FOURTEEN SHIPS CONSTITUTED THE CONVOY accompanying the British S. S. Scotian to Liverpool. The fifteen ships proceeded in a formation of three lines of vessels, five ships to each line. I should say that the ships extended backward about an equal distance.
The troop ships were preceded by an auxiliary cruiser for about one-third of the way across the Atlantic.
On board the S. S. Scotian, in addition to our men, was a regiment of artillery of the 33rd Division. We were much crowded, and there was not room enough for all soldiers to be on deck at once; hence, companies would alternate in spending time during the day on deck. We were literally packed on that boat like sardines in a can. Only those who have sailed on such a transport under similar conditions can appreciate the tremendous difficulties under which an American soldier reached France in 1918.
Mark Sullivan has described it well: "Fantastic with camouflage, the ship moved down the bay and met other transports; together they headed toward the open sea. Somewhere in the Atlantic they would pick up their convoy of gray, rake-lined destroyers.
"Ten days on a transport was a misery. The men crowded into the hold, where bunks jammed to the ceiling; when the ship rose, swayed and fell, sea-sickness became contagious, epidemic, the quarters almost unbearable. Officers forbade smoking on deck, ordered all lights covered. There was nothing to do but shoot craps or play poker, until, entering the war zone, one could look for submarines --- every piece of driftwood, every breaking wave, became a periscope. Perhaps, one morning, doughboys lined the rail to watch the white wake of a torpedo slide by the stern, and see the destroyers, belching smoke, dash in to drop a depth bomb. In the geyser of foam which boomed up were scraps of metal, and oil spread on the water. The stands cheered as if Ty Cobb had stolen home.
"At dusk they met another convoy homeward bound. 'Hospital ships,' said someone, and men talked late in the night about wounds, death, and battle, and reckoned up their chances until the serg' shouted from the hatch, 'Stow it down there!' Next morning early there was a fog and then, suddenly, before them, around them, lay high rocky islands on the gray sea, The gray clot on the hillside ahead, growing clearer moment by moment, was Brest".
Yet our trip on the S. S. Scotian was not particularly exciting. Decks were dark at night, and shades were tightly drawn over all portholes or windows. We officers tried to do as much for the comfort and morale of our men as we could, we occasionally stood watch and regularly took part in what were styled "submarine drills". Lifeboat drills were held daily. Officers of the various units were instructed to use their pistols if the men, in the event of a submarine attack or a similar occurrence, failed to obey orders to the letter. Harsh as such instructions may seem in times of peace, the fact remains that one man could jeopardize the safety of many. Congested as the Scotian was, even the semblance of a disorder could have blazed up into a riot or panic that would have cost many lives needlessly.
One occurrence on board that transport has always seemed very funny to me, although we did not view it with amusement at the time. Three-inch guns were mounted at the bow and stern of the ship. They were intended to be weapons of defense against submarines. The gunners in charge of these guns held target practice nearly every afternoon, tossing an old box or barrel over the rail and waiting until the object was several hundred yards away, floating on the surface of the water. Then they opened fire. But when I think of the prowess of those men, I also think of the famous outburst attributed to the Duke of Wellington as he gazed on his staff of general officers with anger in his eyes; "By God, gentlemen, you may not frighten the enemy, but you certainly frighten me!" Those gunners of the S. S. Scotian could not come even close to hitting the targets floating in the sea. I do not remember their ever striking one of the barrels or boxes, but these targets were considerably smaller than submarines. We were not at all reassured as we watched them; Would their accuracy have improved under the desperate exigencies of a submarine attack? Would the mortal necessity of dealing the winning blow first have lent precision to their aim if the black, malignant filament of a periscope had thrust itself above the waters of the Atlantic? I do not know. We had no occasion to learn. The voyage was without incident, and the skill of the gunners was not tried.
Part of the time I stood watch for submarines. I was stationed on the top deck of the ship; my watch was from two to four o'clock in the morning. This watch was known as the "graveyard watch". It seemed rather useless to me, for usually it was so dark that I could scarcely see my hand before me. There were no railings on the deck in the part of the ship which was my province; instead, a few lifeboats were secured where the railings would have been placed. As I paced back and forth in the darkness, looking down into the black waters for submarines, it would have been very easy for me to pitch forward into the sea under the rolling and floundering of our overloaded vessel. I often speculated on the thought that if I were to disappear absolutely nothing would happen; that my life or another man's life or the lives of five hundred men meant nothing and were of no importance in such a mighty struggle as that into which I was to be projected. I could not smoke; no one smoked on deck at night. No lights were permitted on deck excepting a small red lamp which was placed at the stern of each vessel. Wireless was not used; during the daytime the ships kept in communication with each other by flag signals, and at night low whistles were used. We ate and slept in life belts, and we were not permitted to undress to go to bed.
