Section Seventeen (SSU 17)
- Published in History
SECTION SEVENTEEN left Paris for the front on April 30, 1917. On May 10 it found itself at Vadelaincourt in the Verdun sector, and on the 3d of June left for Jubécourt, passing the months of June and July on the Meuse front. A short repos was spent at Condé-en-Barrois in the early part of August. On the 14th of the month the Section arrived at Ville-sur-Cousances, near the Meuse, where it remained until September. It then went to Mesnil-sur-Oger, near Épernay, in the Champagne district, making a brief stay, thereafter going to Mourmelon-le-Grand and the Champagne front, in the region of the Mounts, where it continued as Section Six-Thirty-Five.
'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)
Their manners, their ways of expressing themselves,
Their courage, which nothing can quench ---
The humanest lot that were ever begot --
Thank God, we have been with the French!
April of 1917 saw the formation, at rue Raynouard, of Section Seventeen, and its departure for the field. As Chef came an old Section Eight man, Neftel, forever to be known as "Nefty." From all the ends of the States were gathered the members of the new group, from Nevada to Virginia, from Texas to New England. Their most common bond withal was that they sailed from home, the most of them, on St. Patrick's Day and that they were "all in it" before we declared war. The twenty ambulances were a memorial to Dr. Charles Goddard Weld, of Boston.
In those days a banquet sped each new section to its work; and there in the dining-hall at the "farewell-to-Paris" feast were assembled all those who came to know one another so completely and well in the months to follow. There the "Sarge" (or French Sergeant), who fed us and cared for us so long and faithfully, became a fundamental part of the Section. There Mr. Andrew welcomed Seventeen to the rolls of the old Service. There began the history of our "Seventeen Family."
Convois! At the very word come trooping memories of hosts of roads, and incidents unnumbered stir again to life --- the trail of the scuttling blue-gray column that led always ahead, onward, around a turning into the unknown. It was afternoon when the Section finally got under way on its first jaunt through the crowded streets of Paris. Trouble of a light-hearted sort began with the first interruptions of the city's traffic. Cars took wrong turnings, streams of vehicles cut in between, drivers got turned all about, and when the gates were reached there remained but a handful of the original score. Lost in Paris! And night was hurrying down. There followed wild hours of weird search, when Chef and French Lieutenant and "Sarge" drove furiously about seeking the strayed ones. Policemen, questioned, admitted they had seen ambulances pass.
"Going which way?"
" Là, là, là! " --- in all directions, with a comprehensive French flourish of hand and whisker.
Finally, singly and in pairs, the cars were rounded up, but not until late dusk. So the encampment was made just outside the walls, and Seventeen spent its first night in the open under the stars, in the public park at Pantin.
The first real day of convoy followed ---perfect in weather and in a smooth-running trip to Vertus, where, dusty, and in the darkening twilight, we saw, under the magic of "Sarge's" voice and hand and eye, spring up a dining-place, and a meal of wonderment take form: tired men and dirty ate of luscious "steak and French fried," in the cool of the night with gleaming yellow lamplight, and the already home-like Fords near by.
From Vertus the Section ambled to Bar-le-Duc through the sumptuously verdant countryside of France, and thence by easy stages came to the trees and green shade of Guerpont, where tents were raised, shadow-flecked under the trees, and meals were served in the glass summer-house of the château. It was then that our history became one with that of the 97th Division of Infantry. There we first came to know our rakish 59th Alpine Chasseurs, and the friendly 303d, whose regimental march is an unending memory. There, too, General Lajaille first inspected his new ambulance section and puffed us up with kindly words of interest and faith; and for a week the Section remained reposefully in the gloaming of the woods by the stream.
VADELAINCOURT --- EVACUATIONS
Thereafter came the move to Vadelaincourt, close by the aviation field, where bombings became of almost nightly occurrence, and where the Section grew accustomed to spending "the top of the evening" on its back in ditches watching the sparkle of the shrapnel and the signals spume into the sky. It became a mere nothing to tell a pilot's age and hair color by the rhythm of his motor! As yet there had been nothing of postes and shell-torn highways --evacuation work had been the Section's only duty. The days trailed goldenly by. Soccer against a very fine aviators' team spurred our members almost to practice; but when two weeks' quarantine within the hedged limits of camp descended on us, because of a Frenchman's illness, the monotony weighed heavily on every one.
ON THE MEUSE --- JUBÉCOURT
From Vadelaincourt the Section went to Jubécourt, the village of the mill-épicerie, where dwelt the two friendly maidens, Abijah and Georgette, who cooked us tarts and taught us French.
For two long months Seventeen was quartered there on the Meuse, just outside our straggling little impoverished village of dull-red tiles and musty-plastered walls. On a steep green hillside, reached by a home-made, precariously dipping driveway, squatted the two tents that were our abode through June and July --- a hillside all aglitter with poppies and blue flowers, and a French version of "Queen Anne's lace." Before us the ground sloped away to a springy meadow-flat, through the marshy centre of which chuckled the sleepy Cousances River, the little stream that meandered its absurd, small, winding way from sad Ville-sur-Cousances, where Harmon Craig lies so alone, to give up all its energy, after cascading over the old milldam, in the shallow by the road, and finally to disappear and lose itself under the Jubécourt bridge.
In its course it served many ends. By a bend the water flowed swift and deep among the reeds to form a swimming-hole; luscious its cooling after the welter of the roads, sweet its mystery under a golden moon after a day when earth itself seemed to pant a little at the warmth. Broadening a mite, the stream gave place for watering of tired army horses, a grateful interrupting of the dragging haul of ammunition and supplies. Then came the reach that never lacked for kneeling soldiers, scrubbing and rinsing their weird clothing --- immensely long-tailed shirts; stomach-winding cloths of vivid hue; long, baggy, gay-colored caleçons, string-tied at the bottom. Or here they bathed their heads and hands, raising tanned, cheery faces to sputter us a greeting through the suds. Stumpy trees, knee-deep in the water, acted as dressing-tables with bits of mirror stuck there to aid the luxuries of the toilet. The current seemed to pause here in friendliness before it gushed over the dam and opened into a washing-place for horses, carts, and ambulances.
Above the tents the officers' "château," a hut with leaky tin roof, topped the rise, and below under a blossoming bank were the atelier shed and the shack which served triply as kitchen, banquet-hall, and French staff barracks.
Sharply up out of Jubécourt circled the street, to become our road toward the front as it curved, and rose, and fell to Brocourt, over the upland fields that seemed forever golden. Past the triage hospital, down through the hillside town it wound into a valley, then up abruptly again onto the top of the world. Rapidly it went now past clumps of woods, over the open country, until it paused on the steep, looking down on wrecked and torn Récicourt. Slowly the road spiralled down into what remained of the village, turned several tumbled corners, crossed a muddy stream on an age-old stone bridge, and came to a riven barn that hid our cars by day from prying avion eyes. A breathing space there, in the bleak little room that served as our abode; up some stone steps, low raftered, and blackened with smoke. There was the cupboard door graven with the names of those who had used the room, there the chimney under which we brewed so many marmites of chocolate in the cold, gray dawns. An opening, once a window, led to a space, littered with breakage from houses roundabouts, where sank our dank, dark abri (which we never used). And all about grew riotous wild pink roses and bloody poppies.
