constructed to last a hundred years. Methodically, it appeared, the invaders had set about the Prussianization of the country. The first step in that process was the annihilation of everything French. That part of the task they had done thoroughly.
We visited many other villages that afternoon, but everywhere we met with the same sights. Everywhere there was total destruction: houses dynamited if the shells had not razed them; apple and cherry orchards chopped down; graveyards despoiled in favor of the German dead. On the ruins was everywhere the same attempt to rear a civilization exclusively Germanic, compounded of dugout palaces and diminutive beer gardens.
And this Kultur seemed always childishly anxious to justify itself by copious inscriptions. "Ein Gott, ein Volk, ein Koenig," read one of these at Juvigny: "One God, one people, one king." England came in for most of the hard words. No ruined village seemed complete without its "Gott strafe England" painted on the ruins of the Town Hall. One elaborate inscription was more specific:
Der Boden ist geduengt mit blut-,
"For all this destruction, England is to blame," which, however, is no great consolation to the French peasants for their destroyed apple orchards and poisoned wells.
Then we left the ruined villages behind and came down again into the valley of the Aisne. The west was lost in one of those sunsets which are never found outside of France. The reed-bordered river curved majestically among the meadows. Here and there were clumps of willows such as Corot loved to paint. And it seemed to me suddenly that, even if the invaders did succeed in destroying every vestige of past civilization in the country, and killed every human being, they would hardly succeed in their work of Germanization. In the end, the land itself would conquer them, just as it had conquered Celts and Romans, Franks and Northmen, in past centuries making them over into its own spirit.
LAST night, I left the parc when we were unloading a mile behind the trenches; and, though the noise of the batteries was a little dizzying, I made my way to one of them, a "155." The artillerymen got me behind a tree, a whistle blew, and the whole world was lightning. Well, after the cloud burst, I straightened my disjointed features and immediately began to inquire just how often the Germans popped at them and just how often the Germans were popped. The soldiers laughed at me, told me their job was a "cinch"; that only three men had been killed that week so far and that an hour or so ago the first shells of the day exploded about 40 yards.off. I wanted to retreat, but then the ridge ahead of me let out such an explosion I thought the whole thing was blown up; it was the "75's" on top opening fire --- and what a fire! Balls of lightning darted from muzzle after muzzle; and clouds of red flame burst upwards as they sent hell screeching through the air as deadly and diabolical as man could invent. This war is all electric operation, explosions, death, and that is what fills you with fear ---a fear of the unknown and omnipotent. Then some strings of light-balls floated up like champagne bubbles in order to call the aeroplanes back; rockets signalled to the guns and star-shells made night into day for miles around.
I landed back in camp at three, and went to bed feeling that I could face a New York gang of "gunmen" as though catching butterflies, after what I had seen or rather heard that night that "very quiet night," as the Frenchmen say.
*Of New York City; joined the camion branch of the Field Service April, 1917; T. M. U. 526; killed in January, 1918, while training in the U.S. Aviation in France.
ALL was not work at the front, as can be seen from this account of a Fourth-of-July celebration in a town in the Aisne Departement. Credit for it must be given chiefly to Captain Genin, our French commander, a jolly good fellow, and one greatly interested in American customs. All during June, he had been hearing about nothing except the Fourth of July. At last, he decided that, at his own expense, we were to have a Fourth that should surpass those we had known in the States. And, after that, day by day, various articles arrived in the camp --- live rabbits, narrow-gauge track, crates labelled "champagne," cigarettes, flower-pots --- about all of which there was some mystery and a great deal of speculation.
The programme of the day itself began with a review, which was hardly different from some peace-time reviews in the States. The ten sections present were in the bad humor common to troops on inspection. And there was some cause, too; for every camion in Jouaignes had been on the road from five in the morning until eight the night before, while, even after that, there had been a great deal of cleaning and oiling to do in preparation for the rigid inspection that would be sure to come the next morning.
Section after section marched through the little gate into the field and arranged themselves in formation for review. A sharp Gardez-vous! rang out, and Captain Mallet, head of Mallet's Reserve of American Camion Drivers, entered the field, whereupon a square was formed, of which three sides were Americans and one side Frenchmen. Why the Frenchmen were there we were to find out later.
The American flag was waving proudly in the breeze, borne by a color-bearer, who shared with every American there a thrill of patriotism as each passing French officer paused to give the emblem a graceful salute.
The ceremonies began by Captain Mallet calling for the Croix de Guerre section to come forward. So forward they came, three sun-beaten, war-worn French camion drivers, the youngest of whom must have been forty-five. Straight and erect, they marched from their ranks and faced Captain Mallet, whom they saluted, and the ceremony of presentation began.
The citations for their deeds of bravery were read in French and the medals pinned on the proud-eyed veterans, with a warm handshake from Captain Mallet, and more from every officer, French and American, whom they passed on the way back to ranks. Then came some well-chosen remarks by Captain Mallet, his simple, dignified English appealing to every hearer. Not an eye but shone a little brighter, not a chin but was tilted a little higher, after these inspiring words. Captain Mallet, then and there, won the heart and hand of every American who heard him.
Then came the review by Captain Mallet. To the time of an Algerian drum corps, the only music of the occasion, column after column of shining helmets and red faces passed by the reviewing stand at "eyes right." What those dark-faced musicians were playing, nobody knew, but it was to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" and "Dixie" that the American feet kept time. In the middle of the long khaki lines came the color squad and the Stars and Stripes, which the French officers saluted, as it passed, with the dust-covered lines passing through the gate, bound for camp.
And, all the time, to remind us of the business we were about, a little to the north one could see the sausage balloons whose business it is to make sure that nothing goes unobserved in the German trenches.
Such an afternoon as we spent, could be encountered nowhere except at the French front, and at no time except the present. After déjeuner, we found that a mixture of races more varied than that of an international exposition had taken possession of the camp. There were English, Tunisians, Moroccans, Algerians, Senegalese, French of all varieties, not to mention the Scotch nurses from a hospital near by. Spain and Switzerland were represented among the camp mechanics, while I hear that even a few yellow Annamites happened in to complete the picture. There was no time lost in mere staring either; for the "Buglers of Spahi," a band from Tunis, immediately twirled their curved horns like a lightning flash and struck up a regimental tune. Even this was cosmopolitan, consisting of a conventional European phrase repeated twice by the bugles, and answered by a burst of Arab melody from the strange wooden pipes carried by the rest of the band.
After a concert of some half an hour, the games commenced. Now we discovered the use of the narrow-gauge railway. It was to serve as a tilting course in a game which, with obvious modifications, has survived since the Middle Ages. One mounted the push-cart which replaced the indispensable Norman charger of knightly tourneys, and coasted down the track. In his course he aimed a lance --a fishing pole, if you like --- at nothing grander than a hole in a board. If he should succeed, he received a bottle of champagne; if he failed, a bucket of water tipped over on him. We tried, most of us, and got a ducking for our pains. After us, Captain Genin made the attempt, and failed also. But at this point some of the Berbers entered the game. They had been brought up in a state of society in which handling the lance was as indispensable a gentlemanly accomplishment as bridge is with us. And out of the proficiency thus acquired, they received some honor and a great deal of champagne.