Censorship of the mail began as soon as the ship left Hoboken. Many of the soldiers whiled away their idle hours during the voyage by writing letters which they intended to mail to their people at home as soon as they disembarked. Some of these letters were remarkable documents, and if one were to judge their contents without suspicion as to veracity, the greatest battles of the World War were fought by some of the soldiers on the S. S. Scotian two days after that ship left America.
One morning just before dawn, I had stretched out in my bunk, someone turned in a submarine alarm. We were one day's sailing from the Irish coast, and we knew that before many hours should pass we would be safe in England. Most of us were struck with terror as we leaped up sleepily in answer to that alarm; but we could have stayed in bed for all the real danger that confronted the ship. An overzealous doughboy on submarine watch had merely sighted a convoy of British submarine chasers which had slipped out to sea to meet our convoy of ship and escort it into port. They were small, speedy boats which could dart through the seas like water-bugs, and I suppose that in the gray haze of the dawn at sea they could easily be mistaken for German submarines.
What an ambulance company does and how wounded men reach the safety of the base hospital, far outside the zone of warfare, have been well explained by Colonel P. M. Ashburn in his "History of the Medical Department of the United States Army":
"The evacuation of wounded begins on the field, when members of the regimental medical detachment apply first-aid dressings and direct, assist, or carry the wounded men to aid stations. These regimental medical officers apply dressings and splints to prepare the patient for transport. The regimental medical detachments of fifty-five officers and men were not large enough to perform all these duties in times of heavy combat and eight to twelve soldiers had to be withdrawn from each company to assist in the work. Litter-bearers from ambulance companies took the patients from aid stations to ambulance heads or collecting stations, ordinarily the most advanced points which could be reached by ambulances; although whenever possible these went all the way to aid stations and thus reduced the heavy labor of litter-bearing. The headquarters of the ambulance company, where the bulk of its ambulances were stationed, was usually about a mile to the rear of the ambulance head. When a loaded ambulance passed these on its road to the field hospitals, an empty one started forward to replace it, and constant circulation was thus kept up until the field was cleared.
"About five miles back of the front line and outside the area of the most intense artillery fire, two field hospitals were set up side by side as soon as wounded began to arrive, the other two belonging to the division being held in readiness to advance and open farther forward, as the lines advanced. The field hospitals of the World War were places where only emergency surgery was done, wounds redressed and splints reapplied, pain relieved, nourishment given, shock treated, and the patient prepared for further progress toward the rear. All cases arriving here were sorted or 'triaged', as gassed cases, slightly wounded, seriously wounded, ordinary sickness, contagious sickness. Here exhausted or 'shell-shocked' men were rested, fed and either sent back to their organizations, after a few hours, or evacuated to the rear. Men too desperately wounded to be able to stand transportation further were kept here unless a mobile (surgical) hospital had been established close at hand, in which case they were sent to it and remained in it until it had to move, by which time, if not dead, they were transferable to the evacuation hospital, The field hospitals marked the limit of evacuation by divisional medical troops. From twelve to twenty miles back of these, occasionally much more, and on railway sidings connecting with a main line leading to S. O. S.., were located the evacuation hospitals, much better equipped institutions with women nurses, wherein the wounded were given more thorough care than they had yet had, operated upon if necessary, rested, and fed, and from which they were evacuated by rail to the S. O. S. They were transported from field hospital to evacuation hospital by ambulances belonging to the corps or the army. There was never a full allowance of either evacuation hospitals or ambulances, and, as a continually advancing line left continually full evacuation hospitals farther behind, the length of this haul increased."
We of the ambulance company had been schooled in the system of evacuation as outlined by Colonel Ashburn, but we had had no actual experience in the procedure. On the voyage to France we spent much time in speculating on our duties and the dangers attendant thereon. Sometimes our thoughts as we crossed the Atlantic were more disturbing to us than actual service at the front was to be.
I would modify Colonel Ashburn's remarks by saying that the medical corps of a combat division during the World War consisted of a division surgeon, who was the chief medical officer, regimental surgeons, battalion surgeons, and enlisted men in the medical corps. The sanitary train of a division consisted of four ambulance companies and four field hospitals.