On went the road then, up, after a passing bow to the wide Verdun-Metz highway, gleaming white away to the horizon, along the back of a hill with a big-gun emplacement building under a screen of camouflage below, until of a sudden the way dodged down into the black woods where cliff-dweller poilu camps abounded, and woods clung to its sides, until the postes were reached. A sector of woods and gloom it was, where shells lit unseen and snarling among the tree-trunks, or where one heard the spatter of éclats among distant leaves and could not tell comfortingly the exact whereabouts of the incomers. "The Apple Tree Road," across a clearing, bent about Ferrier's Farm, a mere jumble of stone and masonry. That road was an unloved spot. Caissons hurried their uttermost to reach the wooded lumpy rise beyond it, and up that rise the Fords must needs crawl toilsomely, and never did automobile travel more slowly. Artillery dugouts edged the hill, tantalizingly suggesting refuge that we could not seek. In the valley one found damp mists at night that swirled like a wavering, pale sea; and gas also at times. Poste 3 lay beyond at a wicked corner, a cruel road of ruts, that harbored much gas and was a favorite lighting-place for shells. Now we were among the close-strung batteries --- spitting "75's" and grunting " 120's." At night, shafts of flame seemed to crackle and sear one's ears, like harsh, darting tongues. Then came Poste 2, the relay poste, a place of calm and tall trees in early June; but from the moment of the first attack on to the end, a cluttered existence of explosions, clattering éclats, and gruesomeness.
Great trees reared high above the abris which clustered familiarly about the central abode of the Médecin Aide-Major. A deep hole was the kitchen, fragrant with wood smoke and cookery smells, and blackened and scorched within. Luscious in weary times the tea that came from the dark mouth of it, even without the famed eau de vie, and the weird brews of its ex-sailor inhabitant, the cook dubbed "Fritz" by his ever good-natured brancardier comrades. Near by was the tin-roofed little shack walled with pine boughs which served as dining-room, with its greasy worn board and grimy benches. There were many friendships formed between us and our brancardiers about that table through the long, soft sunsets. Priests many of them were, and the bravest, most selfless little men in the world. None of war's glory theirs, none of its zest, but all the danger of it, all of its most awful sights, all the vague horrors of its hell. Each evening a little quiet group would start out, trundling their brancard carriers or bearing folded brancards on their tired, stooped shoulders, down the gloomy road toward the star-shells --- these humble, little, gray-grizzled, calm-faced old men, toward the vivid blossoming of the shell flowers and fallen, bloodied fruit. Gentle their hands as a mother's, tender and soft their voices murmuring prayers to comfort dying men; everlastingly faithful and kindly, healing the deepest wounds of the soul. Rich is their service, for at last their faith brings great good comfort and content to these, God's hero-children, the soldiers of France.
Almost hidden in the thick underbrush near by was the little cemetery, roughly fenced and reverently, though of necessity rudely, tended. Sunlit mornings, with birds trilling among the boughs, and patches of clear sky quivering through the foliage, one could glimpse the flash, so gay and brave and piteous, of the tricolor discs on the simple crosses, and a casque, perhaps, lying on a bare mound, or a torn, pitiful, graying képi. Sweet wild raspberries grew in dew-decked profusion close up to its very gate, while not a hundred metres away a battery squatted, hidden safely, and shivered the song of life with its shrieking. For a long time, until the tops of our high trees were combed away, shells from the battery would burst against the branches above the poste and wound. It was one of the inevitable things of woodland warfare.
Our sleeping-place was that of the brancardiers and blessés, and the assembly room of the rat tribe --- an abri of some dozen double-decker, wire-bottomed bunks filled with straw, and other things. A lantern hung gleaming from the corrugated roof, except when its flame was jolted out by arrivées. There one would lie at night, wondering; with a gassed man gasping and choking below, the lamp turned down to a meagre pin-point, the tired snore of brancardiers in one's ears, rats scuttling about and over one, and the crash and crunch of guns and shells outside under the stars. There would come a telephone tinkle and one stumbled out into the coolness to crank up and take a call. Jolting hurriedly off to one of the advanced postes, trying to memorize the position of new, bumping shell-holes to be dodged in returning, trying to make quick time; and swinging down into the bare fields toward Copinard, perhaps, one could see, when fusées éclairantes sprang up, the surge and eddy of smoke clouds about the trenches, while the staccato of mitrailleuses sounded all around, the drone of shells far overhead, and the grumble-mumble of torpilles and grenades. Just a hole dug into the hither side of a hummock and a rough roof support with an open space before it was Copinard, our poste; and in one's heart one cursed the uneven road back, as one tried to slide gently into the car the moaning, swathed bundle on its stretcher. The fiche was tucked into a pocket, the tail-board closed as softly as possible, then off once more, this time with all the care in the world --- for every jounce escaped, every shell-pit clearly skirted, meant an inner pæan of joy; every jolt and shock hurt like a flame on a bare, tortured nerve, for thought of the blessé within. And when you had him finally at the triage, his attempt at a smile and thanks, if he were conscious, or if not, the set, gray pain of the unmoving face, made one feel little and humble, and grateful to be serving.
It seemed with one's load an unending trip back through the black woods. Eyes played queer tricks; each shadow clump became a camion, each darker bit of road a caisson; and roads lost all resemblance to their true selves, became weird ghosts of their daylight realities. Men and horses popped up noiselessly out of nowhere at one's very mud-guards --- or else one thought they did, jammed on brakes, and found a clear road running on ahead. Queer sounds and smells rose up all about out of the dark, and an odor that was a mixture of dead things and things growing, of damp earth and powder bite, of vague gas --- a smell in fact that means nothing in all the world except night on the crowded roads close to the lines, with the stir of unseen life and death around one.
TRANQUILITY AND PREPARATION
So the Section was taken from its month-long repos in the field and plunked down in this heavily-wooded, many-roaded sector close to the Argonne. The sector's centre was Récicourt, with radiating postes at Avocourt, in the Forest of Hesse, and Copinard beyond. Wild were the night-adventures of those first few weeks in the maze of black woodland ways and the befuddling up and down country, when cars spent long nights wandering on forbidden roads in zealous efforts to find themselves. Far did the Section range through error before the knack of picking the right turns became a second nature. But gradually the newness wore away in the quiet of the tranquil region. Driving around shell-holes and finding the smoothest paths blindly, by instinct, became a mere routine, and only then, it seemed, did there begin to be real activity.
Activity of a warring kind began really the third week of June; the time before was preparation. Up to then there had been cannonading of sorts, and a growing tenseness and excitement behind the lines. Wires were strung thickly along the branches beside the roads, with their bits of colored cloth attached to distinguish one from another. New wagon tracks were levelled overnight to make short cuts for ammunition trains. Troops began to arrive in ever-increasing numbers. Piles of shells grew up in unexpected places along the wayside and disappeared again in a twinkling into the mystery of the dark woods. There were guns moving up every night, like noisy shadows along the starlit roads and unseen clankings and rattlings with heavy-breathing horses in the blackness. Into Jubécourt came troops upon troops; camions were forever swirling up, laden, or hustling back empty, while dust rose stifling in the hot weather, and mud slopped dismally in the wet. Nothing was quiet. There was always a stir, a bustle, a constant flexing of the sinews of war which lent a tremor of expectancy. Rumors sped up and down, and queerly enough the spirits of Seventeen took a sudden leap, rose higher with every wilder utterance. All the days of waiting, all the old rumors that had faded into nothing, were forgotten, for there was work looming big at hand, and the Section was glad.