After that, there was another game, which involved being blindfolded and swinging with a baseball bat at concealed flower-pots. These, when broken, would be found to contain the live rabbits we had seen --- or ducks, or anything else the camp ingenuity had provided. When the last pot had been broken, another Spahi band struck up an even wilder tune. A circle was formed as soon as the music had begun, around a tall turbaned Arab, who was twisting himself about a red bandana stretched on the ground. At first, some disagreement arose as to whether his performance should be called "The Dance of the Sacred Veil" or "The Dance of the Dirty Handkerchief." We stopped scoffing after a while, however, and watched with a kind of childish wonder the set look on his face as he circled about. Finally the curious rhythm of the drums and the wailing flutes and the hot sun finished by making us believe that we were in the scorching square of some North African town. That impression was heightened by the later dances. Lithe Berbers hurled French army rifles high into the air and caught them without losing time with the drums. Then there were sword dances in which two simulated opponents whirled yataghans about their heads. We were fascinated and a little frightened.
Afterwards, I talked with some of the Tunisians. They had little respect for any Germans. "Yes," they said, "the Germans are brave enough to crouch in dugouts under shell-fire, but, when we come after them, they are cowards. They run away and shout 'Kamerad! Kamerad!' Bah! Boches no camarades with us." As one remembered the sword dances, it seemed hardly surprising that the Germans were cowards before these outlandish warriors.
Shortly afterwards a baseball game began, which must have seemed as bizarre to the Arabs as their dances were to us. About the fourth inning of the game, fencing started in as a counter-attraction, and charmed away, one must confess, almost everybody except the Americans. In this our own French Lieutenant Chalos vanquished all comers. By seven, we had all piled our mess-kits about improvised tables and were waiting for the dinner.
M. Bousquet, the cuisine chef, was reputed to have officiated in many kitchens, including those of the Duke of Luxembourg. Yet, however great the number of feasts he had prepared, he surely never encountered one stranger than this. A wonderful salad was served up in a dishpan and eaten off dirty tin plates. The meats were roast capon and a filet with mushrooms; the only bread was the hard dry pain d'armée. Pinard --- a euphemism for the cheapest, sourest wine existing --- alternated with old Muscat and Moët et Chandon. Then, all the time, there was boisterous jesting, and dogs that stood around the tables ready to snap up any spare morsels, until, by dint of so many contrasts and so much hearty jollity, everything assumed a truly mediaeval tone. One rather missed torchlights and smoky rafters. Except for these, it was easy to imagine, looking down the long, littered tables, that one was present at a banquet in some Norman castle when Edward III was king. Always, however, when the laughter died down for a moment, the guns that were defending Craonne or Moulin de Laffaux would drown the lesser clatter of the tinware.
After the plates were scraped clean --- for once we did not have to wash them --- the French force --- cook, mechanics, clerks, wounded for the most part in the trenches --- took possession of the tables and the remnants of the pinard. There followed another celebration, a truly French celebration, which lasted most of the short summer night, during the course of which regimental songs were sung, including the now famous Chant of the Foreign Legion, and during which many speeches were made about "les jeunes américains," and "la victoire qui viendra." American ragtime had a fraternal share, too, and many ludicrous attempts were made to translate it into French. Then there were more speeches, and a great deal of handshaking and laughter --- always laughter. About two, we --- most of us --- crawled off to bed, quite aware that we should be called on at daylight to carry trench torpedoes, and quite content nevertheless.
ALL the time that we were eating our cold suppers, we could hear the whiz . . . boom of exploding German shells. Seemingly they were failing a couple of hundred yards away, behind a little strip of woodland that hid the munition dépôt, known as C3, from the north. A little later, when we had backed our motor trucks among the piles of shells, and were waiting for the squad of middle-aged territorials who should unload them, the bombardment was even hotter than before. So half a dozen of us --- without permission --- started out to watch it at close range.
We followed a path through the woods past an antiaircraft gun in action. For a while we stopped to watch the shrapnel it was firing as the shells burst six thousand feet in the air, leaving white puffs of smoke like giant chrysanthemums. A mile or two beyond, hidden only by smoke clouds, lay the trenches, A black dot we could see, even farther away, was a German observation balloon. A quarter of a mile away from us were two French heavy batteries which, every minute or so, burst into flame. It was these batteries, we found out, which were the target for the German bombardment.
The explosions neared us. Now of the six of us there, four had just come from training camp and were plainly very much excited at being under fire. The two others (I was one of them) were veterans of three months' standing, and pretended a boredom they did not feel. When shells began whistling past us, however, and bursting not much more than a hundred yards away, all pretence disappeared, and the six of us tumbled together into an abandoned trench and hoped that the shells would come no nearer. Then for some unknown reason the firing stopped altogether, and we walked calmly back toward the munition parc to find that everything was much the same as before, except that a few seedy territorials had appeared and were unloading the first two trucks. And there were twenty more trucks which had just arrived, whose drivers were eating supper.
But before we had time to tell our story, a new bombardment burst forth, this time very near to us; and everybody crowded back into the shelter of an overhanging bank on one side of the road. Now shells were falling at regular intervals of time, approximately every two minutes. Each time one exploded, a few red-hot fragments would fall into the road in front of us. Then would ensue a wild scramble after them as souvenirs, and many burnt fingers were the result. A minute later everybody would rush back under the bank to wait for the next shell. The territorials, who had seen too much war to risk their lives for thrills or souvenirs, had, in the meanwhile, disappeared into dugouts. Ten minutes later, this bombardment stopped as suddenly as had the others; the territorials reappeared and went back to work, so that just as the late summer night was falling, we bumped out of the parc over a corduroy road, unloaded at last, while other trucks backed in to take our places.
I found out later that the real excitement occurred only after we had left, when German shrapnel began bursting again, their target this time being the munition dépôt itself. Once more the Frenchmen about the place disappeared into dugouts, and invited the Americans to follow them! But instead, openly eager to be home, they began to unload the cars themselves, with the result that two of the boys were struck in the head by flying shell fragments. Fortunately they were wearing helmets and suffered no harm, but half a dozen of the trucks were hit. In fact the chauffeur of the staff car was standing beside his machine with a bottle of wine in one hand and a war-bread sandwich in the other when there was a loud explosion near him, and the next thing he knew he was wandering around without either the wine or the sandwich and asking where he was. One shrapnel ball had struck his helmet and another had grazed his knee.
And that was the end of it. If a lot of war-wise Frenchmen had tried to unload the trucks under fire, probably they would have suffered half a dozen fatalities. Thirty or forty Americans just out of training school went about it, anxious to wring the last drop of excitement out of the situation, and the result was only three bruised heads and a skinned knee.
And here was the official French view of the episode:
The Major in command of the Automobile Service with the armies, addresses his felicitations to the members of the Third Platoon, under the orders of Lieutenant A. T. Cox, for the coolness and courage which they displayed during the night Of July 28, 1917, while unloading trucks in a dépôt subjected to a heavy bombardment.
IT is three o'clock this afternoon and I have only just got up, the reason being that I did not arrive back until eight this morning. We had a hard, long trip yesterday and last night. We left here at two in the afternoon, picked up a load of barbed wire, then ran up toward the lines as far as we could in daylight, and stopped for supper about five o'clock. Three of us had bought some cheese, bread and jam, so, with the modest rations furnished us we had an excellent supper, sitting out in the middle of a field, with a fine view off to the west and no reminders from the north that such a thing as war was going on.
