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Section Four (SSU 4) – Part II

Western Front, France

< Part I


AFTER repos our Division moved up into the trenches of Hill 304 and into the Forêt d'Esnes, which meant new postes for us. The new Ambulance Headquarters were at Jubécourt with the triage at Ville-sur-Cousances. We had one poste at Dombasle, another nearer the lines in the Bois de Béthelainville, another at Montzéville and the nearest at Esnes. From Ville-sur-Cousances we evacuated back to Froidos and to the hospital at Fleury-sur-Aire.

In this sector two ambulances were sent every other night for evacuation work at Ville-sur-Cousances, alternating with a French section, while one car was kept at twenty-four hour piquet work at Jouy at the bureau of the Médecin Divisionnaire and two other cars at Jubécourt for the runs to Montzéville and Esnes. The Jouy ambulance also ran to Montzéville and Esnes on call, with extra ambulances always posted at the cantonment at Ippécourt in case of an emergency. The run from Jubécourt to Esnes was twenty kilometres, passing through Brocourt, Dombasle, and then up over a long hill through the Bois de Béthelainville and down to Montzéville on the other side. From the top of this hill one had a remarkable view of the Mort Homme and Hill 304, with shells bursting on the slopes. Montzéville by the way, was a complete wreck of what had once been a smiling village, most of the streets being so littered with débris as to be impassable. We managed, however, to keep one street clear, although, in spite of our efforts, it was usually full of shell-holes. Our poste de secours here was in an abri in the cellar of a wrecked house with ruins everywhere. On the way to Montzéville was a poste de secours, an abri into the side of a hill, in the Bois de Béthelainville, which was used mostly for sick and for men slightly wounded or suffering from trench feet. It was a good specimen of one of these side-hill dugouts.

The most interesting part of the run was from Montzéville to Esnes, as the road wound back of the famous Hill 304, so that on active nights we had a good view of the star-shells and the general fireworks. This road, I may add, was most desolate in appearance --- along each side being only the stumps of trees, broken-down wagons, smashed automobiles, old wire entanglements and débris thrown over the ditches; and furthermore, it was rather a river of soupy mud than a highway. There was one spot in it which was particularly bad, full of shell-holes, with a spring underneath. Here we frequently had to build across it a sort of temporary bridge of logs and small wood, in order to get through with our ambulances; sometimes even we had to take out the blessés and replace them after our cars had passed the worst stretch.

Esnes itself was absolutely in ruins, with debris littered about everywhere. The remains of the church were especially impressive on moonlight nights, and from it led a sort of broken road to the ruins of what had once been a château, in whose cellar was the poste de secours. We called this little road "Hogan's Alley," and on black nights it was far from easy to find one's way in. Back of the château, was a battery of "90's," and often the Boche guns in trying to get it would send shells into "Hogan's Alley" and into the courtyard of the château in front of the poste. Fortunately none of our drivers or their wounded were ever hit there, although several had some narrow escapes, while some of our cars were not so fortunate. The same good luck was with us on the road from Montzéville and going through the streets of Esnes.



At about 4 P.M., on December 7, the Boches made a very vicious attack on our 340th Regiment, which was in the trenches between the Mort Homme and Hill 304, and drove a salient into our line, thus being able to shoot en enfilade down our trenches. Our first car up, leaving Jubécourt at 3.30 heard the tir de barrage from the top of Béthelainville Hill, and in spite of the dusk and fog could see the innumerable gas-flashes. On reaching Montzéville we found everything was fairly lively and the blessés already being brought to the poste. At this point the telephone communications were cut, and as the orders were to take the farthest and most important poste first, the driver would leave word for the second car to take back to the triage all blessés from Montzéville.

This bringing in the wounded was slow work on account of the awful mud which was nearly up to the knees of the brancardiers, so that, naturally, progress was difficult for them. For example, it took four brancardiers an average of four hours to make the trip of eight hundred yards to the trenches and back with one blessé couché. In the end, twelve additional ambulances were telephoned for and arrived in about an hour. They worked all night, some all the following day, and part of them during the next night --- such a labor was it to get the wounded to safety. The roads were full of troops, wagons, and guns, which did not help matters. The poste in Esnes was much congested with the ambulances coming, going, and waiting outside for the wounded and with the brancardiers bringing them in in a steady stream. Montzéville was the same. We also made trips to the poste at Hill 232. In fact the attacks and counter-attacks kept us very busy for two weeks, our Division regaining all the lost trenches except one salient.

