Section Four (SSU 4) – Part I
Section 4 left Paris November, 1915; it became Section 627 in September 1917.
- Western Front, France
The Section was attached to the 64e Division d'Infanterie from January, 1917, to May, 1917; to the 20e Division d'Infanterie from May, 1917, to March, 1918; G.Q.G. and to the 10e Armée from March to June, 1918; to the le Division d'Infanterie from June, 1918, to February, 1919.
* * *
SECTION FOUR left Paris for Lorraine in November, 1915, and after a few weeks, at Vaucouleurs, spent the ensuing winter and spring in the Toul-Flirey sector. In June, 1916, it moved to Ippécourt for the great battle of Verdun, where it had the distinction of being the first of the Field Service sections to serve the famous postes at Marre and Esnes. For nearly a year the Section remained in the region of Ippécourt and Rarécourt in the Verdun sector. In May, 1917, it moved on to Champagne, where it remained for two months; then it went back again to Verdun, this time to the Bras-Vacherauville sector. It was at this point that the Section enlisted with the United States Army in the autumn of 1917, as Section Six-Twenty-Seven.
'The Ambulance Sections', History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France" 1914-1917, Told by Its Members, Volume I (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1920)
Broke to every known mischance, lifted over all
By the light sane joy of life, the buckler of the Gaul,
Furious in luxury, merciless in toil,
Terrible with strength that draws from her tireless soil,
Strictest judge of her own worth, gentlest of man's mind,
First to follow truth and last to leave old truths behind ---
France beloved of every soul that loves its fellow-kind!
SECTION FOUR'S BEGINNING
The night before we were to leave Paris early in November, 1915, we had a dinner with the officers of the Field Service. There were not many speeches, but we were reminded that we were in charge of one of the best-equipped Sections which had as yet taken the field, and that we were going to the front in an auxiliary capacity to take the place of Frenchmen needed for the sterner work of the trenches. We might be sent immediately to the front or kept for a while in the rear; but in any event there were sick and wounded to be carried and our job was to help by obeying orders.
Early the next morning we ran through the Bois-de-Boulogne and over an historic route to Versailles, where, at the Headquarters of the Army Automobile Service, our cars were numbered with a military serial and the driver of each was given a livret matricule, which is an open sesame for gasoline and tires at every motor park in France. Those details were completed about ten o'clock, and we felt at last as if we were French soldiers driving French automobiles on the way to our place at the French front.
About thirty kilometres outside of Paris the staff car and the camionnette with the cook on board dashed by us, and upon our arrival at a quaint little village we found a café requisitioned for our use and its stock of meat, bread, and red wine in profusion at our disposal. In the evening we reached the town of Esternay and there again all was prepared for our reception. Rooms were requisitioned and the good people took us in with open arms and the warmest of hospitality. But one or two of us had to spread our blankets over the stretchers in the back of our cars, because there were not enough rooms and beds for all.
The next morning was much colder; there was some snow and later a heavy fog. Our convoy got under way shortly after breakfast, and ran in record-breaking time, for we wanted to finish our trip that evening. We stopped for lunch and for an inspection which consumed two hours, and starting about ten o'clock on the last stretch of our journey, drove all the afternoon through sleet, cold, and snow.
At seven o'clock that night we reached Vaucouleurs, had our supper, secured sleeping accommodations, and retired. Our running orders had been completed; we had reached our destination in perfect form. Several days passed. We were inspected by generals and other officers, all of whom seemed pleased with the completeness of our Section; yet improvements, they said, were still possible and should be made while we were at the park. We were told that we were to take care of a service of evacuation of the sick in that district and at the same time try out a "heating system" for our cars.
We were at Vaucouleurs in all six weeks, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Our work consisted of evacuating malades, and at first it offered the opportunity of teaching the green ones how to care for their cars. But we were all soon put on our mettle.
The outlying country was full of lowlands and streams which in many places during the hard rains covered the roads to such a depth that the usual type of French car could not operate. Our car suspension was high, and we were thus able to perform a service the others could not. We established, too, a standard for prompt service and during the weeks we were at Vaucouleurs we never delayed a call on account of "high water." In fact, we left this district for other labor with a record of never having missed a call, and the promptness of service, day or night, was often a matter of comment by the French officials connected with this work. During this flooded period certain postes accustomed to telephone for an ambulance would ask for an American ambulance "boat," and the story was soon about that we had water lines painted on the cars as gauges for depths through which, we could pass. On one occasion I was in the middle of a swirling rapid with the nearest "land" one hundred yards away. But I had to get through, because I had on board a pneumonia patient with a high fever, so I opened the throttle and charged. When I got to the other side I was hitting on only two cylinders, but as mine was the only car that day to get through at all, I boasted long afterwards of my ambulance's "fording" ability.
IN THE TOUL SECTOR
We were always looking forward to being moved and attached to some division within the First Army, and, as promised, the order came. Our service in this district was completed, and on the morning of January 5, 1916, our convoy moved up to Lay-Saint-Remy. Our work here included postes de secours that were intermittently under fire, and several of the places could be reached only at night, being in daylight within plain view of the German gunners.
Here again we remained only a short time. Without any warning we received an order one evening to proceed the next day to Toul. This meant 7 A.M., and so all night we were busy filling our gasoline tanks, cleaning sparkplugs, and getting a dismantled car in shape to "roll."
The trip to Toul was without incident, and when we drew up at the caserne, which proved to be our quarters for several months, we reported as ready for immediate work. Five cars were regularly stationed at Grosrouvres, a secondary poste de secours about ten kilometres from the lines, and two cars farther forward at the Carrière de Flirey, a first-line poste de secours. The rest of the ambulances formed a reserve at our base to relieve daily those cars and take care of such emergency calls as might come in, day or night. Then, as soon as we proved our worth, we were given other similar points on the lines, and gradually took over the work of the French Section working with the next Army division.
