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Section Sixteen (SSU 16)

SECTION SIXTEEN left Paris at the end of the third week of April, 1917. It went to Rarécourt, in the Verdun-Argonne sector, and in this sector it remained for nearly six months working about Grange-le-Compte and the poste of Bon Abri. Its greatest activity was during and after the successful Verdun offensive in August of that year. Just before the end of its history it moved to Corbeil, back of Vitry-le-François, for a repos, and there became Section Six-Thirty-Four of the U.S. Army Ambulance Service.

'The Ambulance Sections', History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France" 1914-1917, Told by Its Members, Volume II (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1920)


Finish'd the days, the clouds dispell'd,
The travail o'er, the long-sought extrication,
When lo! reborn, high o'er the European world,
(In gladness answering thence, as face afar to face,
reflecting ours, Columbia,)
Again thy star, O France, fair lustrous star,
In heavenly peace, clear, more bright than ever,
Shall beam immortal.




Section Sixteen's history may be described almost as a single operation. Its work during the five months before it was taken over by the American Army lay in one sector, and was connected during the entire time with the August, 1917, offensive about Verdun.

The Section was composed entirely of men who had come to France before America entered the war, and the bond that united them, from the very outset, was their love for France. Though drawn from every part of their own country --- from half a dozen universities and twice that number of colleges and schools --- almost at once there sprang up among us an idealistic spirit, which made us a unit. So, because of this spirit, drudgery became rather a play and discomfort less hard to bear. The men saw the good in each other and grew strangely tolerant. Danger became vastly less important than getting to a poste, and never once was there hesitation in going where ordered; never once was there a second call for volunteers.

At the end of the third week of April, 1917, Section Sixteen left Paris. The early morning departure from the park of "21" was delayed for a special inspection by M. Justin Godart, the Assistant Secretary of War, and hence the first night on the road came at Montmirail, a black, seething backwater of the Champagne offensive then at its height. Next day came Châlons, and night at Fains, with no accidents beyond blow-outs. The feeling of war was now in the cold, spring air which made this homely village, with its high, sheltering hills, seem very friendly. A day's waiting for orders, a day full of rumors and guesses, followed, and ended suddenly by Hyde, the Sous-chef, and myself being sent ahead to Rarécourt to learn the country from Section Four which we were destined to relieve.

This country was a vast stretch of rolling, fertile upland. To the west lay the valley of the Aire and the dark line of the Argonne from which the pine-clad promontory of Clermont jutted out into the plain. Toward the north the land rose to a line of hills covered by the Forest of Hesse, while eastward it stretched away to the Hauts-de-Meuse south of Verdun. Here and there in the valleys lay tiny villages; squat, stone-faced cottages huddled about slate-roofed church spires, some of them almost intact and still inhabited, others a desolation of crumbling walls.

Rarécourt itself, from its bridge across the Aire, straggles up to its church on the hilltop, and there by the church were the Section's headquarters, barracks, messroom, officers' quarters, and the repair-shop. From there, in accordance with the French system, the cars ran up eighteen kilometres to the front, either by the straight white road through the Aire Valley, or winding up over the hills to the Forest of Hesse, to bring back the wounded to the divisional sorting-hospital, where other cars carried those who could be moved to specialized hospitals, or to the rail-head twelve kilometres farther south.

The work at first was very light. Six men with their ambulances were always at the advanced postes, whence they could be called by telephone to the dressing-stations near the lines; two men with cars were stationed at the sorting-hospital; and three for police, water, and provisions. The forward postes were greatly in demand. The sector Avocourt-Vauquois-Boureuilles was very quiet. Only occasional shells came in. Almost imperceptibly, however, the work increased, until by June the road took on a new life. Batteries of guns began moving up, and long convoys of ammunition trucks passed continuously. At the end of the month, the Germans attacked at Hill 304, just to the right.



At such a moment no one in the Section was willing to take advantage of the Fourth-of-July leave, and in appreciation of this General Collin gave us all to ourselves an Independence Day Fête, with a regimental band, champagne, etc., and we had as guests men from the neighboring sections, Seventeen, Nineteen, and Twenty-Six. We put two big tents end to end, with flaps up and the American and French flags flying from the pole. The fellows worked like beavers rooting up red poppies, blue cornflowers, and white lilies, which we tied to the tent-poles that were also adorned with bunches of cherries to be had for the picking. Besides about fifty Americans, various chaplains and military doctors were also present, while the General Staff sent one of its captains. So it was a very good party, with the "Marseillaise," "Star-Spangled Banner," and decent weather thrown in. After the feast, the General talked to the fellows and went through the cantonment which was in apple-pie order. The Boches, I should add, supplied the fireworks, but did not get any thing out of it in return.

