Section Thirteen (SSU 13)
- Published in History
SECTION THIRTEEN left Paris in March, 1917, going first to the Champagne, where it took part in the great French offensive of April. In May the Section worked the poste at Mont Cornillet, where it received the first Army citation given to any Field Service Section. In June it moved to Sainte-Ménehould, thence to Verdun. It was working on the right bank of the Meuse when taken over by the American Army, becoming Section Six-Thirty-One.
'The Ambulance Sections', History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France" 1914-1917, Told by Its Members, Volume II (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1920)
Though desolation stain their foiled advance
In ashen ruins hearth-stones linger whole;
Do what they may they cannot master France,
Do what they can, they cannot quell the soul.
SIXTY HOURS FROM BOULEVARDS TO WOUNDED
Section Thirteen left Paris on March 4, 1917, twenty strong, each man in his car, with Bertwal C. Read, formerly of Section Eight, as our Chef. Two days later, we arrived at Châlons and pulled up in the square. Leaving our cars at one of the regimental parks, we hurried to a hot dinner arranged for us by our French Lieutenant, Pierre Emmanuel Rodocanachi, at the Hôtel de la Haute-Mère Dieu. It was a godsend to cold and uncomfortable novices at ambulancing such as we were, and our spirits soared, when, in addition, it was announced that we were attached to the 169th Division of the French Army, which would leave the next day for the front. This, in fact, happened, and we reached Sainte-Ménehould at about six o'clock, where we learned that our billet was in a small town called Maffrecourt, about ten kilometres distant, to which we continued. Here for the first time the members of the Section heard the guns at the front. No sooner had we arrived than a call came in, and Sidney Colford, with a brancardier, went up to answer it. Thus, some sixty hours after leaving rue Raynouard, we carried our first blessés.
IN THE CHAMPAGNE --- MONT CORNILLET --- VILLERS-MARMERY
Our sojourn at Maffrecourt, while not really a busy one, taught us the ropes. We had practice in driving at night without lights and we became acquainted with the methods of the French Army. One day in April our Division was moved. Twelve of our ambulances went up to our next stop at l'Épine, and the remainder of the cars took stations along the line of march to pick up men who developed sore feet or other injuries.
Leaving l'Épine, our next cantonment was Champigneul, where we remained a week or longer, awaiting orders and doing G.B.D. duty and a certain amount of evacuation to Châlons. At last came the welcome news that our Division was to move and take up what was to be its final position in the grand spring offensive, at Mont Cornillet. Our instructions were to have our cars in the finest possible condition, since it was expected by the general in command that there would be an opportunity to evacuate blessés over the ground that had been held by the Germans for such a long time. In fact, the Médecin Chef asked us if our cars would be capable of travelling over trenches and through ploughed fields. (He evidently did not know the Ford.) Thereupon we moved to Villers-Marmery where we were to be cantoned. It was the eve of General Nivelle's famous and disastrous attempt to break through the German lines in Champagne.
In Villers-Marmery the streets were so congested with troops and transport wagons that it was almost impossible to manœuvre our cars. The first night there we parked our machines along a road next to what was to be our triage hospital, though our duties were not to begin for two more days. Sleeping-accommodations were of the crudest, some of us bunking in cars, while others found refuge in a leaky old barn recently evacuated by troops, but not by all forms of life. The fellows in the cars had the best time of it, as there was a cloud-burst that first night and the barn was very wet.
Dawn broke cold and damp. We spent the day arranging our permanent cantonment, which was in an old rooming-house on the outskirts of the town, and used before the war for employees of the champagne industry, Villers-Marmery being one of the centres of wine manufacture. The second night proved to be even worse than the first, and at about two o'clock in the morning the English section which was serving this town found that there were more blessés than they could handle and so routed us out to aid them. We travelled over roads in the inky blackness that none of us had ever traversed before.
Our real work began the next day. We were to serve the postes of Thuizy, Prunay, Wez, and a dressing-station in the third-line trenches that we called the "Boyau." All of these postes were under severe shell-fire, as were the roads approaching them. In fact, the whole locality looked unhealthy.
All of our runs were in the neighborhood of Thuizy, which was a half-wrecked village, with French batteries situated all around it and in it. The poste de secours, an old château about the centre of the town, was really a beautiful structure. Some of its attractiveness, however, was lost because of its situation in the midst of batteries, which constantly drew the Boche fire. From Thuizy we ran up to Wez, a town in the immediate vicinity and even more perilous, where the poste de secours was movable, changing as it was blown up, which made it at times difficult to find.