WONDERFUL AND TERRIBLE DAYS
June 28 was a blue-and-gold day. The sky seemed to have receded a myriad miles away to become a sapphire brilliancy of space. Boche planes came over. All across the shining sky would arch the puffs of soft white as the anti-aircraft guns reached for the skimming, sun-touched shape. In the afternoon a plane came to circle directly over the village, back and forth, round and round. A regiment was trudging up the steep hill out of Jubécourt in the sweltering sun. Then a Frenchman slanted up to do battle, and the spatter of the machine guns came down to us. Seventeen, "rooting" as at a football game, was spread over the hillside craning its several necks. Suddenly came a spume of earth by the church, a grunting shock and a whistle. For a moment it did n't dawn on the mind that it was not the whistle of a bomb. A moment later, back of our camp, came another upheaval on the open hillside. Then we realized what was happening --- Jubécourt, our home village, was being shelled; and with terrifying precision they achieved the range. The next shell struck the road, in the centre of the column of little blue men, and it seemed an age before the stream of troops left the road and took semi-shelter in the ditches. Again shells came to our fields, at three-minute intervals; now one could catch the thump of the gun, then see the spout of earth and smoke, with accompanying whistle and crash. They reached the town then regularly. Tiles clattered down in tinkling cascades, walls tumbled hollowly, débris shot into the air, sickening cries came, and smoke of burning buildings hovered over the red roofs. It was time for the relief to leave for the poste. So Hiis and Nutt drove out through the town and crawled up the road out of it, with the expectation of more shells in their path. It was then, too, that Coulter, who had been washing his car by the mill, dressed only in his bathing suit and casque, splashed into town with his ambulance, and picked up the wounded from the streets. And somehow, against all French regulations, other cars of ours found themselves working there, unordered, among the tumbling walls and swirling haze. The meadow now was receiving its share of shells. Richards received a plentiful shower bath of mud and pebbles, when he crossed into the village afoot to get the cars out of the street. For hours shells came in. Then they ceased, and rain began to come down, sadly retarding the work of the souvenir-hunting members of the Section who were already grubbing for shell-noses. Things seemed about to happen. But it rained softly all night; only the rumble of the guns grew stronger and more angry every minute.
The 29th dawned clear, and the guns thrashed unceasingly all day. The roads and woods were being sprayed with metal. Every car was called out, and with dusk came the first "big-show" night of the Section. Gas was thick on the roads in the woods. The shivering glare of the "75's" was like a yellow sheet lightning among the trees. Shells were exploding continually with their shattering concussion. Roads that had once been friendly became black pits of hate, seared with the wicked sparks of bursting obus. Louder and louder came the surf -like roar and beat rolling up to us from the trenches, where attack and counter-attack swirled in the misty night lit by gun-flash and shell-glare.
The whole Section served that night, and on through the day following. It was a weird time --- the dark, stinking with gas, streams of wounded, panting engines, moans, and the eternal flicker of the echoing cannon. A Boche attack had made slight gain around "304," and a fierce counter-attack by the French had ended the affair. Two of the Section's extra hands served that night with the brancardiers---Lewis() and Heywood. They went out into the sweating, reeling darkness and helped with their souls where help was needed sorely. Finally came dawn, and a comparative quiet near the trenches, though the guns and explosions roundabout us went on. And our labors were just commencing, for it is the day which follows such a night that brings the ambulance its more and more sickening load.
So it ran on into July ---ever preparing for bigger things, and shelling in the woods, which the Boches were combing to seek out French batteries and to cripple the supply lines. But the batteries increased in number daily, and shell-holes in the roads were smoothed over within the hour.
THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT --- THE GLORIOUS FOURTH
In Jubécourt we were joined by Lieutenant d'Halloy; and knowing him came to mean the world to us of his "Seventeen family." Duty and utter devotion to ideals were his faith. Of the kindest and cleanest of hearts, unselfish to the ultimate degree, he gave himself entirely to the Section, and by so giving he made us, every one, completely his. He had but to speak and we had followed him to earth's end. Long after star-shells have faded from our memories and we have forgotten the cannon language we shall remember, and the thought will be a cleansing, bright flame --- that man of as clear and clean a spirit as ever glowed in France's dark war night.
On July 4 came a mighty banquet with speeches of note by every one, including the French mechanic, and hoary recitations that were well-nigh ritual with the Section. Later, Section Sixteen, at Rarécourt, was our host for a concert and "light refreshment" fête. That was our American Day, and fittingly our next celebration was for France. On the eve of Bastille Day we took part in the high jinks of the 87th Regiment, a parade through the village on the heels of their echoing band, and a riotous dance in the little square. We bore on shoulders our little aspirant chum, Réné Hurée, who was killed in the following attack. Next morning the regiment band, having greeted their Colonel, marched to our tent door and serenaded us most convincingly and flatteringly, even considering what they did to "The Star-Spangled Banner." Pleased as kids on Christmas, were the musicians when decorated with little crêpe paper American flags from our stock. In fact, most of the regiment sought them as souvenirs, and, as long as the supply lasted, were supplied. That afternoon saw a gala soccer game with the regimental team. Lieutenant d'Halloy was our goaltender, every one played ferociously, yet we were friends, and the band blared gayly between halves. At the end, hurried a little as the regiment had to prepare for their departure to the lines, champagne was drunk in honor of the day, the regiment, the game, and the attack to come. Then into the dusk the friendly regiment marched off to their camions, with laughter and song on their lips, off to the trenches! --bearing in their helmets or gun muzzles our little flags. And more, they carried them gallantly in the attack that captured Hill 304 on July 17. It was toward that attack that the months of anticipation led, and more and more the excitement grew as the day neared.
THE THRILL OF THE ATTACK --- CONDÉ-EN-BARROIS
Then the attack crashed forth in the misty morn, and our troops went forward. There seemed an electric thrill through the woods. Boche prisoners were massed in wondering-eyed, stolid groups, and one felt the glad note of success in the voices of the poilus on the road. Even the blessés seemed to be chuckling with the zest of victory.
It was about that time that Porritt's ambulance rolled over one night in the ditch, and his assis load were forced to right his car for him, after which his blessés climbed back inside and were carried to the hospital. Also one night Bigelow stopped on the Avocourt Hill to tighten up his low speed, regardless of the crashing shells and imprecations of his worried wounded, with the soaring star-shells glaring angrily down on his unconcern. And in those woodland wilds "Nefty" and the " Lieut " were gassed, yet stayed on to work beside us. Then our comrade and neighbor, Harmon Craig was snatched out of the summer world all in a cruel moment that he met so wondrously well.
On July 24, the Ninety-Seventh "went out." We tore down our tents, packed up our homes, and fled over sunlit roads to Condé-en-Barrois where we enjoyed three rich weeks of reserve. It was an Indian summer time of ripening fields and orchards, of warmth and intermittent sun and shower. We came to know Bar-le-Duc then, astraddle the Ornain in its soft, green-velvet valley, and news reached our long white wooden barracks of the first citations, given us at Chardogne. "Nefty" received his first with us, and McMurray and Overstreet theirs. Then the Médecin Principal and our good friend, Monsieur Lacoste, the Médecin Chef, came back with us to a right royal celebrative meal.
Four new men joined us there, and Coulter left to enter upon work with the Paris staff. Thus came the first germs of the breaking-up. Merry were the days, and fattening the meals. At Génicourt near by, our 59th Chasseurs trimmed us in a riotous soccer game wherein our old friend Sergeant-Major Maurice, athlete and violinist, received a bump on the knee in colliding with "Rouge" Foster, that laid him up for two months, and made soccer with the Americans défendu for the battalion. There came restless rumors to us at Condé to the effect that never before had our General had such artillery massed as was in our old sector, that a crisis was nearing, and that we were going back to serve again near Avocourt. Suddenly came something definite in a call for six cars to help Section Twenty-Nine. So we drew lots, and the lucky ones jeered at those who had to idle in our barracks. They slaved for days and nights, as did a second six who relieved them. Then came the order to move up, destination and kind of work unknown. But it was good to be under way, to be on the road once more.