A few days before Christmas we took over an additional poste de secours to the left of Esnes, known then as the Coupeur d'Esnes and later as poste B. 2. This was on the edge of the Forêt de Hesse, between Esnes and Avocourt, and about a kilometre behind the French trenches. The French ambulances had never been up to that poste, their weight making it impossible for them to run on the bad road. But our light Fords were able to bring the service two and three kilometres nearer the lines, saving much time and labor for brancardiers, who before this brought back the blessés either by hand or with two-wheeled carts.



After December 15, we began to get lots of snow, sleet, and hail, and the weather became much colder, which did not make the driving any easier. There were times even when, notwithstanding chains, we had to put blankets under the wheels in order, to get up the hills --- especially the Dombasle Hill which was particularly steep.

During the first week in January, 1917, our Division went en repos for a week, preparatory to changing sectors, the Division to which Section One was attached taking its place. Section One came over and took our quarters at Ippécourt while we moved into large vacated barracks of the hospital at Glorieux on the edge of Verdun for our repos, when every man of our Section had an opportunity to visit thoroughly the famous city.



About the middle of January our Division moved over farther to the left in the Argonne sector back of Vauquois and Avocourt. We went with it and took up quarters in Rarécourt, where we replaced English Section Ten and assumed the work at new postes, most of which were in the woods. Every afternoon we made a ramassage with an ambulance, visiting the different camps in the woods, getting the sick and taking them back to the triage. Our runs to the postes avancés were long, and on dark nights very difficult owing to the woods shutting out every vestige of light. Nevertheless, either because we had good, careful drivers, or good luck, or both, it was extraordinary how few accidents we had. The work was light, however, but the weather was exceedingly cold --- the coldest winter in twenty-two years, in fact. Yet it was the mud that was the most disagreeable feature of the situation. All the abris were made well down in the ground and whenever there came a thaw this mud was everywhere and most irritating.

The cars were kept on twenty-four hours' piquet at Camp Dervin and at Bon Abri, running on call to Les Ailleux and B. 1. The poste at Les Ailleux was within about four hundred yards of the Boche lines and B. 1 about one kilometre. As in the other sectors of our service, here, too, we were able to advance the postes beyond where they had been before, our light Fords being able to travel over the bad roads. B. 1, for instance, was at least three kilometres nearer the lines than had ever been the case before.

The other poste to which we sent a night piquet was Neuvilly, the ruins of what must have once been an attractive village on the banks of a large stream. From there we sometimes went on call to a poste called Abri Brainière, which was really very much exposed, as the road to it was in plain view of the German trenches and not over five hundred yards from them. On the way to Neuvilly we passed through the ruins of Clermont, which had once been a beautiful town. Even as it was, the ruins were most impressive. The town had been built around a great natural acropolis of rock, the top of which was covered with pine trees. On moonlight nights, particularly when there was snow on the ground, the lines of the ruins against the white and sky, with the acropolis looming up, made a wonderful if saddening picture.

On February 12, 1917, Oliver H. Perry, our Chef, left us, much to our regret, after a year's service, during which time he had contributed much to the splendid spirit of service which existed in the Section.

Owing to the extreme cold and to the fact that it was very difficult to find wood, to say nothing of coal, there was considerable sickness in the Section, so that at times only fifty per cent of the drivers were well enough to send out on service.



Toward the last of April Section Four left the 64th Division after having served it sixteen months, preparatory to joining a new Division, which we expected would be in the Champagne sector. In many ways this was a sad parting, as we had so many friends in the Division, and yet we were glad to move to what promised to be a more active field. In the meantime we received a splendid letter of thanks and appreciation for our service from General Colin. Then we went en repos for three days at Fains, a town on the outskirts of Bar-le-Duc, where we received orders to move and report to the Fourth Army at Châlons, going thence to Bussy-le-Château, about twenty-five kilometres out from Châlons, where we took on, temporarily, evacuation work for a large hospital.

After ten days we received orders that we would be attached shortly to the 20th Division, Fourth Army --- one of the best --- and be sent up into action. At this time Henry Iselin became Chef. Although a young man, he had seen long service, and quickly won the respect and admiration of all.


*Of Cohasset, Massachusetts; Harvard, '00; a member of the Field Service from August, 1916, until its militarization; served as driver and Chef in Section Four; later, as Captain, commanded a parc; subsequently a Major in the U.S. Army Ambulance Service.