I would further modify Colonel Ashburn's report by pointing out that about 90 per cent of the duties of an ambulance company would be the evacuation of wounded men, and about 10 per cent of such duties would be the administration of first aid. We took wounded men from the scene of their injuries to our aid station, and thence back to various hospitals. Theoretically, we were supposed to take wounded men to field hospitals. But as it was to happen, we evacuated men to improvised hospitals that we conducted ourselves, or to base hospitals or to any type of hospital that was available.
We were to find the ambulance company and its duties most interesting. Liaison must be maintained among all combat units of the army, even in the thickest part of battle, for where there is a battle, there are certain to be wounded soldiers. It might be said here that wherever there were wounded men, there were ambulances and personnel to care for them.
The ambulance company has perhaps not received its share of credit for the work it did in 1917 and 1918, compared to the honors and renown that have been accorded other units of the army. An ambulance driver is nearly always in mortal danger. He threads his heavy machine over mud and water, swampland and rutted mockeries of roads. He has a double responsibility in that his life and the lives of several others whom he may transport are frequently threatened by shell, aerial bomb, or rifle fire. The litter-bearers, also, are subject to as much jeopardy as are the soldiers in the trenches and on the plain of battle, for an active litter-bearer is always in the midst of the fight. He must carry out a wounded soldier when the same projectiles that laid the soldier low are whistling and roaring about his own ears. He cannot dodge or swerve or fall to the safety of the earth, as the soldier can. He has to save his own life and the life of the man he is carrying on his litter. Many well-known Americans enlisted in the ambulance service in the early days of the World War, and many of them served in the ambulance service of the French army.
Yet the status of the ambulance company and its members is somewhat unusual. I have heard certain officers allude to the ambulance company as "a bastard outfit". Part of the reason for such a statement is the fact that some men in an ambulance company carry side arms. At the same time, they wear the familiar brassard which bears a Red Cross on it, an insignia by virtue of which, as agreed by various nations at a conference in Geneva many years ago, protects the wearer from being fired upon by the enemy.
In most instances, as I was to learn, the relationship between troops of the line and the Medical Corps was congenial. However, even today there is in evidence a prejudice against the Medical Corps on the part of soldiers and officers of the line. Members of the Medical Corps are not, as a rule, good soldiers. They do not undergo the same sort of rigid training and discipline that are part of the education of a line officer or soldier. Their duties are of course wholly different from those of the professional soldier. The duty of the soldier is to fight. The duty of the physician in the army is to minister to the sick and wounded. Occasionally, at a party or some other social function, I would notice that medical officers were treated cooly and at times were actually snubbed by line officers. In the thick of combat the situation was very different: in the midst of bursting shells and withering machine gun fire a line officer could be severely wounded or crippled at any moment, a fact which he knew well, and he also realized that under such conditions his life would be in the medical officer's hands. At the front, therefore, the line officer usually treated the. medical officer as his best friend.
The great expansion of the Medical Corps of the United States Army after the declaration of war in 1917 is a tribute to those physicians who were already in the regular army and to those who volunteered their services. According to the late Colonel Fielding Garrison, on June 13, 1917, the Medical Department of the American Expeditionary Forces in France consisted of seven officers and two enlisted men. By November 12 of the same year it had expanded to contain 15,276 officers, 8,500 nurses and 134,300 enlisted men, and it was caring for no less than 193,000 sick and wounded soldiers.
This is a record unparalleled in the annals of military medicine.
A curious situation arose when America entered the war in the matter of medical command in France. The surgeon general of the United States Army was Major General William Crawford Gorgas, and as such he was supreme commander of the Medical Corps. The American Expeditionary Forces constituted an army much different from and larger than the regular army, however, and the choice of General Pershing for the post of medical commander of the forces in France was Colonel Merritte W. Ireland. General Gorgas, for some reason, appointed Colonel A. E. Bradley, who was Ireland's senior in point of service, to the post. Colonel Ireland gracefully acceded to the designation of Bradley, and acted as his assistant. Bradley served only a short time, and was invalided home to America in April of 1918, suffering from abscess of the lung. Ireland thereupon became a brigadier general in command of all the medical units of the American Expeditionary Forces, a post to which Bradley originally had been appointed. In August of 1918 Ireland became a major general. He later became surgeon general of the United States Army, retiring in 1938, and he also was elected to the presidency of the American College of Surgeons.