Seicheprey and the Bois de Jury were two of our postes the first being but four hundred yards from the Boche trenches. All winter we kept up this and evacuation work from the hospital at Ménil-la-Tour and the hospital at Toul. In the middle of February we had two cars at Jouy, and there we served the postes of Xivray, Bouconville, Barrière d'Apremont, Rambucourt, and Beaumont, while at the same time we took over the evacuation work at Aulnois, Void, and Pagny, which gave us all the ambulance work between Apremont and Limey, a front of twenty kilometres, and the work of two divisions. The Section had its hands full, until June, when we had a few days repos at Bayon. But by the 15th, we again began work, this time in the great battle of Verdun.
GEORGE ROCKWELL, JR. *
*Of Waterbury, Connecticut; joined the Service in February, 1915, serving with Section One and, as Sous-Chef, with Section Four until August, 1916. Later obtained a commission in U.S. Aviation.
CALLS AT NIGHT FALL
At Toul, we handled practically the entire first-line Ambulance Service of two divisions, embracing the front covered by the 101st Division from Girauvoisin to Xivray, and that from Xivray to Noviant, the province of the 64th. In addition, we took care of the greater part of the evacuation work between the various ambulances and hospitals back of the lines.
Of the two sectors, that of the 101st Division was the least interesting and most confining; calls were not very frequent --- seldom as many as two a night --- and usually nothing to do all day, yet the men had to stay always within reach, and any walking other than through the little village of Jouy was out of the question. Quarters were in an old wine-cellar --- a long, stone-arched room dug half into the hillside, with a single attic-story over it --- lighted dimly by a tiny window at either end, and very inadequately heated by a small, wood-burning stove. Along both sides were ranged wooden frames, knocked together and filled with straw, the bunks of the unusually noisy group of brancardiers, or stretcher-bearers, with whom we were quartered....
After supper the fire is filled up, the brancardiers gather in chattering groups or slip into their bunks; the overloaded flue is unequal to the volume of smoke, which gathers in a blue cloud overhead, thicker and thicker --- lower and lower --- will the fire give out before the smoke level reaches the sleepers?
The calls at Jouy usually come in about nightfall, just as the long ravitaillement, or supply trains, are starting for the front under cover of the darkness. This makes the running unusually difficult: M. Merland, the genial young médecin auxiliaire, in private life a medical student, takes his seat beside me and with a whirr of the motor we are off through the darkness. Dark, indeed! for no lights are allowed nor auto horn or klaxon to clear the track ahead. It is nervous work at best, for the roads are narrow and running with mud, and while hard enough in the middle, give way to veritable bogs on either side where the "metalling " or stone surface ends, and beyond this the inevitable deep ditch of this part of France. Unlucky he who gives too generous a berth to the passing wagon! But, in addition, we have to pass an almost endless stream of ravitaillement ---fourgons, caissons, two-wheel carts loaded with full-length young trees, a very dangerous combination to pass, coming and going, appear suddenly out of the darkness, and slide silently by --- great camions (auto-trucks) of some twelve tons loom out of the nothingness ahead and thunder down upon us --- I have a fleeting vision of a little tin " flivver " ground into a mass of junk and jelly in the mud, and only a quick turn of the wheel averts a collision. Always there is the shrill whistle or Merland's sharp " à droite" at the critical moment --- and always our luck is with us, for we are near the head of the column when we halt outside the town to wait till the Germans' evening bombardment of Gironville is finished. We watch the shells bursting --- sharp flashes in the gloom; there is a pause of a couple of minutes, and we move on again.
We reach Gironville and run down its narrow street, hemmed in on the left by the whitewashed stucco backs of the houses, on the right by the little extra-narrow-gauge military railway --- that elastic ribbon of readymade sections, like the children's toy, which follows hard on the heels of the front-line army --- horse-operated, hand-operated, engine-operated indiscriminately, as occasion serves --- and which twists and winds up hill and down dale, through field and wood, but by preference using the road, where it is a constant menace to the little ambulance, a-wayfaring on a dark night.
"Arrêtez ! Qui est là ?" --- and the motor races a moment as we throw out the clutch at the sudden summons.
"Ambulance Américaine, Thiaucourt," we reply, and at the countersign the proffered bayonet is lowered, and turning sharply to the right we slide down to the long, level, really excellent road to Broussey. It seems clear for the moment, and we open up, cautiously; the road glimmers faintly before us, spectral figures appear suddenly ahead, and at the whistle melt into the darkness at the roadside: the long, ghostly procession of bare trees, just discernible against the sky, glides by --- and again we halt before the sentinel at Broussey.
A sharp turn to the left in the middle of the shot-torn town --- through the lattice screens placed across the road to shield the passing on the main street from the Boche observing stations in the trenches and on "le vieux Mont Sec" which dominates the region --- to the right again, and we are on the winding road to Bouconville.
Still more "shot up" is Bouconville, and as we run up the long street we can dimly see the sky through shellholes in roof and gable, or catch a fleeting glimpse of skeleton rafters, gaunt and blackened. We turn silently up to the ruined church, and circling, stop the motor at the poste de secours, underground in the corner of the little churchyard. A few dim figures are visible --- silent save for occasional whispers.
Vos blessés, sont-ils prets?" --- we whisper also.
"Il y a un qui n'est pas encore arrivé des tranchées."
"Et combien en tous ? --- couchés ou assis.
"Trois, dont deux couchés."
We wait a few minutes, and presently our assis is brought out, moving heavily and clumsily in his great capote and broad, hobnailed shoes.
"Attention à votre tête " --- the roof is low --- and he is seated "bien en avant" --- musettes and knapsack and rifle packed in after him --- "Rosalie --- n'oubliez pas ma Rosalie!" and the long, slender bayonet, with its heavy cartridge belt, is given due place.
The supports for the third or upper stretcher are lowered and fastened, and one of the couchés, not seriously wounded, is lifted on his stretcher and slid into place. The other is a grave blessé --- both legs badly cut up by an éclat --- one will probably have to be amputated. Very gently his stretcher is pushed into place, and very gently we start on our return trip.
