Section Fourteen (SSU 14)
Section 14 left Paris March, 1917; it became Section 632, December,1917.
- Western Front, France
Section 14 was attached 55e division d'infanterie from March to August, 1917; to the 8e division d'infanterie from September, 1917 to February, 1919.
* * *
SECTION FOURTEEN, a Leland Stanford University section, sailed from New York as a complete unit on the 14th of February, 1917, just after the breaking-off of diplomatic relations with Germany. It went immediately to the front, working in the Verdun sector, then comparatively quiet. On April 15 it moved to the Toul sector, in the region of Commercy. At length it went en repos near Ligny-en-Barrois. On June 5 it journeyed to the Champagne, near Mourmelon-le-Petit, in the Moronvilliers sector, where it remained until recruited into the United States Army, as Section Six-Thirty-Two.
'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)
Oh, it is n't in words that we show it --
They're too feeble to tell what we feel;
It's down in our hearts that we know it,
It's down in our souls that it's real.
So we stick to our work as we find it,
And forget the caprices of Chance,
For we know that the price of the big sacrifice,
Is little enough --- for France!
ON THE PACIFIC COAST
Toward the close of 1916, one hundred and fifty students of Stanford University assembled and signified their willingness to abandon the classroom for ambulance driving on the Western Front. From these young men was selected a group of twenty which became known as the First Unit of Friends of France, and later as Section Fourteen.
"Friends of France" is an association having a wide membership in California and was founded to promote cordial relation's between the two Republics --- "for Humanity and the Humanities." To its generosity and enthusiasm is due the success of the expedition and its influence in awakening, on the Pacific Slope, interest in the War.
On February 3, 1917, at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, the society gave a banquet and leave-taking to the young men of the unit, each of whom was presented with a brassard bearing the shield of the Society made by Mrs. W. B. Bourn, of the Friends of France; and on the following morning the students boarded their special car bound for the east. On February 14 they sailed from New York.
Section Fourteen was the first section of the Field Service to come from the Pacific Coast, and in recognition of this fact, which was significant of the extending interest throughout the States in France and the war, the departure of the Section from Paris was marked with considerable ceremony. The farewell dinner at 21 rue Raynouard on March 15, which, according to custom, marked the leave-taking of sections for the front, was graced by the presence of the American Ambassador to France, Mr. William J. Sharp, and the former Ambassador of France to the United States, M. Jules Cambon, both of whom spoke eloquently of the growing rapprochement of the two Republics. Mr. Andrew, the Director of the Field Service, presided, and speeches were also made by representatives of the French Army and the officers of the Section, pledging their best efforts to the common cause. On the morning of March 16, the Section rolled out of the lower gate of "21," with its convoy of twenty-four new cars, bound for the front.
QUIET TIMES NEAR VERDUN AND TOUL
The Section first served at Montgrignon, carrying wounded into Verdun two miles away, and spent long hours in the captured German canal-boat waiting for the nine or ten cases that were carried down the canal during a shift. But after a time even the famed city of Verdun, which was being given a rest for the moment, began to lag in interest. So we were glad when, on the morning of April 14, orders came to pack, and by evening most of the cars were loaded for travel.
The first stop was to put up for a few nights' lodging in a leaking and rat-infested shed along the side of the aviation hangars of Vadelaincourt, where some in the Section first contracted the aeroplane germ. Another short stop was made at Chardogne, near Bar-le-Duc, a hospitable and never-to-be-forgotten village far, far behind the world. Then we went on to the spacious quarters in the college at Commercy. If Verdun was having a rest, Commercy had declared peace!
With less effort than it takes to tell it, the Section was able to serve postes de secours along a twenty-kilometre front, in addition to carrying the patients of six or seven evacuation hospitals.
Artillery action could be seen from most of the postes at times, and at one of them it was, on occasions, even the traditional thing to take to the shelter of abris. Then all will remember that excitable station-master who always made such a fuss over receiving "more cases than the hospital train would hold"; the streets that became cleared of terrified pedestrians when our cars appeared on the scene; the uncomprehending professeur of the collège; and the comrades at the different postes --- these were the high-lights. Nor in this enumeration of the memorable things of the region should we forget the pastry-shop life, for there Commercy stands on its own feet.