Prunay was the prize of this trio of postes. It could be approached over a stretch of a kilometre and a half that had once been a road, but at that time was a series of interlocking shell-holes which changed in contour from day to day. When we got a call to this place, we went as far as the outskirts of Wez, stopped our cars, and, peering around a wall, would decide on our next step --- for at times it would have been impossible to make the run and escape alive. In such a case, the conducteur would sit down behind what cover he could find and wait. At other times, one could go right through. The poste itself was a dugout.
The "Boyau" was approached by a road that ran out from Thuizy for about three kilometres to a cross-road artillery observation post, called the "Pyramides," where, turning to the left for a distance of a kilometre and a quarter, it crossed two lines of old trenches and ended at a sap, fed from the third-line trench. Here was the dressing station. There was no cover for our cars, which were in sight of the Boches, who, however, never shelled us here, except on one or two occasions when the ambulanciers got too careless in wandering around the neighborhood, when there would be eventually a grand hegira for cover. In order not to risk losing all the cars by one unlucky shell, we made three groups of the seven cars assigned to the Boyau. The first of these groups consisted of three cars, parked on the outskirts of Thuizy; the second, of two cars, hidden in a belt of woods just before one reached the cross-roads; while the third consisted of two cars at the Boyau. It may be added, in passing, that at these postes five of our cars were actually hit.
There were, of course, a number of times when we had narrow escapes. One of the most spectacular of these occurred on the road from Thuizy to the Pyramides. One afternoon we, at the second poste, hearing arrivés in the direction of Thuizy, looked down the road and saw one of our ambulances coming up as fast as it could go. This stretch of road was very exposed, but up to that time the Boches had not shelled ambulances at this point. However, from the spectacle that greeted our eyes, it was evident that they had begun, for on both sides and behind the flying car were rising fountains of earth and smoke, approaching closer and closer to the speeding vehicle. Never was a car more anxious to be elsewhere. The scene was nearly as exciting for us as for the driver. It came closer and closer, until we could recognize the machine as that driven by Hines. We knew that if he could make the belt of trees where we were standing, he would be comparatively safe; but could he do it? When he was only about five hundred yards from safety and we were just congratulating ourselves and him on his escape, the car was suddenly enveloped in a cloud of smoke. It seemed certain that he had been hit, and a Frenchman standing with us exclaimed: " Fini --- mort pour la France." We were on the point of starting out to bring him in, when to our astonishment we saw the radiator and front wheels of the Ford come bounding through the swirling dust and smoke of the explosion, and a minute later Hines was with us.
THE CHAMPAGNE ATTACK, 1917 --- EVACUATIONS
It was about the end of April that we saw the first segment of the French troops going up to open the great offensive in the Mont Cornillet sector of Champagne. These regiments were the flower of the attacking troops. They had been freshly recruited, equipped, and trained for this event which was to mean so much to France. Never had we seen men more fit or more ready for the work that was before them. Here was the situation: the Boches had retreated to this point after the Battle of the Marne, and for two and a half years had been entrenching themselves there. The objective was to dislodge them from these formidable positions and take the commanding hills, Mont Cornillet, Mont Haut, Mont Blanc, and the Casque. This would mean an advance of from three to seven kilometres over a terrain that seemed insuperable, as it had proved in former attacks. The particular objective assigned to the troops with which we were connected was the occupation of the far slope of Mont Cornillet, made more difficult by the fact that the crest was raked by an enfilading fire of hundreds of heavy guns.
Three days later, at two o'clock in the afternoon, the attack commenced, and by midnight the wounded began to arrive, at first in driblets, then more and more numerous. The next morning at eleven we received a message asking if we could spare five cars to the triage hospital at Pont d'Issu. This poste was served by a section of French ambulances, but there were more wounded than they could take care of. So five of us were assigned to this duty, which, on account of weather and road conditions, it was not easy to perform, for the route over which we were to transport our blessés was for the first three kilometres a sunken road running along a canal, and in a terrible condition, due to the heavy traffic of the past week and the constant rains. It was necessary to use low speed for this entire distance, and, even then, run as slowly as possible, to get your men through alive. The remaining seven kilometres were macadamized, and, with the usual bumps, choked day and night with three lines of camions, caissons, troops and all the other paraphernalia of war.