The personnel of Section Four was largely renewed in the spring of 1917, and a dozen more or less inexperienced men came from the Field Service camp at May-en-Multien, May 9, 1917, to join us at Villers-Marmery, in the Champagne, where we were informed that we were to join the 20th Division, 10th Army Corps, of the Fourth Army. The delight of the Section was unbounded when we heard that we were to be attached to that crack attacking portion of the French Army. Other Sections had tried in vain to get the job, but it took Lieutenant de Turckheim to secure it for us.

We were to take over the work of a French ambulance section, and for that reason the new men of our group were sent first, in order that they might work with experienced drivers, and thus learn the roads, postes, etc., under the most favorable circumstances. The next day, on the 10th of May, the second half of our Section moved to Villers-Marmery and took over the work of the French. As soon as we got into camp and had had some lunch, we went to our postes to relieve the old piquet. We had French orderlies to show us the way to our postes, after which they said farewell and went back to their cantonment on the returning cars, leaving us to our own devices. The assumption was that we were experienced men and could take care of ourselves.

Our front postes were at Fossé-aux-Ours, the camp of our poste de secours at the boyau at the foot of Mont Cornillet, and at Wez, near Thuizy, a little to the left of Mont Cornillet. From Wez we worked a poste at the Maisonnette, a small railroad crossing in the midst of a swamp not far from Prunay. The poste at the boyau was a little bridge that crossed an old trench. There was just room to crawl in on your hands and knees and lie down. It was a draughty, damp, uncomfortable hole. The approach to this poste was over a plain which lay under observation by the Boches from a hill back of Cornillet and somewhat to the left. The road was heavily screened but we had to drive slowly so as not to raise a dust, which would rise above the screen and warn the Boches that the road was being used. Here the road was for the most part very good, just the opposite of the road from Wez to the Maisonnette, which ran through a swamp. Around Fossé-aux-Ours and the boyau, where the batteries abounded, the Germans did comparatively little shelling, and at the Maisonnette, where the French batteries were less active, the Boches kept up quite a shell display. The road was cut to pieces and the swampy soil made travelling most difficult. One afternoon two of the fellows timed the arrivées and in two hours the Boches threw in eight hundred shells. The Maisonnette poste was in a log abri not far from a railroad. All this railroad needed to fix it up was a new roadbed, new ties, new rails, and a new crossing. In time the road from Wez became so bad that we drove to the Maisonnette only on call. Besides these postes, we had a car stationed at Livry-sur-Vesle at the Direction du Service de Santé. Here a fellow could get a good rest for twenty-four hours and, if he were fortunate, a little taxi service for the Médecin Divisionnaire.

While in the Champagne we did no evacuation work (that is, carrying the blessés from the triage or sorting hospitals to other hospitals). We carried our blessés to the triage in Villers-Marmery and S.S.U. 13 did our evacuation work. The peculiar thing is that in all our front work we had no casualties, while Section Thirteen, working back, had three of its members, its lieutenant and two drivers, meet an obus and come out second best. C'est la guerre!

On the 12th of May the French began to rush up a lot of their zouaves, and Madagascar and Senegalese negroes to join the 19th Division, stationed on Mont Blanc, at the immediate right of our Division. While the troops moved forward, the French cannon quieted down a bit, so as not to draw too much of the hostile fire on the batteries that skirted the roads. This did not prevent the Boches from throwing shrapnel over the road, however.



On the 20th of May our whole Section was ordered out for the attack about to start. We sent fourteen ambulances to Fossé-aux-Ours and four or five to Wez. The attack by the 19th Division was to begin at noon. From about 8.30 on, the French batteries let loose. It was like a giant corn-popper. At noon the troops advanced. Looking through a break in the woods, we could see the splendid troops go up the hill, wave after wave, to get the Boches. Before the attack the French had held one side of the range, the Germans the other side. Three times before had the French attacked and failed. The Boches had held their positions from shell-holes and concrete machine-gun emplacements. Three times the French had been unable to maintain the ground they had gained. This was the fourth attempt, and they were determined to succeed. The 20th Division attacked at the same time as the 19th, and succeed they did, but the decision was close.

The wounded began to come in about eight o'clock in the evening. We were kept quite busy, but less so than we had feared. Most of the wounded had fallen in No Man's Land, and as soon as the fever of the attack had cooled down, the Boches turned their machine-guns on those blessés, and there they died, French and German. The only ones we carried were those who had fallen in and near the trenches.

The next day the authorities started to withdraw the negroes and send them to the rear. They are wonderful men for attacking, but do not stand up well under the hammering of counter-attacks. On the 25th of May our Division moved out of the trenches and went back en repos. They had been in the trenches, attacking, for a month and they were about "all in." On the 26th we followed our Division en repos, turning over the work to the French Section that came to relieve us.

