IN ACTION --- THE AISNE
As you come along the Compiègne-Soissons road, proceeding in the direction of Soissons, about midway between the two cities you sight a small cluster of gray stone buildings. It is the village of Jaulzy. Here it was we had cast anchor. Before reaching the village you will have noticed a dark round spot in the walls. As you approach, this resolves itself into an arch. Passing through you will find yourself in a muddy stable-yard. I say "muddy" advisedly, for I firmly believe that whatever the season or whatever the weather conditions are, or may have been, you will find that courtyard muddy. Whether the mud is fed from perennial springs or gathers its moisture from the ambient atmosphere, I do not know. The fact remains, that courtyard was, is, and always will be, muddy. Facing the arch on the farther side of the yard, stands a single-storied building of one room. Its inside dimensions are, perhaps, fifty by twenty-five feet. Access is had by a single door and three windows admit a dim light. We found it simply furnished with a wire-bottomed trough, raised about three and a half feet above the floor and extending about double that from the walls on three sides of the room. This left free floor space enough to accommodate a table of planks stretched across essence boxes, flanked on either side by two benches belonging to the same school of design. Such was our cantonment. In the trough twenty of us slept, side by side. At the table we messed, wrote, mended tires, played chess, or lanced boils. Two of the windows lacked glass, so there was plenty of cold air; a condition which a small stove did its inefficient best to combat. The galley was established in a tiny hut on the left of the yard and from here the food was transported to the mess by the two unfortunates who happened to be on "chow" duty. Since the courtyard was not sufficiently large to accommodate all the cars, half were placed in another yard about two hundred metres down the road, where also was established the atelier. At night a sentry was posted on the road between these two points and "le mot" was a condition precedent to passing, a circumstance which sometimes gave rise to embarrassment when the password was forgotten.
The village of Jaulzy is made up of some two-score forbidding-looking houses. It is situated on the south bank of the Aisne and is bisected by the road from Compiègne to Soissons. At this time, February, 1916, it was, as the shell travels, about four kilometres from the line. Though thus within easy reach of the enemy's field artillery, it showed no signs of having been bombarded, and during our entire stay only five or six shells were thrown in. This immunity was probably due to the insignificant size of the place and the fact that no troops were ever quartered there. Back of the village proper, on the top of a steep hill, was Haut Jaulzy, or Upper Jaulzy. Here a large percentage of the houses was partially demolished --- from shell-fire, one of the few remaining inhabitants informed me. Halfway up the hill, between Upper and Lower Jaulzy, stands an ancient stone church. A line of reserve trenches, crossing the hill, traverses the churchyard. Here are buried a number of soldiers, "mort pour la patrie." Above one grave is a wooden cross upon which appears the inscription: "To an unknown English soldier; he died for his father's land." And this grave is even better kept and provided with flowers than the others.
PIERREFONDS --- "VEAL CUTLETS"
The region roundabout Jaulzy is surely among the most beautiful in all France. Hills, plateaus, and wooded valleys, through which flow small, clear streams, all combine to lend it natural charm, a charm of which even winter cannot rob it. Numerous villages are everywhere scattered about, and while those near the front had a war-worn aspect, in proportion to their distance from the line their freshness and attractiveness increased. Railhead for this sector was Pierrefonds, a pleasant town overshadowed by the fairylike castle from which it takes its name. It was at Pierrefonds we obtained our supply of essence and huile. Off to the southwest, in a magnificent forest bearing the same name, is the quaint little city of Villers-Cotterets ---by the Squad rechristened "Veal Cutlets." It was here Dumas was born and lived. The city owed its chief interest to us, however, to the fact that here was located one of the field hospitals to which we transported wounded. Some twenty kilometres to the west of Jaulzy is the old city of Compiègne, reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson, and here too were located evacuation hospitals. Its curious town hall, its venerable houses, and dark, mysterious shops are interesting, but our most lasting memories of the city will be of its silent, windswept streets through which we carried our wounded on those dark, icy nights.
The day began at 6.30 A.M. when the detested alarm clock went into action, supplemented by shouts of "everybody out" and sleepy groans of protest. A quick shift from flea-bag to knickers and tunic, and a promissory toilet was accomplished by 7, by which time, also, the two orderlies for the day had set the table with coffee, bread, and jam. This disposed of, the cars were cranked --- and a bone-wrenching job this usually was, the motors being so stiff from the cold it was next to impossible to "turn them over." There was a Squad rule for "lights out" at 9.30 P.M., but as there were always some individuals who wished to write or play chess or read after this hour, excellent target practice was nightly furnished to those who had retired in the trough and who objected to the continued illumination. Thus I have seen a well-directed boot wipe out an intricate chess match as completely as did the German guns the forts of Liège. The "gunner" in these fusillades always endeavored to see that the ammunition employed --- usually boots --- was the property of some one else and the joy which a "direct hit" engendered was apt to suffer abatement on discovery that they were your boots which had been employed.
EVACUATION --- VIC-SUR-AISNE AND COMPIÈGNE
The schedule under which the Squad operated while on the Aisne was a varied one, and yet so systematized that a driver could tell a fortnight in advance, by the list of sailings posted on the order board, where he should be and what his duties at any given day or hour. There were three regular-route runs, to each of which were assigned two cars a day. These were known as "evacuation runs" from the fact that the blessés were picked up at regularly established field dressing-stations, from two and a half to fifteen kilometres back of the line, and transported to an "evacuation hospital," either at Villers-Cotterets, Compiègne, or Pierrefonds. The longer of these routes was made twice each day, a run of about forty kilometres.
