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Section One (SSU 1) – Part V

Western Front, France

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It was with a glorious past that Section One of the American Field Service was taken over by the United States Army as Section 625 on the 30th of September, 1917, among the rolling fields and heavy woods of the Vosges at Aillianville, not so far from the home of Jeanne d'Arc.

Further, the Section was serving with the famous 69th Division composed of the 162d, 151st, and 129th regiments of Infantry and the 268th Artillery. The first two regiments as members of the 42d Division had been in the First Battle of the Marne at La Fère Champenoise.

The months of October, November, and December, 1917, the Section was to all purposes en repos, cantoned at Aillianville and Beaufrémont, the Division being engaged in teaching and training, around Neufchâteau, the 26th Division of the U.S. Army, the Yankee or New England Division, which during the ensuing year so magnificently earned its reputation of being among the very finest American troops.

On January 11, orders came to proceed to the sector of the lines in front of Toul, the Woevre, and the Section moved with the troops which marched through the heavy snow. On successive nights the cantonments were Fruze, Saulxures, and Charmes la Côte, and on January 17, Andilly, its permanent cantonment, was reached. That night the Division went into the sector of trenches between Seicheprey and Limey, west of Pont-à-Mousson. On the 18th of January the First Moroccan Division, which had occupied this sector, and more to the left, was withdrawn and their place to the left of Seicheprey and Flirey was filled by the United States First Division. This date is notable in that it marks the occasion when American troops first took over what might be called their own sector of trenches.

During the next five months --- for the 69th Division was in the lines here without a break for that period --Section 625 served the following postes: Xivray, Beaumont, Seicheprey, Poste Saint-Victor, Flirey, Bois de la Voisogne, Lironville, Limey, Saint-Jacques, Pont-de-Metz, Mamey, Poste Pouillot, Jonc Fontaine, and Poste Pétain in the Bois le Prêtre. During this period the evacuations were made to Minorville, Manoncourt, Rogéville, and Toul. As the U.S. First Division, and later the 26th Division which relieved it, took over more of the lines, the 69th slipped farther and farther to the right, until eventually its flank lay in the famous Bois le Prêtre in front of Pont-à-Mousson. On April 13, the Section cantonment was moved to Manonville.

It is true that this sector of the front had the reputation of being "quiet," and for the most part it upheld its character as such, but with the advent of the United States troops the whole neighboring line took on a more tense tone and coups-de-main for the purpose of taking prisoners, destroying positions, and to test opponents were more frequently indulged in. The whole sector had hibernated peacefully under the snows of winter until the first week in January, but it was then rudely aroused to the serious business of the New Year by an extensive and successful raid conducted by the Foreign Legion in front of Flirey, Seicheprey, and beyond the war-worn Bois de Remières. From the results of this raid it became apparent that the front lines on both sides were so lightly held that a coup-de-main, to become effective, must be conducted on a large scale and penetrate a considerable distance.

The work the Section was called on to do for the most part was not difficult, but when, as here, the trenches had been fixed for over three years, the shelling of roads, cross-roads, and postes de secours, especially those near a Poste de Commandement, was extremely accurate, and during a coup-de-main the evacuation of wounded was often conducted under heavy fire.

More than passing comment must be given the Boche attack of April 19 against the 102d Regiment of the U.S. 26th Division at Seicheprey, not only because this was the first engagement of any size participated in by United States troops, but because of the part Section 625 was called on to play. The attack was made at dawn, after a severe, but short preliminary bombardment by over 1000 picked Prussian Sturmtruppen, to the right of Seicheprey and near the place in the Bois de Jury where the United States and French troops joined. The line was pierced and the village entered from the side and rear. Very fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place during the ensuing day, and the enemy eventually retired toward their own lines occupying trenches in and near the Bois de Remières. Here they were pinned down by an enfilading cross-fire, but because of some misunderstanding or neglect, the four companies of the I02d Regiment designated for the counter-attack failed to take part with two companies of the French 162d Infantry who went over the top, and the enemy were allowed to regain their lines during the night without suffering further losses. Despite the unfaltering gallantry of the 102d Infantry, this engagement must be regarded as a Boche success, for although the casualties perhaps about balanced, the raiders gathered approximately 150 prisoners.