REPOS AT LIGNY-EN-BARROIS
At length the French troops with whom we were associated had become well rested and were moved forward in anticipation of entering a more active secteur of the front, and Section Fourteen took to the road at the same time. It went first to Ligny-en-Barrois, where, under the shade trees between the cathedral and the public school, our cars were parked during several idle weeks of springtime. Ligny is a town of rare charm where at evening townspeople and the girls from the war factories promenaded about the square and along the paths through the forest park, and beside the river and canal. It was here, too, in the canal locks, that we fought out swimming and diving titles. Ambulanciers who had hitherto been listless toward the language now took new heart, that they might compete with the more studious, and likewise stand well in the eyes of feminine Ligny. As we were housed in the open near our ambulances, the boys often received callers, swarms of gamins and gamines overrunning at recess the cars that filled their playground, while the villagers at the forenoon hour and the church-goers at the not infrequent masses did the same.
On June 4, the Section had the signal honor of formally receiving the first Stars and Stripes to fly in France with the official sanction of the United States War Department, a gift of the Friends of France and the Union League of California, sent over to us by a special envoy, Arthur Kimber, a fellow student at Stanford University. Presentation ceremonies of a most impressive character were held on a hilltop outside of Ligny in the presence of two battalions and a regimental French band, and Colonel Colon, in behalf of the armies of France, received the colors and in turn presented them to Section Fourteen.
CHAMPAGNE --- MOURMELON --- PROSNES
The following day the Unit journeyed to Mourmelon-le-Petit, behind Moronvilliers in Champagne, to the right of Reims, when brief survey of the district --- ruined Prosnes, the postes de secours of Constantine and Moscou, two kilometres from smoking Mont Cornillet ---sufficed to show us that the long-sought field of action was at hand. A party of six cars, sent to learn the road, and lined up in the open at Constantine in view of German observation balloons, drew the flattering attention of enemy artillery. In a word, we were at the front this time. The church corner at Prosnes, for example, was a place of evil enough repute to appease the most sensation-craving appetites. Some made a practice of skidding around it; others killed their engines and had to re-crank; while at least one managed it by whistling, or, if under pressure, by singing. The trench side of the Constantine abri was a pit-seat to the spectacle of shells bursting along the hills and in the surrounding fields. All in all there was a great deal of tension in Prosnes, with its terrific noise, the number and character of the wounded, and the conditions imposed on road travel.
The exposure to danger, as well as the opportunity to witness trench life first-hand, was perhaps the outstanding benefit received by the members of the unit from their work at this time. It gave us, too, a keener appreciation of the burden carried by the French soldiers, promoted respect for the men in the trenches, and altered views regarding the war's obligations. When the Section was nearing the time to retire en repos, and the first term of service was about to be completed, eight members accepted a call to join the second Stanford unit, then leaving for the Balkans to become Section Ten. On the Fourth of July, the Section was presented the Croix de Guerre with Divisional citation, for the manner of its work performed at Verdun and in the Moronvilliers sector.
JOSEPH H. EASTMAN*
*Of Pleasanton, Cal.; Stanford, '18; served with Section Fourteen from March to August, 1917; later became a First Lieutenant, U.S.A. Air Service.
A GAS AND FIRE ATTACK
Glorieux, March 25
We were very busy the other night, because of a gas attack near by, and, most terrible of all, a liquid-fire attack. We carried the wounded to the town through the dark. My first entrance into the dressing-station was with some of my blessés. On the rack on which they lift the stretchers lay a liquid-fire victim --- his face black and charred like a cinder and the upper part of his body scorched and cooked. He hardly murmured. The gas victims can scarcely move; they cough and gasp and choke in great pain.
Vadelaincourt, April 16
We are about twenty kilometres from Verdun, where is the most famous aviation camp in France, in fact the aviation base for the entire sector.
The Division has received orders to move; so we shall have to move with it. All of our old friends, the brancardiers, go along, and it seems that they are going to be our comrades for good. They are a mixed crew. Most of them are ordinary poilus with good hearts; but the best of them are well educated Catholic priests who make good chums and are painstaking French instructors.
The Division moves on foot; so we run ahead and wait a few days for them to catch up and go on again. This is tiresome travelling, and as transients we get thrown into almost any kind of quarters. At one town we were in a long, black, barren, portable house, built entirely without nails, which we shared half and half with a corps of French wireless men. The floor was of earth, stones, and straw. Last night, when all was quiet, a rat scout made a survey of the room and then piped up the regiment. Hundreds swarmed and swept, marched and counter-marched, squeaking and fighting, all over the place for the whole night. Anticipating as much, I had put shoes, bags, and everything out of reach on a wire, and so felt comparatively safe.
I am going to bed now. I never take off more than my shoes and coat.