About two kilometres to the east of Jaulzy, on the north side of the river, is the village of Vic-sur-Aisne, at this time not much above a kilometre back of the line. Here was established our picket post and here we maintained always three cars, serving in twenty-four-hour shifts. From this station we served nine frontal postes de secours, or line dressing-stations, some of which were within five hundred metres of the German line. Such were the postes of Hautebraye and Vingre. The crossing of the Aisne to reach Vic is made by a single-spanned iron bridge, over which passed all the transport for this portion of the line. Because of the importance thus given it, the bridge was a continual object of the enemy's fire, being within easy range. The village itself, considering the fact that it was within sight of the Germans and had been under more or less continuous fire for months, was not so complete a wreck as might be imagined. This was due to the fact that the buildings were of stone and the shelling was usually done with small-calibre guns. To obstruct the enemy's view and prevent his spotting passing traffic, the roads leading from the village were screened with brush and poles. These served their purpose in winter when the roads were muddy, but when the roads dried, the rising dust betrayed the passing of the transport and then the enemy was able to shell with a greater degree of accuracy. Our station at Vic was located in the carriage-house of a château which stood on an eminence overlooking the river, about a quarter of a mile to the east of the village. When on duty there, we messed with some sous-officiers in the cellar of the chateau, the place being fairly safe from shell éclats though not from a direct hit.
Besides the three route runs described and the Vic service, the Squad was subject to special calls at any time of the day or night from any part of our sector or the surrounding country. This service was known as "bureau duty," from the fact that the cars assigned to it were stationed at our office or bureau, which was in telephonic communication with the line and region about. Twice a week one of the cars on bureau service was despatched to Compiègne on "chow" foraging, an assignment much coveted, since it meant a chance for a hot bath and a good feed.
Under this schedule a driver had one day in every seven for repos. This was more in theory than actuality, however, as the seventh day usually found work needed on his car.
We had reached Jaulzy on the 27th of January. On the first day of February we took over the sector from the retiring French Ambulance Section, and that day went into action. Heretofore we had watched the passing panorama of war; now we were of it. My first voyage was an evacuation route and hence wholly back of the line. I went in company with another car, and as there were only four assis which the other car took, I had no passengers. Coming back from Cœuvres, the road leads across a plateau which overlooks the Aisne Valley, and the country behind the German lines was plainly visible. It was from this plateau road that for the first time I saw shells bursting. The French batteries in the valley below were in action and over there in Boche-land white puffs of smoke showed where the shells were breaking.
Though I had several times been very close to the line, it was not until February was nine days old that I received my baptism of fire. On that day I was on twenty-four-hour duty at Vic and my journal written just after I came off duty, will, perhaps, give an idea of a typical shift at this station:
NOTES OF A CALL
"Jaulzy, February 10. Relieved the other cars at Vic promptly at eight o'clock yesterday morning. The French batteries were already in action, but there was no response from the enemy till about ten; when a number of shells whistled by overhead, dropping into the village of Roches, about a half mile down the road. Toward noon the range was shortened, and as we went to mess in the dugout an obus struck the wall back of the château, a hundred yards away. After lunch I went out with a soldier to look for the fusée, as the bronze shell-head is called. To my surprise, the man suddenly dropped flat on his face. Then I heard an awful screech, followed by a crash, as though a pile of lumber were falling, and a cloud of dust rose in a field, perhaps ninety metres away. Almost immediately two more crashed in. I am unable to analyze or describe my sensations and I question whether a trained psychologist would be much better off. There is something "disturbing" about shell-fire which is not conducive to abstract or analytical thought. I do not believe I was especially frightened; my feelings were more of curiosity. I knew this shelling would soon mean work for us, so I got back to my car and saw that everything was ready for 'marching.' Meanwhile a shell had dropped just back of the château, getting one of the stretcher-bearers. Joe carried him to the dressing-station at Roches where he died a little later. My first call came at two o'clock, from Roches. Here I got three men, just wounded by shell éclats, evacuating them to the field hospital at Attichy. Got back to Vic about four. Found the village still under fire, both our own and the enemy's fire having, if anything, increased. Both of the other cars were out, which meant I was due for the next call. Got into my sleeping-bag to try to get warm, but was hardly settled before a Médecin Major came in announcing a call for Vingre. In five minutes we were on our way. After leaving Vic the road was a sea of mud. An enemy observation balloon had the way in full view, so the word was vite.
"Through deserted, shell-shattered villages we ploughed, the mud spraying us from tires to top and filling our eyes, over the wind-break. It was nearing dusk as we reached the poste, a dugout in the side of a hill. Just above us, on the crest was the line and we could hear distinctly the popping of hand-grenades between the battery salvos. Our men, one shot through the leg, the other hit in the chest, were brought in from a boyau and we started back, this time going more slowly. It was a desolate scene through which we passed, made more desolate by the fading light of a gray day. The miry, deserted road, the stricken villages, the overgrown fields it seemed the very stamping-ground of death and the voice of that death passed overhead in whining shrieks. There was little of life to dispute its reign. Now and then, at the nozzle of a dugout, there appeared a soldier's head, but that was all, and, for the rest, there might not have been a soul within a thousand miles.
"One of my blessés required an immediate operation, so I passed on through Vic and headed for Compiègne, reaching there about seven o'clock and evacuating to St. Luke's Hospital. At once started back to my station. Found the cook had saved me some dinner, and after stowing this crawled into my flea-bag. The blankets were barely around me when a brancardier came in with a call for the poste at Hautebraye. The moon gave a little light, but not enough to drive fast with safety, so we drove fast and let safety look out for itself, our motto being not "safety first," but "save first." We found our man ready, shot through the body, raving with delirium, his hands bound together to prevent him tearing his wound. Though a part of our way was exposed to the enemy's machine-gun-fire, the road was too pitted with shell-holes to permit of fast driving with so badly wounded a man and so we crept back to Vic. The order was again to Compiègne. It was close to midnight when, numbed with cold, we rolled through the silent streets of the town. On my return trip I twice found myself nodding over the wheel. Nevertheless, we made the thirty-two kilometres in less than an hour. Found Vic quiet, the shelling having ceased, and save for an occasional trench-flare, little to indicate it was the front. At one o'clock I turned in on the stone floor, this time to rest undisturbed till morning.