We went under tents at Rouffy, a little village about midway between Châlons and Epernay. The Section remained there from May 26 to June 15, overhauling cars, washing, scrubbing, sweating, loafing, playing, entertaining the Frenchmen and getting acquainted with them. We had been too busy at Villers-Marmery to become acquainted with our allies, and now was our chance! On the 15th of June we followed our Division to Verdun, making our home in an old hospital at Baleycourt.


*Of Rochester, N.Y.; a member of Section Four from. December, 1916, until the Service was taken over by the U.S. Army. Subsequently a Sergeant in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service. Died of pneumonia at the front on September 23, 1918.




July 28, 1917, will long be remembered by us, for in the night a most violent explosion, several miles beyond Verdun, broke nearly all the windows of our quarters and served as a good prelude to the Boche air raids which were to come later. At this time the postes d'évacuation were at Bras and Montgrignon and the triage in Verdun. This latter, however, was changed on August 5, to Glorieux, and the Section did both évacuation and triage work, which was not hard at this time, but which became increasingly difficult with the moving-up of artillery and troops in preparation for the great offensive. Enormous guns were placed on each side of our camp at Baleycourt, and though they were well concealed, within one hour after they had fired the first shot the Germans replied, their shells landing in a field in close proximity to our guns and camp. In addition to a daily bombardment, the Boche aviators came nearly every night to bomb, so that a good abri was a necessity. Such a one was made and resorted to about every night until after the battle, which broke forth in all its fury on August 20.

During the entire period of that terrible night, the enemy maintained a firm reply to the fierce barrage of the French artillery, with the result that daylight uncovered a series of ghastly scenes along the road to Bras. But nothing dampened our spirits as we worked that fine, clear day, while report after report brought news of splendid French successes. By noon, all the objectives had been attained, while the transportation of the wounded proceeded smoothly. In the afternoon, however, the work threatened to become messed up, for the reserve ambulances, which had been hidden behind a camouflage at Petit Bras, found themselves forced to fly in haste, the enemy concentrating their shelling for half an hour on that spot.

Soon the increasing number of wounded crowded the poste at Bras, and a temporary one was established up about halfway from Bras to Vacherauville. But the next morning, after a further advance of the French troops, this poste was abandoned, and the ambulances began to work as far forward as Vacherauville. That day a still further advance poste was established at a place called La Cage, but after a few attempts to run to it, the impracticability of the venture was manifest.

For three days and nights Section Four worked with Section Eighteen in transporting wounded from Bras and Vacherauville to the triage at Glorieux.

On Tuesday night of the attack, after Evans had left Bras with a load of blessés, a shell exploded near his machine, wounding him in the arm and inflicting new wounds on two of his already badly wounded couchés. A curious incident happened in connection with this --- an éclat of the shell hit the gasoline cock, shutting off the supply of gas, so that the machine ran about a hundred yards and then stopped. Thereupon Evans's blessés were taken to Glorieux, while he went to Montgrignon, where his wound was dressed.



The last work done by Section Four while still a part of the American Field Service was difficult --indeed, about as hard as that done during the French offensive in August. Cold fall rains set in during the first day of October, and in addition to working the postes mentioned above, there were frequent calls to Équarrissage and Charny, coupled with long runs to Fleury and Souilly, all of which made the work increasingly severe. Cases of trench feet increased in proportion to the rain, and with four sections evacuating from front postes to the Glorieux triage, our days on duty there became very hard and trying with small Fords and thirty-kilometre runs. But these were not all our trials. Members of the Section will remember during this period the frequent gas attacks made by the Germans on the French batteries between Vacherauville and Bras, and the difficulty of driving through the gas at night wearing a gas-mask. Several of us were gassed. Finally, having served in the Verdun sector continuously since June, and outlived there five other sections, Section Four was relieved on October 22, 1917, and given a rest which it had richly earned, and its last month's work closed in a fitting manner a long and honorable career as a member of the American Field Service. How honorable this career was is best illustrated, perhaps, by the fact that when the Section was finally relieved, Lieutenant de Turckheim, its French Commander, received four Croix de Guerres " to be given to four of the most deserving members." "But I returned them," states that officer, "saying that all had done so well that it would be unfair to pick out any four."

*Of Providence, Rhode island; Dartmouth and the University of Paris; joined the Field Service in June, 1917; subsequently served with the Military Censorship Department, United States Army.