We had not been there very long before we heard a hiss and a bang near by, and ran over to see what had happened. We found that one of the new boys had picked up a hand grenade and thrown it into a near-by trench, but it failed to explode; so he looked over to discover the reason. Then it did go off (as usual) and some jagged splinters hit him in the leg above the knee. We bandaged him up, hailed a passing ambulance, and shipped him off to the hospital, from which reports have come that the slug was easily removed and he will soon be out. He was a lucky lad. The fields about here are filled with unexploded shells and hand grenades and bombs, and we have strict orders not to touch them; so it was his own fault entirely.
We had to wait until ten o'clock so that we should not be seen going to the lines. We ran down into the gully of the Aisne River; and just as we were about to cross the stream, the car ahead of me, instead of turning and going over the new bridge, headed straight for the one which had been destroyed, and almost reached there, but was stopped in time. I turned to the right without waiting for him, crossed the new makeshift bridge, and went banging along up to the opposite slope where we were to unload.
There was no shelling to speak of, so soon all ten trucks were unloaded and we were ready to go home, but it was not to be. There was a lot of heavy shells which were to be moved to another spot from a near-by abandoned battery; so we cranked up and started off for another load. It was awfully dark and cloudy and just beginning to rain; so there was an excuse for my almost running down some soldiers on their way back from the trenches. They were marching along silently in the dark, the captain with a dog leading the way on foot, the soldiers with their rifles and packs close behind him, following behind the supply wagons.
NOTE EMBLEM OF "GROUPE HÉMART" ON CAR PANEL
So having passed by, we ran on for a few kilometres in the pouring rain. The unloaded trucks slid first to one side of the road, then to the other, with sometimes a wheel in the ditch. After a time we found the shells, which turned out to be those huge "320's." It took the men a long time to load them; so we coiled up on the seats, pulled our thick coats over us, and slept soundly in the rain for almost two hours.
Then came the order to move, the cars roared and spluttered; one went into a ditch and had to be pulled out. Another lost all the water from its radiator because the car ahead smashed into it; but went along, the last car towing the invalid. The road we were on would in daylight have been about as safe as a lane in No Man's Land; but now, with only the star-shells burning over us and no "sausages " up, it was as safe as an American street on a summer night. The star-shells lighted things wonderfully.
We went rumbling through deserted villages, the noise of the trucks becoming a roar in the little narrow streets. Never a soul do you see in these small ruined towns; it is almost uncanny. Most of the little houses are roofless, some have great gaping holes in the walls; many have hardly anything left but the walls themselves, which stand out in all their jaggedness against the blaze of light to the north. A sentry stood at the bridge as we crossed a poplar-lined canal. We ran along through the country again; but soon entered one of the prettiest French towns I have yet seen.
The streets are wide (for a French town), most of the buildings were châteaux set well back from the road among the trees, and oddly enough they were not much damaged by shell-fire. Off to the right was clearly visible a square church tower, surmounted by the spire such as tops so many French country churches.
We turned to the left, and suddenly came into a part of the town which had been torn to pieces. Most of the trees were cut off near the ground; some still stood with a grotesque limb or two projecting from the trunk. The houses were in ruins; great round shadows in the gardens showed where some of the shells had landed. It was almost impossible to believe that this was a part of the same town.
We passed on again into the country and turned back toward the south. The star-shells behind us cast the shadows of the camion on the road before us. No longer was the illumination an aid; it was most decidedly a hindrance. The road became rougher; we bumped rapidly on; and then suddenly came out into one of the great broad highways for which France is famous. Those of us who were wise enough to remove the governors from our cars flew along; those who had not done so bumped placidly along. Finally, just as it was growing light, we came to our depot, only to find we could not be unloaded until six o'clock.
The driver of the car ahead of me let down the back of his truck, exposing the forty-odd shells which lay there. He thought he would be unloaded there; but, instead, he was told to move farther on. Forgetting that his tail-board was down, he started ahead, jolting over the corduroy road. I saw the last one of the shells move back; then it rolled a bit nearer the edge. I did not budge, but sat there scared stiff. Nearer it came and suddenly rolled off and dropped five feet onto the log roadway and lay there --- without exploding.
We curled up again on our coats, and although the rain began again, we slept on for two hours until the men came to unload us. Then we flew for home, picking up some turbaned African soldiers who asked for a lift. At 7.30 A.M. we pulled in here, and at 8 we were sound asleep after eighteen hours on the road. I have gone into detail about this trip, so as to show what our work is like. Sometimes we have more excitement in various forms; but this was an average trip.
ALDEN BRADFORD SHERRY*
*Of Troy, New York; Cornell, '16; served in T.M.U. 526 from April, 1917; subsequently a First Lieutenant, U.S. Aviation.
SLOWLY and carefully the convoy crept along, mounting higher and higher until at last the level plateau was reached. The anxious Sergeant at the head stopped, and the ten cars behind slowly closed into line, leaving only a few feet between each of the heavily laden camions. The night was inky black, and a drizzling mist had been falling for hours --- fields, roads, everything was covered with wet and slush. Time and again muddy ditches had tempted the sliding wheels; but the well-chosen route of the experienced leader kept the cars on the hard road; and now the last and most dangerous stage of the trip lay just ahead. For two hours the curtain of night had hidden the approach of supplies which an entire battery had been calling for all day. As soon as the obscuring dark had closed in, the camion section had started from an ammunition parc to bring the hungry "75's" their daily rations. Through the day enemy observers in air planes and observation balloons watched the roads along the front for any signs of activity. Artillery regiments returning to their posts of duty, infantry troops, and all supply trains wait for night to cover their advance over the zone within the spyglass range. Lights are never used, of course, and even the glow from the cigarette of a tired and dusty soldier is forbidden. Before starting again, the sergeant hastily went down the line of his charges, counting them to make sure none was left behind and questioning each driver for any trouble; how the motor was running, if they were going slow enough, etc. In the dark, any kind of accident might happen. A collision with a passing wagon train, a slip into the ditch, a bad bump --- and there are always plenty of those -- or ramming the car ahead. The strain on the pilot makes even two hours of driving seem ages: the constant nervous tension, the fear of hitting an obstruction --- because often it is only by the feel of the wheel one can find the road --- but, most of all, fear of the car ahead making a sudden stop. Because of the darkness it is necessary to travel close together; an unexpected turn might lose half the convoy, for a bad road makes each car follow the track of the one in advance; hence close running is imperative. A rear-end collision is no novelty when the dark renders eyes useless and the bumpy rattle of the car makes noises almost indistinguishable. I was doing the best I could with the old car assigned to me; but that best was only enough to keep me from being lost altogether. Any kind of hill forced me into a slower speed than the others; and I was continually trying to even up the wide space ahead. To the sergeant's relief, I finally made the last long grade and joined the end of the convoi with the precious six-ton load of trench bombs. Again the convoi began to move; and this time the greatest care was necessary. Four kilometres away, the sharp-eyed observers of the enemy were on the watch; and that four-kilometre drive was to be reduced to three kilometres, then to two; and then under cover of black night the waiting soldiers would take the load into the deep underground bombproof, close to the concealed battery, and safe from the fire of those thousands just over the ridge.