"Roused out at 6.30 to greet a gray winter day and falling snow. The batteries on both sides were already in action and the put-put-put of machine guns came to us through the crisp air. The relief cars rolled in at eight and we at once cranked up and set out for quarters. As we crossed the Aisne, the Germans were shelling the bridge, with '150's,' I think. They had the exact range, as regards distance, but the shells were falling about a hundred yards to one side, throwing up great geysers of water as they struck the river. On reaching the other side I stopped, and watched them come in., They came four to the minute. Reached quarters here, Jaulzy, at 8.30 --- completing the twenty-four-hour shift."
So it was I had my baptism of fire. Perhaps I was not frightened by those first shells; curiosity may have supplanted other sensations, but. as time went on, and I saw the awful destructive power of shell-fire, when I had seen buildings levelled and men torn to bloody shreds, the realization of their terribleness became mine, and with it came a terror of that horrible soul-melting shriek. And now after a year and a half of war, during which I have been scores of times under fire and have lived for weeks at a time in a daily bombarded city, I am no more reconciled to shell-fire than at first. If anything, the sensation is worse, and personally I do not believe there is such a thing as becoming "used" to it.
THE SENSATION OF NIGHT DRIVING
It was early in February that I got my first experience at night driving without lights. To you gentlemen who have shot rapids, great game, and billiards, who have crossed the Painted Desert and the "line," who have punched cows in Arizona and heads in Mile End Road, who have killed moose in New Brunswick and time in Monte Carlo, who have tramped and skied and trekked, to you who have tried these and still crave a sensation, let me recommend night driving without lights over unfamiliar shell-pitted roads, cluttered with traffic, within easy range of the enemy, challenged every now and then by a sentry who has a loaded gun and no compunction in using it. Your car, which in daylight never seems very powerful, has now become a very juggernaut of force. At the slightest increase of gas it fairly jumps off the road. Throttle down as you may, the speed seems terrific. You find yourself with your head thrust over the wheel, your eyes staring ahead with an intensity which makes them ache --- staring ahead into nothing. Now and then the blackness seems, if possible, to become more dense, and you throw out your clutch and on your brake and come to a dead stop, climbing out to find your radiator touching an overturned caisson. Or mayhap a timely gun-flash or the flare of a trench light will show that you are headed off the road and straight for a tree. A little farther on, the way leads up a hill --- the pulling of the engine is the only thing that tells you this --- and then, just as you top the rise, a star-bomb lights the scene with a dense white glare and the brancardier by your side rasps out, " Vite, pour l'amour de Dieu, vite! ils peuvent nous voir!"--and you drop down the other side of that hill like the fall of a gun-hammer. Then, in a narrow, mud-gutted lane in front of a dugout, you back and fill and finally turn; your bloody load is eased in and you creep back the way you have come, save that now every bump and jolt seems to tear your flesh as you think of those poor, stricken chaps in behind. Yes, there is something of tenseness in lightless night driving under such conditions. Try it, gentlemen.
On the afternoon and night of February 12, there was an attack on the line near Vingre, preceded by drum-fire. As such things go, it was but a small affair. It would perhaps have a line in the communiqué, as, "North of the Aisne the enemy attempted a coup upon a salient of our line, but we repulsed him with loss." That and nothing more. But to those who were there it was very real. The big guns spat their exchange of hate; rifle-fire crackled along the line; the machine guns sewed the air with wicked staccato sounds, and men, with set jaws and bayonets, charged to death through barbed entanglements. As night closed down, the flare-bombs spread their fitful glare on mutilated things which that morning had been living men: now set in the bloody back-wash of wounded. With the coming of the night, the enemy lengthened the range of his artillery, so as to harass the transport, and the zone back of the line was seared with shells. The field dressing-station at Roches, near Vic, suffered greatly, and it soon became apparent that its evacuation was necessary.
I had already been on duty fourteen hours when the call reached quarters for the entire Squad. My journal for the 13th reads: "I'm too tired for much writing as I've had but two hours' sleep in the last forty, during which I have driven close to three hundred kilometres, been three times under fire, and had but two hot meals. The entire Squad was turned out just after I got into the blankets, last night. Roches was being bombarded, and it was necessary to take out all the wounded. There were a number of new shell-holes in the road and this made interesting driving. It was 1.30 when I reached Compiègne, 3 when I had completed my evacuation, and 4.15 this morning when I reached quarters. Up at 6.30 and working on my 'bus. This afternoon made route 3. Tonight I am bien fatigué. Firing light to-day, possibly because of sleet and rain. The attack was evidently repulsed."
The Squad did good work that night. Afterwards we were commended by the Colonel in command. It was in this attack that "Bill" won his Croix de Guerre when à un endroit particulièrement exposé, au moment où les obus tombaient avec violence, a arrêté sa voiture pour prendre des blesses qu'il a aidé avec courage et sang-froid." A week later he was decorated, our muddy little courtyard being the setting for the ceremony.
In celebration of his decoration, "Bill" determined to give a "burst." There would seem to be few places less adapted to the serving of a banquet or less capable of offering material than poor little war-torn Jaulzy. Nevertheless, at six o'clock on the evening of February 27, the Squad sat down to a repast that would have done credit to any hotel. "Bill" had enlisted the services of a Paris caterer, and not only was the food itself perfection, but it was served in a style that, after our accustomed tin cup, tin plate service, positively embarrassed us. Our dingy quarters were decorated and made light by carbide lamps; a snowy cloth covered our plank table; stacks of china dishes --- not tin --- appeared at each place; there were chairs to sit upon. Even flowers were not forgotten, and "Bill," being a Yale man, had seen to it that beside the plates of the other Yale men in the Squad were placed bunches of violets. The artist of the Section designed a menu card, but we were too busy crashing into the food to pay any attention to the menu. For a month past we had been living mostly on boiled beef and Army bread, and the way the Squad now eased into regular food was an eye-opener to dietitians. Hors d'oeuvres, fish, ham, roasts, vegetables, salads, sweets, wines, and smokes disappeared like art in a Hun raid. Twenty men may have gotten through a greater quantity and variety of food in three hours and lived, but it is not on record. And through it all the guns snarled and roared unheeded, and the flarebombs shed their fitful glare. Verity, in after years, when men shall foregather and the talk flows in Epicurean channels, if one there be present who was at " Bill's burst," surely his speech shall prevail.