But soon there is a sharp tap on the 'little window behind my head, and the assis calls out, as we open, that there is trouble with the grave blessé. Sure enough there is a tiny stream of blood dripping out from under the tail-board, and Merland is galvanized into quick action. Flashlight in hand --carefully shielded, however, lest the Boches see us --- he tightens the pansement, straining on the bandage until the slow, full dripping ceases --- and once more we are en route, Merland now riding inside. Again, after passing Broussey, we stop while the anxious auxiliaire looks over his charge, still further tightening the dressing; but strength is ebbing fast, and just outside Jouy we halt for a third time, take out the assis and the other couché, while Merland tries to give a hypodermic. But the needle breaks, and loading up, we speed into the town and draw up at the hospice just as the first shell of the renewed bombardment screams in down the street. Merland hurries in, attendants appear --- we dismount our patient to the ground, and the Médecin Chef, who comes out on the run, feels the flagging pulse, and quickly gives the required injection.
"Allez ! --- allez vite !" --- and we are off again. No regard now to sparing pain --- speed is the essential, and the little motor hums busily to advanced spark and open throttle. Just outside Jouy we round a corner and are out of sight of Mont Sec, so stop a moment to light the headlamps; and with their aid increased speed is attainable. At Aulnois the assis and the less seriously injured couché are left; once more our "bad case" is given a hypodermic, and again we are off.
The long run on to Void is uneventful --- no further serious loss of blood, but a steady loss of strength. However, our patient still retains consciousness, and we start on our homeward journey with the warming assurance that he will pull through.
And as I put the car away, the last shell of the evening's bombardment snarls in and bursts a hundred yards up the street.
THE CARRIÈRE DE FLIREY
The Carrière de Flirey! Always it appears to my inner mind as I first saw, or rather sensed it, for it was well-nigh pitch dark. It was my first tour on the Grosrouvres service, and I had already had one call to battered, exposed Seicheprey earlier in the evening, leaving my blessés at Ménil-la-Tour and returning about 10 P.M. to tumble into my sketchy bunk for what sleep might be my fortune. But at two o'clock came the fateful steps outside the door, and "Froggie," the telephonist, peered in, "Carrière! C'est vous qui partez!" --- for neither of the other slumberers, having come in after me, had moved. "Oui," and I tumbled out, and shortly, with a brancardier beside me, was spinning off toward Bernécourt; spinning, that is, as fast as the ferociously bad road and the still thick traffic would allow. We rocked through the boulders of Bernécourt, and bore away along a road new to me, and for half a mile or so, pleasantly smooth. Then it got suddenly and surprisingly rough --- "Old shell-holes --- there is a battery right beside the road, and the Boches try for it all the time," remarked my comrade. We passed the repaired part and swung in through cloudy woods that seemed at once to engulf us, the road, and what little glimmer there had been, in one all-smothering blackness.
More by touch and feel than by sight, we swung around the corner and down the hill toward where a feeble point of light served merely to dazzle and to render the surrounding blackness still more impenetrable --- and --- "Halte-là!" --- my guide being only less new to the place than myself --- brought up short almost against great sandbag barriers, where an inquiring sentry held an embarrassingly long bayonet just where it would most interfere with my internal economy. We had overrun our turning, so, backing carefully a hundred yards, we came to a gently sloping branch leading down past the bothering light to a road up the middle of a long trough of blackness. Backing the car into a broad shed, I followed my guide to a door a few yards away, which we entered, to find, by the momentary flicker of a match, a rough, board-lined room, with seven or eight bunks, and a small, cold stove. One bunk was empty, and bidding my comrade good-night as he left for his own quarters, I turned in, and in spite of entire absence of ventilation was soon sleeping with the best of them to a lullaby of occasional sharp rafales from one or two batteries of "75's" close at hand.
The Carrière de Flirey shows by day a narrow ravine, running east from the road to Flirey, and parallel to the trenches: a gray road along the centre, between the slopes on either side thickly covered with slim young growth --- a ribbon of the little, narrow-gauge hand-and-horse-railway that the French use to such good advantage, along its southern, wooded slope. And the northern slope, all rich browns and reds; soft creams and yellows, from the torn earth and rock, and honeycombed with a quadruple row of shacks of all kinds, built back into the abris or dugouts, in the solid hillside. And yet, such are the exigencies of modern warfare, where the all-seeing eye of the aeroplane is ever overhead, the necessity for concealment, for protective coloring, has made what would else be raw and tawdry a thing of real charm and interest. Branches of evergreen hide fresh stonework; rough, generous blotches of brown, green, and black paint transform staring wood surfaces to the quiet tones of field and wood; and corrugated iron roofing is hidden under great crossed beams, which are in turn covered with generous layers of earth and rock. So that, save for the darkness of opened doors and windows, there is little revealed to the scouting aeroplane of the busy life within --- the electric power station, the telephone exchange, the operating-room, offices, supply chambers, whatnot.
Across the end of the Carrière, the road leads through the barriers, around the shoulder of the hill, down through desolate Flirey, and out through the German lines. Across the road are trenches, boyaux, and yet more trenches, in the straggling ranks of modern military science --- out and out to No Man's Land. And back of the trenches, woods, and yet more woods; and here, there, and everywhere, in all sorts of likely and unlikely places, the big and little guns of France --- never tiring, never sleeping.
The Carrière de Flirey --- a busy and a mauvais endroit. Overhead tore the French shells, with the sound of ripping cotton; or the German shells sailed over, bound for villages far back, with a sort of protesting whimper --- or swished in on us with a sudden, indescribably vicious snarl. From around us came the booming roar of the big guns, or the peculiarly sharp bark of the "75's"; and from those located behind us there was an unusual echo effect that I have heard nowhere else --- " Oom pow! oom --- pow! oom --- pow!" --- would come the ear-splitting salvo, and the little shells, in which the poilu rightly places so much trust, would tear away overhead.
