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Section Thirty-Two (SSU 32)

The New York City Club Unit
Section 32 left Paris August, 1917; it became Section 644, in November, 1917.

Western Front, France

Courtesy of the AFS Archives

The Section was attached to the 48e Division de Maroc from August, 1917, to February 1919.

* * *

On July 31, 1917, SECTION THIRTY-TWO left the camp at May-en-Multien and came to Paris to get its cars. It left the city on August 2, en convoi, arriving two days later at Ablois Saint-Martin. On August 16 it was attached to an attacking division, and moved with the Division to Romigny, near Verdun, on August 28. The Division remained here until October 2, when it went into line on the Verdun front, in a sector on the Meuse River. The cantonment of the Section was at Houdainville. It came back en repos on November 4, and was relieved by the men who were to take over the Section under the Army régime. Thereafter the Section number was Six-Forty-Four of the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.

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



And, conquering by her happiness alone,
Shall France compel the nations to be free.




We of the New York City Club Unit cheered with no little envy Sections Thirty-One and Seventy-One as they left camp for active service. But we had to wait our turn. It came on July 31, 1917. Early that morning Ives lined us up in the courtyard before the office of Chef Fisher, at the old grist-mill camp, May-en-Multien. We gave three rousing cheers for Fisher and some more for Sous-Chef Magnus and the French Maréchal des Logis, our drillmaster. To everybody's surprise and extreme delight the latter then walked up to Ives and kissed him on both cheeks. The next two days were spent in Paris struggling with our cars. They started hard and did not run too well; however, with several cylinders still missing we were officially designated Section Thirty-Two of the American Field Service, Keith Vosburg, Chef in charge, Lieutenant Miossec, of the French Army, in command, and at 8 A.M., on August 2, we passed through the lower garden gate at 21 rue Raynouard in convoy on our way to the front.

Two days' driving brought us to a little village, Ablois Saint-Martin, where we parked our cars in a chestnut grove and awaited further orders. We were now in that indefinitely exclusive region --- "somewhere in France." It rained incessantly and the mud was deep. Not until Verdun, however, were we to know what mud could be. The good housewives in whose homes we were cantoned showed great interest in "les américains," in many cases calling us their adopted sons.

Orders were slow in coming. For a while three meals a day were our principal concern. These meals were drawn from the regular French ravitaillement, and prepared under the supervision of our Brigadier d'Ordinance, a French attaché whom we called "Gabby." Now Gabby was an old hand at catering, but the American palate puzzled him. "What would the boys like me to bring them for dessert?" he asked one day. Some one shouted, "Lemons." Gabby looked doubtful, but the suggestion was loudly confirmed. Sure enough that night a basket of lemons appeared on the table. The laugh was on us --- there was no doubt about that; but Gabby's feelings were at stake, so the basket of lemons went slowly up and down the table, each man solemnly taking one and stuffing it into his pocket with the explanation that "he'd save his until he got outside ... .. Well, you zee, my dear," said Gabby, "these américains, they are a funny lot, you zee!"



To keep us out of mischief, Chef Vosburg ordered the red crosses on our ambulances enlarged. This required red and white paint and about four days' work. After that, no German, no matter how near-sighted, could possibly have mistaken our identity. Lieutenant Miossec was impressed and later inspired. He ordered a French flag to be painted beside each red cross, the measurements to be the same --- about two feet square. Less enthusiasm was shown in this latter job, and when an order appeared to place in the last remaining panel an emblem characterized by the Lieutenant as a "Horse Sea," a shout of protest arose, but to no avail. Some one suggested that before any more orders were issued we had better enlarge the cars. So some of the men painted on their radiators the trademarks of the Mercer, the Rolls-Royce, and the Simplex. If the war had ended that week we could have sold out to Barnum and Bailey!

Not long after this we were officially attached to an attacking division, one that had several citations and much regained territory to its credit. The men in it were for the most part a hard-looking, light-hearted lot --- sons of a tropical clime.