February, which had come in with mild weather, lost its temper as it advanced; the days became increasingly cold and snow fell. The nights were cruel for driving. One night I remember especially. I had responded to a call just back of the line where I got my blessé, a poor chap shot through the lung. It was snowing, the flakes driving down with a vicious force that stung the eyes and brought tears. In spite of the snow it was very black, and to show a light meant to draw fire. We crept along, for fear of running into a ditch or colliding with traffic. At kilometre 8 my engine began to miss. I got out and changed plugs, but this did not help much and we limped along. The opiate given the blessé had begun to wear off, and his groans sounded above the whistling of the wind. Once in the darkness I lost the road, going several kilometres out of my way before I realized the error. The engine was getting weaker every minute, but by this time I was out of gun range and able to use a lantern. With the aid of the light, I was able to make some repairs, though my hands were so benumbed I could scarcely hold the tools. The car now "marched" better and I started ahead. Several times a "qui vive?" came out of the darkness, to which I ejaculated a startled "France." The snow-veiled clock in Villers-Cotterets showed the hour was half after midnight when we made our way up the choked streets. But "the load" had come through safely.
Uncomfortable as these runs were --- and every member of, the Squad made them not once, but many times --- they were what lent fascination to the work. They made us feel that it was worth while and, however small the way, we were helping.
It was about this time that the Service was militarized and incorporated into the Automobile Corps of the French Army. Thereafter, we were classed as "Militaires " and wore on our tunics the red-winged symbol of the Automobile Corps. We were now subject to all the rules and regulations governing regularly enlisted men, with one exception --- the duration of our enlistments. We were permitted to enlist for six months' periods with optional three months' extensions, and were not compelled to serve "for duration." As incident to the militarization, we received five sous a day per man --- the pay of the French poilu --- and in addition were entitled to "touch" certain articles, such as shelter tents, sabots, tobacco, etc. We had already been furnished with steel helmets and gas-masks. We were also granted the military franchise for our mail.
While at Jaulzy, the personnel of the Squad changed considerably. The terms of several men having expired, they left, their places being taken by new recruits. Thus "Hippo," "Bob," "Brooke," and "Magnum" joined us. Nor must I forget to mention another important addition to our number --the puppy mascot "Vic." He was given to us by a tirailleur, who being on the march could not take care of him, and one of the fellows brought him back to quarters in his pocket, a tiny soft, white ball who instantly wriggled himself into the Squad's affections.
When we got him, he could scarcely toddle and was never quite certain where his legs would carry him. Yet even then the button, which he fondly believed a tail, stuck belligerently upright, like a shattered mast from which had been shot the flag. For he, being a child of war, had fear of nothing, no, not gun-fire itself, and as he grew older we took him with us on our runs and he was often under shell-fire. He was always at home, in château or dugout, always sure of himself, and could tell one of our khaki uniforms a mile away, picking us out of a mob of blue-clad soldiers. Such was "Vic," the Squad mascot.
On the evening of March 3, orders came in to be prepared to move, and the following afternoon, in a clinging, wet snow, we left Jaulzy and proceeded to the village of Courtieux, some three kilometres distant. The village is in the general direction of Vic-sur-Aisne, but back from the main road. For months successive bodies of troops had been quartered here and we found it a squalid, cheerless hole, fetlock deep in mud. Our billet was a small, windowless house, squatting in the mud and through which the wind swept the snow. There was also a shed, with bush sides and roof wherein our mess was established.
Why we had been ordered from Jaulzy to this place but three kilometres away, it would be impossible to say. We were maintaining the same schedule and Courtieux was certainly not so convenient a place from which to operate. We cogitated much on the matter, but reached no conclusion. It was just one of the mysteries of war. The three days succeeding our arrival were uncomfortable ones. The weather continued bad with low temperature. When we were off duty there was nowhere to go, save to bed, and there were no beds. What Courtieux lacked in other things it made up in mud, and our cars were constantly mired. --- As a relief from the monotony of the village, three of us, being off duty one afternoon, made a peregrination to the front-line trenches, passing through miles of winding, connecting boyaux until we lost all sense of direction. We really had no right to go up to the line, but we met with no opposition, all the soldiers we met greeting us with friendly camaraderie and officers responding to our salutes with a bonjour. We found the front line disappointingly quiet. There was little or, no small-arm firing going on, though both sides were carrying on a desultory shelling. Through a sand bagged loophole we could see a low mud escarpment about ninety metres away --- the enemy's line. It was not an exciting view, the chief interest being lent by the fact that in taking it you were likely to have your eye shot out. All things considered, the excursion was a rather tame affair, though we who had made it did our best to play it up to the rest of the Squad upon our return.
We remained at Courtieux but three days, and then, at nine o'clock on the morning of the 4th, assembled in convoy at Jaulzy. It was one of the coldest mornings of the winter; the trees were masses of ice and the snow creaked beneath the tires, while our feet, hands, and ears suffered severely. As usual, we had no idea of our destination. That our Division had been temporarily withdrawn from the line and that we were to be attached to another Division, was the extent of our information. By the time the convoy had reached Compiègne we were all rather well numbed. When the C.O. halted in the town, he had failed to note a pâtisserie was in the vicinity, and the motors had hardly been shut off before the Squad en masse stormed the place, consuming gâteaux and stuffing more gâteaux into its collective pockets. Meanwhile, outside, the "Lieut" blew his starting whistle in vain.
MONTDIDIER --- MOREUIL
Shortly before noon we made the city of Montdidier, where we lunched in the hotel and waited for the laggard cars to come up. About three we again got away, passing through a beautiful rolling country, and as darkness was falling parked our cars in the town of Moreuil. It was too late to find a decent billet for the night. A dirty, rat-infested warehouse was all that offered, and after looking this over, most of us decided, in spite of the cold, to sleep in our cars. Our mess was established in the back room of the town's principal café, and the fresh bread, which we obtained from a near-by bakery, made a welcome addition to Army fare. Moreuil proved to be a dull little town, at that time some twenty-five kilometres back of the line. Aside from an aviation field there was little of interest.