A mauvais endroit --- here men were killed and wounded almost at our sides --- Adamson saw two killed within five or six yards of him. Here the road winding down to the valley was under direct observation from the German drachen or observation balloon over behind Flirey --- how we did hate that balloon! --- and the enemy artillery had accurately registered it, so that, day or night, those traversing it had to take their medicine as it came.
And the Flirey front was bad, too --- never a rest for the troops, for they were always under fire; and ever the freshly wounded were brought back to the little dressing station, whence we hurried them back to final treatment; and ever the little wattled morgue received new inmates, and silently, day by day, the long cemetery across the road grew and spread along the curving valley.
The Carrière service being the most important, the entire activities of the Grosrouvres Squad revolved about it; one car was kept in the shed "garage" in the little valley, the conducteur living with the brancardiers, and eating, now in the little iron-roofed "kitchen" dug back into the hillside above, or again with some of the friendly officers, or with M. Harel, the genial aumônier of the Division, black-bearded and efficient. Cases of minor importance, sickness or slight wounds, were kept till there were enough to make a load --- but graves blessés or seriously sick men were sent in to Toul at once. The departure of the ambulance at any time, day or night, was signal for a telephone message to Grosrouvres for another car, which usually arrived a few minutes after the first had left, so that the poste was always covered. Indeed, the sending in of blessés from the trenches was always telephoned from the trench station to the Carrière, so that the operating-room might be in readiness, and on such occasions the relief car was usually telephoned for at once, and arrived often before the first ambulance had started away.
AT SEICHEPREY IN 1916
The cars not on duty at the Carrière --- two or three, depending on whether or not Flirey was busy requiring a car en remplacement --- the remaining cars of the Squad took care of calls from the other postes along the front, and of the towns lying farther back. Seicheprey, down in the valley, badly ruined, and fully exposed to gun- and rifle-fire --- as was also the white road pitching down into it -we visited only at night. Even then there were occasions when some of our drivers had their thrilling moments, as when Dayton's heavily loaded wheels refused to grip the mud, leaving his car for long minutes clearly outlined in the blaze of one of the rare moonlit nights, apparently immovable and well in range of the ever-nearing rifle bullets; a providential cloud, a blanket under the wheel, and no damage done.
Daylight runs to the poste de secours of the Bois de Jury had, as was pointed out in a special commendation from the Division, never been undertaken prior to the advent of the Section. The road led from Beaumont along a crest fully exposed to observation from Mont Sec--- le vieux Mont Sec, as the poilus termed it, much as we would say "the old Nick" --- it being held and gunned by the Germans. And as the road and its vicinity were not infrequently thoroughly shelled by the Boches in their search for French batteries, and as one felt that to a part, at least, of the enemy forces the Red Cross meant nothing, the daylight traverse was not without its thrill.
"MAKING THE ROUTE"
Beaumont and Mandres, Hamonville and Ansauville, Bernécourt and Noviant, all had to be visited; sickness, accidents, wounds --- the towns were full of soldiers in reserve, and all had to be cared for. And even well back of the lines there was often "excitement" for us. I well remember the creepy-crawly feeling up and down my spine as a shell snored and snarled along, following my car in a direct line as I entered Ansauville, and the feeling of relief as it passed close overhead, after all, to burst on the far side of a row of houses just ahead. And there is also Allen's vivid description of his passage through Hamonville with a load of assis, to the alternate tune of obus snarling in and earnest beseeching from his passengers to " Allez! --- allez! --- allez! --- "
And at Grosrouvres itself, well-placed shells threw mud and stones over our already well-muddied cars; on another occasion dropped a still hot fuse-head at Rantoul's feet, and again was deposited, through the kitchen ceiling, a fresh, hot piece of éclat in our salad. But the kitchen was empty at the time, for on the occasions when these barracks towns were honored by bombardments, the open fields took on a decidedly populous appearance.
That salad was not our only culinary experiment --- for there was the almost equally famous occasion when the rat, trying to navigate the chimney above, missed his hold and fell, like Milton's Satan --- but minus his flames --- down the great fireplace, and square into our coffee. Shelled salad was one thing, but café au rat --- alas! we went coffeeless to bed. Rats! They were a pest in more ways than one --- they increased and multiplied without stint; they ran riot through our Grosrouvres quarters; they ran up and down the wall, shrieking anathema at one another; they fell on us in bed, and tried to hide crusts beneath our pillows. At the Carrière they pervaded every corner, and like the ghosts in "Julius Cæsar" "did squeak and gibber" round the shacks. We looked in vain for a Pied Piper; frankly, I see no hope for the war zone short of so serious a food shortage that M. Rat will find a place on the menu.
THE GRIM REALITY
These were the lighter sides of the service; but ever there was the grim reality of the devil's work going on ahead. At first the wounds were mostly from shell and occasionally from shrapnel; then gradually the percentage of grenade wounds rose; and toward the end of our stay, ugly things from trench torpedoes were much in evidence. The poor, torn fellows were brought in at all times of the day and night; but naturally the night runs were hardest. The first fifteen kilometres had to be covered without lights of any kind, and this over the worst possible of war-torn roads. It seemed inconceivable that mere traffic could so completely wreck a really good French road; great ruts, holes, deep gullies across the highway, made the poor car pitch and toss and roll drunkenly like a fogy tramp steamer in a cross-chop sea. Try as we might from Bernécourt to Ménil-la-Tour, it was impossible to prevent racking the poor blessés, even in broad day; at night it was infinitely worse, and we suffered, I believe, almost as much as the wounded men themselves. A long, hard ride for a badly hurt man, a bitterly cold ride, for all the blankets rolled around him, for a man suffering from the dead chill that follows much loss of blood --- some thirty kilometres to the big hospital --- an hour's to three hours' running depending on the gravity of the case and the amount of light available. But it was always a comfort to reflect that the evils were at any rate much less than earlier in the war, and that the tortures and delays of the old-style horse-drawn ambulances were, for such service, things of the past.