*Of Richmond, Virginia; Yale, '20; joined the Field Service in May, 1917; served with T.M.U. 133; subsequently a Second Lieutenant, U.S. Aviation; killed in aeroplane accident in France, August 30, 1918.
Soissons, October 10, 1917
THE experiences of camping-out days in America come into play just now in a most admirable fashion. This is especially the case in the matter of eating and cooking. Thus, we have just been trying to make a hunk of red beef look like porterhouse. We never quite succeed in doing that; but it surely does taste so to us after we have fried it brown just as we like it. Then we pour in the potatoes and onions, heat the coffee, and "hop to it"; and we enjoy the meal. Meat, by the way, is the worst item in the bill of fare here. Our "beef" has too often hauled Paris delivery wagons and responded to whatever is the French equivalent for "Get-up," and to "Whoa," which, they tell me, is the one international word. Every nation under the sun stops its horses with "Whoa."
Last night, being Sunday, we went out and cooked our supper. As usual, every Frenchman who passed by stopped. They always do. At Villers four poilus --- one of them a young lad from Dunkirk whom I liked especially well, and who spoke a little English bashfully and haltingly --- used to come up every night from their camp near by and talk and smoke as we ate and cooked. The young fellow was home on his permission when we left; unfortunately, I did n't get to tell him good-bye. Last night among other passers-by were two old men and a little boy. They spoke a queer dialect French which I had great difficulty in understanding. I gathered from what one said that he was very bitter at the high prices civilians had to pay for all provisions; and I understood that he was orating because we, who were "avec les armées," had plenty and could go picnicking with jam and potatoes and meat. To straighten things and square ourselves, we told him that we had paid for everything ourselves and come up there to cook our own supper because we wanted a good meal for a change. But this did n't go; and, after ten minutes, I made out that he was urging Bert and me to come with him, but just why, I couldn't tell; and he grew more noisy and gesticulated more profusely until I finally grasped that he was sorry for us and was inviting us to his farm for supper. His wife would cook us a great kettle of potatoes "comme ça" --- indicating a "beaucoup" quantity --- and eggs. Furthermore, he had a little good wine and we need n't drink black coffee; also he had a great admiration for Americans, knew we were helping France, and he wanted to show his appreciation. Then, when we insisted in poor French that we really must go, and thanked him, he orated again. We mustn't be afraid of him. His farm was only a little way off, and there were soldiers close by; he was an old man and had a "bon cur," vigorously hitting himself on that vital part of his anatomy so that we should be sure to understand him and know that he meant what he said. Besides, he would be honored to have Americans dine with him. By this time our supper was cooked and getting cold, so we had to politely but firmly decline, with the understanding that it would be a pleasure and an honor to accept his kind invitation the next evening. But it rained to-night and we couldn't go. To-morrow afternoon I shall walk over to his farm, and if he is still in the notion, believe me, I shall accept avec plaisir.
This was all typically French. They are the finest, most polite people in the world; and one meets here, back in the hilly districts of France, some of the most delightful characters to be found anywhere.
ELMER M. JOHNSON*
*Of Melville, Montana; Cornell, '20; joined T.M.U. 397 in July, 1917; subsequently Second Lieutenant, U.S.Q.M.C.
IF the self-appointed task of the California Section has been an unspectacular and rather inglorious one, it has been none the less earnest, for the men have had at least the satisfaction of having done a man's work. Through all the ups and downs and all the discouragements, which are bound to be met with in any service, there was no losing sight of the common end we were all working for --- victory. The transporting of shells and ammunition may be a humble task, but it is a necessary one; and to carry some eighteen or twenty thousand shells up to the front in a single night has helped a little to defeat the Boches on the Chemin des Dames; for it was on the Aisne front that the California Section served, through the memorable summer and fall campaign of 1917.
The members of the Section, wherever the fortunes of war have taken them, will always be glad to have been associated with the American Field Service in the "heyday" of its glory, and they will always be grateful for all that has been done for them by that organization. For it must never be forgotten that it was the American Field Service which did so much in the early days of the war, before the entrance of America, to keep alive and bright the flame of kindred spirit which has ever existed between the two great Republics. It is difficult for Americans at home to appreciate just what this active expression of all that America has sincerely and devotedly felt since the beginning, has meant to such a people as the French. Much as the American Field Service has actually accomplished in the field, this is by far its greatest contribution in the war.
RICHARD D. SIAS*
*Of Corona, California; University of California; five months in Field Service, T.M.U. 133; afterwards Second Lieutenant, U.S. Field Artillery.
Camp, October 11, 1917
ONE trip took us to within 1200 yards of the first-line trenches, which is very close for five-ton camions. Of course, we could n't proceed from the main road toward the trenches until after dark. The road was absolutely new to us; the night was raw and the rain came down most of the time in buckets. Such conditions rendered the sides of the road most dangerous for our heavy loads, and it was so dark that I could n't see whether any one was even on the seat beside me or not. But, finally, the time came to start and it was up to me to lead the convoy. A sergeant always rides in the first car, keeping directly in the middle of the road, and I could just barely make him out as a slightly darker blotch than the surrounding blackness, about three feet in front of the radiator. Things that I met on the road were most uncanny; they did n't seem to come along as things should; but were just suddenly there, and seemingly twice their natural size, especially the large camions. Of course, the other drivers as well as ourselves were worried about going off the road; so the close shaves were very close and scraping of hubs and sides most frequent. The batteries of heavy guns by this time were firing on all sides of us, and their flashes helped us not a little. The flashes are like heat lightning, as near as I can describe them. But realty the sole thing that we had to thank for our safe arrival at the parc were the star-shells. They are shot up just like a sky rocket, leaving the same bright trail of sparks; then they suddenly twist out like an arc-light, and, by aid of small parachutes, hang for some seconds before falling. When the road was lighted up by these, we sometimes got into high gear, but the contrast, when they went out, made going almost impossible until another one befriended us. The road was in miserable condition, all rutted up, and the shell-holes did n't add any to the riding qualities of our voitures. Finally, I caught up to the first convoy, which I found was stalled for keeps. We were opposite the place where we were to unload, but were going on to a place where we could turn around. I walked ahead and noticed that the first car was directly across the road with one of the front wheels out of sight in the mud. The next three cars, in going to the first car's aid, got stuck in the mud, which put the four cars all in the same fix; and the traffic all this while was piling up on both sides. It took us just four hours to clear that road. You can imagine how I blessed my rubber boots during all this knee-deep wading. After getting all the camions to one side of the road, we could n't find any one to unload us; so we had to do it ourselves. I had just dropped my tail-board and was climbing in, when the explosion, the flash, and the whistle of a shell came all at the same time, and the blamed thing dropped just one hundred feet short of my camion. That started things, and the shells began whistling in in earnest. Thereupon three or four of us found an abri, and in we piled. It was already almost full of Frenchmen. We could hear them --- the shells, not the Frenchmen --- whistling overhead, but luckily none of them struck the road. It was. soon over, whereupon we went out and unloaded anywhere that our camions happened to be. We then went up and turned around where we had tried to some four or five hours before. Coming back by the place where we were unloaded, we were stalled again and were waiting when more shells came in. We were all not a little nervous, I can assure you. Just as I was expecting to make my most welcome get-away, a car ran entirely off the road into a field, which, fortunately, had a solid bottom at the depth of one foot or so; and it was up to me to haul it out. But, after getting backed up to it and tied on, my wheels just spun; so there was nothing to do but put on chains. This operation gave me the perfect appearance of a lump of mud. Even then the blamed wheels would n't hold, so we hooked another camion onto mine, and we finally all came out. Expecting shells during all this work made it quite exciting; but luckily none came in. By now the sky had cleared up sufficiently to let the moon peep through occasionally; so we started home in better spirits. But I had only made about a kilometre, when, put, splutter, lif, bang! --- and I was out of gasoline. We always carry three extra fifty-litre cans of gas; so that was n't as awful as it might have been, but it was bad enough. Well, to cut a long story as short as possible, I climbed into my cold, cold blankets at four-thirty. This trip was preceded by two long night trips in the rain and another one yesterday; so you can easily guess why I slept right up until lunch-time to-day.