This Fête marked the end of light work. A week later the Section left Rarécourt and moved up two miles nearer the lines, going into quarters in a huge stone barn, which the Boches had found the range of the day before. They continually shelled the lane leading to it. Every night the roads were alive with batteries moving up to the forest and each day they were shelled farther back. The men at the forward postes no longer sat in their cars, but as soon as they arrived scooted into dugouts. Calls for wounded sometimes meant lying in a ditch by the roadside until shelling stopped and the blessés could be brought up. Sometimes a dead stop came with a jerk just before a yawning crater where the road had been, and this meant a long détour in order to reach the poste.



At this period it rained incessantly for three weeks and the roads became swamps of clay spotted with shell-holes and churned by the wheels of heavy guns. With the rain, the Germans began throwing in gas-shells; but, nevertheless, the men at the front postes drove steadily all night, and the number of cars on call and at the sorting-hospital had to be doubled. The roads in the forest were, too, continuously under fire, and every other day a new car returned with holes made by shell fragments. Yet no man was wounded.

Daily for a week the cannonading grew more intense. Dead horses and twisted camions were left along the road, proofs of the disorder that reigned there. In the dust and the darkness, under the crash of guns and through the poison mist of gas, the drivers took their cars up and brought the wounded back, while the mechanics, sometimes at headquarters, sometimes at the front, kept the Fords in repair, replacing a wheel shot away here, and a differential pierced by a shell fragment there, or righting a car lying crumpled in the ditch where a charging camion had sent it. But the strain and suspense only grew.

Then, on August 20, the attack came. Our Division was at the extreme left, its rôle being principally of an artillery nature. But at Avocourt our infantry moved forward, and through Avocourt the German prisoners began coming in. The forest fairly rocked with the concussion of French guns which each day lengthened their range; and each day, too, marked a further advance on our right. And our work grew heavier; Bowie was wounded and received the Croix de Guerre. A dugout two of our men had just left was gouged out and the shelter for the piquet cars destroyed. The "Tournant de la Mort" deserved its name. The "Rendez-vous de Chasse" became "Death Hunting-Ground," and the "Carrefour de Santé" was the "Cross-Road of Desolation." Even the Section's headquarters were shelled and three Frenchmen killed there, while avions made darkness a nightmare. Yet the cars made their rounds as regularly as in the calm days of early spring, made their rounds and pushed closer to the lines, down into Avocourt itself, and out that long white road where there was only wire between them and the German lines.

But little by little conditions grew quieter, the shelling less frequent, and fewer cars were called out. The change was coming, and by mid-September the old Section began to be revolutionized. Their enlistment completed, eleven men left to go into other services or to return to America, and by the end of the month we had gone back en repos near Vitry-le-François.

No history of this Section would be complete without mention of our foreign personnel, those first-class Frenchmen, Manuel the cook, Louis Coudray, Auburn, Dogorn, and Blondet, the brigadiers Noguès and Boyer, and Grain the postman. Nor shall we ever forget our French officer, Second Lieutenant Delaballe, and the maréchaux des logis, Bardon, Job, and de Saussey.

To countless memories, of darkness and discomfort, of danger and suffering and death, must be added those of sunlight and the long summer twilight on Clermont Hill, of section banquets and swimming in the Aire, of friendships won and the gratification of work well done, marked by the carrying of thousands of wounded. All this makes the story of Section Sixteen mean volumes to us.

*Of Glastonbury, Connecticut; Yale, '04; joined the Field Service in March, 1917, serving as Chef of Section Sixteen; subsequently a First Lieutenant of Engineers, U.S. Army, and Liaison Officer.



Rarécourt, June 24,1917

This sector of the front (the Argonne) which our Section is serving is a comparatively quiet one. The men are longing for more exciting work or a change. There are two postes at the front where we keep cars stationed day and night, and three more where we are liable to be called at any time. Our cantonment is about eight miles from the front, so we hear the guns plainly and see the star shells at night. For sleeping quarters we have a standard French cantonment of wooden barracks, while we eat in a near-by house. Like most of the other sections, we think we have the best French cook in the army.