Compared to the awful run in from the Carrière, all our other service at Toul was sheer delight --- the roads good, for war-time roads, and the percentage of graves blessés low; but no chronicle of our sojourn during this time would be complete without mention of the weather and mud of France at war. Out of our entire four months' stay in the Toul sector, I doubt if there were ten pleasant days. Mostly it blew --- violently; almost always it rained. The yard was a great bowl of mud, with one or two great water-filled depressions in which the camion drivers washed their cars; the streets were seas of grayish, gritty liquid that covered car and driver from top to bottom, and, lashing out in horizontal sheets, drenched the unhappy poilu who did not make for the open field when he saw a fast staff car coming. As for the ploughed fields, they were well-nigh impassable; the whole of France showed a marked inclination to rise with each uplifted foot, and Mother Earth firmly and instantly resented in great slabs --- any attempt to stroll across lots.
VERDUN AT LAST
Ippécourt lies some twenty miles back of the front-line trenches of Verdun, but ever and anon, in the lulls of the storm, came to our ears the interminable rumbling and grumbling, the steady, pattering roar as of a distant cascade of great boulders --- but sinister and horrible in its relentless busy-ness.
Late on the night of the 15th, came a call for the entire Section; there had been an attack by the French ---a successful attack---on the Mort Homme, and we were to evacuate the blessés as fast as they could be rushed through the receiving hospitals.
This marked our entrance into the Battle of Verdun, for the work was now too heavy for the French Sections in the sector to handle alone, and the next night, that of the 16th, we were called on for front-line work once more. Hansen, McCall, Allen, and I took the first run, and following Lieutenant de Turckheim, reached Fromeréville at dusk, and looked over our new advanced base. The cars stood in the main street until sent for, and before starting, and on arriving once more, we were to report at the telephone station of the G.B.D. (Groupe Brancardier Divisionnaire) in the abri that had been made in the back of a little débitant store. "Bourgeois" was the name over the door, and "Bourgeois" grew to look almost like home and mother after many a trying trip.
Our road, shimmering in the moonlight, ran up through the French gun positions --- hundreds of them; everywhere, the fields were dotted with the little aiming-point lights --- and through the German artillery fire, some six miles in all. The first three, to Béthelainville were easy going, the road good, and little traffic. At Béthelainville the fun began ---bad shell-holes, water-filled, made the going difficult, and there was a sharp turn through a black, narrow alley, down which, without warning, the ravitaillement trains charged at a swinging clip. It was a bad corner, on which the Boches had "ranged" very successfully, and one could never tell when a shell would snarl in; so that the drivers were not to be blamed for "hitting it up" a bit.
And now began the worst of the going. The farther we came, the thicker were the guns around us, bellowing, booming, barking, and cracking on all sides --- in the valleys below, in the fields alongside, from the hillsides above us; and the thicker became the arrosage of German shells. Where not torn by shell-fire, the road was simply worn to unbelievable roughness; often hub-deep in mud, the bottom was pitted and rutted as if by a violent earthquake, and, try as we would, the cars would pitch and toss, rolling drunkenly like a dory in a tide-rip....
On, up the winding road, narrower now than ever, and crammed with supply trains --- a chance shell here would make rare havoc; but it's all in the game, and the supplies must be got up, regardless of the cost. Now the going is better for a space, as we run around the crest of a long hill; and here the guns are below us, indicated only by the keen stabs of flame from the "75s" or the dazzling bursts from the big fellows. Again the road swings, pitching down, this time, and the scarred surface and torn banks show that the stretch, clearly visible from the enemy's drachens, is thoroughly "registered," and frequently swept by their fire.
Down we swing toward a ruined town, gleaming wanly in the moonlight, from which comes ever and anon the snarl and flat, dull crash of an arriving big shell --- Montzéville; but halfway down the slope, we swing sharply to the right, and strike over a little rise and down into a very wilderness of great holes; for here, almost against the roads, is a battery of great French guns, and on these and the road is rained an intermittent shower of big German shells.
Up goes the road again, and down through another labyrinth of holes, here again the Boches had accurate registration; and up again, gradually, till we came out on the top of the world, with the torn battle-field of Hill 304 and the Mort Homme glimmering ghostlike to the north of us.
In the bank beside us a boyau leads to the entrance to the poste de secours of Hill 272 --- down several steps cut in the clay, through a couple of blanket curtains, into an abri whose arched roof of corrugated steel supports many feet of dirt and stone. Here are rude bunks, straw-filled, on the floor on either side of a narrow passageway; the white glare of the single acetylene flame throws into high relief and black shadow the drawn, resigned faces of the blessés, who, mud-covered, bandaged and blood-stained, fill the all-too-small shelter to overflowing. At the far end a curtain shuts off a portion reserved for the médecin auxiliaire in charge of the poste, his records and supplies.
Outside once more, we find the road on either side lined with blessés, sitting, standing, or helpless on stretchers, fully and unavoidably exposed to chance shell-fire; there is no room below, and expeditious transport is the only answer. As quickly as may be we load up --- three couchés inside, two assis in front with me --- and begin the long, hard run back. Easing into shell-holes, crawling out carefully, the going is not so bad for a while; but gradually the light becomes deceptive, the holes are no longer evident, and racking and rolling through the worst places, we finally reach and pass the torn streets of Béthelainville and roll smoothly on to Fromeréville.
Such was the Hill 272 run --- simple enough in the telling, but infinitely nerve-racking in actuality, especially on a pitch-dark, rainy night; for every jolt and jar meant to the driver, mindful of his charge, only less torture than to the blessé himself, and the moans and agonized "là-là"s of the poor fellows behind went through one like a knife.