On June 4 the Section moved to Pagney-derrière-Barine near Toul. The morning of June 6 the Section started en convoi for Vitry-le-François, but received orders there to continue. At Esternay and Coulommiers further orders kept the Section en route, and three o'clock the following morning found it bivouacked in the market-place of Meaux, three hundred kilometres from its starting-point, with every car in good shape.

The civilians were rapidly evacuating Meaux, but the town was busy with the handling of American Marine wounded who were being brought in from the neighborhood of Bouresches and the Bois de Belleau. That day, by the way of Senlis, Creil, and Clermont, the Ferme la Quadre, near Nointel, was reached, where the Section rested and prepared itself, on June 8. It was apparent that a great Boche drive was pending, but the Section, though prepared, hardly expected to be ordered to the alerte at dawn on June 9 with the rumble of a tremendous barrage in its ears. It later proved to be a terrific attack extending between Montdidier and Noyon. Toward noon orders were received to proceed to Monchy-Humières behind Lassigny by the way of Arsy and Remy. The roads were jammed with the 69th Division going up in camions and refugees and wounded streaming back, and as the Section convoy neared Monchy about four o'clock, heavy and light artillery and fragments of infantry passed it, hastening to take up positions in the rear. It was by no means a rout, but even the most inexperienced eye could see that the enemy was coming very fast and that the situation was uncertain at best. The cloud of battle smoke approached rapidly and the line of enemy saucisses advanced steadily, while those of the French, still in the air attached to their motor trucks, passed the convoy bound rearwards. As Monchy was reached, orders were given for the Section to turn in its tracks and go to Remy, there to await further instructions. Along the return route elements of the 69th Division were going up across the fields in skirmish order. Darkness came, and still no orders had been received concerning the establishing of postes de secours, or as to the location of any units to be served. Because of the unsettled situation, Lieutenant Stevenson determined to separate the Section. About half the cars were left at Remy to await further orders, and the remainder, under the direct supervision of Lieutenant Stevenson, went to the Sucrerie d'Apremont, a kilometre behind Gournay, where the Lieutenant, in Huston's car, went out to establish connection with the French infantry in front. By this distribution the instant availability of a part of the cars was assured. During the latter part of the night there was a pause in the attack, probably due to the bringing up of fresh enemy divisions, but before dawn it was renewed violently. At that time the lines ran through Gournay-sur-Aronde, which was held by a mere skirmish line of infantry, alone. During the next four days the struggle surged back and forth through Gournay, Ferme la Porte, Ferme de Loge, and Antheuil, the fortunes of battle changing so rapidly that it was impossible to be sure where the lines or postes de secours would be the next hour. Because of the continuous succession of attacks and counter-attacks, the cars served battalion and regimental postes in extremely advanced positions subjected to machine-gun and rifle fire. On the fourth day, after having been forced back approximately three kilometres since the morning of June 10, the Division counter-attacked heavily, driving the enemy back two kilometres and establishing the line more firmly. But for a week the fighting was over a very irregular front, entirely in the open wheat-fields without trenches, or even camouflage or concealment for the "75's"; the postes served by the Section were often unexpectedly retired or advanced and the difficulties and the anxieties of the work were doubled. It is difficult to designate the postes worked by the Section during this period, June 9 to 18, for temporary postes were several times established in open fields or roadside ditches, but the main ones are as follows: Montmartin, Le Moulin, two kilometres; in advance, Sucrerie d'Apremont, the roadside behind Gournay, Le Ferme de Monchy, Le Ferme Beaumanoir, Monchy village, Château de Monchy, Baugy Château, Baugy village, and a roadside conduit in front of Baugy near the Compiègne-Montdidier highway. Evacuations were made to Le Fayel, Canly, Catenois, and Estrées-Saint-Denis. The Section cantonment was behind the church at Remy, the town being shelled frequently, and bombed severely every night by avions. On the 16th the Division started to withdraw from the lines, moving to the right as it did so, the Section being shifted to Venette on the edge of Compiègne, and postes established at Braisnes, Anelle, and Coudun. On June 20, the whole Division was out of the line, one regiment alone being held in active reserve, and the Section moved back to Jonquières, serving only one poste, at Lachelle.