The other day, two of our fellows had a rather exciting experience at the thirty-six-hour poste, which is located in the cellar of a ruined house in a village about a mile from the lines. The vault of the cellar is well made, and, having been strengthened by the addition of about four feet of stones, it would probably stand even a "155." These two fellows started out for a short walk about the town, when, having explored the deserted houses to their satisfaction, they sat down on a concrete watering-trough in the centre of the village, where was a sign that read: "Do not remain here because you are in plain sight of the enemy." However, neither of them thought there was any danger because the Germans were not in the habit of shelling the town. For perhaps fifteen minutes they talked and listened to the usual sounds of the front, such as the départs and arrivées, when a French observation plane flew overhead toward the German lines and high-explosives began breaking around it. Suddenly they heard a whirring, whistling sound which came toward them with startling rapidity. Instinct told them to get close to the ground; so they tried to get under the watering-trough. The shell passed directly over their heads and exploded down by the old mill, about two hundred feet away. Without any remarks, they got up, made a dash for the good old cellar, and there, in its security, heard thirty-five shells land in the town, one of which fell squarely on the roof of the abri, but did no damage. When it was all over, the fellows agreed that perhaps the Frenchman who put up that "No Loitering" sign knew what he was about.

Rarécourt, July 5

Yesterday, being the Fourth, we had quite a celebration. Tables were set for the following menu: ham sandwiches, several kinds of cakes and cookies, champagne, beer, cigars and cigarettes. This lunch took place at 4 P.M. In the evening at 7 the Section had a wonderful dinner in the tents. The menu included peach pie.

Bon Abri, July 13

Last night the doctor with whom we eat seemed greatly depressed and said that he had no appetite for supper. We asked him what was the matter and he answered that he had just assisted at the burial of ten Frenchmen, all of whom he had treated and cared for. One would think that an army surgeon would have come to regard death as a matter of course, but underneath they must be just as tender-hearted as the rest of us.

Grange-le- Comte, July 19

We have moved our Headquarters from the town where we were to an old château situated about a mile from here. The château proper is occupied by the General and his staff, while we have the theatre. The seats have been removed, but the stage is intact: a rather odd place to live in. One of our fellows received a large box of shredded wheat biscuits from home yesterday, so our breakfasts are somewhat more sumptuous.

August 18

Our "quiet sector" has livened up quite a bit the past few days. The artillery action increases daily and we are having plenty of work and excitement. One fellow, last night on duty at Bon Abri, had his car riddled by éclats, which pierced the body in about twenty places. Also a big shell exploded in the middle of the road, about three hundred feet ahead of two of the fellows who were going out to a poste, and stones and earth came down on the top of the car, but hurt nobody. In consequence, the road was blocked for several hours. Four of our fellows who were out at one of the postes also experienced a gas attack last night. The Germans shot in a large number of gas-shells and the woods were filled with the gas for several hours.

August 26

Our Section was just on the edge of the recent French attack at Mort Homme, and we had much work and excitement. Several cars were hit, but no one was injured. One of our cars brought in some wounded Germans. One among their number spoke English, and the first thing he wanted to know was, "How many Americans are there in France?" During the attack the Germans tried to cut the roads by using very large shells, which, when they hit, did cut it effectively, making a hole about ten feet deep and twenty feet across.

September 10

A few days ago the Germans bombarded the railroad which runs within forty feet of our cantonment. Some of the shells came very near us and we had to take to the woods. To provide a shelter in case of such bombardments, we have been ordered to dig some trenches in a field near our barracks. It is hard work, but when we get them finished, they will be a safe place during bombardments. The Germans have a new long-range gun opposite us, and they try it out every afternoon. Naturally, the work on our trenches is progressing rapidly under this new stimulus.

I have said that we are quartered in a theatre. Last night we had a treat. The General, who lives next door, has a moving-picture machine and eight reels of pictures. He loaned them to us and we enjoyed a real movie. The pictures were small, but very clear. All this seemed very appropriate in a theatre.

*Of Wilmington, Vermont; Harvard, '17, served with Section Sixteen, and as a Sergeant, U.S.A. Ambulance Service during the war. The above are clippings from a personal journal.



At Poste "Bon Abri," September, 1917
Monday morning

Have been sitting here in my bunk for the last two hours reading the letters and diary of Alan Seeger. The French cannonade is exceptionally heavy for this early morning hour, and the earth gives a terrific shudder every half-minute as the neighboring batteries of "155's" send off their quota of death and destruction to the Boche. The arrivés are not very frequent, but from time to time we hear the weird shriek of a "150" as it comes whistling over our heads and its dull roar as it bursts around the Carrefour de Santé....

Déjeuner came to interrupt my morning entry --- and then one of the brancardiers and I exchanged French and English lessons until it was time to depart with a load of malades. I am finding enough well-educated men among the brancardiers so that I can continue my work in pronunciation.