To this night duty was added that of a twenty-four hour picket --- one car always on call at Fromeréville for special work ---emergency day, calls, etc. We were not supposed to visit Hill 272 by day, but I can clearly recall my first tour as picket and the message received about 7 A.M.: "Grave blessé à la Côte Deux-cent-soixante-douze." A lift on the crank and we were off, skimming smoothly through a fresh, clear morning, the sunshine gleaming from daisy-starred, poppy-jewelled fields, flaming on the red, scarred tracks leading in a vast network to the countless guns, and losing itself in the cool shade of the little grove beyond Béthelainville. On past Vignéville and now, well up in the crystal-clear air, across the lines, shone the opalescent drachens of the German artillery --- were the observation officers Prussians, or more kindly disposed beings? The little ambulance, crawling now among the shell-holes, would make a splendid target, and in modern warfare as practised by the Boche, the Red Cross was no guarantee of security. On around Calvary corner, and up across the roof of all the world, a wonderful "sporting chance" for their guns --- but not taken. Stopping at the poste, the brancardiers brought out an officer, blackened of face, unconscious, breath coming in heaves through froth-rimmed mouth; he could not breathe, flat on the stretcher, and we packed blankets gently under head and shoulders; several assis were brought out, and the brancardiers hastened back to shelter ---in ten days they had lost thirteen out of thirty, and they were properly cautious.
SECTION FOUR AT VERDUN
July 21, 1916
Some four or five miles back of the lines, we stop for orders --- several cars lined up along the street. Fromeréville is bombarded rather frequently by a long-range, flat-trajectory, five-inch gun, and the Germans occasionally do pretty good shooting. It was taken rather as a matter of course, at first ---not too much attention to be paid to it; but one night about two o'clock --- I was there on twenty-four-hour duty --- there came the familiar "boom "followed by the rather regretful snarl of this particular gun's missives, and the usual dull, flat explosion down the street, with the accompanying rattle and clash and clatter of broken tiles, like the proverbial bull in the china shop, showing that they had struck a house. Men began to drift into the abri pretty quickly, dressing as they came, and at casual and leisurely intervals the big gun boomed again, and the shots whirled in, marching steadily down the street toward and past us; sometimes a man entering rather shamefacedly --- as if he only came because it was the proper thing to do, and not because he wanted to --- would hear the bang outside and be almost lifted by his own reflex action into the room, galvanized into life, and changing expression rather ludicrously. It was all rather gay, and there was a good deal of jollying and laughing, and a little buzz of good-natured comment at each fresh bang from outside, till after twelve or fifteen shots --- some ten minutes, perhaps, in all --- there came no more, and we streamed out into the street for a breath of fresh air, and then, for the soldiers, bed again.
But at the door we met a group of men, rather hushed in their talk, carrying in two or three wounded men. "La maison au coin, là-bas!" I heard. "Il est mort?" "Oh, oui --- " So I went down to the corner. Except for a few broken panes it did n't look very different, this house, so I went in and peered over the shoulders of the quiet little group that had preceded me. There was nothing to be done --- it was quite complete. The shell had entered the back of the house, passed through the room without exploding, entered the big chimney in the middle of the house, passed through it, and exploded in the great stone mantel. The front room looked singularly flat, no colors and peculiarly little light and shade effect in the feeble glimmer of the one candle --- all was one dull, mat gray, walls, ceiling, furniture, hangings, thickly covered with a coating of fine plaster and stone dust. Down from the great gaping hole in the chimney breast streamed a long pile of débris, gleaming pale in the flickering light, and at the end of the pile on the floor at our feet, gray and almost indistinguishable, huddled on his breast, one hand, palm upturned, flung across his back, lay what was left of one who had started too late. Head completely gone --- I don't think they ever found any of it --- a little dark stain on the floor; and across the room a big grandfather's clock --- I looked at it to see at what time the explosion had stopped it --- was still ticking away unconcernedly. It was one of the last shells that did it, and had he moved sooner --- but none ever had struck there and it probably seemed foolish to bother....
A POSTE --- SHELLS --- AND REPOS!
The road here is sunk perhaps three or four feet, and on one side is a wide ditch bridged at intervals, with little caves dug into the bank back of the covered places --- a ditch which, in time of heavy rains, beds a rushing torrent which fills the little burrows three or four feet deep; and these are "homes" of aumôniers, brancardiers, etc. On the other side of the road a boyau, or trench, leads into the bank, and off it, on one branch is the cook's abri; and on the other, down a flight of steps dug in the hard clay, through two blanket curtains --- light must not be allowed to filter out --- we find the main abri of the poste de secours. Some thirty feet by ten wide, a great shell of corrugated iron, covered several feet deep with earth; one third partitioned off for the officers and the bureau, the rest simply a long narrow passage down the middle, separated by board strips from the four-foot-wide piles of straw on either side which serve as beds for waiting brancardiers, malades, or blessés. A single acetylene lamp usually lights both sides of the partition; smoke --- there is n't much else to do --- a little chat, sometimes an argument, and always the little flurry of interest and excitement when we bring the contribution of papers from Bartlett and Crane --- "Les Russes marchent toujours bien?" --- "Et les Anglais? Ce n'est pas vite, en effet, mais c'est bien sûr." "A la Somme nos prisonniers sont maintenant 8000!" --- " Oh! nous les aurons!" And they are much interested in our politics --Germany at the bottom of the Mexican trouble --- was Roosevelt going to run --- would Wilson be reëlected --- and what sort of a man was "Monsieur Ooges? " The French are marvellously patient with our wandering diplomacy, unexpectedly cognizant of our difficulties; and their journals are, if anything, over-fair. But they all seem to ask, "When will the true United States speak?" It isn't action that they want (though there are many who feel that we should be supplying free ammunition and things as a government taking part in a job of world-policing, rather than selling as individuals). But they still hope to see our country live up to its ideals and leave its impossible policy of aloofness --- the "none-of-my-business-so-long-as-it-does n't-touch-my-pocket" attitude.