Camp, October 31
THE great attack is over; I longed to tell you about the extensive preparations which were going on all about us; but, of course, I could not do that. Day by day the masses of material were being piled up in the parcs far back of the lines; and day in and day out the trucks never ceased rolling their loads to advanced dépôts. I could write pages on the massing of the infantry, the bringing up and locating of the heavy guns, the amount and sizes of vast quantities of munitions, the distributing of the various kinds of war material, and so on, but peace has not been declared yet. The artillery action in preparation for the attack was beyond description. The bombardment culminated in an effort more tremendous than had taken place either at Verdun, on the Somme, or in Flanders. At one of the temporary detention camps I saw 250 Germans out of the 11,000 captured. They were mostly young boys, some of whom were glad to get out of the inferno they had gone through. One of them could speak very good English, and said that he had eaten nothing for two whole days, the French barrage fire having cut off their communications. They certainly were all in. One of them, a boy of eighteen, had only been in the war nine days, which he said was plenty long enough for him. In the barrage fire mentioned above, the "75's" alone fired 2330 shells a minute.
In my letter home of the 3d inst. I told you about one of the hardest and most exciting trips that we had had. Well, three days ago, each of us that was on that trip received a personal letter of congratulations from the Captain of our groupe.
RICHARD V. BANKS*
*Of Ossining, New York; five months in the Field Service; subsequently Second Lieutenant, U.S. Aviation; killed in motor-truck accident, near Nancy, October 30, 1918.
TOWARD the end of August, 1917, when I was still new to France, when to my eyes the sights of the Old World appeared much as does the toy department of a store to the popping vision of a six-year-old, an usual amount of traffic began to pass over the small stretch of road with which I was acquainted. My unaccustomed eyes saw munition wagons, soup-kitchens, and carts of all descriptions pass by. Soon this combination was interspersed with guns, "75's" and "155's," which grew in number as time went on, until most of the traffic was of this description. But, little by little, not only did the nature of the convoys change, but also the volume. Mass after mass of engineers' carts, horseshoeing outfits, guns and more guns, came along each day. Then, the big pieces began to arrive. One would meet a train of powerful "Quad" two tractors, shackled together, and the pair slowly but surely drawing a huge cannon, the twenty-inch tires of whose truck sank into the hard macadam roadway as if it were sand. No wonder the roads of France are eaten away; rather, what a wonder that they are as good as they are! Thus, as the days passed, the traffic passed, all headed in the same direction, almost all going through Soissons. Even the more experienced said that the number of guns being concentrated was terrific. It seemed to me that there could be on the entire front but very few more than those I saw toiling toward one point. Last of all, men passed --- on foot, covered with dust; in camions smothered with dust;--- wherever they were, however they travelled, dust was their companion. Then came a calm.
On everybody's lips was the whispered question "When will the offensive begin? " --- whispered because the enormity of the preparation had inspired us with awe. Then, too, we were the nearest point to the attack-to-be.
But all remained calm, while the world in our vicinity waited and waited. This was, indeed, the calm before the storm! At last one evening, that of October 16, it was declared secretly in our Headquarters that "Tonight, at zero o'clock" (the mysterious and unknown hour at which all attacks start) "the French are going to begin." We listened all the evening, but heard nothing. I woke up several times in the night --- all was still.
What a difference the next day, and the next, and for many days thereafter! I can still hear that noise, and probably shall be able to imagine it all my life. The explosions were so continuous that what we heard was very nearly one continuous roar. It was as if there were some huge blast furnace in operation in the distance; and, at night, the flashes of the guns could be seen in the sky like the reflections of the fire playing against a background of clouds. When, however, one listened intently, the roar became divided and subdivided, and the explosion of separate guns could be made out, though they lapped and overlapped without any cadence. Now the sound was like the boom of low-pitched kettle-drums, hundreds, thousands of them, all being pounded with no respect to rhythm; and, at short intervals, the louder rumble and roar of a grosse pièce stood out above the other sound like the boom of a huge bass drum. And the flashes were nearly continuous, like lightning in a terrific storm raging in the valley. Each day the air was overflowing with sound; each night, the flashes and the stars vied with each other.
Then, very early on the morning of October 23, I awoke to an uncanny stillness, broken only by the buzz of aeroplane motors. The French had gone over the top. For the next few days, our hearts were joyed by the repeated French successes. Under that terrific bombardment, after that great preparation against them, the Germans were fairly outclassed and helpless. Prisoners we met said that it was the most terrific gun-fire they had been through, and that their line of communications had been cut off for four days. Some of the prisoners were sullen --- like true Boches; but most were happy --- just childlike in their happiness to get out of that hell of French fire.
On Hallowe'en afternoon I had the good fortune to be present at a grand review --- the supplement of the victory on the Chemin-des-Dames. On the highest hill of the town were gathered as many dignitaries, and soldiers from the attack, as could be spared from their important duties. There, too, were the captured cannon. As was the case a short time before, men and cannon faced each other.
The square was filled with Boche "77's" some with their curious rifling exposed where a direct hit had ploughed its way along; some with gear blown to bits; almost all with a disfigurement of some description. Alongside and in between were trench-mortars with their ugly, death-dealing mouths turned heavenward. It was a simple matter to put one's head into the muzzle of one of them, so large were they; and, like the cannon, they bore marks of that withering fire which had been turned upon them by the French. In great number, and no less damaged, were the machine guns and Minenwerfer. Row upon row of them squatted upon the grass, like beasts sniffing the air before advancing stealthily against their prey. What an array it was and how silently but vividly it testified to the accuracy and gallantry of the forces of Right striving against the lawless lords of Germany!
The men and the flags to be decorated were lined up opposite the cannon. Most of the soldiers were of the well-known chasseurs, with their clean-cut faces, their determined jaws, and their rakish bérets. Over their neat, dark-blue uniforms floated the flags of their various units, and, most prominently, the splendid tricolor. The band Played the " Marseillaise," as only a French one can; and then, after the citation had been read, General Le Maistre, followed by M. Clemenceau, "Le Tigre," pinned on each man who had been cited the Cross which stands for so much of bravery and courage, and sealed the act with the kiss of comradeship.
FREDERICK W. KURTH*
*Of Roxbury, Massachusetts; Harvard, '18; T.M.U. 537. Subsequently a Sergeant First Class, U.S. Motor Transport Corps (Réserve Mallet).
