Section Eight (SSU 8) – Part I
Section 8 left Paris May, 1916; it became Section 628 in September,1917.
- Western Front, France
The Section was attached to the 12e Division d'Infanterie from May to July, 1917; to the 18e Division d'Infanterie from July to September,1916; to the 16e Division d'Infanterie from September, 1916, to January, 1917; to the 126e Division d'Infanterie from January to May, 1917; to the 60e Division d'Infanterie from May to August 1917; to the 169e Division d'Infanterie from August, 1917, to January, 1919.
* * *
SECTION EIGHT left Versailles on May 25, 1916, going directly to Champagne in the Mourmelon sector. It remained there but a few days when it moved on to Dugny for the great battle of Verdun. It next served in the region of Les Éparges. Reward came in the form of an extended repos in the Moselle region, followed by a long journey to the Somme where it spent part of the winter of 1916-17. From there it went to the Meuse, thence to Sainte-Ménehould and the Argonne in the early spring of 1917. In April of the same year the Section went again to Verdun. From there it moved to Champagne, remaining until August, then returning once more to Sainte-Ménehould. It was while here that Eight was taken over by the Army in the autumn of 1917, as Section Six-Twenty-Eight 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 I (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1920)
In weariness and worry and mischance
Remember the long fortitude of France,
And write in deeds your country's true romance.
It was about the first of May that our Section assembled in the General Headquarters at Neuilly-sur-Seine. The men were ready, but the cars were not. The chassis were standing in line in Kellner's great carrosserie works, near Sèvres, a couple of miles beyond the Bois de Boulogne, awaiting the construction of the wooden bodies which were only half completed. Kellner was short of men, and we went to Kellner's. Within twenty-four hours men among us who had never swung anything heavier than a mashie were working at forge and anvil, making heavy iron braces and hinges; others drilled holes in the wood and iron; still others screwed and riveted the parts together. The sturdy women, who were working by hundreds in place of men who had gone to the front, stopped building bomb-cases and handling heavy tools to watch us for an instant, from time to time, and bring us little sprigs of lily-of-the-valley, "le muguet qui porte bonheur." The French carpenters became our friends and frequently invited us to share the coarse bread and red wine which they kept loose in the same box with their tools, by way of refreshment between meals.
In eight days we had completed the work, and in another twenty-four hours a squad switched to the paint shops and covered the cars with the official battleship-gray. On Saturday, May 20, moving pictures were taken of the Section at work in the shops, and on Sunday morning, May 21, the twenty cars were standing in line in front of the hospital at Neuilly, completely equipped and ready for the field.
Among the men of our Section who worked as laborers and mechanics at Kellner's were many who had never handled tools before --- the Section included professional men, business men, university students, Rhodes scholars, a minister of the Gospel, a winner of golf tournaments, and even a dramatic and musical critic. Indeed, our metamorphosis seemed a slight thing when some of us learned that in the great historic porcelain works of Sevres immediately across the river all art had ceased for the time being, and the men whose brains and hands had only a short time before been engaged in designing plates and vases of marvellous grace and beauty were now one and all occupied solely with the rude labor of constructing immense rough earthenware jars and acid-containers used in the manufacture of high explosives.
No matter what experiences may come to us later, we shall never forget those days --- the early morning rides from Neuilly through the Bois, the trees in leaf and flower, the silent lakes with here and there a single swan --- a splotch of white on the black surface of the water beneath tall cypress groves; perfect beauty, perfect peace.
Châlons-sur-Marne, May 25, 1916
We started this morning from Versailles. On the way here we began to see wooden crosses dotting the fields by the roadside, sometimes a single grave, sometimes a cluster, sometimes a field full of them. Each cross is made from an upright piece of pine sapling about five feet high, with a cross-piece of the same wood about three feet in length, the bark still on, and the name, when there is a name, inscribed on a small board nailed to the centre. Some of the crosses stood over barren mounds; other mounds were covered with flowers; but beneath them all, marked or nameless, lie men who died to save France.