Away there to the north, just not visible over the crest, three kilometres away, are the trenches. They were pushed over the first week we were here, leaving behind --- we can see it all clearly when we have to make a daylight trip --- a great slope of raw, scarred, and furrowed clay, pitted with great craters, with zigzag boyaux running up, and long, wavy lines of trenches lengthwise --- no sign of life ---apparently an absolutely barren waste --- till something starts.
But at night here is none of this visible --- sheer blackness on dark nights, or, when it is clear, the long, dim outline of the hills, dark against the dull sky above, with ever a light cloud of mist or smoke hanging low over the trenches. Up from the lines, now here, now there, rise the quick, soaring arrow-sprays of the rocket-lights --- the fusées éclairantes --- a golden pencil-stroke of stardust, breaking, high over the trenches, into a single, great, dazzling ball of white fire; the rocket head shoots on up with its train of fire and, still mounting, disappears in the darkness. The flare, flickering slightly, more powerful and more brilliant than any arc light, sinks, now drifting or falling rapidly, now almost stationary, the vast shadow of its supporting parachute wheeling above it on the low-hung clouds; beneath, for miles around, the light of a decent-sized moonlit night. When going away from the lines this light is really of great assistance to us. These are the French lights, lasting for ten or twelve minutes. The German flares ignite at once, as they ascend, descend quickly, and do not last long. Green-starred rockets, red-starred rockets, rockets that release long strings of white stars, or red or green stars, falling in long serpentine trains, or great showers of stars, veritable constellations, each presumably giving its message as to range, attacks, etc., to the distant artillery, in a code presumably changed constantly --- the whole front from Switzerland to the sea is one long feu d'artifice, nightly repeated.
Around us the guns are constantly at it --- sometimes all at once in an attack, more often turn and turn about --- now here, now there, the short, sharp bark of the "75," with the wicked, tearing swish and snarl of the shell hurtling off overhead, soon lost to hearing; the lively boom and deeper note of the medium-sized weapons; the deep crash of the big chaps followed by the roar as of a heavy express train entering a railway cut as the shell tears off into the far, high places above; every now and then some big gun, more distant, emits a sort of mellow, musical note, and the projectile eases off on its errand, calmly and quietly, with an accent of confidence. This is singularly emphasized in the case of the big shells passing overhead from so far behind that the boom of the gun is lost --- we merely hear an unhurried, dispassionate whisper overhead, "I'm not saying much, I'm not worrying, I'm not hurrying, but I'm on my way --- just wait and --- " He passes on with all the airs of manifest destiny, and all is quiet till away in front rises a great ragged sheet of smoke and flame, and a few seconds later the heavy, sullen "G-r-r-r-oomp!" that shows that part of its self-confidence, at any rate, was well-founded. More often, though, the shelling does not appear to be on the lines, but on the roads and villages behind, through which the supply trains and troop reliefs must pass.
And so our life is very pleasant, when the weather permits --- which it mostly does n't; we run at night, but not every night, sleep until lunch-time, and then work on the cars or sit out on our pleasant little slope lazily watching the clouds drifting across, the aeroplanes and birds wheeling overhead, listening to the wind constantly whispering and rustling in the poplars along the busy little brook, the bright little chirrups and trills and liquid notes of the birds, the gay and voluble chat of the little groups of soldiers....
RICHARD C. WARE*
"Of Milton, Mass.; Harvard,'04; served ten months in Section Four in 1916, and as Sous-Chef of the Section; subsequently a Captain in the U. S. Field Artillery.
NEAR MORT HOMME AND HILL 304
The Section was cantoned, in July, 1916, under canvas among the ruins of Ippécourt, destroyed in the Battle of the Marne, and about twenty-five kilometres from Verdun. The unit was commanded by the French Sous-Lieutenant, Frederic de Turckheim, with Oliver H. Perry as Chef, and Paul Delanoy as Maréchal des Logis. We did front poste work only, for the 64th and 65th Divisions which were resisting the Boche counter-attacks after the big Verdun battle of a few months before. The runs were almost entirely at night from Ippécourt to the main poste at Fromeréville, a town badly damaged by shell-fire and situated between Verdun and the lines of the famous Mort Homme and Hill 304. Several roads lead to Fromeréville: from Ippécourt, Osches, Lemmes, Souilly, Jubécourt, Rampont, Souhesme, and Dombasle. The last-named route was badly shelled and frequently dangerous. Fromeréville was often under fire.
The runs to front postes were from Fromeréville to Hill 272 just back of the Mort Homme, passing through what was left of Béthelainville and Vignéville. There was another run from Fromeréville to Marre, a poste four hundred metres from the Boche lines and fourteen kilometres from Fromeréville. This route skirted Verdun and ran along the left bank of the Meuse past Charny. Marre, completely in ruins, is close to Chattancourt, from which the blessés were brought in.
A third run was a short one to the ruins of Germonville, a town on the edge of the Bois Bourrus, where were a lot of French batteries. Hill 272 was quite spectacular, as it looked over the trenches on the Mort Homme, and to go thither you passed a comer we called Calvary, on account of a grave there with a huge cross.
All these roads were badly rutted with shell-holes which made the driving difficult. At one time the holes were so numerous and deep that, for thirty hours, four men who had gone to one of the postes could not get back with their ambulances, but were forced to bring the wounded back as far as they could, unload them and carry them, by hand, through the bad place on the road, and then put them into other ambulances which had been sent for the purpose. The French batteries, lined along the road, added to our troubles by their noise, while star-shells, bursting éclats, and shrapnel in the sky were like fireworks. These helped a little, as they lighted us on our way.
THE DEATH OF KELLEY
At ten o'clock in the evening of September 23, Roswell Sanders, in company with Edward Kelley, was driving his ambulance through Marre on his way to the poste. When about two hundred yards from the poste, a shell exploded in front of the car, killing Kelley instantly and badly wounding Sanders in the head. The driver of another ambulance, Robert Gooch, who was in a neighboring abri, came out, went down the road alone under machine-gun-fire, and brought in Kelley's body. Kelley was buried two days later at a near-by town, Blercourt, while Sanders, after hovering between life and death for two weeks at the nearest field hospital, finally recovered. Kelley received the Croix de Guerre and Sanders the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre.