Mourmelon-le-Petit, June 11
Yesterday's ride of some one hundred kilometres was very beautiful. A thunderstorm blew over early in the morning, freshening the air and the colors of the fields, and pleasing us by laying the dust. We ran through a farming country where the regular patches of blooming alfalfa were a glowing pink, setting off the russet of newly ploughed ground and the silvery green of the grain. And such wild flowers! It is time for California to shut up and hand the china teapot to France. The principal flower is the scarlet poppy, with four broad petals of crinkly thinness, forming a very wide cup. Never was there flower more beautiful, and it abounds everywhere. Then there are lupins, buttercups, larkspurs, yellow flags, purple flags, lilies-of-the-valley, and a million others. The trees are all cottonwood and willow except the artificial pine forests. These forests, by the way, are of the greatest military importance, for they screen everything.
A DEATH CALL
It got dark about ten o'clock. About eleven an officer drove up on his horse behind my car and told me that he had a blessé whom his convoy had picked up on the road between our reserve poste and the poste de secours. He confided to me that the road was being steadily shelled between the two postes and that this man and his comrade had been hit by a shell. His comrade was blown in two. So I piled out with my stretcher and gave it to the artilleryman, who put the wounded soldier on it and set him down behind the ambulance. One said he was dead, but there was a difference of opinion on this point. I lit my briquet and in the flickering light we gathered around the stretcher, watching the man shudder and die without a sound. "Il est mort, " the officer said, "allons." And with that they went, leaving me, alone with a shell-torn man, dead but still warm, to gaze at the bloody mass, in the red, flickering light. His right arm was blown off at the elbow, the rest hanging in shreds. His head was riddled with splinters, and there was a hole an inch square in his cheek. Around his body were countless holes and his shirt was bloody and red. I woke up one of the fellows, and we loaded him into the ambulance and carried him to the hospital. It was not exactly the thing to do, but I was n't going to leave him on a stretcher all night by the roadside; so I took him to the hospital and let the authorities there dispose of the body.
As soon as I got back to the poste de réserve, the first car came back; covered with earth and full of holes. Randau left it in front of the poste --- there is no shelter for cars --- when a shell fell ten feet away. He was in an abri, but was n't a lot safer, for a "77" fell ten feet away from where he was resting and threw earth in the door. He also reported bombardment of the little town halfway to the poste. Anyway, it was up to me to see if there were not something to be done in that place, so I cranked up and buzzed down the road, somewhat shaky from seeing the evidence of the deadly bombardment before me. "Toad" Strong was with me. We are now running two to a car for moral support. As we stopped at a rise, we looked at the little town below and across the plain to the poste. The hills were illuminated by star-shells over the trenches and by artillery rockets, while across the plain came the sharp, wicked snaps of shrapnel in the air around the poste, and in the town the heavy flash of high-explosives.
The psychology of judgment at such a moment is interesting. There is an object to be attained --reaching the poste. There is shelling of a town below, a shell arriving every fifteen seconds with an interval of a minute now and then. There is shrapnel around the object. The judgment to be reached is the most advantageous manner of reaching the poste without being hit. One does n't know whether to take it slowly and wait for an interval to be apparent or to tear through and trust to luck. On the return trip from the poste, the question is more complicated. If you go slowly, you are liable to be clipped from behind by shrapnel; and if you hurry, you are liable to reach the town at the same time that a shell does.
Anyhow, we went at a rush and got through the town without mishap, although a shell hit behind us just off the road. Then we faced the shrapnel. We waited this out, and halfway between, at a suitable moment, we tore up to the poste, backed up in a second, and beat it for the shelter. Immediately after, two shells fell twenty yards away, but without hitting the car.
Rolled up then in a blanket to sleep; but half an hour later an urgent case arrived. He had his nose, half his cheeks, his upper lip and teeth, and half his chin shot away. I expect he died. While bringing him in, two "150's" exploded thirty yards to our left in the town, throwing earth and rocks and the smell of powder across the road. We were glad to get out alive. This was at 3 A.M.
Such was the night. I did not really feel the effects of it all until after I came off, when I had a nervous depression corresponding to the excitement of the night before. The Lieutenant told us we looked ten years older, and I guess we did, for I felt so. Words cannot really express the nervous excitement of a night like that, mixed up with death and duty and the agony of life.
WILLIAM J. LOSH*
*Of San Francisco; served with Section Fourteen until June, 1917, when he joined Section Ten in the Orient; the above are extracts from letters.