On the third day of our stay we were reviewed and inspected by the ranking officer of the sector. He did not appear very enthusiastic, and expressed his doubt as to our ability to perform the work for which we were destined, an aspersion which greatly vexed us. Our vindication came two months later when, having tested us in action, he gave us unstinted praise and spoke of us in the highest terms.
After the review, the C.O. announced that we had received orders to move and would leave the following day for a station on the Somme. He refused to confirm the rumor that our destination was "Moscow."
It was 10-50 on a snowy, murky morning --- Friday, March 10 --- that our convoy came to a stop in the village of Méricourt, destined to be our Headquarters for some months to come. There was little of cheer in the prospect. One street --- the road by which we had entered --- two abortive side streets --- these lined with one- or two-storied peasants' cottages, and everywhere, inches deep, a sticky, clinging mud: such was Méricourt. This entry from my journal fairly expresses our feelings at the time: "In peace times this village must be depressive; now with added grimness of war it is dolorous. A sea of mud, shattered homes, a cesspool in its centre, rats everywhere. This is Méricourt: merry hell would be more expressive and accurate."
Our first impression was not greatly heightened by viewing the quarters assigned to us, and we felt with Joe that "they meant very little in our young lives." Two one-and-a-half-storied peasants' cottages,. with débris-littered floor and leaking roof, these rheumatic structures forming one side of a sort of courtyard and commanding a splendid view of a large, well-filled cesspool, constituted our cantonment. It would have taken a Jersey real-estate agent to find good points in the prospect. The optimist who remarked that at least there were no flies was cowed into silence by the rejoinder that the same could be said of the North Pole. However, we set to work, cleaned and disinfected, constructed a stone causeway across "the campus," and by late afternoon had, to some extent, made the place habitable. A bevy of rats at least seemed to consider the place so, and we never lacked for company of the rodent species.
The twenty of us set up our stretcher-beds in the two tiny rooms and the attic, and were at home. One of the ground-floor rooms --- and it had only the ground for a floor --- possessed a fireplace, the chimney of which led into the attic above. Here it became tired of being a chimney, resigned its duties, and became a smoke-dispenser. It was natural that the ground-floor dwellers, having a fireplace, should desire fire. It was natural, also, that the dwellers above, being imbued with strong ideas on the subject of choking to death, should object to that fire. Argument ensued. For a time those below prevailed, but the attic dwellers possessed the final word, and when their rebuttal --- in the shape of several cartridges --- was dropped down the chimney on the fire, those below lost interest in the matter and there prevailed an intense and eager longing for the great outdoors.
We established our mess in what in peace times was a tiny cafe, in the back room of which an adipose proprietress, one of the few remaining civiles, still dispensed pinard and hospitality. It was in the same back room one night that a soldier, exhibiting a hand-grenade, accidentally set it off, killing himself, a comrade, and wounding five others, whom we evacuated. Incidentally the explosion scared our zouave cook who at the time was sleeping in an adjoining room. He was more frightened than he had been since the first battle of the Marne.
The front room, which was our mess hall, was just long enough to permit the twenty of us, seated ten to a side, to squeeze about our plank table. The remaining half of the room was devoted to the galley, where the zouave held forth with his pots and pans and reigned supreme. The walls of this room had once been painted a sea-green, but now were faded into a bilious, colicky color. Great beads of sweat were always starting out and trickling down as though the house itself were in the throes of a deadly agony.
Méricourt is situated about a fifth of a mile from the right bank of the river Somme, and at this time was about seven and a half or eight kilometres from the front line. The Somme at this point marked the dividing line between the French and English armies, the French holding to the south, the English to the north. Though within easy range of the enemy's mid-calibre artillery, it was seldom shelled, and I can recall but one or two occasions during our entire stay when shells passed over.
As on the Aisne, we got our wounded from a number of scattered postes, some close to the line, others farther back, some located in villages, others in mere dugouts in the side of a hill. Evacuations were usually made to the town of Villers-Bretonneux where were located a number of field hospitals, or to an operating hospital at the village of Cérisy about fifteen kilometres from the line. A regular schedule of calls was maintained to certain postes, the cars making rounds twice a day. Such were the postes at the villages of Proyart, Chuignes, Chuignolles, and in the dugouts at Baraquette and Fontaine-lès-Cappy, all some kilometres back of the line, but under intermittent shellfire. Besides these postes there were several others which, because of their close proximity to the enemy and their exposure to machine-gun-fire, could only be made at night. There was Rainecourt, less than half a kilometre from the enemy's position; the Knotted Tree, four hundred metres from the Germans, and actually in the second-line trench, where, in turning, the engine had to be shut off and the car pushed by hand, lest the noise of the motor draw fire. There, too, was the poste at the village of Eclusier, a particularly fine run, since it was reached by a narrow, exceedingly rough road which bordered a deep canal and was exposed throughout its length to mitrailleuse fire. Besides this, the road was lined with batteries for which the Boches were continually "searching."
VILLIERS-BRETONNEUX --- PROYART
We went into action on the afternoon of the same day we reached Méricourt. My orders were to go to a point indicated on the map as the Route Nationale, there pick up my blessés and evacuate them to the town of Villers-Bretonneux. I was further instructed not to go down this road too far, as I would drive into the enemy's lines. How I was to determine what was "too far" until it was "too late," or how I was to determine the location of the poste --- a dugout beneath the road --- was left to my own solution. With these cheering instructions I set out. I reached the village of Proyart through which my route lay, noted with interest the effect of bombardment, passed on and came to the Route Nationale. Here, as were my instructions, I turned to the left. I was now headed directly toward the line which I knew could not be very far away and which transversed the road ahead. I pushed rather cautiously up two small hills, my interest always increasing as I neared the top and anticipated what sort of greeting might be awaiting me. I was on my third hill and feeling a bit depressed and lonesome, not having seen a person since leaving the sentry at Proyart, when I heard a shout somewhere behind me. Looking back I beheld a soldier wildly semaphoring. It did not take me long to turn the car and slide back down the hill. Reaching the bottom, I drew up by the soldier, who informed me that the crest of the hill was in full view of the enemy and under fire from the machine guns. I felt that the information was timely.