In the little stone chapel of the village a funeral service was held, brief, simple, and sincere, yet amazingly impressive because of that simplicity. The small procession, sturdy of faith and loyalty, wound slowly up onto the hillside at the town's edge, where crouched brown earth heaps beside new graves. There was a choir of grizzled brancardiers, in their stained, faded tenue once horizon-blue, whose hearts were in their voices. The aumônier, clad in uniform of war, read the service for the dead, fondly and movingly. Then Lieutenant de Turckheim put into words the adieu and feelings of the Section. Those deeper feelings which are well-nigh impossible for an American to voice. The Médecin Inspecteur, M. Gouzin, spoke in appreciation at the new-turned grave:
C'est dans une douloureuse étreinte que nous sommes réunis autour de ce cercueil, pour rendre les derniers devoirs au conducteur volontaire américain Kelley, Edward, mort pour la France.
Voulant apporter à la cause sacrée l'ardeur de sa jeunesse, il vient, d'un geste généreux, de cueillir dans la mort son premier laurier.
C'était, en effet, son voyage de début dans le secteur, et le conducteur Sanders, Roswell --- un vétéran de ces missions périlleuses --- qui lui servait de guide, s'est lui-même, sans partager le sort fatal de son camarade, inscrit à ses côtés au livre d'or des braves de la Grande Guerre.
Nous les voyons chaque jour à l'œuvre ces vaillantes sections sanitaires, et, dans des circonstances toutes récentes, nous avons pu admirer avec quel sang-froid, quelle intrépidité, quelle habileté, quelle sollicitude touchante pour nos chers blessés, elles s'acquittaient de leur rude et noble tâche, en dépit des difficultés sans nombre.
Ah! que ces jeunes gens au cœur franc, au visage ouvert, expriment bien le caractère loyal et chevaleresque de leur race, ce tempérament qui, sous des dehors froids et réservés, abrite les aspirations et les ardeurs les plus généreuses! Leurs chefs qui, avec la même simplicité, la même modestie, apportent à leur mission tant de compétence et tant de courage, sont justement fiers de commander à de tels hommes, dont ils partagent les fatigues et les dangers.
Et quelle discipline idéale que celle qui, sans autre rein, unit si familialement toute cette jeunesse d'élite dans un même sentiment de haute pitié, d'abnégation, de sacrifice librement, volontairement consenti! Car vous souffriez de rester inactifs, témoins impassibles du grand conflit mondial, et vous n'avez pas hésité à franchir les mers pour venir spontanément offrir à vos frères d'Europe, meurtris dans la lutte et pantelants, votre aide secourable et désintéressée, aux côtés de vos braves camarades des sections sanitaires françaises.
Dignes fils de la grande République sœur, dignes émules de vos compatriotes, les Chapman, les Rockwell, qui, eux aussi, en d'autres lieux, sont tombés glorieusement au service de notre chère Patrie, vous avez droit à notre reconnaissance infinie, impérissable: nul ici ne vous la ménage, vous êtes nos amis et cette affection profonde que tous nous vous portons survivra à l'heure présente.
Devant cette tombe qui va se refermer sur les restes mortels d'un jeune héros, nous nous inclinons avec respect. Votre famille, Edward Kelley, en apprenant la fatale nouvelle, saura du moins que, mort en soldat, décoré de la Croix de Guerre par le Général commandant le Corps d'Armée, vous avez reçu sur le sol de France, les suprêmes honneurs qui vous étaient dus, parmi la foule émue et recueillie de vos compagnons de mission, de vos camarades français. Puisse ce pieux témoignage de notre douloureuse sympathie adoucir l'inconsolable chagrin de ces êtres aimés!
Adieu, Kelley, reposez en paix dans cette terre sanctifiée par votre sang: votre mort est un symbole et un exemple, votre souvenir ne périra pas!
Then each of us tossed some earth onto the coffin in its resting-place and turned away, eyes dry, throats queerly tight --- turned away, back to the scurrying tasks of the day's service.
THE FALL OF 1916
During the latter part of September, Section Two was attached to the 65th Division, leaving us the work of the 64th only. We gave up the "Hill" run, which was a poste for the 65th, kept Marre and took on the evacuation back from Fromeréville to the hospitals at Blercourt and Vadelaincourt. We also maintained a twenty-four hour piquet at Glorieux. on the outskirts of Verdun, whence we ran on call to various forts or postes, the former being Forts de Charny, Vacherauville, and Sartelles. From the top of the hill back of the large hospital at Glorieux, where we were en piquet, one had a splendid view of Verdun, Bras, Vaux, Douaumont, and the whole valley of the Meuse.
During the time we served on these runs we saw the French troops take Fleury, Douaumont, Vaux, and the Fort de Vaux, and later the famous Côte du Poivre. The weather was almost always bad ---rainy and foggy --- while deep mud was everywhere; from about September 20 on, we began to carry many cases of trench feet and marvelled how the men could live, to say nothing of fight, under such conditions; while in addition countless rats were most annoying both to them and us, these pests often running over our bodies and faces when we slept in the abris.
About November, we were given a fortnight's repos, during which time the only work we did was to keep three cars stationed with the Division at its headquarters back of Vaubecourt, whence we carried the malades of the Division to various hospitals at Triaucourt, Conde, Rembercourt, Érize-la-Grande, Érize-la-Petite, and Bar-le-Duc. The rest of the Section remained at Ippécourt, painting and working over ambulances, and then moved just outside Ippécourt to a new cantonment, a long line of small cabins, three of us lodging in each cabin, the park for our cars being the paved space in front. This "home" had been made by Boche prisoners about a year before.