Mourmelon-le-Grand, May 26
From Châlons we came on to this village situated in the plains of Champagne about twenty-five kilometres southwest of Reims and about nine kilometres behind the trenches. This is to be our headquarters as long as the 6th Army Corps, of which we are a part, remains in this sector.
To-day Section Eight received its baptism of fire. Three cars were called to Saint-Hilaire, our evacuation poste eight kilometres from Mourmelon and about two and a half kilometres behind the first-line trenches. We arrived there under a German bombardment. "They are not firing at us," explained the French sergeant on duty there, at the entrance to his dugout and smoking a pipe, while a half-dozen of his stretcher-bearers were sitting around under the trees; "but a shell timed a fraction of a second earlier, or fired a fraction of a centimetre lower, might land here by accident; so we had better get our blessés loaded and away." Scarcely had the sergeant ceased speaking when the shells began to fly about us. By the way, descriptions of how one feels under shell-fire are always inadequate because every man feels differently; but close observation, on this and subsequent occasions, of the men of our Section, seems to show that they are alike in only one respect --- they all hold their ground.
Calm follows storm on an artillery front, as we discovered on one of the quiet mornings recently when an officer consented to show us the batteries in the woods behind the evacuation poste. Though many of the guns were quite close by, they were so skilfully screened by trees and brush-heaps that we could never have found them without a guide. Birds were singing, the trees glistening from a flurry of rain, while the sun was again breaking through the leaves around the now silent monsters of destruction.
We surprised the Lieutenant of the nearest battery engaged, like Candide, in cultivating his garden. He had cleared a tiny spot, a few yards wide, facing the entrance of his bomb-proof dugout, and had planted lettuce and radishes, with rows of flowers between the vegetable beds. He had even built a little wooden bench where he could sit and smoke his pipe and dream of his real vegetable garden in Provence. One of his men was darning socks; another was mending a shirt; a boy who looked scarcely more than twenty was amusing himself tossing bits of bread to a puppy; while others were reading books or laughing over last week's funny papers from Paris. "So you find an opportunity to enjoy life even here," one of us remarked to a grizzled veteran, who, with a smile that was half a sigh, responded: "Mais il le faut, on est tué si vite.
FROM MOURMELON TO LA VEUVE --- EN REPOS
La Veuve, June 2
A formal order came to our Section yesterday instructing us to leave Mourmelon at 2 A.M. and repair to the stable and back yard of the Widow Cueux, in this village where we are now billeted. We filed out of Mourmelon in the darkness, running without lights, but by 2.30 the dawn was red and it was broad daylight at 3 A.M., when we got here, turned down a narrow side street, found the Widow Cueux's house and parked our cars under the sycamore trees. It is true that this village is squalid; it is true that the mayor had to order the removal of large quantities of stable manure from the Widow Cueux's premises before its barn doors opened to receive us; it is true that a score of our own huskiest lads had to work with shovel and wheelbarrow to make the yard habitable; but the squalor of La Veuve has its picturesque qualities, nevertheless. It straggles along the main road from Châlons to Reims just where the Mourmelon route branches off. And the very thought of Reims lying at the far end of this same street lends romance to the humble town.
This morning the poilus who are en repos in this village introduced us to the corporal who has "sixteen bullets in his blanket, but not a scratch on his skin." He proudly exhibited the blanket and told us how the poilus, when all patent armour devices and bullet-proof jackets had failed to deflect the German rifle-fire, had themselves invented, or rather discovered, the unknown buffer that no rifle bullet can pierce. They take their own heavy sleeping-blankets, soak them in water, and then roll two or three of them in a tight wad, sometimes putting a knapsack in the centre of the roll to make it thicker. Crawling along on their bellies, pushing the wad of blankets foot by foot in front of them, it affords just enough cover to protect them from horizontal rifle-fire. The high velocity bullets, which neither wood nor steel can turn, sink into the soft, soggy, woollen roll and die there, harmless as eggs in a nest. Many another trick the poilus have learned in order to save their skins, but none so efficient as this roll of wet blankets.