ON THE EDGE OF THE BATTLE OF VERDUN
We left toward dusk on August 14. Back we sallied to homelike Ville-sur-Cousances, and up on to a hill-crest beside the Rampont road. The sky "dreened" rain while the Section made camp that night. Rain! And soggy tents to put up before a chance to sleep, and cars to go on duty at six next morning, not to mention the tired men who had arrived from lending Section Thirty-One a hand in our olden woods for a wild day or two. We prayed for warmth and clear weather, but, later, when the sun came hot and dust choked our very souls, we longed for rain again; and plenty we had of both --- of rain, dreary mud, and weary cold, and, in the next hour, of sun, stifling dust, and sweltering heat. Besides, the whole Section was jammed into the two tents --- bureau, baggage, cuisine, dining-room, everything --- a jumble of all known petty trials and tribulations. Also there was work, two weeks of continuous driving. The little Fords of the Section had to evacuate the entire Brocourt triage for two big-car sections which worked our sector and the neighboring one. Curses a-many were heaped on the luck that made things happen so, for the Second Battle of Verdun was on, and we who had lived for it through June and July saw only the edges of it in August. But labor there was in profusion for every one.
All cars worked all the time. One slept by snatches when one could, wherever one chanced to be, and ate spasmodically of what happened along, or went unfed; and always mud upon mud, or dust thick on dust. Day after day, night after night, of loading blessés in one's car, of tearing along swirling, crowded roads, dodging between camions and around swaying caissons, sliding past trudging lines of Boche prisoners in sunset dust-clouds, on and ever on, for the hospitals were far away. Then to unload the poor groaning burden into the cool, spacious salles de triage at the various places --- Fleury or Froidos, Ville or Rarécourt; and hurriedly to crank up and sag wearily, hastily back to take another trip and another load and yet another --- to keep the current of evacuation flowing easily and rapidly.
None of the Section will forget the arching-roofed tent at Brocourt, through which the blessés streamed into our cars and hands --- the great gloom, the crowded assis and twisting couchés, the smell of antiseptics and drying blood, the whimper of rain on the canvas or the whisper of wind fluttering in under the curtained doorways; nor that weird night when Vadelaincourt was bombed and the glare rode red across the star-bright sky, when Boche planes snored and hurried above us through. the darkness with searchlights reaching vainly after them. That night Hiis led a convoy of ambulances who did not know the roads from the burning hospital --- from Vadelaincourt to Fleury.
TO THE CHAMPAGNE
Finally the attack was over, and on the 30th of the month the Section dug its effects out of the mud and dust and set happy wheels along the main highway toward Champagne, past Châlons, and into the land of vineyards. Near Avize some bright-roofed houses cluster on the hillside --- Mesnil-sur-Oger, the mythical Oger which naked eye has yet to find. There the Section washed away the stains of the Meuse days, and there came the first rumblings of coming militarization, which at last did come. The service terms of most of the men were at an end; the ways of other services seemed to lead more strenuous, more invitingly precarious along the course of war, and they beckoned the spirits of the old Section. Beyond lay a vague time of fighting, and Seventeen, that had come a-sailing to France for service before its country made the war her own, chafed at the pictured restraint of old work with new ways. Then came the last great "party " on the eve of departure of the first to leave.
A little, low café room, crowded with faded field Service coats, an oval, oil-clothed table bearing the wine of the countryside, and roundabout the faces that were turning away from the known and settled, and brightening eagerly as they looked ahead into the unguessed and untried, a group that world winds were so soon to scatter apart, to separate, to waft to strange places. And comradeship was deep and good and strong. Toasts were pledged to the old Service and to the freedom of it --- its labors and friendships and sorrows, but most of all its joys; and each man had a tightening cord in his heart and a twitch in his throat that night for the Service he was leaving, and his friends that he must lose, and for the Section that had been home and more than home so long in a dear stranger land.
JAMES W. D. SEYMOUR*
*Of New York City; Harvard, '17; served with Section Seventeen from June, 1917; later was a First Lieutenant, U.S.A. Ambulance Service.
POILUS AND AMBULANCIERS
Forêt de Hesse, before Récicourt where wild raspberries are thick
5 p.m., Tuesday, July 10
I'm sitting on a bunk in the abri at Poste 2. Have been here since something after three. Just now have entered eight poilus, muddy and gray-toned. French batteries of "75's" very near at hand are shivering our ears and shaking the ground in a terrific bombardment. They are aiming low. Their shells slip over our heads and clip leaves and twigs from the trees about the poste.
We have been ordered to remain in the abri because numbers of the shells explode in striking the tree-tops. As a result, Rowley's car has a hole --- tiny, it is true --- but a veritable hole torn in one side, and Garner's car (I came up with him) has a hole on the top near the back, and the adjustable top over the driver's seat had one of its supports fractured and a hole ripped in the cloth. Moreover, one of the brancardiers was wounded in the chest by a piece of shrapnel and was taken in by McMurray, after the lieutenant here and the Médecin Divisionnaire had dressed his wound.
It was queer that first shell which broke over my head. Rowley had told of their breaking earlier in the afternoon before he left. We were waiting about. I had wandered off toward the road munching a bit of chocolate (bought at the coopérative militaire of Récicourt), and the "75's" were cracking uncomfortably. Suddenly came a louder crash, and perhaps six feet away a leafy twig fell to the ground. I picked it up and moved toward Mac and Garner to make some remark of a laughing sort. Then I saw a brancardier supporting one of his comrades toward the big abri from the direction of the eating-shack. It dawned on me slowly and unbelievably that the shrapnel --- French shells --- were breaking near enough over us to wound; that this brancardier had been hit. He was hunched forward, his hands gripped tight to his left chest, and his face was gray, drawn; there were surprise and terror in his eyes. He was not saying anything, but he breathed hard, and it was as if he hoped to hold life in by pressing his hands in on his lungs.
A poilu came running in to say that his three comrades were killed about one hundred fifty yards down the road. The Médecin Lieutenant is down here now, and the man whose comrades were killed, sits shaking on the steps of the abri.
But the talk goes on as before. The Lieutenant just asked me if it were my machine that was hit. I told him it was Garner's, and he said, laughing a little wryly, "Des souvenirs."
The three morts are being brought into camp now. Garner says he saw the four marching down the road not twenty minutes ago. Now one sits very still on the stair, and the three others are stiller yet. I'm glad it was not a French shell. There is an unfairness in its coming from one's own guns. Our near "75's" are at it again after a few minutes of quiet.
It was strange, when our brancardier was wounded, the man with him shivered and shook like a leaf. Now the brancardiers are going out to get those dead, from the roadside, out from under the Boche shells. They are grimy, ragged, little, oldish men, sad-faced and tired.
BLESSÉS AND MORTS
McMurray tells me many dead were brought in yesterday. I think the "survivor" is asleep now, hunched up, rifle upright between his knees, his boots slimy with rich wet mud, while his head droops forward, heaving with his slow breathing. I wonder if he dreams of a shell that strikes, and comrades that fall --- or is it of home?
It is getting dusk. Some blessés --- six at least --- have arrived. One says he is from Paris; goes en permission in four days. He is dirty and ragged and irresistible. He has on a buttonless shirt, wide open on a hairy chest, mud-smeared, torn trousers, and straggly, draggled puttees. As he readjusted his stomach-warming sash, he looked down at himself and his mud-scow boots with a grimace, then twinkled at me, "Le dernier cri de la mode." Somehow it seemed superb --- typical somehow of the French poilu and his unquenchable humor.