General Pétain paid the Division a visit at about this time. In his address he made much of its record and held out great hopes for the future. There was much talk among the men that night about a pending attack, in which case they all had their eyes on the yellow fourragère. The General had spoken well. But one little zouave, perhaps more sentimental than the rest, said, "I guess it's time to write home." A fifty per cent casualty list was not unusual for this Division. Soon we packed up and moved; then, after a few days, we moved again. Our convoys improved --- the men were beginning to know their cars. This was fortunate because it became quite apparent that our destination was Verdun.

Then for a while, from August 28 on, we paused --- a peaceful interlude. We were cantoned on an old farm at Romigny abounding in fruit trees and comprising several well-cleared fields. We promptly laid out a diamond and organized ball teams. After playing a minor series, we started what promised to be a spell-binding contest. But poor old Carl Schweinler broke his leg sliding to home plate and all bets were off.

It was while we were on this farm that the recruiting officers called. We had long realized that our volunteer days were numbered; that all the privately subscribed ambulances would eventually be taken over by the United States; and that in order to continue our work we should have to enlist as privates in the National Army. Sixteen men enlisted, the rest of the Section remaining as volunteers until new recruits could fill the ranks. There was no immediate change in the organization, however.



Our Division went into the line on October 2 and we established ourselves in a little village, Houdainville, directly on the river Meuse. In order to learn the roads six of us were detailed to the English section that we were to relieve the following day. Starting from the hospital we proceeded by a tree-lined boulevard past one of the gates of Verdun. There we turned to the right up the side of one of the surrounding hills, and just before reaching the crest, at a point about seven kilometres from the hospital, we came upon a series of bomb-proofs that we were to use as a relay poste, or "cab stand," as we called it. Less than a year before, this poste had been the most advanced in the sector, the German lines being only a few hundred yards away. But when we were there the distance to the lines was measured in kilometres and we drove to our advanced postes through this recently regained territory.

The road from the "cab stand" to the farthest poste was terrific. For a kilometre it was broad enough, straight and partly camouflaged, but after that it became narrow, crooked, and very rough. The surrounding country had once been wooded, with here and there a town, but now it was the symbol of desolation, a few upturned stumps and shattered logs being all that remained of a forest. As for the town sites, they were impossible to find, the terrain resembling the moon --- a mass of overlapping crater holes. After a rain these holes became partly filled with stagnant water and a stench arose that was horrible in its suggestiveness. Officially thousands upon thousands of soldiers have been reported "missing" on these fields. But, more literally, they have returned to clay. Such was the regained territory we traversed. The last stretch of road ran down a jagged gulch and terminated in a pool of filthy water. There being no room to turn around in the gulch, we always backed our cars down. This would be quite a feat under any circumstances because of the ever-present mud, stones, and débris, but we usually had to do it in total darkness, frequently in the midst of bursting shells.

The poste itself lay in a hollow at the foot of a limestone outcrop, which had been a quarry before the Germans converted it into a bomb-proof. It was said to be thirty feet underground, and hence safe. That was its only virtue. Water trickled perpetually down the walls, keeping the mean high level on the floor about ankle-deep. Ventilation was out of the question. Acetylene gas, chloride of lime, and the odors given out by dirty wet clothes formed the principal constituents of the atmosphere. Three hours in this place, particularly when it was filled with wounded, was enough to create a splitting headache. In addition to this poste were two others which paled by comparison. They were smaller, cleaner, and at less distance from the "cab stand."

During the first weeks that we worked this sector we experienced rain, snow, and fog, and we drove in nights of utter blackness, so black in fact that it was frequently necessary to feel one's way on foot just ahead of the car in order to find the road. Four hours for the round trip of fourteen kilometres was not uncommon, and there were places along the way where a miscalculation of two feet would mean the total loss of a car. Accidents were inevitable. Artillery caissons passing at the gallop robbed us of tool-boxes, and mud-guards crumbled when brought in contact with trucks, all of which was particularly trying to the sensitive souls of those fastidious drivers who two weeks before had tenderly removed mud from headlights and polished scratches on hoods. No wonder, therefore, that one night within an hour four cars were put out of commission; the most picturesque of these turning over like a turtle on his back in the mouth of a huge shell-hole. Several front ends were replaced on the road and many a car was towed into the repair shop. Radiators fell particularly easy prey to exploding shells, and during the first ten days fourteen of our cars were pierced by éclats; but fortunately, no one was hurt. Twenty-four hours on and twenty-four hours off is a strenuous schedule when it lasts over a month, and when one hundred and fifty kilometres is the average run per man per shift; such was our existence at this time. Little wonder, therefore, that we began to think of repos, which came on November 4, together with the men sent to replace those who had not enlisted.