As already stated, the United States Army authorities in the autumn of 1917 agreed to take over the camion sections which the Field Service had supplied to the French Army. They agreed also, after enlisting the Field Service men and commissioning the Field Service Officers, to recruit and multiply their sections by additions from the United States Army troops, and, most important of all, it was agreed that these sections would be left with the Mallet Reserve in the service of the French Army. The organization was thereafter to be officially designated as the American Mission, and Major (later Colonel) Gordon Robinson was placed in command of the American personnel.
In the preparations for the concluding offensive made by the French on the Chemin-des-Dames in the fall of 1917, most of the motor-transport work had been performed by the volunteers of the American Field Service. In the concluding days of the offensive the transfer of this service to the United States Army took place. About three hundred of the old camion volunteers enlisted with the American Mission, but several hundred others, who did not want to enlist permanently in this branch of the army, nevertheless continued for a considerable time to serve in it as volunteers in order to avoid any abrupt interruption. Many, in fact, continued to do so until replacing troops had arrived from America in December.
In the course of the drive which the English made before Cambrai in the latter part of November, 1917, orders called out practically every camion in the Mallet Reserve. November 21, the long convoys took the road from Soissons to Château-Thierry and on to Montreuil and la Ferté-sous-Jouarre, where they loaded with French attacking troops. Then they turned and carried them back to the vicinity of Péronne, Montdidier, and Nesle, to be held in reserve there for the English offensive. After discharging their troops, the convoys returned and established camp in the city of Montdidier, where they remained eight days awaiting developments in the offensive. The rest of the winter was spent in Soissons.
AFFAIRS were at this point when the German offensive began, on March 21, 1918. On March 16 shells had begun falling in Soissons and the bombardment grew more intense as the date for launching the offensive approached. The camps of the companies at Soissons had to be evacuated. The headquarters of the American Mission moved from Soissons to the Ferme de Chavigny on March 25. After this move came a period of intensely hard work for all the companies in the organization. It was American drivers on the trucks of the Mallet Reserve ,that hauled the French troops who made their startling appearance just in time to close the hole made in the English army back of Saint-Quentin.
It was also these American drivers who transported the reserves of artillery which enabled the French troops to stop the advance of the Germans toward Compiègne. This was the first time in the history of the Reserve that field pieces of the 75-mm. calibre were hauled on the trucks. Machine guns were also part of the loads in many of the convoys. During the last week of March the trucks of all the companies were on the road almost continuously, concentrating troops and ammunition about Ham, Nesle, Montdidier, and Guiscard. There were exciting circumstances during many of the convoys.
The following are examples of the work of the convoys at this time: On March 27 Groupe Meyer, with 50 cars, and Groupes Genin and Pacques, with 30 each, left camp at 12.30 P.M. and proceeded to Vassens. There they loaded three battalions of the 126th Infantry, the headquarters company, mitrailleuse carts (4 per truck), and rolling kitchens and limbers, transporting them to Le Plessis-Brion, north of Compiègne where the first cars arrived about 6 P.M. The convoy returned home empty, via the Soissons-Compiègne highway, arriving about 11.30 P.m.
Shortly after midnight of March 28, 50 cars from Groupe Gillette, 40 from Genin, and 35 from Pacques loaded three battalions of the 327th Infantry at Montmacq and the headquarters personnel at Saint-Leger-aux-Bois, unloading at Ressons, six kilometres from the lines. At 4.40 A.M. while the loading of the three battalions was under way, an enemy plane dropped five or six bombs. Twenty-six men were killed, thirty-five wounded slightly and an unknown number severely, many mortally. A sufficient number of trucks were detached to carry back the dead and lightly wounded. Motor ambulances were telephoned for to transport the stretcher cases. The trucks returned to camp early in the afternoon, except eleven which were detached from Groupe Genin to evacuate the material of an H.O.E.
The carrying of troops was up to the 8th of April almost continuous, many trips being made as far east as Châlons. During this time, though the American Mission headquarters had been moved back to the Ferme de Chavigny, the camps of the various Groupes were still kept on the roads about Soissons because convoys were principally made over the main highways leading north and south from this city. However, the first week in April the bombardment of the city and its vicinity grew so intense that it was found necessary to move all camps farther back. So, on April 9, Groupes Robinson, Gillette, and Pacques moved to Vivières and Soucy, south of Vic-sur-Aisne and the remainder of the Groupes moved to Violaine and Villers-Hélon, near Longpont.
THE interval between the end of the German drive on the Somme and its resumption on the Aisne at the end of May was used by the various truck companies for recuperation. The wear and tear of continuous action had been especially hard on the trucks and they were in need of thorough overhauling. So during the lull in activities, the men were engaged in work of this nature at their villages. There were only a few convoys made, to the region of Soissons and Villers-Cotterets.
When the call came again for transport on the night of May 27, at the start of the German drive on the Aisne, the Americans in the Mallet Reserve were ready. Activities consisted in hauling ammunition up and refugees back, and there were brushes with the enemy along the roads between Soissons and Fismes. One company waiting to evacuate a French headquarters in Soissons got out of town about an hour before the Germans entered it. So swift was the German drive that the mayors of cities along the Aisne were not given time to get their people evacuated, and hence had to call on the camions. It was during the early days of this battle of the Aisne, also, while the French Army was making a desperate resistance around Corcy and Longpont, that a truck belonging to the Reserve was captured, along with a French battery beside which it was standing to be unloaded. The gunners took the shells out of the truck and ran over to the gun to fire them at point-blank range, for the Boches were only about a kilometre away. Presently the gunners got orders to retreat. Wishing to exhaust all their ammunition they fired the last shell before obeying the order to fall back, and the truck, in making a turn to expedite unloading, broke an axle. The last shell was fired with the Germans in plain sight and the gunners and drivers escaped on a gun caisson.
On the night of May 28 the headquarters, which was still at Chavigny farm, received orders to evacuate immediately. With such supplies and other material as could be loaded into a section of French camions, the headquarters left Longpont at three o'clock in the morning of the 29th, and, travelling by way of Villers-Cotterets, arrived at Etrépilly, northwest of Château-Thierry at nine in the morning. Owing to the rapidity of the German advance, a part of the supplies in the warehouse at Longpont had to be abandoned. After a delay of one day at Etrépilly, the headquarters moved on to Meaux, where temporary quarters were established in the barracks of the school of instruction there.
On May 31 the enlisted men in the headquarters company were temporarily distributed among the various companies in the field as drivers to relieve the excessive strain of driving to which the men in the companies had been subjected for about five days. These companies, after breaking camp in the vicinity of Longpont, moved to villages about la Ferté-sous-Jouarre.
While operating in the Advance Section, it frequently became necessary to send out a "salvage party." Spare parts being, in the Advance Section, even more than elsewhere in the A.E.F., hard to obtain, when a truck caught fire or was hit, the salvage party was sent to dismantle and bring back to the organization headquarters the remains of the truck. This had continually to be done under rather heavy fire --- and occasionally such an expedition resulted in the salvaging of a German truck. During the latter part of the war rubber had become so scarce in Germany that, for truck tires, recourse was had to two concentric iron rings of different diameter, cushioned between with small blocks of rubber or with spiral steel springs. The German trucks which were captured from time to time were objects of great curiosity.