Through the night, the three morts lie wrapped in sheets and covered with green branches, beneath the trees near the abri. They were pretty terribly messed up. One only I could bring myself to look at, after glimpses of raw flesh on the others; and nothing much remained of him below the chest. His face was little and wizened, his hair quite white, and gray. The Lieutenant squatted by with pad and pencil while a brancardier straddled the stretcher and went through the pockets of it that lay there ---a thimble, a pipe; some letters and a picture blood-stained a little. The face was still, but one gory hand was clenched in agony. The other white bundle was lumpier and shorter than a man should be, ---they say he was shot to pieces.
NIGHT TRAGEDIES AT THE POSTE
An abri at dusk, July
Following the bearded capitaine, who refused, on principle, a brancard, and went down assis, although his leg was horribly mauled, a blessé picked up down the road, with wound undressed, was toted in on a stretcher. He thought he was going to die. He said he could not breathe, and he groaned. One brancardier ran for the Lieutenant, another held the lamp close, others, sweating, stood about, great gloomy shadows, while two others tore and cut away his clothing to have a look at the wounds in his chest. Right and left sides seemed riddled, though there was not a great deal of blood. Still his chest appeared distorted internally, and he kept groaning that it was fini. He begged for something, and a brancardier was despatched to another abri for it. He was long in returning, and the wounded man moaned and thrashed his arms about.
I supposed they had sent for a quieting hypodermic; but finally the brancardier returned with a booklet and a little jar. Then I noted that the brancardier, kneeling by the blessé, had a tiny red heart, a bleeding heart, on his casque --- a priest. He rubbed a little something from the jar on the man's forehead and muttered a few words read from the book; and the blessé responded. "Extreme unction" I guess it was, and "confession." After it, the blessé was very quiet and peaceful. Of a sudden it came over me all of a heap that there was something back of mere creeds if religion could bring such calm, where a moment before was pain, racking pain. That low little back hole, with the yellow, smelly lamp and the presence of dirty, odorous poilus, suddenly became big and awesome, and filled with a breath of something more than mere life, or death, or war, or human meddlings. It seized one's thoughts, perhaps the first solid something to grip onto that I have seen here in a war-trodden world.
DAYS AND NIGHTS
Within sight --- except for the woods --- of Montfaucon
It is quarter past nine. Sun is trickling through clouds and trees, as I sit here in a brancardier's poste in the Bois de Hesse. Since early morning I have been reading "Mr. Britling." The trees are green and bright, there is a cool breeze riffling the leaves, and birds chortle and trill. The Médecin's red and blue bedroom slippers sit outside his abri and twinkle comfortably in the sun. There has been a cleaning in our abri --- Lord knows it needed one --- and a disinfectant has been sprinkled about; the odor is strong in reminiscence of sulpho-naphthol.
This road now, down toward Copinard, is a lather of mud --- gray, wet mud that slaps and spatters underfoot. It is inches deep, and fluid. Tracks don't remain visible in it for long. No ambulances are here now.
Last night was weird. French batteries spat all through until near dawn, and Boche arrivées were plentiful. One struck a soup-kitchen down the road; gas claimed some victims near here; and a supply of French grenades or shells was exploded by a German shell. I was just cuddling down in my blanket when the rumbles came, several successive louder ones, as if shells were plumped down in bunches, each bunch nearer. The last and loudest crumbling crash caused our lantern to flicker out, and in the blackness we heard the stuff land on top of our abri. I thought, as did Harry Overstreet, that the next burst would mean the finish. I felt I wanted to get out from under the corrugated shell of the abri. But no other crash came, and I sent my searchlight gleam playing about the cavern while one of the blessés relit the light.
AUJOURD'HUI ET DEMAIN
Condé-en-Barrois, July 26
We are en réserve, --- a sort of semi-repos, after a month of hot work, and strain, too., It is not that we sweat and slave greatly, but there somehow seems to be a nervous effort and tightening in driving under fire which takes it out of one physically. The result is that after our "spells" of twenty-four or forty-eight hours we sink into lethargic repose until the next call. The days seem all alike, except that we are served chocolat instead of black sugarless coffee, on Sunday mornings, and they slip by, unsung, into the jumbled yesterdays of "a little while ago."
It is now nearer still to the end of the month. This morning three of our Section and a number of the brancardiers, with whom we messed around at the front, about fourteen in all, were decorated with the Croix de Guerre. As a result, to-day has been a fête day, with feasting, songs, wines, and speeches. Now we recuperate. There is talk of work again, and lots of it, in about ten days. There are American soldiers within twenty kilometres --- a young lieutenant visited us yesterday and dined with us today. It seems hard to realize that all about us here are Americans, preparing to go down and face the thunder and flame that we have heard all around and over us.
Letters from over here ramble on very much as events seem to in France. There are so many days of war behind and apparently so many, many more ahead, that days count hardly at all. And if something is not done now, it can be done "to-morrow" or later. "A few days, one way or the other, don't matter" is a phrase I've heard repeatedly over here. Remembering your words, I've seen little enough, and done less; but it has been worth much more than anything I have "sacrificed" to come, to see --- not France, for I've seen only tiny bits of it, but individuals from whom one can build up a vision of the French people. They go through Hell, and they smile as they go down into it and smile as they are carried back. No one --- not a one I've met ---protests at doing his share and more.
UNDER THE STARLIGHT
A day or so ago I saw one night more wonderful even than usual. It was clear starlight, and the guns were mumbling in their customary fashion, a sort of snoring of the sleeping dark. And, like slow lightning, the starshells glared bright, brighter, then faded. We received a call for two cars from our woodland poste to a poste, B1, some two kilometres from the trenches. There we found no blessés, but they asked me --- the other driver's French was more awful and even less serviceable than my poor attempts --- if we would consider going down to the remains of a village --- Avocourt --- whose name has figured much lately in despatches, where the regimental brancardier poste is. It is just behind the trenches and there were thirteen wounded there --- so many that there were entirely too few brancardiers to tote them up to our B1 poste. You see, most of the regimental brancardiers being musicians, they had been called away back of the lines to give some general a band concert!
We had been told by our Médecin Chef that it was impossible and too dangerous to drive there. I was for being obedient (scared) and safe, but, thanks to Big's enthusiasm, there seemed nothing to do but go. So we went down the two kilometres of shell-pocked road under the calm stars and wild shells. I'll never forget that jouncing rush through the dark, past troops and overturned caissons, scraping wagons, startling heaving horses. Then the slide over two big new shell-holes up an incline beside the abri, and beside a looming mound that backed the trenches. The star-shells were directly overhead. They made you feel coldly naked, and each minute-long glare lasted for ages. Then they splashed shells around about us; but we were busy enough with our blessés not to care much. Scared all the palest rainbow shades I was, but the "not-much-caring" was there, too. It is a fact; living with guns rumbling all the time, trying to sleep at our poste while French soixante-quinze batteries within a hundred yards of us crackle unceasingly, all of it in a fashion makes one tend to go on with whatever work be in hand, despite gun-fire aimed more or less directly at one.
It was, I imagine, about as near the real thing of the trenches as we shall get. There was a breathless, ducking hurry about thrusting the laden brancards into the little coughing Fords; all fingers were thumbs, and every stretcher had to be rearranged, while the blessés, that could, cried for speed. Thereafter came a strange ride with one's back to the possible onrushing shell. It had the sensation felt in years past when walking away from the unknown in darkness --- one's legs then moved faster and faster, if one let them, until one was running in fear.
Just so it required effort not to open the throttle, let the blessés take their chances with bumps, and flee in panic. Then insanely we stalled both cars on a steep hill; the other chap's gears were loose. So we took "time out" and tightened them up, while our wounded tried to speed us on our way to safety, and dark, lumbering transports hurried past with clattering hoofs and creaking wheels. But it has slipped into the mere humdrum of a night's work done. That was really uneventful. Nothing happened to us, and there is not a man in the Section who has not gone through a heap sight more, many a night.