After fourteen days on the Atlantic, we disembarked at Liverpool on July 7, 1918. The problem of getting "Sergeant Pat" off the boat at Liverpool presented itself, but there was no great difficulty in smuggling the animal. The men simply took off their service overcoats and rolled them into bundles. One man wrapped his coat around the bull terrier and took his place in the line of soldiers, all of whose overcoats were rolled into bundles. In one of the bundles "Sergeant Pat" was concealed. In fact, the plan would have been perfect had not the dog's rear legs suddenly slipped down out of the overcoat of the corporal who was carrying him, dangling up and down in full view of the authorities at the wharf. Either he was not seen or it was decided to do nothing about the animal, for the men were not disturbed and the dog reached and entered England safely. It was only a short march from the wharf, up the narrow, twisted, cobble-stone streets of this English seaport, to the train sheds where a train was waiting to bear us south and eastward to Winchester. We had never seen the Old World before, and our marching probably was not impressive to the Llverpudlians as we craned our necks and gaped at the low, dark stone buildings and the strange thoroughfares. Finally, we were hustled into second-class railway coaches with the customary European compartments and side doors.
This was my first sight of rural England. It was not April, nor yet any other season of the year famed in English song or story, yet it seemed to me that the countryside was aflame with sheer beauty and enchantment. We crossed the Mersey and went down through Cheshire and Staffordshire, skirting the beloved Shropshire of Alfred Housman. The superbly tended fields of grain, the well trimmed, crisp green hedge lining the roadways, and the clean red brick cottages presented a picture whose charm I cannot recreate on paper. Sometimes we saw numbers of women and children patiently working in the fields in the sunlight. Such idyllic surroundings, incredibly calm and peaceful despite the fact that the greatest guns ever built were booming not many hundreds of miles away, could teach a visitor the truth of the lines written by the soldier-poet of the British-Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, Rupert Brocke, who died on a French hospital ship near the Isle of Skyres in the Aegean Sea in 1915;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow. . .
Oh! those the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
We stopped at the great steel center of Great Britain, Birmingham, in Warwickshire, where the men streamed from the train and bustled about the station for a short rest. We then proceeded southward to Winchester in Hampshire, not far from the famous English military cantonment of Aldershot. The train reached Winchester station at 1 o'clock in the morning of June 8. The men were awakened, ordered to string packs and to fall in column of squads for marching. Thus we arrived at the camp near Winchester, where for the first time we had a taste of English rations. There was much grumbling and some astonishment at the food, for few of the men had been accustomed to take tea, and they missed their coffee.
I was profoundly affected by the quiet beauty and peacefulness of the English countryside and with the good fellowship which was characteristic generally among the English. As a matter of fact, as Lieutenant-Colonel Lloyd C. Griscom. has revealed, friction did occasionally occur between the Americans and the English, and in most instances it was obviously the work of English politicians and not English military leaders. Colonel Griscom, who was made a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by King George V, was a liaison officer on the staff of Genera Pershing when he visited London with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, to confer with Prime Minister Lloyd George. The fiery Welshman had protested vehemently that England had stripped its empire of ships in which to transport American soldiers to France. He concluded by saying irately that insofar as England was concerned, the American army was useless, and that the ships used to transport the Americans had been used to no advantage.
Baker, who was stalwart in his support of Pershing, replied by saying that he was astonished at the prime minister's remarks. He observed that Pershing's men in France were, to say the least, detaining valuable German divisions that could have been used elsewhere by the enemy.
"We are not in need of advice from any foreign nation as to who should lead our armies," Baker told Lloyd George. "General Pershing possesses the fullest confidence of President Wilson and myself, and except for the most unusual and sudden emergency, American troops must fight as Americans and be commanded by American officers."
Lloyd George, according to Colonel Griscom, retreated from his belligerent position at once, and never thereafter intruded into the conduct of the American army. It might be well to point out, also, that the United States Government paid for the transportation of every soldier who was carried to France in a British ship, and that it also paid rental on all areas of land used in France for training or other purposes not directly concerned with actual warfare at the front.
On June 11 we received orders to proceed to Southampton. The train left Winchester at 2 o'clock that afternoon, rolling into Southampton two hours later. But we saw very little of that port, because at 9 o'clock the same evening we boarded a tiny vessel not much larger than the ferry boats of New York harbor, and set forth almost due south for the French city of Le Havre at the mouth of the River Seine. English and Australian soldiers sailed with us, and there were so many of us that there was really standing room only. We stood or sat all night with our backs to the smokestacks on the top deck of the tiny vessel. It was dark, quiet, and mysterious and cold even though it was in June. Few more men could have been packed aboard that boat.