TAKING STOCK OF OURSELVES AND NEIGHBORS
Our ten days here with the soldiers of our Division, quartered at La Veuve and in neighboring villages, have given us a splendid opportunity to take stock of ourselves and also to learn something of the men with whom we shall be associated for the next few months. We are the official ambulance section of the 12th Division of the 6th Corps of the Fourth Army. Our Division is composed of four regiments of about three thousand each, totalling in all some twelve thousand men. We are as much a part of the Division as if we were all born Frenchmen. Our rations are furnished by the army; we are under army regulations; billeted in our sleeping quarters by the army; each of us receives five sous per day, the regular pay of the poilu; and each of us receives his army ration of pipe-tobacco every ten days. Back in Paris the Field Service furnished us a list of things which we ought to have; but all this would have been as appropriate for a hard auto-camping trip across the American continent in time of peace as it is for our present purposes here. On the first day of our arrival at the front, the army added two items for each of us more important than all the rest, namely, one regulation steel casque and one regulation gas-mask. So here we are, poilus and comrades like the rest, by these two tokens, and by the aluminum numbered identification tags which we wear on a chain around our wrists.
The regiment which we have learned to know best is the 67th, as it is quartered in La Veuve. It has been one of the hardest hit by the war; thirty thousand men have passed through it during the past sixteen months. As they marched by in closed ranks at a review the other day, we could recognize many faces of new-made friends. How many of them, we wonder, will be left "là-bas!" in the next attack; how many will be brought back bleeding and broken in our "belles petites voitures" which they have gathered around so often in the evening to admire.
We were merely spectators at the review. An hour later our new Commander, General Giraudon, left his limousine, left his prancing steed, left his general staff, and came down the alley on foot through the mud to our barnyard, accompanied only by an orderly, to "review" his new "section sanitaire." As we are all under military regulations, we scarcely dared to blink an eyelid as we stood stiffly beside our cars on his arrival. The General walked along the line and stopped before Boyd. We had been given our instructions' to stand at attention and not salute while under inspection; so Boyd stood like a statue, until it became unmistakably evident that the General intended speaking to him. Boyd's hand then started toward his cap in a salute that was never finished. Those of us up the line never will know exactly what happened in that embarrassing half-second; but an instant later the General and Boyd were shaking hands in good American fashion, while words escaped Boyd's lips which sounded suspiciously like "How are you?" The ice was broken, and when the General left he told us he was proud to have an American section in his division.
Our only duties while en repos here have been to transport occasional sick men in the Division. Most of our time off duty has been spent exchanging visits and souvenirs with the poilus of the 67th, who have been very much taken with the American songs. Every evening they gather in a ring before the cars to hear Armour, Jacobs, and the other musical members of the Section singing to the accompaniment of mandolin and guitars. One night they decided it would be appropriate for them to exchange courtesies, and they invited the Section to the sleeping-quarters of one of the companies in a neighboring barn, where wine and cakes were served in the straw, and chansons de guerre were sung.
BRABANT-LE-ROI --- DUGNY --- VERDUN
BRABANT-LE-ROI, June 12
Fifty kilometres we came in cold and rain, and here we are, quartered for three days in a huge stock-farm barn with Verdun fifty-five kilometres farther north. But we are still too far away to hear the guns.
June 13, STILL at BRABANT-LE-ROI.
It was among the ruins of one of the little villages in the Marne that Charlie Faulkner encountered and made friends with a fluffy-haired puppy of mongrel breed in which the setter seemed to predominate, and straightway adopted him as the mascot of Section Eight. After the puppy was washed and as many of the fleas removed from his hide as possible, the problem of a name presented itself. Some one suggested the name of "Pinard," which is war-time slang for the red wine furnished the men in the trenches, and the soldiers found both the dog and the name so droll that Pinard became not only the mascot of our American Section, but the joke and the pet of the whole French Division. Some of the boys of the Section who are not very strong on French, have anglicized Pinard's name and call him "Peanut."
