Published In Articles

Section Seventeen (SSU 17) – Part II

Western Front, France

< SSU 17 - first part


Mourmelon, December 6

There is a young, clean-faced priest --- a Captain as most priests seem to be --- who is often our guest, and attached to our Division. He wears a Croix avec palme and speaks slow, precise English. One day back in June he rode down from the front with me and explained in French that having been three days in the trenches during a little attack and having had no sleep, he was too tired to think English! But for his bonnet de police, his croix, and his poilu shoes --- also his gas-mask slung about his shoulders --- he might be a priest in a church instead of in the trenches. Another of our Division priests is a short, bearded, gray man, with a wide smile and terribly old, sad eyes. He speaks no English, but always offers us and every one cigarettes, though he never smokes himself.

Sunday afternoons in a little open space across the street a band plays --- usually military airs. And always there is a wonderful flourish when the buglers raise or lower their instruments --- something decorative in the simple action, just as a French salute has somehow a dignity, a grace, and a complimentary quality of greeting that no other salute can claim. It is an all-embracing affair, that salute; a welcome into brotherhood almost, even when given by a French general to a U.S.A.A.S. private. When I was in Paris one day I dove into a Métro train, in a crowd, and plunked against a lone two-star general.

I saluted in a flustered manner, and he could not have returned it more graciously if I had been the King of England.

To come back to bands and our same street outside here. There was a review a month back in the forenoon, when the sun was out and red leaves were on the big trees or fluttering down from them as the ceremony on the plains beyond our town was finished. Then the regiment marched down our street with band playing and officers stiff on their horses. And there was a swing to the poilus' shoulders and a strength in their faces. Their French flag was a bit torn, but it was crusted with names in gold of their battles and a Croix de Guerre and a Médaille Militaire nestled in its folds near the staff. We saluted as it passed, and the sun caught it and the tri-color flamed, and all in that instant one understood why men tossed away their lives for France. It seemed the logical thing to do --- the only thing. And I was glad that those colors belonged to us, too, and glad that even so humbly I'd been of the Armée Française.

Why should a banner, a mere bit of silk, choke one's throat so? Perhaps because no French flag is a "mere bit of silk" --- it is a bit of free blue sky, of searing white pain, and of man's rich blood. It's a hymn and a pledge, a wreath, a sword, a cross, a soul; and a part of that French soul is in the heart of every poilu, and, please God, will seep into our American hearts who have come to France to fight, and fight standing on French ground.


*The above are extracts from home letters, which were described as --- "these blooming scraps. They are so absurd ---their attitude as if the writer were seeing the immensities around him with a new and valuable point of view, with things of value to say of them; whereas in reality he was only very young and unknowing, and impressed and truly very new himself. I wish some abler person had seen the things that passed before me, to put them in living flame on paper with a genius pen. Surely he has been in the war somewhere, the genius who will paint it in all its unforgettable colors so that it will last forever for all the peoples of the world. But if you want these jumbled words, you are welcome to them, for it is true that a dull gray background helps real things to stand out."




Christmas Day, 1917

This is Noël and I am still in France. The biggest surprise of the evening, and one which made me very proud and happy, was when the Major read an order of the day, citing the Section and pinned the Croix de Guerre on our flag. He also decorated our French Lieutenant, and, much to my surprise, gave me another star for mine. I am so pleased that the work into which I have put all my strength of soul and body is appreciated.

Grandeville, January, 1918

We are at last en repos and are quartered in a little village that hardly deserves the name. We asked an inhabitant how many people lived here, and he answered that he did not know whether it was 129 or 130. The Mayor has the only silk hat, and if any young blood wants to get married, he has to rent it, and then walk up and down the main street with his bride on his arm. We say that a sense of humor and a pair of rubber boots are all one needs in this town. This is our second rest in ten months, so you see we are badly in need of it.

March, 1918

In summing up our record from the time we left Paris until now, we have received one Section citation and nine individual ones. Of course, I can't tell you the number of blessés we have carried, but will some day. We have had four cars smashed by shells, but they are still with us. To see them now lined up in a peaceful country village, so far away from the sound of shot and shell, every one showing the scars of battle, the bodies all sprinkled with éclats holes, makes one want to go up and pat them on their hoods and say, "Boys, you have earned a good rest; we are going to clean you all up and paint you, give you plenty of new grease and oil, and you can feel in your carburetor-souls that the Croix de Guerre you earned, you certainly deserved. You need not feel ashamed to have them painted on your wind-shields." This may sound conceited, but it really is true, for the old cars have stood up wonderfully, and we are all proud of them, even in their present condition.