The men of the American Mission, Mallet Reserve, were in all the desperate fighting that checked the German drive across the Aisne and held them at Château-Thierry. They hauled American troops, of the 26th Division and Marines, to the lines about Château-Thierry and the battles in which they won so much glory. Transport work during the month of June was adjusted to the line of advance made by the Germans. Though there were some troop convoys, particularly those in which the Americans were hauled, the greater number of the convoys were of munitions hauled to the Villers-Cotterets, la Ferté-sous-Jouarre, and Château-Thierry sectors, part of it for French and part for American batteries. Loading was effected in Meaux, Changis, Claye, Mitry-Mory (a point only fifteen kilometres from Paris), and the railheads between Meaux and Coulommiers; occasionally, too, there were trips as far as Chantilly and Rebais.
Enemy aerial activity throughout the month continued to subject transport work to much more danger and difficulty than usual. Camions from Groupes Vincent, Bernard, and Browning had narrow escapes during the early part of the month when enemy aviators blew up a munitions parc at May-en-Multien, and attacked convoys of these groupes with machine guns. In many cases, particularly with the "155's, the camions were sent forward to the batteries themselves, the ammunition being taken out of the truck and thrust directly into the breeches of the guns.
FIGHTING was practically stationary in the Marne sector during the first eighteen days of July, but it was a period of intense preparation and severe trench-fighting. The trucks of the Mallet Reserve were hauling shells day and night to French and American batteries around the bulge in the line from Corcy and Longpont to Château-Thierry. Headquarters of the American Mission remained at Meaux during the month, with cantonments in small villages thereabouts.
Transport work was exceedingly heavy. Most companies were daily on the road for long periods. While shells were the principal material hauled, some transports of troops were made. During the entire month traffic conditions made the management of convoys especially difficult. Roads were heavily burdened with vehicles of every description, artillery trains going in and coming out, ravitaillement of all sorts, and columns of infantry. In the transportation of munitions there were also many hard problems to solve. Until July 18 the artillery munitions parcs were more or less immobile, but after that date, when the Americans inaugurated General Foch's grand offensive at Château-Thierry, and, after taking the initiative, began a rapid advance, a shifting line caused orders for the camions carrying shells to discharge their cargoes regularly at the batteries and not at munitions parcs. Toward the end of the month most of the companies were hauling "155's" and "75's" direct from railhead to battery. This brought them repeatedly under shell-fire and led to predicaments requiring coolness and decision. The trips with ammunition took the camions of the Reserve up through the wheatfields of the Marne and beyond them, past the dead, still lying on the field, and past the scores of German batteries abandoned with the gunners piled about their pieces. The trucks formed almost the only link between the supply base and the advancing troops because supply by rail was impossible by reason of the rapid advance.
In August the Reserve left the Marne-Ourcq sector and moved up to the Oise and Somme for the offensives that were planned there and launched, on August 8, before Montdidier by the First and Third French Armies. The work performed during the first week of the month was mostly transportation of shock troops to the neighborhood of Montdidier. Between August 4 and 7 troops were taken from reserves in rear areas to Taillefontaine, Ferme Saint-Nicholas, and Jumal. After an intensive barrage that lasted two days, these went into the attack on the morning of August 8. Altogether, the month of August set a record over previous months for long hours and quantity of material transported, and, because the camions were rolling in the open country of the Somme most of the time and unprotected from enemy observation from the hills, there was greater danger.
On August 2 Captain P. B. K. Potter was placed in command of the Mission. Five days later the headquarters was moved from Meaux to Houdainville near Mouy, the companies being scattered in the villages to the north in the direction of Clermont and Estrées-Saint-Denis. On August 15, after the successful drive at Montdidier, the headquarters moved to Lihus, and on the 17th of August it was again moved to Crêvecur-le-Grand, south of Amiens, where it remained until August 31.
Working through the shell-swept country of the Somme there was scarcely any rest from the beginning to the end of the month. The ammunition parcs were relayed from time to time as the armies advanced. About the middle of the month part of the Reserve began working to the north, with the French First Army, while the rest of it worked farther south, with the Third and Sixth armies, and in addition to the transportation of shells, evacuated Compiègne when German airplanes threatened it with destruction by repeated nightly visits.
Some idea of the strenuousness of the work may be gained from a glance at the figures for the month of August. During the month, out of 744 hours in the month, one company rolled 669 hours, making only 75 hours of the month when this company did not have camions on the road. Groupe Wilcox hauled 6513 tons of shells and 1808 troops; Groupe Robinson carried 8091 tons of ammunition and 2781 troops; Groupe Browning transported 10,297 tons of ammunition and 3678 troops; and Groupe Vincent hauled 9054 tons of ammunition and 3349 troops. The companies rolled an average of 5300 kilometres during the month, working in the Amiens, Montdidier, Ressons-sur-Matz, Marest-sur-Matz, Soissons, Villers-Cotterets, and Compiègne sectors.
Until the last week in September the theatre of operations was unchanged, and the trucks covered every road about Breteuil, Wavignies, Faverolles, Noyon, Lassigny, and Nesle, in the territory between the Oise and the Somme. Headquarters until September 19 was at Moyenneville, southwest of Montdidier, and on that date moved to Compiègne and five days later to Château-Thierry. After a few days in Château-Thierry it then moved to Epernay, with the truck companies following and being stationed in its vicinity. This move was occasioned by the attack which the French launched, in driving toward Rethel. When the organization left the Oise-Somme district, part of Groupe Lamade was left behind to move ammunition parcs on the road leading south from Amiens. After coming to the Champagne district, the work continued as heavy as ever, for the offensive there was one of the greatest French efforts and was characterized by some of the most stubborn fighting of the war. Here the trucks supported divisions of Italians as well as the French. In Groupe Wilcox there was a slight falling-off in the activities, due to a breakdown in equipment in consequence of overstrain. Groupe Lamade transported 10,450 tons of munitions during the month, Groupe Robinson, 3989 tons and 1088 troops, Groupe Browning, 9879 tons, and Groupe Vincent, 10496 tons.
ON September 30 the trucks of the Reserve hauled the tanks from Suippes that made the attack on the plateau of Tahure, cleared this important region of the enemy, and opened up the road to the taking of Vouziers. This plateau was a stronghold situated east of Reims, northwest of Verdun, and directly south of Vouziers. It was the Centre of a triangle formed by these three points, and it was also where the French armies joined the American armies in the terrific fighting in the Argonne. A description of the operation, which was typical of others, will perhaps be of interest.