Dugny, June 21
This village is four kilometres behind the city of Verdun. Here we have been with our Division since the 18th inst. We will remain here for perhaps a fortnight longer, when we will be sent back en repos and replaced by a new Division. Three weeks is about the limit of human endurance. For four nerve-racking days and nights our little cars have been climbing to the citadel of Verdun, turning to the right and going into the hills among the batteries and bursting shells, to a poste de secours in the Fort of Tavannes, less than two kilometres behind Vaux and the first-line trenches. The road by which we pass is shelled day and night. Ambulance drivers have been killed and wounded in the sections which preceded us. We have seen men mangled by shells bursting a few yards away in front of us while we have escaped. We have driven our cars over the bodies of dying horses. Three of our cars have been pierced by shrapnel and shell fragments. Yet not a man among us has been touched. Lack of sleep, the continued noise of artillery, bad drinking-water and the attendant dysentery have put our nerves on edge; but we are doing the work, and the one thought in the minds of all of us, when we are not too worn out to think at all, is that, come what may, we are going to stick it out.
It is hard to write about --- this Verdun service. Those of us who used to laugh at danger have stopped laughing. Those of us who used to turn pale have got the same set took about the jaws and eyes as the rest, but we no longer change color. We don't come back any longer and tell each other with excited interest how close to our car this or that shell burst---it is sufficient that we come back.
The hundred and sixty brancardiers, or stretcher-bearers, of our Division had to be transported from Houdainville, near Dugny, to Fort Tavannes, and the duty fell to us. Each car made about four trips by night during a period of thirty-six hours, in the midst of conditions like those described in my last entry. It was inevitable that some of our cars and some of our men would be touched. Three of our twenty cars were en panne, and the other seventeen were doing the work supposed normally to be done by two sections totalling forty cars. It was during this time of stress that we also evacuated 540 wounded from Tavannes Fort to Dugny, a distance of fifteen kilometres each way, in twenty-four hours, making the record of the war, so far, for that particular poste, and for that specified length of time.
RIDDLED WITH ÉCLATS
Night before last Davison answered a midnight Tavannes call and had his car pierced through and through with shell fragments as he was entering the fort. The next morning, as I was leaving the fort with a load of wounded, my car was struck in the same way. Both Davison and I were untouched, but one of the wounded men in my car was hit in the side by a small fragment. In the afternoon, Rogers lying on the grass near our dining-tent, received a slight surface wound in the leg from a stray piece of shell. Yesterday morning the entrance tunnel of the same fort was caved in by German "380" high-explosive shells. Rogers, Faulkner, Boyd, and MacMonagle were in the fort at the time and escaped, by a miracle, with their lives. They were hurled to the ground by the concussion. The place is no longer tenable as a poste de secours and so is to be abandoned. While we are not afraid to go there, we are glad to leave, for the underground, vaulted tunnels of that fort composed a chamber of horrors which we remember in our dreams. The floors were mud, the ceiling slimy-dripping stone; and the light was scant, while the wounded were so numerous that we had to step over their prostrate bodies; and to add to it all, the stench was horrible.
Cabaret Rouge, June 24
To-day this picturesquely named place became our regular poste de secours. There is a diabolical fitness about the name. The house, which is halfway up the slope in a valley, is simply surrounded by the French batteries, while German shells are continually bursting in the fields around. Red signal rockets illumine the sky. Down from the trenches come the stretcher-bearers with their crimson burdens. Red Cabaret, red rockets, red fire, red blood!
The Germans keep shelling the road. On the night of the 23d, Charlie Faulkner, volunteering to drive a car, had the metal part of the searchlight smashed by a shell. The next night, Keogh, the laughing, brave-hearted boy we love perhaps most of all, came walking back with his arm streaming blood, and last night I was nearly finished off by a gas attack, but was saved by Faulkner.