NEWS THAT FILTERS IN
The first repos, July's end
We know little of the war here. Scraps of hearsay filter in, and we have strange accounts of our sector's activity from the wounded before they pass out of our hands and ears. We become sloppy, too --- terribly sloppy of language and manners.
France would seem strange to us if uncluttered with frame barracks, camions, and if unflooded with uniforms. France for us, too, is almost wholly male. I have exchanged words with a girl in an épicerie, a woman in a laundry, and an old, old lady with a crumpled cap and wondrous crinkled white curls, who worked in the fields --- the only femininity I have come into converse with since leaving Paris. And male civilians are either bent crabbedly over a cane, or in pinafores, sucking thumbs, and knee-high. But I do like the French people I have met. Our cook is a priest from down near Spain who resembles Mephisto or a stage conjurer, and has a remarkable gift for making jokes and making uneatable food not merely edible, but delicious in strange guises.
AN IDYLL OF OLD MEN
In camp, Jubécourt, July 22
We expect to go en repos with our Division for two weeks at least. It means rest up and clean up. Some of our Division have been in the trenches for forty days. They are, you see, a holding, not an attacking, division. The poilus are wonderful. High, too, I hold the brancardiers, whose death-rate is probably the highest of any department of the service, and who bear on their arms the red cross, and on their faces friendly, quiet smiles. They are old men most of them, often with glorious individual characters, too; some were in the 1870 war; numbers are priests; some are professors. Their work is gathering in the wounded and the dead, too. They have a two-wheeled frame on which they can sling a brancard, and the creaking of these wheels is heard day and night.
I have seen blood on men's faces, gray faces swathed in stained gauze; I have helped wounded into ambulances, and shoved stretchers in; and when they are unavoidably jolted, the poor chaps try to stifle their groans and smile. I think they know we are trying to help. I feel now that I am of more service than I have ever been before over here, or in my life. A brancardier just told me that there are beaucoup des morts, and that it is a ferocious attack. In the meantime the poilus go on wandering grimly trenchwards down the road. I wonder if this is "merely an artillery duel on the Argonne front" that we used casually to read of in the New York papers?
Brocourt, August, during a lull in the so-called "Second Battle of Verdun"
Just now I have said good-bye to a twenty-two-year-old German, wounded and a prisoner. He comes from Hamburg and speaks both English and French. He has been three years in the war, and this is the first time he has been wounded --- both the arm and leg now. He wears the Iron Cross ribbon and said he had received news that he was promoted to first-class just before the attack. He says he was wounded while in charge of a machine-gun squad, and found himself and companions flanked by the French. He could have killed a bunch of Frenchmen, but did n't, since he knew it would make no difference in the French victory. He says he was prompted by the thought of their wives and children, and gave the order not to fire just before a second ball struck him. His father is a rich merchant in Hamburg. This chap --- just my age --- said he had a horse back there --- he wanted to go back. The war has lasted too long, he said. The people, he told me, were as tired of it as the French. But it is the Government that keeps it all up. He had enlisted in the Artillery, but found that he could not possibly become an officer, and so went into the Infantry. He said it is not what a man is, but what his forebears were, that made a German an officer. Unless a man had extraordinary class distinction he could not hope for much. The officers are told not to talk to the men, though they do it a little now in the trenches. I wonder how much of what he said was sincere!
AT THE TRIAGE
The Ambulance Triage at Brocourt, 2 a.m., August 27
This is written as I wait on call. There are no blessés here, and brancardiers sleep about me on stretchers. I am in the hall of the hôpital de triage. It is a long, low barrack of the usual French military sort, dirt-floored and semi-whitewalled, with leaky ceilings. There are rows of low wooden horses and benches, the former being stretcher supports; the latter, racks of pain for sprawling assis. Every one is asleep here. My lantern smokes. On the table are the pannikins and tins from which cold and hungry blessés are given coffee and food. In the cuisine great cans of coffee simmer on the stove always, and a basket of bread is ready for the hungry claw. And perhaps hot black coffee and dry bread are n't luxurious, eaten on a bleak dawn after a whole night of work!
A GLIMPSE OF THE FRANCE OF PEACE
Mourmelon-le-Grand, Champagne, December
It would be much fun to have you along to tell how it all looked before it became as it is. For how can I feel I know anything of France when all I've seen of it is spattered with war-built houses, split and serried with old trenches or practice ones, cut by new ammunition roads and tracks, and overrun with uniforms? French people? Why, all there are are old, old, old bent people, or children --- or soldiers. It is when we go farther back, en repos, that we see, I imagine, something of before-the-war France. Back there the roads are shining, straight and white, and great proud trees stand stiff beside, where the green and gold and brown fields stretch away and away until they scramble up rounded hillsides, and either lose themselves in purple-green woodlands or break off against the diluted, sharp sky. Even there, sometimes, one passes ribbons of over-grown barbed wire of the first fear-days, that ramble across the landscape, broken where roads run through or fields are ploughed. That was as it seemed when we were en repos. Now everything is frizzled with cold; and things appear bleak --- almost, for somehow they don't quite succeed in being that. For even on the dreariest, rainiest days, there seems to be everlasting zest and life and beauty to this France.
With the last month or so it is as if the artist, painting existence here, had changed his palette; there are as many different tones and shadings, but they are an entirely different set from those used in the summer. They are silvery now, or cold golden, sleek grays, or misty purples or browns. The other morning, for instance, when I crawled out into the early dawn to go on ravitaillement with our French maréchal des logis and a pair of French regiment lieutenants, it was all frigidly washed in thin colors. Everything was frozen. The fields had every individual blade of grass white-crusted with gelée and the sky looked almost as pale as the globular white moon that still was over us. Then the sky --- that part where the morning sun was rising --- seemed to have no color at all , only light thereabouts; and distant dark firs or houses stood out sharply one minute, then became hazy the next. Autoing was a duty, not a pleasure, that day. The road ruts were frozen solid and crunched under the tires; carts, horses --- everything was white with frost, and men stumped along the hard road muffled in their capes, and their breath puffed away from them like steam. The Frenchmen surely are wonderful to watch. They wear sabots at this time of year, and clump about a little awkwardly, but not so awkwardly as I do in mine. For just as I wore poilu shoes all summer, so I thunder about in wooden shoes nowadays. You can't imagine --- but it may be you can --- how warm they are and comfortable, too.
A MAN AMONG MEN
I wish you knew our French Lieutenant. He is only twenty-six or so, and one of the finest, cleanest men I ever hope to know.
His Christmas speech, which was delightful and heartbreaking, was as follows:
To my old comrades and to my fellow friends of Section Seventeen --- to you all, my dear friends:
Christmas is with us once more. It is with the greatest emotion that this day I extend to you, from the bottom of my heart, my best wishes. The majority of you fellows are spending your first Christmas far from your dear ones at home, and it is now "Somewhere in France." I have the pleasure of offering you not only my good wishes, but my heartiest thanks --- thanks for the great sacrifice that you made in leaving your home and coming to my dear country. You are making this sacrifice with a grandeur of soul that nothing could equal, in doing your duty and in helping us to do ours, and at the same time putting forth your courageous efforts to make peace harmonious, and good-will toward men a reality and not a mere Christmas term.