We had heard that German submarines had ventured to cruise the Channel, but we saw no sign of a hostile craft. Our boat reached the wharf at Le Havre at daybreak of June 12, and as it steamed slowly into the harbor we saw several ships that had fallen prey to German torpedoes. They were lashed helplessly and abjectly to the great pier as they awaited either repair or the scrapper's hammer.
Up the narrow, tortuous Old World streets we marched. We heard excited snatches of conversation in a language we could not understand, and we saw signs we could not read. In such a manner did we realize that we had finally reached French soil.
How many of us were to sail back again we could not know.
WE WERE NOW SKIRTING THE SECTOR WHEREIN Field Marshal Douglas Haig and the British forces were drawn up opposite the Crown Prince Rupprecht and his armies. This was, roughly, the Wotan and Siegfried sectors of the Hindenburg line, a region where the First and Second Divisions of the United States Army, under Marshal Haig, did such splendid fighting in the summer and fall of 1918. It was Earl Haig, alone of all the generals of the Allied cause, who believed that the war could be pushed to a successful finish in 1918. Generalissimo Ferdinand Foch believed the struggle would prolong itself until 1919, and Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, British representative on the Allied Supreme War Council, actually submitted to Lloyd George and the British Cabinet on July 28, 1918, a war plan which called for a "decisive victory" in 1920.
We marched out to a rest camp near Le Havre, encamped there overnight, and on June 13 proceeded to another camp, where we assembled to hear a practical lecture on the use of the gas mask. After the lecture we were issued gas masks, and orders were given us to march part of the way back to the rest camp with the masks in position. They seemed beastly devices to us. Many of us resolved to die of poison gas rather than wear such atrocious coverings. But it was not long before we became used to them. Adversity has a way of dulling the most stubborn resolution.
On June 14 the men were ordered to climb into a long line of boxcars on which the white-painted words, HOMMES 40, CHEVAUX 8 had been stencilled. From the chance bits of Army gossip that had filtered back to us, we knew what these squatty railway cars were for, and although we did not know where we were to go, we had a well-founded suspicion that the "Big Push" was on, for us. Officers were quartered in much abused third class coaches. We rumbled across France in the dead of night, part of the time on a route which English conquerors had used, centuries ago. The Imperial German Armies at this epoch of the war had driven a vast wedge into the Allied lines, the southern point of which could have been denoted by the town of Château-Thierry, and the two sides by lines running from Château-Thierry to Soissons to the northwest, and Rheims to the northeast. Paris was in extreme danger, and most of us had the feeling that we were to be rushed to the sector about Cháteau-Thierry.
Whenever our train paused in a French village on the way to Meaux, we would be likely to see scores of little children and even women at the railway siding, waiting for us. The French no longer considered a troop train an unusual sight, but the American soldiers were indeed a novelty, and it was soon discovered that the American doughboy was by far the friendliest and most generous of all fighting men. Our men loved to poke their heads out of the windows or doors of the train to try to talk to the children when we stopped, and it was not long before French children learned a few English words that would serve them in good stead. Some of them begged for money, but others merely craned their necks and set up the shrill cry of "Chac-lat, chac-lat!" I still remember those odd cries of the little French children, and I remember, also, that invariably they were answered by our men with whatever kind of food or chocolate happened to be at hand, generously and with broad smiles of indulgence.
We passed through the outskirts of Paris at some time during the night, arriving at the town of Meaux, where King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their family paused for a fresh team of horses in their flight from the Revolutionists of Parts on a June day in 1791, Meaux is now a town of some 14,000 citizens; but when we reached it at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon of June 15, 1918, the streets were almost deserted, and buildings on all sides were in various stages of ruin as a result of the heavy artillery fire. German patrols had entered Meaux on the morning of September 5, 1914, but soon retreated when General Manoury's men flanked the town and drove them out.
After a night on the ground in shelter tents in a cemetery we worked up toward the battle sector on June 16, reaching a place called Pierre Levée, where we ate canned meat and hard bread. Despite the terror which the German drive toward Paris had instilled into the hearts of the peasants, the countryside here was beautiful. The fields of wheat were well cared for, and the earth itself appeared to be unusually fertile. No great damage had been done to the woodland by artillery fire, since the territory was removed from the actual region of struggle. Our next march took us to the Château de Montbise, where we stayed for four days, Then we marched to a farm known locally as "the Hermit Farm," where the men were drilled intensively in methods of first aid and in the use of the gas mask. Quarters were established in tents and barns on the farm. We sometimes ventured to neighboring villages, most of which were entirely deserted, houses still standing with windows boarded up or gaping with no sash at all. Yet the farms were being worked industriously. Wheat was needed, and the peasants labored nobly to supply both their own needs and at least a part of the needs of the soldiers.