The poste proved to be a dugout directly beneath where I had stopped my car. Here I secured a load of wounded and by dusk had safely evacuated them to the hospital at Villers-Bretonneux. Consulting my map at the hospital it became evident that there was a more direct route back to quarters, and I determined on this. As I was by no means sure of the location of the line, I drove without lights, and as a result crashed into what proved to be a pile of rocks, but which I had taken to be a pile of snow, the jar almost loosening my teeth-fillings. The car was apparently none the worse for the encounter and I reached quarters without further mishap.
The aftermath of the mishap occurred next day. Driving at a good pace up a grade --- fortunately with no wounded on board --- I suddenly found the steering-gear would not respond to the wheel. There was half a moment of helpless suspense, then the car shot off the side of the road down a steep incline, hit a boulder, and turned completely upside down. As we went over I managed to kick off the switch, lessening the chance of 'an explosion. The Quartermaster, who was with me, and I were wholly unable to extricate ourselves, but some soldiers, passing at ,the time, lifted the car off us and we crawled out none the worse. "Old Number Nine," save for a broken steering rod, the cause of the spill, and a small radiator leak, was as fit as ever, and half an hour later, the rod replaced, was once more rolling.
Our picket poste was established at the village of Cappy. To reach the village from Méricourt we passed over a stretch of road marked with the warning sign, "This road under shell-fire: convoys or formed bodies of troops will not pass during daylight." Continuing, we crossed the Somme, at this point entering the English line, and proceeded to the village of Bray. Thence the road wandered through a rolling land for a kilometre or so, again crossing the river and a canal at the outskirts of the village.
Cappy lay in a depression behind a rise of ground about a kilometre and a half from the line. In peace times it was doubtless a rather attractive little place of perhaps three hundred people. Now, devastated by days and months of bombardment, and the passing of countless soldiers, deserted by its civil population and invaded by countless rats, it presented an aspect forlorn beyond imagination. On a gray winter's day, with sleet beating down and deepening the already miry roads, and a dreary wind whistling through the shattered houses, the place cried out with the desolation of war. And when, at night, a full moon shone through the stripped rafters, when the rats scuttled about and when, perhaps, there was no firing and only the muffled pop of a trench-light, the spirit of death itself stalked abroad and the ghosts of the men who had there met their doom haunted its gruesome, cluttered streets. And then, while the silence hung like a pall until it fairly oppressed one, there would come the awful screech, and the noises of hell would break loose.. There was no way of telling when the bombardment would come. It might be at high noon or at midnight, at twilight or as the day broke. Nor could the duration be guessed. Sometimes a single shell crashed in; sometimes a single salvo of a battery; or again, the bombardment would continue for an hour or more. It was this uncertainty which gave the place a tense, uncomfortable atmosphere so that even when there was no shelling the quiet was an uncanny quiet which was almost harder to bear than the shelling itself.
In Cappy no one remained above-ground more than was necessary. Nearly every house had its cellar, and these cellars were deepened, roofed with timbers, and piled high with sandbags. A cave so constructed was reasonably bomb-proof from small shells --- "77's"---but offered little resistance to anything larger, and I recall several occasions when a shell of larger calibre, making a direct hit, either killed or wounded every occupant of such a shelter. The resident population of the town was limited to a group of brancardiers, some grave-diggers, the crews of several goulash batteries, and some doctors and surgeons. I must not forget to mention the sole remaining representative of the civil population. He was an old, old man, so old it seemed the very shells respected his age and war itself deferred to his feebleness. Clad in nondescript rags, his tottering footsteps supported by a staff, at any hour of the day or night he could be seen making his uncertain way among what were the ruins of what had once been a prosperous town --- his town. With him, also tottering, was always a wizened old dog who seemed the Methuselah of all dogs. Panting along behind his master, his glazed eyes never leaving him, the dog, too, staggered. There, alone in the midst of this crucified town, the twain dwelt, refusing to leave what to them was yet home. And daily as their town crumbled, they crumbled, until at last, one morning, we found the old chap dead, his dog by his side. That day was laid to rest the last citizen of Cappy.
The dressing-station was located in what in peace times was the town hall, or mairie, a two-story brick building having a central structure flanked by two small wings. The building was banked with sandbags which, while not rendering it by any means shell-proof, did protect it from shrapnel and éclats. The central room was devoted to the wounded, who were brought in from the trenches on little two-wheeled, hand-pushed trucks, each truck supporting one stretcher. A shallow trough was built around the sides of the room and in this, upon straw, the wounded were placed in rows, while awaiting the doctor. In this portion of the building was also located the mortuary where those who died after being brought in were placed preparatory to burial. The bodies were placed two on a stretcher, the head of one resting on the feet of another. It was a ghastly place, this little room, with its silent, mangled tenants lying there awaiting their last bivouac. On one side of the room was a small, silver crucifix above which hung the tricolored flag of the Republic guarding those who had died that it might live.
In the left wing was the emergency operating-room where the surgeons worked, frequently under fire. At the opposite end of the building was the room we had for our quarters and where we slept when occasion permitted. The place was quite frequently hit --- on five separate occasions while I was in the building --- and its occupants suffered many narrow escapes. The location was regarded as so unsafe that an elaborate abri was finally constructed back of the mairie. This was an extraordinarily well-built and ample affair, consisting of several tunnels seven feet high in the centre, walled and roofed with heavy galvanized iron supported by stout beams. The roof at the highest point was fully ten feet below the surface of the ground. There were two rows of shelves running along both sides of the tunnels which had a total capacity of forty stretcher cases. At one end was a small operating-room, and there were two exits, so that, if one became blocked, the occupants might find egress through the other. Both of these exits were winding so as to prevent the admission of flying shell fragments and were draped with curtains to keep out the poison gas. Beside these curtains stood tubs of anti-gas solution for their drenching. This structure was proof against all save the heaviest shells and took some eight weeks in building.