TERRIBLE HOSPITAL CONDITIONS --- RAIN
The hospital itself beggared description. Rain had commenced to fall again and was drenching the wounded for whom there was no place in the three long buildings that constituted the hospital proper. Inside, the stretchers were laid so close that no inch was left uncovered, and it seemed hopeless for the doctors to try and do anything; they were simply swamped, while outside was still a long line of horse and motor ambulances waiting to be unloaded and then return to their postes de secours for more wounded. In front of one of the buildings was a group of a hundred or so suffering men, some standing, and others sprawled in the mud and water, poor fellows who had dragged themselves for five miles, some using their guns as crutches, others leaning for support on less severely wounded comrades. These men bore wounds of every kind, and, under normal conditions, many of them would have been stretcher cases. But on account of the congestion, every one who could stagger along had been forced to walk, and some of them had been waiting since the night before to be transported to the evacuation hospital, while more and more came hobbling in every moment. It was hard for us to believe that these shattered wrecks of humanity were the same men who had joked and laughed with us as they marched by a few hours before.
We set to work and toiled the rest of that day, that night, and the next day; but still the wounded came in, and it did not seem that we were making any impression on the mass. No one stopped for food in all this time. The doctors worked like machines, their eyes sunk in their heads, and they went about their task as if in a dream. As for us, it was just back and forth over those same ten kilometres. When loaded, we had for company the moans and screams of the poor soldiers behind us. Every unavoidable bump and depression on that terrible road wrung from their shattered bodies fresh agony, until it seemed that they could bear no more; and in fact, many of them did not, for too often, at the end of the run, one or more of the occupants of our cars had been released from his suffering by death.
As the second day drew to a close, the flood of wounded from the front diminished, fortunately, to a marked degree. But the triage itself was even more congested than when we first arrived. At about eight that evening, I stopped at the hospital long enough to snatch a bit of bread and meat. This was the first let-up that I had had, but there was no rest, with the appealing eyes of the occupants of that horror house fixed beseechingly on you, asking, as no words could, for the relief that we alone could give them. All that night our reeking cars continued their trips. It was always the same thing --- before your eyes stood the picture of those men waiting as they had been waiting for a day or more, and we able only to take a certain number and make comparatively few trips because of the need of gentleness. How we raced our cars back!
THE LAST DAY OF ATTACK
I shall never forget the dawn of the last day. Looking off toward the front, I could see the last star-shell curving up from the trenches, which meant the attack was still going on; that the important thing was the taking of the hill, that which I had been doing was nothing more than cleaning up the units which were out of it, and that this horrible suffering which I had seen was just a local, little thing, which had all been arranged for and would have no ultimate effect on the success or failure of the fight. It must require a certain hardness of heart, on the part of the Commanding General, to see all this and still continue to throw more and more men into the vortex of this hell from which these poor wounded ones had been spewed. And while my thoughts ran on thus, the guns continued to rumble, the ammunition went up to create more of the same havoc on the other side, lines of Boche prisoners under guard passed by, fresh troops went up along the road on the way to take the place of the men whom we had been bringing down, and still the mad attack continued. You could almost see the men throwing themselves against those concrete machine-gun defences that had not been shattered. That day the hill was taken, but at what cost!
I go back a little chronologically to relate the following incident, which differs from most others in that it records my first witnessing of the wounding of soldiers. Of course, scenes like this have no great importance in themselves, yet remain in the memory because of a touch more personal than that of more stupendous events.
It was an April night in 1917. Section Thirteen was cantoned at Villers-Marmery, fronting Mont Cornillet in the Champagne, where it was our task to evacuate the triage hospital, located in an old winery, in sight of the Boches. We had ten cars on duty, and they were kept fairly busy because of the wounded from the attack of the night before. As evening came on, more and more wounded were brought in. There had been no shelling of the town during the day, but for the past three nights the Boches had been firing at it about twenty rounds regularly at two o'clock in the morning. As dusk fell on this particular day, we were wondering whether the performance would be repeated, which we thought would be the case, as these shameful brigands seemed to have an affinity for the neighborhood of the hospital. I "rolled" at ten o'clock with three couchés for La Veuve, our evacuation hospital. After leaving my blessés, I returned by way of our cantonment, and just as the engine stopped, I heard the first shell of the evening, which fell among the graves of the cemetery some twenty-five metres from the main entrance to the hospital, and directly behind me. I knew this because a gravestone went over my head.
The hospital presented much the same appearance as when I had left, except that the blessés who were not to be immediately removed had been placed in the cellar. The receiving-ward offered a quiet appearance, compared with the bedlam that was raging outside. The doctors, as is usual in the French army, when there is much to be done, were doing their duty with coolness and despatch, without regard to the fact that every minute might be their last. A tall, dark-bearded priest was accompanying the doctors. The French priests and Protestant ministers connected with the army take all risks and bring enormous comfort to the soldiers. They seem to feel that the power they represent protects them so that they need have no fear in ministering to the sufferings of the men. The blessés on the stretchers, on this occasion, were quiet, and there was little talking, so that one could hear the whistle of the arriving shell, followed by the detonation, louder or fainter according to its proximity.