SECTION ONE FOR NEIGHBORS
To-day the French ambulance section was replaced by our Section One, so that we now have two American sections, parked side by side here, with forty cars doing the work that we originally had had to do with seventeen cars. Yesterday, Charlie Faulkner saved a French soldier from drowning in the swift current of the Meuse where we often go to swim. He went in and got him, having to swim against the current and go twice to the bottom. The Frenchmen were filled with gratitude and admiration. "We can't swim like Americans," was one of their repeated comments. Then Faulkner leaped on a bareback horse, galloped across the marshes to Dugny for a doctor and an ambulance, and soon the little Ford came tearing along in best three-reel-thriller style with Faulkner on the seat. We all began laughing and wondered if he had the horse inside.
The chief medical officers of the Division tell us that our little cars are doing great work. We are glad, for we have been doing the best we can, and, without knowing it, we seem to have established some new records in this sector.
Thus, on our "best day," June 22, in thirty-four hours we transported 555 wounded from Tavannes and Cabaret to Dugny, an average distance per round trip of 25 kilometres. The work was done by 19 cars, the total 19 making an aggregate distance of 1339 kilometres loaded, and 1359 kilometres empty, or an average of about 142 kilometres per car. Practically all the work was done under shell-fire. Armour made the best individual record, totalling four trips to Tavannes and five to Cabaret, carrying a total of 51 wounded.
Our work has been growing lighter so that we were able to let half of our men go up to Paris to celebrate "the glorious Fourth." When they came back we had a pleasant surprise for them. Section Eight had left Dugny and had gone in convoy to Ancerville, a lovely village fully eighty kilometres behind the lines, out of sound of the guns.
THE GLORIOUS FOURTH --- AND FOURTEENTH
Ancerville, July 15
Yesterday was celebrated the French national fête. We joined heart and soul with our friends of the Division in celebrating it. The Section Américaine was featured on the programme as the "grande attraction," and consisted of mandolin and guitar music by Armour and Jacobs, followed by a boxing bout between Jacobs and MacMonagle, and another bout between Buffum and Armour. The applause was generous and sincere. That night there was a torchlight procession through the village in which our boys carried lanterns, marching and singing, side by side, and arm in arm with the poilus.
BACK TO CABARET ROUGE
Dugny, July 18
Early yesterday morning we left our Division to go back to Dugny. It was a real chagrin for us. Early as it was, scores of our personal friends in the Division came to bid us good-bye. Our work is to be the same as before. In fact we had n't been here five minutes when an orderly came with his little square scrap of paper: "Two cars quick to the Cabaret Rouge." The people of Dugny remembered us and seemed to be glad to see us again --- especially the little woman who still makes "café chaud à toute heure." We brought her a dozen glasses, which she needed, and some shirts from Paris for her little boy.
The day after our arrival there was consternation in the Section. Pinard was missing. He came on Armour's car from Ancerville to Dugny, and had been seen frolicking around the street. But on the evening of our arrival a big German shell burst near us and Pinard was seen no more. We did n't seriously believe he had been struck by the shell, but he had nevertheless completely disappeared. Armour found it necessary to return for a day to Ancerville, and there, exhausted and asleep in the straw of the deserted house where we had slept, he discovered Pinard, lonely, miserable, lost. He brought him back in triumph and there was joy at his return.
The troops in our sector are now taking many German prisoners, and we are all avid for German souvenirs, and so are the poilus. Sometimes the prisoners are willing to let us take their little red-banded vizorless caps, provided we give them some kind of head covering in exchange. But we have never seen an American or Frenchman either take a cap from a German without asking it and unless the owner was willing.