Abri at Camp Dervin --- Jeudi

I wanted to write a little last night, but we are not allowed to have lights out of doors in spite of the seclusion of the abri on this sheltered side of the hill. Inside of the abri there is only room for eight men, four brancardiers and four ambulanciers, to stretch themselves on their bunks si plein des puces. Downing and I stayed here on this little earth terrace talking far into the night. I had a wild desire to sleep out, the night was so beautiful; however, on account of the danger from gas attacks I compromised by spreading my blanket-roll here and gazing up through the trees while we talked. I was reminded of some of my idyllic nights in the pine grove on the banks of the Piscataqua. But periodic disillusionment came as the "155's" at the base of the hill sent an occasional shell over our heads, screaming into the night.

After dinner I set off to gain the observatoire and see some of the enemy country. After following a bewildering, winding line of trenches and wire entanglements along the crest of the hill, I finally arrived and was cordially shown around by the poilus there. Through a pair of periscope glasses which were carefully concealed by the camouflage, I could see the immense clouds of dust raised as our shells arrived from time to time. Through another glass I saw the ruined village of Montfaucon, and the tree observatory which was being shelled. A large road which ran along in full view was completely torn up by shell-holes. A careful scrutiny of the map which was suspended at one side gave me a more intimate acquaintance with the exact locations of the trenches on 304.

Grange-le-Comte --- Sunday evening

We are to go back en repos Wednesday. The last two nights have been very chilly. Every man in the cantonment suffered more or less from the cold. Yesterday evening the new regiments which are to relieve the Division were filing up the road into the yard. What a slaughter there would have been had a few Boche planes sauntered by.

We were routed out this evening by the sound of falling bombs, but the airplanes have passed over now, and seem to have gone farther inland or toward the hospitals and railway stations. All the fellows here fled to the trenches and abris. I stayed out by the trench long enough to watch the explosions of anti-aircraft shells and the flare caused by the bombs as they struck. This is a weird, damned business of war.

*Of Eastport, Maine; Harvard, '18; joined Section Sixteen in April, 1917; later in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service. These are extracts from an unpublished diary.



From November 4 until December 19, Section Sixteen (U.S. 634) continued work in the Verdun sector, being cantoned at Houdainville, and having postes at Citerne Marceau, La Source, and Poste d'Alsace (Carrière Sud). It was here that the car driven by Kendall was hit by shrapnel, and Kendall injured, but not seriously. Following this came repos at Triaucourt. From the 19th until the 24th of January, the Section was attached to the 3d Division and worked Hill 304 in the Mort Homme sector. Its cantonment was Jubécourt, and the postes were Esnes and Montzéville.

On January 25 began a repos at Ligny-en-Barrois. On February 18, however, the Section returned to the front with its old Division, serving in the Bois d'Avocourt sector until April 2. The cantonment was Rarécourt; the postes were P4 and P2, Formont and Avocourt. During the height of the Somme defensive the 3d Division took part in holding a sector near La Faloise from April 28 until August 11. It was in this town that the Section was cantoned. It was later shelled out of the town, and camped in the woods. Bombing was frequent. The Section served postes at Ainval and Thory, and was cited for its work here. The 3d Division took part in the opening of the allied offensive, when the British and French attacked in liaison. The Section's cantonment was at La Faloise, and the postes Thory, Brache, Aubvillers, and Sauvillers.

The Section then moved to the Saint-Mihiel region, being held as a reserve for the American forces at Vanault-les-Dames. It then proceeded to take part in the Champagne-Argonne offensive, being attached to the 53d French Division. It was in this sector from October 15 to October 31. The 53d Division was made up of two French regiments and two regiments of Czecho-Slovaks, former Austrian soldiers, and volunteers now for the French cause. They were fine fighters and suffered very heavy losses. The Section's cantonment during this time was in a field near Bourcq, and the postes were Vrizy, Grivy, and Condé-lèz-Vouziers. During the latter part of this offensive in the Champagne, the Section cantonment was at Jonchery-sur-Vesle, with postes at Pévy and Hermonville.

The Section, after the close of the Champagne-Argonne-Meuse offensive on November 1, entrained for the Vosges, where its Division was due to take part in the coming Franco-American Metz-Lorraine drive. The Section convoyed to Vittel, the famous peace-time watering-place. It was here when the Armistice was signed. It soon took part in the advance of the French Army of Occupation, going into Lorraine by way of Metz and Thionville. During its stay in Germany it was cantoned at Saarbrücken, Saint-Ingbert, Kaiserslautern, and Kirchheimbolander. It was at this town that it was relieved on March 7, 1919, by S.S.U. 619, and, leaving its cars there, proceeded to the U.S.A.A.S. Base Camp, en route for l'Amérique.

*Of Fulton, New York; Cornell, '19; served in Section Seventy for two months, and, on enlisting in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service, with Section Sixteen.