THE HUMAN SHELL --- "HUIT JOURS DE PRISON"
When on duty at Cappy we messed with some medical sous-officiers in a dugout, entrance to which was had by descending a steep flight of steps. Down in this cellar, in the dim twilight which there prevailed, we enjoyed many a meal. The officers were a genial lot, like most Frenchmen delightfully courteous and much given to quaffing pinard. Their chief occupation was the making of paper knives from copper shrapnel bands, and they never lacked for material, for each day the Boche threw in a fresh supply..
One of these chaps, through constant opportunity and long practice, could give a startling imitation of the shriek of a shell, an accomplishment which got him into trouble, for happening one day to perform this specialty while a non-appreciative and startled Colonel was passing, he was presented with eight days' arrest.
The cook of the mess was a believer in garlic --- I might say a strong believer. Where he acquired the stuff amidst such surroundings was a mystery beyond solution, but acquire it--- he certainly did. Put him in the middle of the Sahara Desert and I am prepared to wager that within a half-hour that cook would dig up some garlic. He put it into everything, rice, meat, whatever we ate. I am convinced that, supposing he could have made a custard pie, he would have added garlic. His specialty was beef boiled in wine, a combination hard on the beef, hard on the wine, and hard on the partaker thereof.
Coming out of the cellar from mess one noon --- a wet, dismal day I remember --- I was startled into immobility to hear the splendid strains of the "Star-Spangled Banner," magnificently played on a piano. I was still standing at attention, and the last note had barely died away, when the one remaining door of a half-demolished house opened and a tall, handsome young fellow with the stripes of a corporal appeared, saluted, and bade me enter. I did so, and found myself in a small room upon the walls of which hung the usual military trappings. Stacked in the corners and leaning against the walls were a number of simple wooden crosses with the customary inscription, "Mort pour la patrie." Five soldiers rose and bade me welcome. They were a group of grave-diggers and here they dwelt amid their crosses. Their profession did not seem to have affected their spirits, and they were as jolly a lot as I have ever seen, constantly chaffing each other, and when the chap at the piano --- who, by the way, before the war had been a musician at the Carlton in London, and who spoke excellent English --- struck a chord, they all automatically broke into song. It was splendidly done and they enjoyed it as thoroughly as did I. The piano they had rescued from a wrecked château at the other end of the town and to them it was a godsend indeed. Before I left, at my request, they sang the Marseillaise. I have seldom heard anything finer than when in that little, stricken town, amidst those gruesome tokens of war's toll, these men stood at attention and sounded forth the stirring words of their country's hymn. When I left it was with a feeling that surely with such a spirit animating a people, there could be but one outcome to the struggle.
We had another twenty-four-hour station at the village of Cérisy some fifteen or more kilometres back of the line, where was located an operating hospital. Here we maintained always one car for the transportation of such wounded as required evacuation to the railhead. At this station we were privileged to sleep on stretchers in the same tent with the wounded. Personally I found one night in their quarters was quite enough for me. The groaning, the odor of anæsthetics, the blood, the raving of the delirious, and "the passing" of two of the inmates before morning drove me out to my car, where I often slept when on duty at the station.
We soon began to feel completely at home at Méricourt. Our schedule kept us busy without overworking us, and there was just enough risk in the life to lend it spice. We had a splendid Commander, an efficient Chef, and as a result the Squad worked in entire harmony. At this time we were attached to the 3d Colonials, a reckless, hard-fighting bunch, as fine a lot as serve the Tricolor. The relations existing between ourselves and the French could not have been more cordial. The innate courtesy and kindness, which is so characteristic of the people, found expression in so many ways and their appreciation so far exceeded any service we rendered that we could not help but be warmly drawn toward them, while their cheerful devotion and splendid courage held always our admiration.
Perhaps a few entries taken at random from my journal will serve as well as anything to give some idea of our life and the conditions under which we worked.
NOTES AT MÉRICOURT
"Tuesday, March 14. After a rat-disturbed night, got away on Route No. 3 to Proyart and Baraquette, evacuating to Cérisy. At four this afternoon, with Brooke as orderly, made same route, evacuating to Villers-Bretonneux. There were so many blessés that I had to return to Baraquette for another load. We are just in from Villers-Bretonneux at 10 P.M. after a drive through the rain.
"Saturday, March 18. On route No. 2 to Chuignolles. Road was under fire, so sentry refused to let me return over it, as the way was up-grade and with a loaded car I could not go fast. Ran down it this afternoon, evacuating by another route. Put in an hour to-day making an almost bedstead out of old bloody stretchers and now the rats will have to jump a foot or so off the floor if they want to continue to use me as a speedway.
"Thursday, March 23. Slept well in the car at Cappy, but lost all inclination for breakfast on opening door of stretcher-bearer's room and seeing two bodies, one with its jaws shot away, the other, brought in from No Man's Land --- half eaten by rats. Got a call to Chuignes before noon, evacuating to Cérisy. Of course worked on my car this afternoon; that goes without saying --- the work, not the car. To-morrow we have another one of those dashed inspections, this time the General commanding the Division.
"Thursday, March 30. To Cappy early, with as many of the Squad as were off duty, to attend the funeral of the Médecin Chef. He was killed yesterday when peering over the parapet. It was a sad affair, yet withal impressive. We walked from the little shell-torn town, Cappy, to the cemetery just beyond the village, following the simple flag-draped box, upon which rested the tunic and képi; and then, while the war planes circled and dipped above us and all around the guns spoke, we paid our last respects to a very gallant man. Waited till ten for wounded. At the exact minute I was leaving, three shells came in. One burst by the church and the other two just back of my machine as I crossed the bridge. They must have come from a small-bore gun, possibly a mortar, as they were not preceded by a screech as with a rifle shell.
Visited regimental dentist this afternoon and found him operating on a poilu whose teeth had been knocked out by a Boche gun butt in a recent charge. To-night the guns are going strong.