A lieutenant of our ambulance company slipped over to a nearby village and purchased a large, hand-made knife, looking much like the Bowie knife of the American Southwest. We had much sport at his expense, asking him what he intended to do with his ungainly weapon on the fields of France. An Irishman in the company, with that flair for balloon-pricking more common among the Celts than any other peoples, asked what he proposed to do with his knife. He replied that he intended to slit the throat of every German he met.
"The wounded, too?" asked the Irishman.
"Yes, sir; the wounded, too; every one of them!"
Later events proved this bloodthirsty officer to be not so fierce.
On July 2, Lieutenant John F. Coughlin, who is now a surgeon in Twin Falls, Idaho, and I went to Coulommiers, a village rather well known for its fine cheeses, about 10 or 15 miles southeast of Meaux. I went to the local postal station and mailed my paycheck home to Missouri. On the Fourth of July, lacking the firecrackers and pinwheels and rockets of the homeland, we played baseball with the staff of Field Hospital No. 21. I do not remember which side won.
But some of the 59th Infantry of our Division drew a rare plum: a free trip to the French capital. The 59th Regiment was selected as one unit of the American troops who marched down the newly-named Avenue de Président Wilson in the parade climaxing the great celebration of the American holiday in Paris that year. Three days later, after dark, came what we all believed would be the first sight of blood and death. Under cover of darkness, with all lights extinguished and no man permitted to smoke, we started in trucks for the little village of May-en-Multien on the River Ourcq, about 15 miles west of Château-Thierry. We passed several trains of French motor trucks; it nettled us to see the French soldiers were smoking, whereas we could not.
Our journey was slow, mysterious and fascinating. We worked our way forward very slowly and cautiously. Not until the break of dawn did we reach the completely deserted and shell-torn village of May-en-Multien on the Ourcq, in the vicinity of the first Battle of the Marne of September, 1914, where Ferdinand Foch, then a subordinate general officer in command of the Ninth French Army, is supposed to have telegraphed from Plancy this now famous message to Joffre: "My center gives way, my right recedes; the siruation is excellent. I shall attack." What he really telegraphed was; "The situation is therefore excellent; the attack directed against the Ninth Army appears to be a means to assure the retreat of the German right wing." Legend has magnified these drab words into the preceding dramatic message, and certain writers who delight to indulge in the melodramatic have in turn seen to it that the legend was projected.
As we rolled into the little shambles of a town we could hear the thunder and roar of French massed artillery. Often we could see the showered flash and glare of a bursting shell over the hillsides, and in the daylight hours, from cover, we occasionally watched an Allied airman soaring about in the skies above us.
Officers were billeted in partially-destroyed buildings and cottages, and the men found shelter in nearby barns and sheds. We stayed in this region for ten days, listening to the sullen booming of the French guns and peering up uneasily at night at the skies for the chance sight of a star shell. From this time until the signing of the Armistice we were not out of earshot of the artillery.
The 12th Machine Gun Battalion of the 4th Division was encamped in the woods to one side of us, and the 59th Infantry Regiment (headquarters) was at Lizy-sur-Ourcq. The 4th Division was now in support of the French, and many rumors circulated among our men. The French were busy at digging strong defensive positions, Generalissimo Foch being at this time still committed to the strategic policy of striking many sharp but unrelated blows at the enemy along the line, instead of dealing a single, tremendous assault with a decisive goal in mind, as Marshal Haig wished the Allies to do.
We found the morale of the French soldiers to be at a surprisingly low ebb. They seemed to have no hope of success for the Allies, despite the stimulating effect of America's entry into the war.
"Why did you wait so long to come?" a French officer asked me, "La guerre, c'est fini!"
Yet there was an understanding of their despondency. Not far from where we were a gargantuan Big Bertha from the Krupp works began to hurl huge shells at the housetops of Paris on the morning of July 15, shuffling the affrighted citizens out of their beds in the early light of the dawn. A large siege gun mounted on a turntable in the Bois du Châtelet commenced to rain missiles on the villages of Meaux, Coulommiers and La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, all in our immediate neighborhood.