When first appointed Chef of the Section, I said to your comrades that it is one of the most unselfish and beautiful doings of history, these sacrifices you are making for the wounded, whom yesterday you called friends and to-day allies. When our heroes have made the supreme sacrifice, giving their life for the common cause of liberty and justice, shedding their blood on earth --- nothing is more touching than to see how you, witnesses of their exploits, with courage and devotion, braving all dangers, come and reach out your fraternal arms,. which you made very soft in order to lighten their pain. I thank you for the comfort you give to them through the glance of your eyes, which means, "Don't fear anything, the States are with you," and in the same way, wounded though they be, they seem to answer with their own thanks --- "France is with the States." I thank you for myself who feel these two hearts throb as one --- one that of the French wounded, and the other that of the American saving him.
We have this year a Christmas tree taken from a part of the "No Man's Land" of last year --- a tree whose green branches give us great hope and whose lights are symbols of joy, taking us back to our families and sweethearts, who at this time are rejoicing in a similar tree, but many miles away. Alas! that there should be at the table a vacant chair. But be sure that on that chair will be a draped flag, and in the heart of your dear ones, as they gaze at it, will be a feeling of proudness and honor. I am sure, however, that with the same courage with which they try to hide their own regret at your absence, they will, in their mind's eye, take the long road which Santa Claus has had to travel in order to bring you the contents of his bag and the many heartiest Christmas greetings.
Fellows, let your thoughts wander back to those who are thinking of you at this time, and permit your Lieutenant to thank them from the bottom of his heart for all they have sacrificed; allow him also to extend the season's greetings to them and to you, with the hope that Santa Claus will bring you happiness, much happiness, and the happiness you deserve. Next year, however, I hope Santa Claus will find that the victories of the Allies have visited the earth before him and that he may as of old see the trees growing, grass covering the numerous shell-holes, the towns and villages rebuilt again, and by each cross on the many graves, may he perceive, along with Christmas wreaths, Victory saluting our heroes.
Now, fellows, to you all, my dear friends of the Section, I extend the wish for a very merry Christmas and the happiest New Year.
When our Lieutenant quitted us, he left us a bit of himself in a letter --- he had n't dared try to speak his feelings --- just as he had written us hearty little speeches and read them to us on our fête days.
Sometimes it is easier to write than to speak. I have to go, to leave you, my Seventeen Family. My last words are, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, from the soul of a real friend, of the brother I am for you; I thank you for all you have done for France, thank you for all the kindness of heart, the devotion you have shown for your Lieutenant. Fellows, thank you; I carry on my heart the name of Seventeen, and in my heart always, during the war, after the war, during all my life, the name, the souvenir of you, my friends. Do follow the traditions of Seventeen and do think during your life that I am always with you. I am going, but my heart, my mind, are staying. Au revoir, and do remember, Duty above all.
THE FLAGS OF FRANCE
Mourmelon, December 6
There is a young, clean-faced priest --- a Captain as most priests seem to be --- who is often our guest, and attached to our Division. He wears a Croix avec palme and speaks slow, precise English. One day back in June he rode down from the front with me and explained in French that having been three days in the trenches during a little attack and having had no sleep, he was too tired to think English! But for his bonnet de police, his croix, and his poilu shoes --- also his gas-mask slung about his shoulders --- he might be a priest in a church instead of in the trenches. Another of our Division priests is a short, bearded, gray man, with a wide smile and terribly old, sad eyes. He speaks no English, but always offers us and every one cigarettes, though he never smokes himself.
Sunday afternoons in a little open space across the street a band plays --- usually military airs. And always there is a wonderful flourish when the buglers raise or lower their instruments --- something decorative in the simple action, just as a French salute has somehow a dignity, a grace, and a complimentary quality of greeting that no other salute can claim. It is an all-embracing affair, that salute; a welcome into brotherhood almost, even when given by a French general to a U.S.A.A.S. private. When I was in Paris one day I dove into a Métro train, in a crowd, and plunked against a lone two-star general.
I saluted in a flustered manner, and he could not have returned it more graciously if I had been the King of England.
To come back to bands and our same street outside here. There was a review a month back in the forenoon, when the sun was out and red leaves were on the big trees or fluttering down from them as the ceremony on the plains beyond our town was finished. Then the regiment marched down our street with band playing and officers stiff on their horses. And there was a swing to the poilus' shoulders and a strength in their faces. Their French flag was a bit torn, but it was crusted with names in gold of their battles and a Croix de Guerre and a Médaille Militaire nestled in its folds near the staff. We saluted as it passed, and the sun caught it and the tri-color flamed, and all in that instant one understood why men tossed away their lives for France. It seemed the logical thing to do --- the only thing. And I was glad that those colors belonged to us, too, and glad that even so humbly I'd been of the Armée Française.
Why should a banner, a mere bit of silk, choke one's throat so? Perhaps because no French flag is a "mere bit of silk" --- it is a bit of free blue sky, of searing white pain, and of man's rich blood. It's a hymn and a pledge, a wreath, a sword, a cross, a soul; and a part of that French soul is in the heart of every poilu, and, please God, will seep into our American hearts who have come to France to fight, and fight standing on French ground.
JAMES W. D. SEYMOUR*
*The above are extracts from home letters, which were described as --- "these blooming scraps. They are so absurd ---their attitude as if the writer were seeing the immensities around him with a new and valuable point of view, with things of value to say of them; whereas in reality he was only very young and unknowing, and impressed and truly very new himself. I wish some abler person had seen the things that passed before me, to put them in living flame on paper with a genius pen. Surely he has been in the war somewhere, the genius who will paint it in all its unforgettable colors so that it will last forever for all the peoples of the world. But if you want these jumbled words, you are welcome to them, for it is true that a dull gray background helps real things to stand out."
Christmas Day, 1917
This is Noël and I am still in France. The biggest surprise of the evening, and one which made me very proud and happy, was when the Major read an order of the day, citing the Section and pinned the Croix de Guerre on our flag. He also decorated our French Lieutenant, and, much to my surprise, gave me another star for mine. I am so pleased that the work into which I have put all my strength of soul and body is appreciated.
Grandeville, January, 1918
We are at last en repos and are quartered in a little village that hardly deserves the name. We asked an inhabitant how many people lived here, and he answered that he did not know whether it was 129 or 130. The Mayor has the only silk hat, and if any young blood wants to get married, he has to rent it, and then walk up and down the main street with his bride on his arm. We say that a sense of humor and a pair of rubber boots are all one needs in this town. This is our second rest in ten months, so you see we are badly in need of it.
In summing up our record from the time we left Paris until now, we have received one Section citation and nine individual ones. Of course, I can't tell you the number of blessés we have carried, but will some day. We have had four cars smashed by shells, but they are still with us. To see them now lined up in a peaceful country village, so far away from the sound of shot and shell, every one showing the scars of battle, the bodies all sprinkled with éclats holes, makes one want to go up and pat them on their hoods and say, "Boys, you have earned a good rest; we are going to clean you all up and paint you, give you plenty of new grease and oil, and you can feel in your carburetor-souls that the Croix de Guerre you earned, you certainly deserved. You need not feel ashamed to have them painted on your wind-shields." This may sound conceited, but it really is true, for the old cars have stood up wonderfully, and we are all proud of them, even in their present condition.
I have just returned from Nice, having spent my permission there. Going down, I had to stand up on a crowded train from Paris during twenty-two hours. But it was worth the fatigue --- the sunshine, the palms and the orange trees, the peacefulness of it all were too wonderful! At the Casino at Monte Carlo, I looked in at the gambling through the glass doors, as no one in uniform is allowed to enter.
Now I am back, and I am feeling very badly to-day, as the army has taken away our French Lieutenant. He is such a wonder, and he loved the Section so. We all miss him terribly. I would rather have lost my right arm than see him go. I have a splendid lot of men, and I am very proud of them. We all pray that the war will soon be over. Sometimes we dream about it, but always wake up in muddy France. But when we are discouraged and homesick, as we all are sometimes, we have only to look at these wonderful French people to get a brace, and have renewed courage to "carry on" until the end.