THE SUFFERING AND BRAVERY OF THE POILU
It seems as though every time I go on duty new experiences increase my hatred of the hell of war. I cannot tell you all of them, the censor would object; but I do wish there was some way of telling you just how stoical to suffering the French poilu is. This is an impression that grows on me, with every wounded man that I carry. One has to become accustomed to so many heart-tearing scenes. The sight of blood-soaked bandages is frequent; but to see a young fellow with blood matted between a week's growth of whiskers and perhaps partly covered with mud; to see a pair of sky-blue eyes peering out from the paleness of intense suffering, and perhaps to hear him talk of home in his delirium, are things one can never become accustomed to. Strange as it may seem, I have never seen a wounded Frenchman who was unconscious no matter what the pain. I had one soldier whose leg had been broken below the knee by a piece of shell, and in some way his foot had got turned partly around. How the poor boy kept from groaning, I never knew. But what was more, he partly sat up in his stretcher and asked one of the carriers to turn the foot slowly back again. Cautiously and gently his comrade worked, until the suffering poilu said, "There," as he lay back on the pillowless stretcher. Your imagination can never paint the picture; you must see and experience the bravery of wounded France to realize her spirit. Boys of eighteen, men of forty, all give their lives and suffer for ideals that mean more to them than life. And then comes our part --- to get the wounded poilu quickly to the hospital and to the skilful surgeon, for time means life. And yet one must drive carefully, for every jar means agony.
COMRADES IN SONG
A recent experience when we went back of the lines for a rest may interest. Every one was scolding, crabbing, condemning the management for having picked out such a place for our sojourn, when a huge rat ran across the floor, which did not tend to lessen our discontent. The blame thing was as big as a rabbit. I suppose he ran so fast because of dissatisfaction at our having disturbed him in his retreat. Finally, out of the storm came a voice at the door announcing supper. So twenty-two grumbling tired men scuffled down the stairs, out past the front yard with its odors, to the café, which the manager loaned to us until we could get better settled.
Now comes the psychological part of the whole thing. We filled over half of the big room, while Frenchmen, the stretcher-bearers, and hospital attendants, with whom we had been working the past months and whom we had learned to know through the suffering of others, occupied half of the small room. Suddenly one of our men began to sing --- I think it was "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now?" --- and, like a stimulant to a heart about to flutter out, the singing began to blot out blues and grumbles and growls. I'll never forget, in all my life, what happened. Dinner was over by this time, and we sang a few more songs. Then the old Frenchmen began. You cannot understand the spirit until you see how a typical, educated Frenchman of university type, as most of these are --- how these men with their families awaiting their return, all entered into the spirit of the music with an enthusiasm such as I have never seen. They sang with their eyes, with their hearts, with their bodies; there was no restraint, no bashfulness. Even if some could not keep time or pitch, it made no difference. Then one of our men recited, sang a few songs with the sweetness of a McCormack, and one of their men responded, while we joined in on the chorus. "When Good Fellows Get Together" was the most à propos song we sang. We cheered them, they cheered us. It made absolutely no difference that we could not understand the words to their songs; nor could they make out what we were singing. The spirit was there and we felt it. Finally we ended with the " Star-Spangled Banner," and they with the "Marseillaise." And then we came back to a parlor, which before had seemed a rotten old garret because of our attitude of mind. Even the rat was forgotten.
"PERE NOEL" AT THE FRONT
One of the men said to me just before Christmas that he thought it sounded like sarcasm for folks to wish us a "Merry Christmas." He was basing his remark on our surroundings at that time. The barracks were cold with their damp ground floors. It was so cold, in fact, that I found ice caked in my Ford commutator, and even my fountain-pen ink became solid, though it was in my trunk. Occasionally I wore my overcoat to bed, slept under seven blankets, and for two weeks never took off my clothes. However, my friend was wrong. We had a lively time. As Christmas Day approached, every one got busy. Some went for a tree, others helped the French cook prepare the big meal, while still others were writing little somethings and wrapping mysterious packages that bulged peculiarly. When the men returned with the tree in an ambulance and a load of holly from the woods, we all began decorating the café, our dining-room at that time, where the insides of tin boxes made good reflectors for the candles.
An empty barrack near by served as a distributing-room for old Santa Claus, who was one of the men with his face covered with cotton for a beard and who heightened the effect by sprinkling snow over his jolly self. The children of the village were there long before "Père Noel" arrived. One little fellow proudly showed me a sou some one had given him, his only gift, "because his father was away fighting for the future along with thousands of others." Each man of the Section had three toys for distribution among the little ones, and limericks for himself. The reckless drivers received toy ambulances. One who had been "over the top" on a visit had a toy Croix de Guerre; while the old Major was given a toy sword; and so on for sixty limericks and toys. We then opened a box of candies sent to the Section, and then those bright-eyed, happy children of France politely took their chocolates and American gum, which at first they did not know what to do with, with a gracious " Merci." But the toys they knew well what to do with, for they had seen days when such joys existed.