Ninety tanks were hauled on this occasion. The loading was made at Somme-Suippes near Châlons. The way was long and the driving hard to Tahure, for the weight of the tanks made the heavy trucks sink into the roads, which were in bad shape. Upon coming nearer to the front the drivers had to dodge shell-holes, and several times when a truck got into one of these they had to stop while it was pulled out with a tank. There were enemy observation balloons along the horizon ahead of them and enemy shells occasionally landing in the fields around them. When it grew dark, as heavy firing was taking place, the drivers kept in the road by the glare of the guns. Back of the plateau of Tahure they stopped to unload at the point where the tanks were going into action in the morning. There was a long wait. About midnight the Germans started to shell a cross-roads on the hillside just above them. This was a bad sign, for the Germans were retreating, and at such times they generally spent the night showering their shells on the roads and back areas to save themselves the trouble of hauling them back or to prevent them falling into enemy hands. The traffic was heavy at the cross-roads where the tanks were being unloaded. There was a first-aid dressing-station on one side and ambulances arriving and departing ceaselessly. Mules, loaded with ammunition, were passing in one direction and mules, with no burden, were passing in the other. As the shells fell closer there was consideration of moving. A short time later the shelling stopped and airplanes began to whirr over. On the horizon could be seen tracer bullets flying in the air. The anti-aircraft guns took up the chant till their noise grew and drowned out that of the guns firing near the trenches. Then the earth about the trucks trembled, as with a loud growl and crump several bombs fell, all at once, indicating that the planes were bombing a near-by battery. All this time the unloading of the trucks continued, for it was imperative that there be no delay now in getting the tanks into position. So, in spite of the danger of discovery it involved, the drivers, who were helping in the unloading, employed flashlights in aiding the heavy tanks to crawl down the runways without falling off. This shortened the time of unloading. The drivers got away just a little while before the tanks went into the action that was completely successful in clearing the plateau of Tahure of the enemy. The experience of these trucks of the Mallet Reserve was used in the preparation of a M.T.C. Bulletin containing advice and instructions on the management of a tank convoy which was sent to all M.T.C. organizations in the American Expeditionary Forces.
A groupe of the Réserve Mallet making the first convoy of seven-ton tanks on five-ton camions
Groupe Lamade, consisting of four truck companies, was busied with these tank convoys up to the 3d of October. For the rest of the companies, the month of October saw a falling-off in the tonnage of material hauled, as compared with previous months. The French, during the early part of October, were fighting continuously in the Champagne, but, after having made considerable progress in the first days of the battle, were then checked and held up by stronger German resistance. During this time the companies worked out of Château-Thierry, Châlons, Savigny, and Jonchery, with headquarters at Epernay.
On October 15 the rapidity of the French advance north and east of Saint-Quentin required more camion transportation in that region, since rail transportation was out of the question for some time, so that one Groupement, consisting of Groupes Robinson, Wilcox, and Ordway, was detached from the rest of the organization and sent north to villages about Nesle for duty with another French army. The three remaining Groupes moved north to Reims, as the French continued to advance. Headquarters were established there on October 19, and the work was centred about this city, which was the farthest advanced railhead. Ammunition and food supplies were both hauled from the Reims dépôt.
However, on October 30, activities were diverted to another convoy of tanks to be taken to the region about Château-Porcien, where was raging some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Some three hundred light tanks were taken up to the vicinity of Lor by Groupes Lamade, Vincent, and Browning, and, as happened a month before, it was the tanks which were chiefly responsible for the success of the attack in which they were employed. Roads leading up to the front were in very bad condition and part of the time one company of trucks had to tow another to get by the roads. The convoys hauling these tanks were continuously under shell-fire and met with many dangerous and difficult situations.
THE transport of ammunition was uninterrupted until the day before the German delegates started toward General Foch's Headquarters for the memorable conference that ended the war. A day or so before this all orders for ammunition were stopped and both the companies in the neighborhood of Saint-Quentin, and those around Reims began the hauling of food supplies.
On November 5 the Groupes to the north moved into Saint-Quentin from Nesle, where they remained until November 18. Almost from this time on they hauled provisions and passengers about the neighborhood of Saint-Quentin and Guise. On November 18 these three Groupes rejoined the rest of the Reserve and moved into Novy, near Rethel. A day later they moved on to Le Chesne.
On November 16 headquarters was moved from Reims to Rethel, and on November 19 moved again to Charleville-Mézières. On November 29 another change was made to Sedan, where they remained until May, 1919. The other three Groupes made several moves, from Jonchery to La Malmaison, Asfeld-la-Ville, and Avaux, till they finally settled, toward the end of the month, at Saulces Monclin, near Sedan.
After the signing of the Armistice the trucks made many long trips into Luxembourg and Belgium, part hauling food and part troops of the army of occupation. They were called upon to take the place of the destroyed railroads, and throughout the north of France it was chiefly motor transportation that kept the armies of occupation going. In addition to provisioning the armies, the trucks also hauled food for civilians and hauled back to their homes those who had been evacuated by the Germans. Trips into Luxembourg were especially long and hard because of the fact that the railheads were so far back.
Immediately after the signing of the Armistice, the following letter was issued by Commandant Mallet:
"To-day, when France and her allies are magnificently rewarded for the sacrifices undergone during more than four years by the most complete victory in history, I express my heartfelt thanks to the personnel of the Reserve, officers and men, American and French, for the unceasing devotion of which they gave proof under every circumstance.
"I am proud to command an organization in, which every member has shown such a high regard for duty and for the importance of his task.
"All will be happy to feel, to-day, that the effort furnished by the Reserve has contributed its part toward the final victory. I wish, particularly, to express my gratitude to our comrades of the American Field Service, who came to offer their services to France at a time when they were under no obligation to take part in the war; and who were, in a way, the connecting link between the armies of France, which had been struggling since the beginning of hostilities, and the great American Army, without which the Victory of Right would have been impossible.
"I pay a tribute to all members of the Reserve who lost their lives during the campaign and, particularly, to our dear friend, Lieutenant Edwards, who fell on the field of honor barely three weeks before the cessation of hostilities.
"Our work is not finished. Our duty now is to make one last effort and to replace the means of communication destroyed by the enemy during his retreat. This effort will be hard, but the security of our armies of occupation, the provisioning of our soldiers and the civilian population must be assured before all.
"I am confident that I can depend on all to accomplish this task to the end."
Commandant Mallet, who had organized the Reserve which bears his name, was relieved of duty with it and left, November 29, to go to India on a mission for the French Government. The American officers of the Reserve, at a dinner given in his honor at Sedan on the day of his departure, presented him with a silver loving-cup.
Captain Pavillon, who had been Major Mallet's assistant, succeeded as French commanding officer of the Reserve, but only remained as the head until February 23, at which time the Mallet Reserve was disbanded as a French unit, and was cut down to two Groupements. On leaving, Captain Pavillon paid high tribute to the Americans in the Reserve. "The vicissitudes of war undergone together, the dangers and the fatigues suffered in common," he said, "have served to create between us ties that we will never forget. The Reserve is like a big family, where without the distinction of nationality all are comrades, and where there is not only mutual respect but something deeper."
About the first of May, the two Groupements were formally released from the French armies, the French trucks and equipment were turned over to the French authorities, and the American personnel was placed at the disposal of the American Army. On May 9 the telegram was received ordering the American Mission, Mallet Reserve, with all the troops under its command, to depart for a base port in anticipation of its return to the United States.
Thus ended the history of another branch of the old Field Service --- the camion branch --- a formation in many respects unique in the annals of the War. As an indication of the character of the men who composed this branch of the Field Service, let it be said in conclusion that of the three hundred Field Service men who remained in the Mallet Reserve after the United States Army took over its command, no less than one hundred and twenty-nine, or 40 per cent, became commissioned officers in that department, the Motor Transport Corps, of the Army.
Through the tinted village,
Blind beetles, one by one,
*Of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Harvard, '18; served as volunteer for three months with T.M.U. 133 of the Réserve Mallet in 1917.
Literature of the Field Service
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