While I was reporting to the Médecin Chef, there came a reverberating crash that fairly made the building shake. For a moment we thought that the hospital had been struck, but a man came in and reported that the shell had fallen across the street from the hospital in a courtyard where some men were sleeping. Four of us seized brancards and dashed over to find that the shell had pierced the wall of the court, bursting on the inside, where two men had been sleeping under the protection of the wall at this place, both of whom were severely wounded. In placing one of them on a stretcher, one of his legs came off in our hands, and, in the excitement of the moment, some one put the leg back, with the foot next to his head. I shall never forget the gruesome picture which that stretcher presented when we set it down under the electric light of the operating-room. This poor chap, I may add, died before they could operate on him, while the other, though badly shot up, was evacuated successfully.
BENJAMIN F. BUTLER, JR.*
*Of New York City; New Mexico State College, '16; served as driver and Sous-Chef of Section Thirteen from March, 1917; later a Sergeant in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.
WRITING IN A DUGOUT
Minaucourt, March 11, 1917
We are on duty here for twenty-four hours, ending tomorrow at noon. I am writing this in our dugout by the light of an acetylene lamp on a very dirty table in the midst of some French doctors and stretcher-bearers. The dugout is in the side of a valley a kilometre or two back of the lines, that side of the valley toward H.M. the enemy. On the other side, just opposite us, is a French battery which is being shelled occasionally, so that the Boche shells pass whining over us, not very far overhead, ,as we are nearly at the top of our side of the hill.
I am writing in the front of my car, as the concussion of the French guns opposite, which are coming back a bit now, kept putting out the lamp inside. Our cars, four of them, are lined up in front of the dugout. There was once a village on this spot, but the houses are now all torn to bits, with great jagged holes in the walls and gaping roofs. Opposite is the church, or rather what is left of it. One side is torn away, the steeple hangs over to one side, every window is smashed, and altogether it is a very pathetic sight.
A COUP DE MAIN --- A NIGHT CALL
We slept last night, the four of us, on stretchers in the dugout, which could n't have held another object, except perhaps a little more smoke up near the roof. I was first on call, and in the midst of a delightful snooze, I heard the telephone bell tinkle faintly. One can sleep perfectly well with a battery of howitzers working overtime out.
A TERRIBLE SCENE
The night of May 25 was our worst moment, and the Section seems to have set a record for carrying the most wounded in the shortest time. We "rolled" with fifteen hundred of them in those twenty-four hours, over an average trip of ten kilometres --- Germans, Africans, and Algerians, but mostly poilus. Two of our chaps, Thompson and Cassady, were wounded. In the early morning, our French Lieutenant, Pierre Rodocanachi, who throughout the long night had personally directed the loading of the cars, was struck by a large fragment of shell. Although seriously wounded, he insisted on continuing his task until the congestion of wounded was cleared, he being carried to the hospital with the last load. His leg was so seriously affected that it had to be amputated. About 4 A.M. when I rolled back to the poste, was the crowning moment of the night's work. A shell had gone through the roof of the dugout and exploded on the floor in the midst of the doctors, stretcher-bearers, and a few blessés waiting for a car. There was a regimental priest with me whom I had picked up on the way, and we broke in the door, blocked with débris. Pushing in, we were almost choked by the powder and smell of things burning. The priest flashed a light, and by its uncertain glow we could distinguish a terrible mess of wreckage and bodies. Two or three poor chaps were conscious and were begging for help. It was the most horrible thing I have ever seen. We got them out as best we could and laid them beside the road, and then I took down two who were still alive just as Brownlee Gauld, the chap who was working the poste with me at the time, came up.
THE DECORATION --- GENERAL GOURAUD
Yesterday, four of us in the Section were publicly decorated with the Croix de Guerre, for various deeds done in the Moronvillers attack. The pinning-on was done by General Gouraud, the hero of the Dardanelles. The, to us, momentous event took place in a meadow about three miles behind the lines, and we, together with some French officers and soldiers to be decorated, stood within a hollow square formed by about fourteen hundred soldiers, and with the French colors behind us. And there were bands and prancing horses and the flashing swords of the officers, and the fourteen hundred bayonets glinting and glittering in the sun as the soldiers were put through the manual of arms before the ceremony.
We four stood together in a row, and General Gouraud decorated us one after the other, shaking hands and saying a few words to each of us after he had pinned on the medal. And while he was pinning it on, there was absolute silence all over the place, every rifle presented and each officer's sword at his chin. When the General had ended his little speech to us, the band broke into a bar of the "Marseillaise," which was the most impressive moment of all. And then the veteran ---he had only one arm, one leg, and a padded chest, to say nothing of three rows of medals on his breast --- would pass on to the chap next to you, leaving you struggling hard to keep looking straight ahead and not down to see if "it" was really there.