Following quickly on the heels of this period of rest came the welcome news of a section citation and five individual Croix de Guerre. At the ceremony attendant on the conferring of these honors the General of the Division made a very gracious speech in which he said:

Some months ago, you came to us as strangers, but now the men of my Division regard you as brothers and I look upon you as my children. You have recently been called upon to perform a difficult and dangerous task. Your performance has been above criticism. In a word, you have shown yourselves to be as brave as the men who fight in the trenches. I therefore take great pleasure in presenting you with the highest honor that is within my power to bestow.


*Of New York City; Columbia, '10; served with Section Thirty-Two of the Field Service; subsequently a First Lieutenant in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.




November 3, 1917, the Section, now relabeled Six-Forty-Four, took part in its first engagement under American régime, at Verdun, in the Bezonvaux sector between Forts Douaumont and Vaux. It was in the line during a period of thirty-five days, and evacuated 3040 blessés. Although we had no casualties we lost two of our cars. The Section here received its first citation.

After a ten-day repos at Combles, the Division went into the lines, again at Verdun, and captured Hill 344. We carried 4210 wounded during the ten days the Division was in the lines. On December 3 the Section went en convoi to Bar-sur-Aube, where it remained en repos for a period of two weeks. At Darney we settled down for a long cold winter. On January 21 of the new year we quit Darney, going to Custines, a small town on the Nancy front. From here we operated postes in and around Nomény.

The Section left this sector about the first of March for the front near Amiens. The Division went into the lines at Villers-Bretonneux, and the Section was cantoned directly in back of the troops, at Petit Blangy, later at Patte d'Oie, where we camped alongside of the main road between Amiens and Saint-Quentin. We again were forced to move, and this time went to the Bois de Fort Manon, where we stayed until August 2, operating postes in front of Villers-Bretonneux and to the left of that town. We then went to Wailly, and from there, after a few days' wait, to Cottenchy where the Division made a joint attack with the British on their right. The Germans were forced back to the general line of Ham, Nesle, Roye, etc. During this attack the Section took its first part in open warfare, as well as occupying reconquered territory for the first time. The Division by forced marches through Maignelay, Jonquières, and Ribécourt, went into the lines at Chiry-Ours-camp, and, attacking, captured Noyon, then advancing to La Fère. During this time the Section made their evacuations in such a manner as to receive another citation.

From there the Division advanced through the towns of Chevresis, Monceau, Parpeville, Puisieux, and thence to Hirson, in a continuation of the Aisne-Oise offensive. The Armistice was signed the day after the Section reached Hirson.

Returning to La Fère, we remained there until the latter part of December, when we started en convoi for the Vosges, preparatory to taking part in the French occupation of Germany. We stayed in Rambervillers two weeks, and then went into reconquered Alsace on February 14, 1919, stopping for a few days in the town of Sarrebourg. From there the Section convoyed to Einöd, in the Palatinate, and thence to Alsie (Hesse), Bierstadt, in Rhenish Prussia, near Wiesbaden, and to Niederhausen, where the Section was cantoned for two weeks or so; moving from there to Ober Losbach. From that place started the final convoy of the Section for Paris.


*Of Auburndale, Massachusetts; in T.M.U. 397 during his time with the Field Service, and in Section Six-Forty-Four of the U.S. Ambulance Service with the French Army during the remainder of the war.


Gurnee Hinman Barrett

John S. Clapp

The S.S.U.'s

SSU 32