I have just returned from Nice, having spent my permission there. Going down, I had to stand up on a crowded train from Paris during twenty-two hours. But it was worth the fatigue --- the sunshine, the palms and the orange trees, the peacefulness of it all were too wonderful! At the Casino at Monte Carlo, I looked in at the gambling through the glass doors, as no one in uniform is allowed to enter.

Now I am back, and I am feeling very badly to-day, as the army has taken away our French Lieutenant. He is such a wonder, and he loved the Section so. We all miss him terribly. I would rather have lost my right arm than see him go. I have a splendid lot of men, and I am very proud of them. We all pray that the war will soon be over. Sometimes we dream about it, but always wake up in muddy France. But when we are discouraged and homesick, as we all are sometimes, we have only to look at these wonderful French people to get a brace, and have renewed courage to "carry on" until the end.

*Of Larchmont, New York; joined Section Eight of the Field Service in August, 1916; Chef of Section Seventeen from its beginning, and its Lieutenant when taken over by the U.S.A. Ambulance Service. The above are clippings from home letters.




FROM September 21, 1917, with a gradually changing personnel, Section Six-Thirty-Five was stationed at Mourmelon-le-Grand in one of the permanent barraquements of the Camp de Châlons. Postes were at M4, Village Gascon, Bois Sacré, and Hexen Weg, with evacuations to Hôpital Farman and Mourmelon-le-Petit. From the latter places we did, in addition, rear-line work to Saint-Hilaire, Mont Frenet, and Châlons. Through the bitter winter of 1917 the Section's Division, the 97th, was continuously in the lines. There were frequent coups de main and the constant threat, expressed in leaflets dropped by Boche avions, that Christmas would see the entire region including Châlons in German hands. In anticipation barbed wire was strung and trenches dug kilometres back of Mourmelon, but by January 20 no attack had occurred and the Section moved back, just as a thaw set in which disrupted most traffic, and went en repos at Grandeville, near Mailly. Here the 97th Division as such went out of existence. The artillery, génie, Algerian cavalry, and medical corps of the old Division remained, but to them were added three regiments of cuirassiers --- the 5th, 8th, and 12th --- and the Division was renamed the 2e D.C.P. of the 2e C.C.P. (Corps de Cavalerie à Pieds). The Division remained in training until March 23, when a move was made to Auve on the Châlons-Verdun road. Sudden orders started the Section with its Division on a rush for the Somme. The convoy set out on March 27, over jammed and muddy roads, with stops at Juvigny and Breteuil, and finally reached its cantonment at Oresmaux. For two weeks the Division fought, and after terrific losses succeeded in stopping the German advance. During this time the Section served postes at Rouvrel and Dommartin, with evacuations to Ailly. It just escaped capture en masse at one time, and on several other occasions individuals found themselves between the lines only to make almost miraculous escapes.

First Sergeant Richards, having assumed in addition to his own the duties of mechanic, was wounded slightly while repairing a car under fire, and the Section later received a Corps d'Armée citation for its work.