CHATEAUX AND DUTY
Men don't go down a road where they see shells landing in order to admire a château at the other end, or to show how smoothly their car rides, but if there is something to be done at the end of that road, there has never been a man in the Section who balked at his turn. The chap that "wins the marbles" is he who can come in after a particularly bad day and night and take the trip of somebody else who is worse off than he is, though, when your nerves are on the ragged edge, you don't feel physically like taking on what is not absolutely necessary. And the camaraderie is great, too. If after three days' rolling, there is a jam on the road, and somebody yells out to you, "For God's sake, pull your wheel over," and asks, "Why in the name of hell's bells don't you keep on your side of the road?" you don't get mad, for you know c'est la guerre! But the fellows who come in for the butt end of this sort of language are the outriders on the artillery caissons who rake off your lamps, and the fat cooks on the soup-kitchens, who will not move over.
CROIX DE GUERRE WITH PALM
The General Staff of the Fourth Army was evidently satisfied with Section Thirteen's little part in this great battle, for they have awarded it an Army citation --- not a Divisional or Corps citation, which would have been honor enough, but a citation in the orders of the Army itself, entitling the section flag to a Croix de Guerre with palm. It is the first such award that has ever been made to any American ambulance section. The citation reads as follows:
Bureau du Personnel
Au G.Q.G. le 29 Juin, 1917
Ordre Général No 929
Le Général Gouraud, Commandant la 4e Armée, cite à l'Ordre de l'Armée la Section Sanitaire Automobile Américaine No. 13:
"Sous les ordres du sous-lieutenant Rodocanachi, a assuré pendant l'offensive d'Avril et Mai, 1917, le service des évacuations dans un secteur fréquemment bombardé. Les conducteurs américains ont fait preuve de la plus grande endurance, de courage, et de sang-froid, notamment le 25 Mai au cours de la relève et du transport des blessés sous un bombardement meurtrier."
JOHN M. GRIERSON*
*Of New York City; entered Field Service, February, 1917, serving with Section Thirteen, and later as a First-Class Sergeant, U.S.A. Ambulance Service.
SUMMARY OF THE SECTION'S HISTORY
UNDER THE UNTED STATES ARMY
It was while we were attached to the 60th Division of French Infantry that we were taken over, on September 17, 1917, by the U.S. Army. This took place at Billy-le-Grand, in Champagne. The last of September, we moved to Jalons-les-Vignes, in Champagne, and then to Belrupt, in the Verdun region, with work at the Carrière d'Haudromont in October. We were shortly detached from the 60th Division, and moved to Issoncourt. This took place in the first part of November.
On November 18 we moved to Condé-en-Barrois, where we were attached to the 63d Division, and on December 4, moved to the Verdun sector, near Côte 344 and Côte du Poivre. Our postes were at Vacherauville, Carrière des Anglais, Bras, and La Fourche. On January 20 we moved back to Condé-en-Barrois, and in the last days of January to Pierrefitte, near Saint-Mihiel. During the first week in February we moved to Triaucourt, and on the 25th of that month to the Argonne, in the sector of La Harazée and the Four de Paris. We were cantoned in Sainte-Ménehould for a few days, and later in Florent. In March, we took a sector to our right, with postes called "La Chalade" and "Chardon."
On June 18 we moved to the Commercy sector, near Saint-Mihiel, with the 34th Division. We relieved a French ambulance section, which went to our old 63d Division. On August 1, we went to Sorcy, near Commercy. It was during the middle of August that we took a four-day convoy up to Amiens, and, with the 34th Division took over the lines at Lihons and Rosières-en-Santerre during the Somme-Aisne offensive. We followed the advance as far as Saint-Quentin. Then came repos for a week near Amiens. We worked at the H.O.E. at Hattencourt this week. A week later, in the first part of October, we moved up to Saint-Quentin for the continuation of the Somme-Oise offensive. We followed this as far as Guise, where we were when the Armistice was declared. The Division left the lines, and went under orders to Paris, and we followed the march, via Mont d'Origny, Breteuil, Beauvais, Dieudonné, Montlignon, and Clichy. On February 11 we were given orders to go to Base Camp, en route for home.
FRANK X. LAFLAMME*
*Of Manchester, New Hampshire; New Hampshire State University; joined Section Thirteen in June, 1917; subsequently served in the U.S. Army Ambulance Service with French Army during the war.