BASIL K. NEFTEL*
*Of Larchmont, New York; joined Section Eight of the Field Service in August, 1916; Chef of Section Seventeen from its beginning, and its Lieutenant when taken over by the U.S.A. Ambulance Service. The above are clippings from home letters.
SUMMARY OF THE SECTION'S HISTORY
UNDER THE UNITED STATES ARMY
FROM September 21, 1917, with a gradually changing personnel, Section Six-Thirty-Five was stationed at Mourmelon-le-Grand in one of the permanent barraquements of the Camp de Châlons. Postes were at M4, Village Gascon, Bois Sacré, and Hexen Weg, with evacuations to Hôpital Farman and Mourmelon-le-Petit. From the latter places we did, in addition, rear-line work to Saint-Hilaire, Mont Frenet, and Châlons. Through the bitter winter of 1917 the Section's Division, the 97th, was continuously in the lines. There were frequent coups de main and the constant threat, expressed in leaflets dropped by Boche avions, that Christmas would see the entire region including Châlons in German hands. In anticipation barbed wire was strung and trenches dug kilometres back of Mourmelon, but by January 20 no attack had occurred and the Section moved back, just as a thaw set in which disrupted most traffic, and went en repos at Grandeville, near Mailly. Here the 97th Division as such went out of existence. The artillery, génie, Algerian cavalry, and medical corps of the old Division remained, but to them were added three regiments of cuirassiers --- the 5th, 8th, and 12th --- and the Division was renamed the 2e D.C.P. of the 2e C.C.P. (Corps de Cavalerie à Pieds). The Division remained in training until March 23, when a move was made to Auve on the Châlons-Verdun road. Sudden orders started the Section with its Division on a rush for the Somme. The convoy set out on March 27, over jammed and muddy roads, with stops at Juvigny and Breteuil, and finally reached its cantonment at Oresmaux. For two weeks the Division fought, and after terrific losses succeeded in stopping the German advance. During this time the Section served postes at Rouvrel and Dommartin, with evacuations to Ailly. It just escaped capture en masse at one time, and on several other occasions individuals found themselves between the lines only to make almost miraculous escapes.
First Sergeant Richards, having assumed in addition to his own the duties of mechanic, was wounded slightly while repairing a car under fire, and the Section later received a Corps d'Armée citation for its work.
April 13 the Division moved back, with short rests at Campdeville and Pernant, until on May 7 it was again in line, this time in the supposedly repos sector west of Soissons. The Section was quartered in abri grottoes above the Aisne at Fontenoy, with postes at Saint-Mard, Épagny, and Vézaponin. Activity began to increase about the 25th, then suddenly on May 27 the violent Boche attack began. Our base was moved back to the Ferme l'Épine, but we lived by our cars and continued to serve the postes until the Germans took the villages. On the 30th we worked from Vic-sur-Aisne evacuating the wounded from Morsain, through which the French streamed in retreat. Even as we worked here, the town was being blown to pieces and behind it batteries drew up in open fields, opened fire, and then retreated once again. Orders sent us across the Aisne before night because the French expected to have to destroy all the bridges before the next day. For two nights and a day we bivouacked beside the route nationale, in the dust and rush of the retreat, while trenches were being dug along it, and we made impossibly long evacuations to Compiègne and Villers-Cotterets. There was a terrifying sense of desperation and hopelessness in the air, even when on June 1 the enemy seemed at least temporarily halted just north of Vic. Our Division came "out" and we settled at Ferme l'Épine, where the Foreign Legion too was quartered. The Germans again advanced, the saucisses glared down at us, and the machine guns stuttered close at hand again. The cuirassiers were thrown into the uncertain lines in the woods near Coeuvres on the 5th. We had postes at Saint-Pierre l'Aigle, Château Valsery, and Montgobert, with evacuations to Taillefontaine. Again unexpectedly the Germans attacked on June 12 with a vicious barrage. In our Valsery poste Nazel was shot through the thigh by an avion machine-gunning the place, then Eddy was wounded by a shell and a little later Conklin was killed near Montgobert. In the haste of retreat the French first line was established along the road on the hillside back of Château Valsery, where were three of our cars and half a dozen of our men. They were between the lines in the valley swept by machine-gun fire, but completely cleared the poste of wounded and got back to the Section unhurt. Three days more we served, taking over for a day the work of the colonial division which relieved ours when its own French section was late in arriving. Then on the 15th we started for Beauvais, going en repos at Bonlier.
June 28 part of the Section entrained on flatcars for an unknown destination, and next day the remainder set out by road with the R.V.F. After a slow three-days convoy we were settled at Hargéville, near Bar-le-Duc. For two days we were attached to the 117th Division and worked with it north of Les Islettes in the Argonne; then our old Division recalled us, our place being taken by S.S.A. 14, and we hurried to Génicourt, taking up poste service immediately. Thus in twenty-four hours we had served at the front on both banks of the Meuse. Here we settled down with postes before Rupt in the Woevre forests.
On September 8 we left Génicourt, moving back to Ravigny Hospital on the Souilly road. The 26th Division had now relieved us, and both divisions were attached to a colonial corps serving with the First American Army. On the 11th we moved up to Troyon on the Meuse Canal. Next day our Division attacked in conjunction with the Americans, taking 2800 prisoners. The advance was greater than had been expected, and on the 16th we shifted our base up to Deuxnouds, serving a poste at Avillers in the Woevre plain and two other postes on the hills above.
September 20, on one of their nightly air raids the Boches picked Deuxnouds as their objective, dropping eleven bombs directly behind our line of ambulances, ruining eight of them. The first of the bombs wounded "Shorty" Hannah so terribly that he lived only a few minutes. Muldoon and three Frenchmen were severely wounded also, but recovered. We went to Lacroix-sur-Meuse to await orders on October 18. Starting for Nancy on the 23d, our orders were changed when we reached Commercy and we headed toward the Argonne, going to Dommartin-la-Planchette, west of Sainte-Ménehould.
Beginning November 2, when we were suddenly ordered to Ripont, which was merely a name, the village having been absolutely wiped away, we advanced steadily with stops at Saint-Étienne, Bignicourt, and Amagne, arriving on the 9th at Hagniville. On November 10 the Division went into line, and during the evening took Mézières and Charleville across the river. The attack planned for the following morning was arrested by the news of the Armistice, which found us quartered in Boulzicourt. Next day we moved into some large and comfortable barracks in Mézières, where we remained until the 17th, when our advance into Belgium began. We went forward through Vresse to Paliseul. We were some twenty-four hours behind the Boches and were supposed to follow them at this interval. After passing through' Saint-Hubert, we stopped at Drinkelange, where we lived for two weeks in a frame building with only occasional trips carrying malades to Bastogne. On December 11 we started into Germany, crossing the line at Dasburg, and spending our first night in Daleiden. We continued through Neuerburg, Bitburg, Schweich, and Simmern, reaching the Rhine on December 23. Christmas we spent in Salzig, then two days later went down the Rhine to Mayence. Our Division relieved a Moroccan division in holding the bridgehead, and we had several postes, one at Worms.
February 14 a new section relieved us, and leaving them our cars we took train for Metz, then shifted to the Paris express. After one day in Paris we began the first lap of our homeward journey and started for Ferrières and Base Camp.
CARLETON FAY WRIGHT*
*Carleton Fay Wright, of Plymouth, Massachusetts; joined the Field Service in October, 1917; served in Section Six-Thirty-Five of the U.S.A. Ambulance Service for the duration of the war.
- When: WWI
- Where: France, Western Front
- Section (WWI): S.S.U. 17