April 13 the Division moved back, with short rests at Campdeville and Pernant, until on May 7 it was again in line, this time in the supposedly repos sector west of Soissons. The Section was quartered in abri grottoes above the Aisne at Fontenoy, with postes at Saint-Mard, Épagny, and Vézaponin. Activity began to increase about the 25th, then suddenly on May 27 the violent Boche attack began. Our base was moved back to the Ferme l'Épine, but we lived by our cars and continued to serve the postes until the Germans took the villages. On the 30th we worked from Vic-sur-Aisne evacuating the wounded from Morsain, through which the French streamed in retreat. Even as we worked here, the town was being blown to pieces and behind it batteries drew up in open fields, opened fire, and then retreated once again. Orders sent us across the Aisne before night because the French expected to have to destroy all the bridges before the next day. For two nights and a day we bivouacked beside the route nationale, in the dust and rush of the retreat, while trenches were being dug along it, and we made impossibly long evacuations to Compiègne and Villers-Cotterets. There was a terrifying sense of desperation and hopelessness in the air, even when on June 1 the enemy seemed at least temporarily halted just north of Vic. Our Division came "out" and we settled at Ferme l'Épine, where the Foreign Legion too was quartered. The Germans again advanced, the saucisses glared down at us, and the machine guns stuttered close at hand again. The cuirassiers were thrown into the uncertain lines in the woods near Coeuvres on the 5th. We had postes at Saint-Pierre l'Aigle, Château Valsery, and Montgobert, with evacuations to Taillefontaine. Again unexpectedly the Germans attacked on June 12 with a vicious barrage. In our Valsery poste Nazel was shot through the thigh by an avion machine-gunning the place, then Eddy was wounded by a shell and a little later Conklin was killed near Montgobert. In the haste of retreat the French first line was established along the road on the hillside back of Château Valsery, where were three of our cars and half a dozen of our men. They were between the lines in the valley swept by machine-gun fire, but completely cleared the poste of wounded and got back to the Section unhurt. Three days more we served, taking over for a day the work of the colonial division which relieved ours when its own French section was late in arriving. Then on the 15th we started for Beauvais, going en repos at Bonlier.

June 28 part of the Section entrained on flatcars for an unknown destination, and next day the remainder set out by road with the R.V.F. After a slow three-days convoy we were settled at Hargéville, near Bar-le-Duc. For two days we were attached to the 117th Division and worked with it north of Les Islettes in the Argonne; then our old Division recalled us, our place being taken by S.S.A. 14, and we hurried to Génicourt, taking up poste service immediately. Thus in twenty-four hours we had served at the front on both banks of the Meuse. Here we settled down with postes before Rupt in the Woevre forests.

On September 8 we left Génicourt, moving back to Ravigny Hospital on the Souilly road. The 26th Division had now relieved us, and both divisions were attached to a colonial corps serving with the First American Army. On the 11th we moved up to Troyon on the Meuse Canal. Next day our Division attacked in conjunction with the Americans, taking 2800 prisoners. The advance was greater than had been expected, and on the 16th we shifted our base up to Deuxnouds, serving a poste at Avillers in the Woevre plain and two other postes on the hills above.

September 20, on one of their nightly air raids the Boches picked Deuxnouds as their objective, dropping eleven bombs directly behind our line of ambulances, ruining eight of them. The first of the bombs wounded "Shorty" Hannah so terribly that he lived only a few minutes. Muldoon and three Frenchmen were severely wounded also, but recovered. We went to Lacroix-sur-Meuse to await orders on October 18. Starting for Nancy on the 23d, our orders were changed when we reached Commercy and we headed toward the Argonne, going to Dommartin-la-Planchette, west of Sainte-Ménehould.

Beginning November 2, when we were suddenly ordered to Ripont, which was merely a name, the village having been absolutely wiped away, we advanced steadily with stops at Saint-Étienne, Bignicourt, and Amagne, arriving on the 9th at Hagniville. On November 10 the Division went into line, and during the evening took Mézières and Charleville across the river. The attack planned for the following morning was arrested by the news of the Armistice, which found us quartered in Boulzicourt. Next day we moved into some large and comfortable barracks in Mézières, where we remained until the 17th, when our advance into Belgium began. We went forward through Vresse to Paliseul. We were some twenty-four hours behind the Boches and were supposed to follow them at this interval. After passing through' Saint-Hubert, we stopped at Drinkelange, where we lived for two weeks in a frame building with only occasional trips carrying malades to Bastogne. On December 11 we started into Germany, crossing the line at Dasburg, and spending our first night in Daleiden. We continued through Neuerburg, Bitburg, Schweich, and Simmern, reaching the Rhine on December 23. Christmas we spent in Salzig, then two days later went down the Rhine to Mayence. Our Division relieved a Moroccan division in holding the bridgehead, and we had several postes, one at Worms.

February 14 a new section relieved us, and leaving them our cars we took train for Metz, then shifted to the Paris express. After one day in Paris we began the first lap of our homeward journey and started for Ferrières and Base Camp.


*Carleton Fay Wright, of Plymouth, Massachusetts; joined the Field Service in October, 1917; served in Section Six-Thirty-Five of the U.S.A. Ambulance Service for the duration of the war.


James W. D. Seymour

Basil K. Neftel

Carleton Fay Wright

SSU 17