The following twenty-four days of light work was welcome, not so much because of the rest it afforded the men, but because the Section felt what was still ahead of them and desired to be ready and prepared in every conceivable way. The 69th Division had played the main part in stopping what proved to be the last Boche drive which met with any measure of success or perceptible advance. The Division had met the very middle of the drive, borne its full force, stopped it, and then hurled it back almost to the same position where it had first come to grips, inflicting almost unprecedented losses on the three divisions which opposed it. Of course its own losses were heavy, the Section on three successive days evacuating over 1500 men, together with another 150 from the divisions on either side. During the next three weeks the regiments were rested and recruited up, and were trained for attack with tanks, the nature of their work in the future becoming apparent.

The night of July 4, orders arrived, and the following after noon the Section moved to the centre of the great forest just east of Compiègne, traversing the desolate streets of that city in the gathering dusk. Here a stop was made for two days near the Château de Franc Port, where the Section was quartered a week in 1916 on the way to the Aisne front. (Later the enemy armistice delegates were here to spend their first night within the allied lines.) Two days of solitude followed, unbroken except by avion bombing, but noon of the second day, July 17, brought directions, and at sundown the convoy took up its way through the aisles of the forest, reaching Pierrefonds before night. All extra equipment, a large part of the atelier, and the bureau were left in a house at the foot of that marvellous castle, and the first darkness saw the Section with faces turned toward the lines. Early dawn had been set with Mortefontaine, twelve kilometres away, as the rendezvous, but it was with the greatest difficulty that the order was carried out, for that night was filled with more muffled activity and strained anxiety than the world will ever see again. The road was jammed with every factor of a vast army, sensed around rather than seen, but revealed momentarily in the flashes; camions, wagons, caissons, machine-gun carts, staff cars, motor-cycles, artillery, little and big tanks, armored cars, cavalry with their towering lances, bicycle detachments, and always the plodding infantry in two endless columns following the ditches on either side. Steadily and ceaselessly this stream poured forward through the black, no singing, little talking, few orders; the tramp of feet in the mud, the rattle of wheels, the throbbing of motors, the staccato explosions of the motor-cycles, and the ponderous clanking of tanks; an irresistible tide of manhood, poilus and doughboys, shoulder to shoulder straining toward the future. Surely the night of July 17-18 should be as memorable and glorious forever as the dawn of July 18, the hour when the forces of liberty commenced their overwhelming attacks, never ceasing till the final victorious peace was attained.

At the first break of day the Section was all assembled at Mortefontaine in time to see the attack beyond. Again the Section was serving in the famous 20e Corps d'Armée, the first it had ever been attached to, and this time it was in Mangin's magnificent Tenth Army. As the battle progressed it turned as a pivot till, instead of facing east, as on the first day, on August 2, when Soissons fell before it, it faced north on its whole front. This manoeuvre required great skill of generalship and all the brains and force in personnel of a truly veteran organization.

July 19 again only a few cars were used, and these carried Americans, Moroccans, and soldiers of the Legion as well as their own Division's wounded. No definite postes were established, the wounded being picked up at widely scattered places.