Section Four lost its identity as a Field Service Section during September of 1917. It was then that the remnant of its old personnel officially enlisted, and became new Section 627. The Section was en repos at the time in a little village by the name of Villers-le-Sec which is situated about forty kilometres to the northwest of Bar-le-Duc. Along about the middle of October we moved back to the front in the Verdun sector. We had our quarters in the small village of Sommedieu, where we were destined to spend the winter of 1917-18. We did not leave this sector, which was remarkably quiet during our stay, until about the 1st of March. During all this time we were serving the famous 20th Division of French Infantry which hailed from the coast of Normandy. In this sector we had only two front postes which, in reality, were not front postes at all.

The 1st of March, 1918, saw us en repos at Pierrefitte, a sizable village in the valley of the Meuse. After a few days we were detached from our Division, which was to be broken up and sent in to strengthen various parts of the line in preparation for the coming Boche spring offensive. We moved to Ravigny, which is only the name of a patch of woods to the east of Souilly. The Section had been with the 20th Division for over a year, and so it was hard for us to part with these old friends of ours. Also we lost our wonderful French Lieutenant, the Baron de Turckheim. While we were at Ravigny the first Boche attack broke out which almost resulted in the taking of Amiens. Suddenly we got orders to move. Then began our tour of France. We made the voyage all the way from the valley of the Meuse to the sea, then back again to Doullens. There we stayed for a short time, doing the drudgery of evacuation work for the Tenth Army. The Boche again attacked, this time on the Chemin des Dames, and we were ordered south to replace a French Section which had been badly handled during the retreat. We were with the 1st French Division of Infantry, at whose head was General Grégoire aided by General Duvais. We went into action in the Forest of Villers-Cotterets, just to the northwest of that famous town.

That sector was what one would call "hot." We had two main front postes working back through a G.B.D. poste and then to the Hôpitaux d'Évacuation, which were situated in almost every little village behind us. Our first attack was that made upon the. Ferme de Chavigny. During a period of about a month and a half, half the Section worked one day and the other half worked the next. The work was very difficult, for the traffic was terrible, and to add to the amusement, the Boches made out rather well with their shelling. After the coup de main on the Ferme de Chavigny, we were ordered en repos again, where we stayed the long time of one day and a half. Then we were ordered back for the ever-famous attack of July 18. Our Division went over in the first line of assault, helped out by tanks. We advanced steadily, and as our front progressed, we passed with it up through Longpont to our old stamping-grounds at Villers-Hélon, Blancy, Saint-Remy, and le Plessier-Huleu. The hottest spot was le Plessier-Huleu. There many of the men had to drive through almost a barrage to get to the poste, which was supposed to exist in the above-mentioned village. Our poor old division was finally pulled out of the line and we went en repos in a little village to the west of that famous old pile, Pierrefonds. There we stayed for a few weeks, and then we began our second trip across France, going this time in the opposite direction, and finally finishing up in the valley of Thann --- to be specific, the village of Ranspach in Alsace Reconquise.

It was here we had to report the deaths of three of the finest men in the Section. Sergeant Buckler, Phil Winsor, and the French mechanic who really had no right to be in the war at all. They died of influenza and were buried in the Vosges Mountains; Sergeant Buckler and the French mechanic in the military cemetery at Urbès, and Philip Winsor in the cemetery of Bussang, with all the honors, such as they are, of war.

We were all glad when about the 1st of November we started on another trip which saw our Division first in Belfort, then near Nancy. At Darney we first began to hear rumors of an armistice, and the 11th of November saw us just south of Nancy, ready to go in when General Mangin was to begin his great attack in Lorraine. At Darney the Section received its citation for the work it did during the attack at Villers-Cotterets.

Then began our march to the Rhine, one of the hardest trips we ever had. We crossed the old line near Château Salins; then went up through the valley of the Sarre, stopping at Saarbrücken, Kircheim Bolendon, and so on to Mayence where we saw Generals Fayolle and Mangin enter the city in triumph. We then went on to Grosse Gerau, where we stayed for the winter. Our work in Germany could not be called hard or difficult. We did quite a good deal of evacuation work from the old prison camp of Darmstadt --- the name of the camp itself being Barackenlager.

At Grosse Gerau we stayed until we were ordered to report to Paris en route for the United States in February, 1919.


*Of New York City; Harvard, '18; joined the Field Service in January, 1917, and served at various times in Sections 12, 3, and 4; with the U.S.A. Ambulance Service after the incorporation of the Field Service in the U.S. Army.


William De Ford Bigelow

Leon H. Buckler

Charles H. Hunkins

Hugh J. Kelleher