" Wednesday, April 5. The mess-room presented a ghastly sight this morning, a hand-grenade having been accidentally exploded there last night, blowing two men to bits which bits are still hanging to the walls. Got my spark-plugs in shape this morning. This afternoon attempted to take a nap, but a confounded battery just stationed here insisted on going into action, and as the shots were at half-minute intervals I got to counting the seconds in the intervals, banishing all chances of sleep. Two of the Squad are down with the gale --- a skin disease contracted from the blessés, and which seems almost epidemic with the Division."
AMIENS --- THE BRITISH HEADQUARTERS
It was toward the end of March, and hence some three months after leaving Paris, that one morning I received orders to evacuate a load of wounded to the railroad hospital at Amiens, some forty kilometres from Méricourt. Amiens is a modern city, one of the most pleasant in France, a city of about one hundred thousand inhabitants with up-to-date shops, tramways, tea-rooms, and a decided air of gayety. As I drove my mud-spattered ambulance down its main street I felt singularly out of place. An hour and a half before I had been within rifle range of the German trenches where men were battling to the death and big guns barked their hate, and now, as though transported on a magic carpet, I found myself in the midst of peace, where dainty women tripped by, children laughed at play, and life untrammelled by war ran its course. After the weeks amid the mud and turmoil of the front, the transition was at first stupefying. After evacuating my wounded, I parked my car, and being off duty for the rest of the day I strolled about gaping like a countryman. A "burst" at the best restaurant I could find and a good cigar put me in an appreciative frame of mind and my impression of Amiens will always remain the most favorable. Though the city had been in the hands of the Huns for nearly a fortnight in the early part of the war, and had several times been the object of air raids, there was little indication of either. The beautiful cathedral was piled high with sandbags and the beautiful windows were screened as precaution against bomb éclats, but of the precautions such as I later saw in Bar-le-Duc, there were none.
Amiens at this time was the administrative Headquarters of the English Army of the Somme. Its streets were alive with English officers and Tommies. There were many "Jocks" in their kilties, besides, of course, many French officers. Being well back of the lines it was a great place for swanking, a condition of which the English officers especially took full advantage, and in their whipcords and shining Sam Brownes, they were the last word in military sartorialism.
Having now been at the front for three months I became entitled to la permission, the six days' leave, in theory granted the soldier once every three months. George's permission was also due, and we managed to arrange it so that we secured leave simultaneously. One of our cars was so well wrecked that it had to be sent to Paris, and accordingly we secured the assignment of taking this in. This car had lost its mud-guards and part of the top of the driving-seat; its lockers, were gone and its sides had been pierced by shell splinters. It certainly looked as if "it had been through the war." It was afterwards sent to New York and there put on exhibition at the Allied Bazaar.
We set out for Paris on the morning of April 15. It was a fearful day for driving, hail and rain and a piercing wind, but we were en permission, so what cared we. It was on this voyage that, for the first and only time during my service in the Army, I saw lancers. This group was some seventy kilometres back of the line. With their burnished casques, graceful weapons, and fluttering pennons they have left me one of the few memories of the picturesque which the war has furnished.
We made Beauvais in time for luncheon; found the little restaurant, and our mere appearance was sufficient to set the little waitress off into a severe attack of giggles. By four that afternoon we were in Paris. After one hundred days in the war zone, it seemed like another world. We took the military oath not to reveal information likely to be of value to the enemy and were free to do what we liked for six days. Personally, as I remember it, I pretty well divided the time between taking hot baths and consuming unlimited quantities of white bread and fresh butter. Often we found ourselves subconsciously listening and missing something, --- the rumble of the guns. We enjoyed the respite, but the end of our permission found us willing, almost eager, to get back "out there."
It was after midnight --- Easter morning --- and the rain was falling when we ploughed our muddy way across "the campus" at Méricourt. It was cold, and the rat-infested garret, in the flickering light of an oil lamp, looked dismal enough as we felt our way across its dirty floor. Outside the sky was now and then lighted by a flare and from all around came the boom of the guns. We were home.
SPRING AND HECTIC DAYS
May opened with delightfully warm weather, a condition that was not to continue. The brown fields were clothed in green. Up to within a few kilometres of the line the land had been cultivated, and wheat and oats flourished as though shells were not passing over and the grim Reaper himself were not ever present.
Early in the month our Division moved, going into repos some fifteen kilometres back of the line. It is a simple statement --- "our Division moved." But think of twenty thousand men plodding along, twenty thousand brown guns bobbing and twenty thousand bayonets flopping against as many hips. Think of twenty thousand blue steel helmets covering as many sweaty, dusty heads; think of the transport for the men, the horses straining in their traces, the creaking wagons, the rumbling artillery, the clanging soup-wagons, the whizzing staff cars, and the honking of camion horns --- think of this and you have some idea of what is embraced in the statement "our Division moved." We did not follow them, though we did assign four cars to serve them during repos, and to take care of the sick. Instead we were attached to the incoming Division, the 2d Colonials.
My journal shows there were some hectic days in May. In the record of May 2 I find: "Rolled pretty much all night, one call taking me to Éclusier. The road was shelled behind me while I was at the poste, knocking a tree across the way---so that on my way back, the night being so dark, I could see absolutely nothing and I hit the tree and bent a guard. It's as nasty a run as I have ever made, a canal on one side, batteries on the other, and the whole way exposed to machine-gun-fire. Expected to be relieved here this morning, but one of the replacement cars is out of commission so that I am on for another twenty-four hours. To-day I measured the distance from where I was sitting last night to where the shell hit. It was exactly fourteen paces."
Again a. week later: "Two cars out, of commission, so I am fated for another forty-eight hours shift here in Cappy. Last night was uneventful. To-day we have been bombarded five times. So far have made but two runs, returning from second under fire. We have been ordered to sleep to-night in the partially completed dugout, so I am writing this fifteen feet underground, with sandbags piled high above my head. Verily the day of the cave man has returned. Now for the blanket and, thanks to the dugout, a reasonable assurance of greeting to-morrow's sun."
It was in May that "Josh" won his recognition for bringing in his wounded from Éclusier under machinegun-fire. I was not there, but I know he could not have been cooler had he been driving down Broadway.