The first postes de secours were established on July 20, in a roadside ditch near the ruins of the Raperie at a cross-road on the route from Cutry to Saconin, and on the 21st, in the village of Missy-aux-Bois. Then the Section commenced real work, for the runs from these places were constant, the evacuations all being made to Pierrefonds, twenty-five-odd kilometres to the rear, over rough, narrow roads at all hours solid with traffic. The Missy poste was in the cellar of the château on the northern edge of the town and adequately answered the purpose, being maintained until August 2. But the Raperie poste, which lay in the middle of some three-score "75's" in the open field, and within a stone's throw of an important cross-road, was different. It almost immediately became untenable as a place to retain wounded for more than a moment. On July 21, it was moved over a kilometre forward to a quarry-hole in the hillside above the village of Saconin, from which the enemy had just been driven. The mouth of the cave, labelled "Minenwerfer Hohle," faced toward the lines across the narrow valley, and was subject to a constant and severe fire, directed not only at the mouth of the poste, but the road in front, and the loop of the road behind and above. All postes, with the exception of the one at Missy-aux-Bois, were reached by one road which ran down the hill past the Minenwerfer Hohle, wound down through the little valley, through the village of Saconin, curled up the opposite side through the hamlet of Breuil, and up over the crest to the great covered quarry beyond. The evacuations which were made over this route were very numerous, as may be assumed from the fact that all the cars, including the camionnette and often the White truck, were working night and day steadily until the fall of Soissons on. August 2, the men snatching minutes of sleep rather than hours. Missy was reached by the route through Saint-Pierre-Aigle and Dommiers to the Croix de Fer on the Paris-Soissons highway, from which a small road led diagonally back to Missy.

On July 20, the Section cantonment moved into the town of Cœuvres, from which on July 21 it was shifted to an open field behind Dommiers, where the kitchen was placed in the lee of a destroyed tank and the men slept under the cars or in shell-craters, when they were fortunate enough to have an opportunity. Before this site could be made available, a number of bodies had to be removed and buried.

The night of the 22d a remarkable array of Scotch regiments, composing the 15th Division, entered the lines on the right; among them were some of the recognized élite of the British Army --- the Black Watch, the Gordons, the Seaforths, the Camerons, and the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders. These troops went up to the skirling of the pipes, every man immaculate and the acme of military precision and orderliness; and after a week of terrific attacking, which terminated in the triumphant storming of Buzancy, came out the same way, unruffled and undisturbed, notwithstanding extreme losses, every man shaved and perfect in attire and equipment. The Section was privileged in evacuating many --- too many --- of them from Missy and temporary postes beyond Chaudun in the neighborhood of Ploisy and Berzy-le-Sec.

A poste in the village of Ploisy was established July 23. This was veritably among the French machine guns, for the lines --- if such they could be termed, being merely an irregular chain of isolated and almost unrelated positions and nests --- ran barely beyond the end of the village. The cars were allowed to arrive only after dark and were ordered to depart before dawn; but often dire necessity ruled and the runs were made by day as well. So insecure and vague were the lines here that the Division aumonier going up by day in one of the cars and alighting at Ploisy, walked unwarned into the enemies' positions a few hundred feet beyond and was made a prisoner.

Soissons fell on August 2, and the city was completely cleared to the river-bank in short order, with the exception of one tremendously strong outpost at the "hydraulic pump," where the Aisne loops in passing through. This was attacked and wiped out the afternoon of August 9 after severe concentrated artillery preparation, the cars being taken to within almost a stone's throw of the scene in the city streets before the barrage started, in order to be instantly available for the wounded.

On August 3 new postes were established at Billy-sur-Aisne, Carrière l'Évèque, the châteaux at Belleu and Septmonts, Noyant, Vignolles, and on August 7 one at the enormous hospital near the railroad station in Soissons. There were other temporary battalion and advanced postes at various places, a cave on the plateau beyond Carrière l'Évèque and two in Soissons, one near the Place de la République and one in a house on the east edge of the city.