A queer story came to us a couple of nights ago about the German wireless message, said to have been picked up by a French station over on the other side of Verdun near Mort Homme. Rumor said the message was from the German General Staff, announcing that an American ambulance unit, working the Cabaret Rouge poste, had been seen by the German aviators, and that instructions had been given the German gunners not to fire on Cabaret. But just as we were beginning to give serious credence to the tale, word came that fifteen men had been killed and fifty wounded by shells within a few paces of the poste; and a few hours afterwards, while Iasigi's car was standing in front of Cabaret, a German "77" landed within five paces of it, luckily doing no damage. No wonder we are now laughing at our own credulity.
Though the work here as a whole is not so dangerous now as it was in June, some of the men have had rather narrow escapes since we returned. For instance, a piece of shell came through the top of one car yesterday, and Keogh was missed less than two feet by a fragment that struck the seat beside him.
THE REAL HERO
And let me close this record with one reflection. The real hero of Verdun and of the war is the poilu, or infantry soldier, of the first-line trenches. The destiny of France is in his keeping. The man in the trenches is the essential factor. The rest of us, back here among the batteries and observation points and postes de secours, are engaged solely in the work of backing up his efforts. Whether generals, artillerymen, stretcher-bearers, or ambulance drivers, we are here only to protect and serve the men out yonder --- preparing the way before him with shell and shrapnel when he advances, and transporting him back, covered with blood and mud and glory, when his work is done.
WILLIAM B. SEABROOK*
*Of Atlanta, Georgia; Newberry College; spent six months in the Field Service during the year 1916 with Section Eight.
SHELLS AND GAS --- THE ROADS OF VERDUN
In the Hills of France, June 23, 1916
They have given us a very important work as well as a dangerous one ---to evacuate the wounded about one and a quarter miles from the first-line trenches in this Verdun sector, and since we have been here --- about a week --- our little ambulances, holding five wounded, have carried some hundreds of men. We are quartered in Dugny, about four miles away from the front, which the Germans take pleasure in shelling twice a day. We got here a week ago, or Friday, and on Saturday morning I made my first trip, on a French machine, to our poste de secours. The first part of the drive is through a valley, where there is a beautiful winding river, and some pretty old towns. Then you begin an ascent for about two miles on a road which is lined with French batteries and quite open to the view of the Germans, who have a large observation balloon only a mile or two away. Consequently the road is fired over all the time; so you feel that a passing shell may at any moment fall on you. Just this morning, about four o'clock, three shells went over my machine and broke in a field near by. When one reaches the top of the ascent, there is a piece of road, very rough, and covered with débris of all kinds --- dead horses, old carts and wheels, guns, and confusion everywhere. This road leads to an old fort where our wounded are, and on this road the German fire is even worse.
Well, this first morning, just before we arrived, the Germans began a bombardment which lasted five hours. The shells landed all around us, but we finally got in safely. Before this, however, we discovered a small tunnel large enough to hold three of our cars, and here I waited five hours, without any breakfast, hearing the roar of the shells --- they made a noise like a loud, prolonged whistle --- and then listening to the French batteries answer with a more awful roar, because nearer. To add to the interest, two or three gas-shells exploded near us, which made our eyes water. Luckily we had our gas-masks with us; but we had got the gas in our faces before we could put them on. Meanwhile, the wounded were being carried in from the first-line trenches by the stretcher-bearers, who, by the way, are among the real heroes of this war. Finally the time came for us to go out into the open in order to let the other cars get in after us. We went along slowly but surely, and at last we got down the hill, away from all the noise and danger. It was worth while, though, for we were carrying many wounded with us. For a week we have been doing this work and are still alive; and we have to our credit about 700 blessés. The French are, of course, very appreciative of our labor. I may add that I am well in spite of the excitement, but tired to death of the horrors, the smells, and the sights of war. I am glad to have got a taste of real war, though, so as to know what it really means.
MALBONE H. BIRCKHEAD*
Of New York City; Harvard University; an Episcopal clergyman; served in Section Eight from April to October, 1916. The above is an extract from a letter written to Mr. Birckhead's mother.