Then came the turkey dinner, backed by salad, cakes, nuts, fruits, chestnut dressing, mashed potatoes, and candy. Oh, how surely such things did make us forget the discomforts of war! while college songs, yells, and toasts helped make the air glow with the brilliancy of the holly berries. Even Le Beck, the cook, was made to come in to receive our cheers and thanks and be toasted.
Soon after the dinner came the show, for we had one, and a good one, as the French army utilized men, who before the war were actors, for vaudeville performances to cheer up the poilus en repos. It is found here at the front as necessary to care for the amusement of the men as it is to provide good food for them. Accordingly, a group of actors of our Division form a sort of stock company with several pieces in their répertoire. They have an auto which furnishes electricity, and costumes are given them. It so happened that these actors were quartered in a near-by village and were glad to take part in our vaudeville. We even had their machine for making electricity. Every man in the Section had some part to perform, while the folk of our village, three hundred in number, were the audience. We had tumbling stunts, comedy boxing matches, several skits, minstrel scenes, etc. We had rented a piano from some one in a neighboring city. Burnt corks served to blacken the "coons," who had two German grenades hanging on their belts. One of us actually did a Salome dance dressed in a grass costume made from bits of camouflage while mosquito netting draped "her" extremities.
For seats we dragged in benches and covered them with blankets which we use for wounded soldiers. Our ten acts and the Frenchmen's two comedies lasted until 12.30 A.M. the next morning. But not a single person left the "auditorium," although they could not understand much of our English.
Thus my friend was wrong about it not being possible to have a Merry Christmas out here, for we had a good time ourselves as well as making it a merry day for others.
FRANKLIN B. SKEELE*
*Of Los Angeles, Cal.; Stanford, '18; served in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service. The pages given above are extracts from home letters.
SUMMARY OF THE SECTION'S HISTORY
UNDER THE UNITED STATES ARMY
On September 19, 1917, the Section was officially taken over by the A.E.F. and given the number 632. We were cantoned in Villers-Marmery at the time, serving in the Champagne district in the sector of the Marquises Farm. Our postes were Wez, Prosnes, Maisonnette, La Cloche, and Cuisine.
From November 29 to January 1, 1918, came our first repos, near Châlons-sur-Marne. Chepy, Marson, and Jâlons were villages in which we lived. During this repos the Section was cited by the Division.
We were then assigned to the same front in the Champagne, but in the adjoining sector of the Mounts. Constancelager, Petite Haie, Bouleaux, Haie Claire, Prosnes, and Constantine Farm, were the postes, and our base first La Plaine, then the village of Sept-Saulx.
Allan H. Muhr was our first Lieutenant, Jefferson B. Fletcher, of Columbia University, taking his place in November. About March, 1918, another Lieutenant, Elliott H. Lee, from Princeton, took charge and was with us until le fin de la guerre. Émile Baudouy was our French officer from the time of the Section's formation, March 1, 1917, until September, 1918.
We remained in the sector of the Mounts until June 30, 1918, when we headed toward the Marne with our Division, the Eighth. Before the battle on the 15th we were quartered in Pierry, Vinay, and then Le Breuil. Our postes during the battle were Tincourt, Œuilly, Festigny, Saint-Martin, Chatillon, Vandières, Dormans, Damery, and Port-à-Binson.
After four days of heavy fighting, when we lost about eighty-two per cent of our Division, we retired to Courcelles. The ranks were soon refilled and August found us again on our way to the Champagne, in the sector of the Mounts again, serving postes at Prosnes, Sapinière, Baconnes, Farman, Constantine Farm, Bouleaux, and La Plaine. Mourmelon was the village of our Cantonment.
Then came the big advance, September 26, 1918, when we moved forward some 110 kilometres, from Mourmelon to Charleville-Mézières. Our line of advance, covering six weeks, took us through Naurouy, Aussonce, Neuflize, Tagnon, Rethel, to Charleville, which town was the, Headquarters of the German General Armies and where the former Kaiser and Crown Prince lived for four years. Our postes from here were Mézières, Saint-Laurent, Ville-sur-Lumes, Lumes, Prix, Nouzon, and Romery.
The section remained in Charleville from the day of its recapture on November 10 to March 7, 1919. Then we headed for home via Paris and Base Camp.