At times we could hear the ominous drone of a German airplane motor, growing louder and louder as the airplane approached the French lines. It was a sound we shall never forget. We learned to recognize the sound of the mighty 200-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine in the British Sopwith SE-5 pursuit planes, the curiously staccato hum of the French Baby Nieuport biplanes, with their 90-horsepower Rhone rotary engines, the powerful roars of the British de Haviland observation planes, and the rumble of Liberty motors in American biplanes; but the sound of German Rumplers, Fokkers with Mercedes engines, Friedrichshafen bombers and Pfaltz scouting planes, seemed to be distinctive. They struck terror into most of us.
During this bivouac in the forest we had occasion to watch the disconcerting transition of courage into stark fear, in the person of one of the officers of an ambulance company. While that man was in the United States, he was undoubtedly the best officer of any in the four ambulance companies of the 4th Division. He was a serious soldier. He was efficient. He knew his duties thoroughly, and he saw to it that they would be performed. He carried his zeal for military efficiency to such an extreme that he would require soldiers riding on a truck or automobile to descend to the ground before saluting him. We believed that when he reached the front, he would make a great name for himself. Certainly there was no suspicion in any of our minds that he would lose the splendid bearing and admirable self-discipline for which he had been noted in the United States.
Yet this man's nervous system was not adequate to serve him in the tremendous excitement and strain of warfare. Slowly but noticeably, the thunderings of the guns and the whine of hostile aircraft began to affect him while he lay in the forest at May-en-Multien. His temper became short. His carriage was no longer erect and firm. His reaction to the suspense created by idleness in the midst of havoc was soon noticed by all the men of the companies. It was not strange that various stratagems to play upon his weakness were hatched.
He occupied a room just below mine, in a building that had been partially razed by shellfire. There were no windows anywhere in the crumbling structure. A Red Cross officer who often visited Paris brought us some firecrackers one day, and on a night during which German airplanes were speeding across the skies on the way to Paris, I lighted a good-sized firecracker and tossed it out of my window. It exploded with a dull, heavy report on the ground not far from his window. He sprang up like a cat, rushed out and retrieved the shredded remains of the firecracker, and took it into the building with him. Nothing at all was said to him that night.
But the next day, at officers' mess, about 15 of us were seated about a French officer whom we had as a guest. We finally approached the subject of the German airplanes that had flown over our heads the night before, on the way to Paris. The American officer suddenly pulled the exploded firecracker out of his pocket and showed it to the Frenchman.
"See here," he said eagerly, "this is an incendiary bomb--- they dropped it on us last night!"
The French officer examined it in puzzlement, then looked up at us with a smile.
"Eh bien; you play a joke, eh? A Fourt' of July joke; no?"
No one laughed, We tried to steer the conversation into other channels; but those of us who knew of the trick felt rather embarrassed. I was more afraid of an official reprimand during such a critical period of the war than I was ashamed of my conduct. But nothing came of it.
Poison gas was a fearful thing to us before we actually encountered it in combat. We had the idea that the faintest whiff of gas would kill us instantly if we inhaled it without wearing a mask, and it was a subject that consumed many hours of apprehensive speculation. We knew that almost all of the larger German shells contained a noxious gas which was released when the missile exploded, and we also knew of the tendency of poisonous gas to linger in clouds in low-lying depressions or ravines. Yet we had not seen gas or experienced a gas attack.
The alarm system to be used in the event of gas attack consisted of a series of Klaxon horns, which were sounded whenever the cry of "Gas!" was heard. If an attack rolled forward, or if anyone saw the yellowish-white clouds of gas at a distance, the alarm would be relayed far back of the Allied lines, from one outfit to the next. The alarm in this manner conceivably could travel back several miles. Knowing as little as we did about chemical warfare at that time, the shout of "Gas!" or the French "Gaz!" would put the fear of God into us.
At dusk on the evening of July 13, two officers from either the 59th Infantry or the 4th Engineers were walking unsteadily back to their outfit after a tippling bout in a nearby village. One of them suddenly yelled, "Gas! Gas!" The Klaxon immediately began to moan, penetrating every portion of the village. I had just crawled between my two blankets on the hard floor of the half-ruined building, but I leaped up, seized my gas mask and frantically strove to clap it in place. My fingers seemed to be thumbs; they were almost numb and lifeless with fright. At last I jerked the weird-looking device in position, and ventured cautiously out into the open air. I could detect no gas in the atmosphere, so I walked on to the old barn where some of the men were sleeping. There I found that the sergeant in command had roused them and ordered them to don their masks. They had seen or sensed no gas. I therefore turned and went back to the courtyard of the old building in which I was billeted, where several officers were standing, discussing the horrible gas attack. One of them began to wonder about the length of time a mask was good for.