The Section at dawn of July 30 had been shelled out of its cantonment in the field behind Dommiers and was fortunate in being able to move back to the vicinity of the château in Cœuvres without damage, On August 5, with the advance of the troops, it took up quarters in the village of Ploisy, the kitchen and atelier being set up next to the château and the men and cars being scattered in various places, a precaution made necessary by the continual shelling of the town itself and the numerous batteries surrounding it. The work of evacuation had been especially arduous because of the length of the runs necessary to reach the hospitals. From July 18 to 25, all evacuations were made to Pierrefonds over twenty kilometres by road from Cœuvres alone; on that day a small ambulance was opened at the château in Cœuvres, where gassed men, assis, and all slightly wounded could be left. About August 5 the evacuations of couchés and seriously wounded were changed to the hospital at Villers-Cotterets, more than twenty-five kilometres from Ploisy; but on August 14, the Section labors were greatly lessened by orders to evacuate all to a triage hospital situated in a great cave in Vierzy, barely ten kilometres from Soissons itself.

About this time one of the cars was detached to accompany the 162d Regiment, which was withdrawn from the lines and moved over to the left, crossing the Aisne at Vic-sur-Aisne and advancing into an attack as support to another division. It returned to its former place in less than a week.

Source of indignation was the lax and inexcusable manner in which the burying of the American dead was conducted. Despite the fact that at the 1st Division had been withdrawn from the lines on July 23, a great many of their dead lay unburied, kilometres behind the lines, for a full month. The French burying-parties, made up of territorials, were instructed that the Americans desired to bury their own dead, but despite this, for sanitary reasons, were forced hastily to cover many bodies. They could not have fallen later than July 22, for the 1st Division had been relieved then and no United States troops remained in this part of the line. The Section was working desperately at the time, and the men and time were not available to give these unfortunates a decent burial. The detachment of the 1st Division, stationed at Mortefontaine, for the purpose of properly marking and of mapping the locality of graves, was immediately notified. The reply Sergeant Day received when letting them know of these conditions was, "Well, that's a pretty hot place yet, and what's the use of risking your life for a dead man?" These bodies remained untouched till finally necessity demanded action, so on the 20th of August they were decently buried by friendly hands where they fell fighting fiercely in the Greatest Cause. The French had more than they could do to take care of their own victims, and to put away the Boches, and the Section to a man writhed in unavailing indignation that their own country's dead should be left to the care of hurried foreign hands without cause or even excuse. A contrast to this was the Scotch. Future generations will see orderly, neat, clean little cemeteries, which were erected and completed to their last tenant twenty-four hours after the Scotch were withdrawn from the lines.

The morning of August 28, the attack to cross the river was commenced and a few hours later the immediate suburbs of the city beyond, including strongholds at the distillerie, the briquéterie, and the abattoir were cleared and a tiny pontoon bridge laid. The first vehicle of any kind to cross the Aisne at Soissons or to the right was one of the Section cars driven by Irving Moses. The new postes de secours were all on the far bank along the fringe of the city, the briquéterie, almost immediately made utterly untenable, the abattoir, and the Abbey Saint-Médard, the last being the resting-place of ancient kings of France. Attack followed attack, the flats beyond the river were cleared foot by foot, but the Boches still retained the dominating heights along the edge of the plateau, and every inch of every road was open to machine-gun-fire. Toward the last days of August, the Division resumed its heavy attacks, crossed the Aisne, cleared the suburbs of the city on the other side and numerous positions in the valley, stormed up the heights to the plateau, captured Crouy, and put the enemy to open flight across the plateau top, pursuing them beyond Bucy-le-Long, Vregny, and Pont Rouge toward Vauxaillon, being relieved on September 7 at Moulin de Laffaux. The achievements of the 69th Division during these fifty-one successive days of terrible struggle have been recognized as one of the most heroic annals of the French Army.

The order for convoy to Nancy came September 15 and the Section proceeded to its destination by easy stages, stopping the first night at Châlons-sur-Marne in the market-place, and the second at Vaucouleurs, reaching Vandoeuvre, its billet on the edge of Nancy, the afternoon of September 17. En route the men had been given an opportunity for a hurried glance at the Bois de Belleau, where in those dark days of early June the Marines had thrilled the world; and a stop for lunch had been made in Château-Thierry, a name which will roll down the centuries as more American than French.