Suddenly, an officer cried: "My God! My mask is leaking!"
He clapped a finger to the nosepiece of his mask, turned to the commanding officer of the company and shouted, "Yes, Sir! The gas is coming in, right here!"
"If that thing is leaking," said the major, "You'd better get out of here in a hurry."
The major had been assigned a Dodge automobile for his use, and the terrified officer stumbled toward the car, yelled to its driver, and they raced back to Meaux along the rutted roads, a distance of about 15 kilometers. There, as we learned later, be dashed into a field hospital that was partially filled with wounded men, gave the alarm, and caused everyone in the place to strap on a gas mask.
Meanwhile, we were exceedingly uncomfortable. We could not see anything resembling gas as we stood there in the darkness, and the masks themselves were, cumbersome and unpleasant to wear. An officer at last lifted up a corner of his mask, sniffed the air, and finally tore off his mask. We all followed his example as confidence returned once more. The air was clear and fresh, and we began to move about in chagrin. We had just been through one of the heaviest gas attacks of the war, yet no one had been, able to smell or otherwise detect the gas.
"How come?" we asked a line officer who came by.
"Where's the gas?"
"Oh, there's no gas," he replied. "it was only a false alarm. A couple of drunken engineers turned it way back to camp."
The mad dash back almost to the outskirts of Paris by the agitated officer was known thereafter as "The Ride of Paul Revere." Ten days later, when the 4th Sanitary Train went into the zone of warfare, evacuating the wounded men from the battlefields and dressing them in the field under the whine of machine gun bullets and the tremendous detonations of screaming shells, this officer completely lost control of himself. In short, he went to pieces. He was attacked by diarrhea of nervous origin, could scarcely eat or sleep, and lost weight at an alarming rate. It was at last necessary to send him far back of the lines to a base hospital.
This man's actions could not be held against him. He was an admirable physician, well trained and intelligent; and he was serious and conscientious in his work. He simply did not possess a nervous system that would adapt itself to the fearful strain and stress of modern warfare. I have no doubt that in civil practice he was one of the finest practitioners of medicine. As an Army physician in the thick of combat he was of no use to anyone.
Later, under actual exposure to the enemy's chemical warfare, we learned to distinguish both the various types of gases and their effects on soldiers. Chlorine gas (Cl), made from the same element that is now widely used to disinfect the water in public swimming pools, was the so-called "cloud gas" first used by the Germans at Ypres on April 22, 1915. It was suffocating in effect, and was an irritant poison. Shells which burst and released poison gas were at first filled with lachrymotor gases, now popularly known as "tear gas." The effect of walking into a pocket of such gas was described by a British soldier as being similar to the sensation arising from a sudden, fierce blow across the eyes. As the war progressed, shells were filled with phosgene (carbonyl chloride, CoCl2), a suffocating gas that was much more poisonous than chlorine; and chlor-methyl chloroformate was also used. Poison gas is said to have inflicted 31 per cent of all wounds on infantry men during the war, more than the wounds caused by rifles, pistols and grenades, combined. Mustard gas, which caused terrible blisters, produced eight times the casualties inflicted by German gases of all other kinds combined.
High explosive shells were filled with diphenylchlorarsine, diphenylcyanarsine and other arsene compounds, and they caused violent irritation of the nose and throat, extreme nausea and intense pain.
At the end of ten days, most of us were anxious to be in the region of strife, even though we were so close to the lines that the booming of the giant guns never left our ears. We were under the influence of a curious psychologic compulsion that is well known to military commanders: we were comparatively safe where we were encamped, yet the incessant echoes of the mighty struggle only a mile or so removed from us created more uneasiness and fear among us than actual combat could have done. The soldier near danger, but not in the thick of it, is under a greater strain than the soldier who faces death with each tick of the watch. The first man has a multitude of terrors to face, with endless hours in which to brood over them. The second man has but one concern, and that is self-preservation. A man does not break down white he is saving his own skin. The breakdown occurs after his skin is finally saved.
I had, thus far, seen neither blood nor death. I was in France, but not the France that the world was reading about. I was next to the field of battle, but not on it.
On the evening of July 17, 1918, this quasi-peaceful life was to change. On that evening I was ordered to report to a French dressing station at Vendrest.
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