The three days at Vandoeuvre were spent in overhauling the cars and re-equipping, and September 22 found the Section quartered in the grounds of the field hospital at Millery on the right bank of the Moselle, having stopped for two days at Frouard while the Division slowly took over the lines to the right of Pont-à-Mousson, part of which was occupied by the 82d U.S. Division. On the 25th, a company of the 162d Regiment, and a company of the 29th Battalion of Senegalese, joined with the 60th U.S. Infantry Regiment in an unsuccessful attack along the right bank of the Moselle, in front of Pont-à-Mousson. The objectives were reached first by the United States troops, but they were forced to fall back sooner than were the French, who held on until it was obvious that their position could not be retained without entailing too expensive losses. During the attack the Section served a poste in the demolished site of a hospital beyond Pont-à-Mousson, and during the next few weeks had cars stationed at Sainte-Geneviève, Loisy, and Landremont, from which various advanced postes were worked. On October 10 the 92d Division of United States negro troops relieved the 69th Division, which nevertheless left its artillery for additional support until further protection could be afforded. The Section during the relief had the additional work of evacuating many footsore and sick soldiers of the 92d Division.

Again the Section spent a few days in Vandoeuvre and on October 14, moved to Eulmont, the Division shifting along the lines to the right. The sector here was very quiet, and the Section for some three weeks, as well as serving the 69th Division, took care of the 165th Division, which also belongs to the 32d Corps. Two more battalions of Senegalese were added to the Division. Again the Section prepared itself to take part in a tremendous attack. This time it was apparent, from military preparations, that the attack was to be upon a gigantic scale, dwarfing everything that the war had hitherto known; but the glorious news of the signing of the Armistice intervened at the last minute, and the old Section flag was cheated of another name to add to the immortal ones it already bore: Dunkirk, Ypres, Nieuport, Vic-sur-Aisne, Cappy-sur-Somme, Verdun, Côte 304, Reims, Route 44, Houdromont, Douaumont, Seicheprey, Monchy, Soissons, Crouy, and Pont-à-Mousson.

Here starts another phase in the history of Section Six Twenty-Five. As an American unit in the war, dating as a Section from the first days of 1915, and with an origin from almost the first hours of the war, it rightfully claims the distinction of being the oldest, the veteran organization, of America in the World War. The records show that from January, 1915, to the signing of the Armistice, it had evacuated well over 56,000 men. But now it turned willing hands to aid in the French Army of Occupation, the Tenth Army commanded by General Mangin.

On the 17th day of November the Section crossed the lines between Abaucourt and Jallaucourt and slowly travelled with the Division through Lorraine into Germany. Stops of several days were made at Tincy, Suisse, Gesslingen, Helleringen, and Sulzbach, and finally on December 9, Neunkirchen was reached, where the Section remained comfortably quartered for several weeks. About the only incident worthy of comment during this period was the attempt by hidden snipers to shoot Orrie Lovell and Weld while transporting sick to the hospital. In the early part of January, the 69th Division was split up, the various regiments returning to their old Corps, which fact left the Section unattached and with no services to render. On January 20, orders came to report to the Parc at Mayence and the 130-kilometre convoy was made in good shape. Billeted on the edge of Mayence in the town of Bretzenheim, the Section waited for orders to report to the U.S. Army Ambulance Service Base Camp for demobilization and return to the United States. A fitting climax to the four years' service came on the receipt of the 5th Citation à l'ordre de l'armée, which carried with it the privilege of wearing the Croix de Guerre Fourragère, for the splendid work of the past summer near Compiègne and around Soissons.


*Of New York City; Yale; in S.S.U. 1 and Six-Twenty-Five during 1917-19. The above is from a privately printed History of Section 625.


Edward A. G. Wylie