Section Twenty-Seven (SSU 27)
- Published in History
SECTION TWENTY-SEVEN left Paris for the front on June 9, 1917, going via Châlons-sur-Marne to Billy-le-Grand in the Champagne district. Its postes were at La Plaine, Esplanade, and Prosnes, and it evacuated from Villers-Marmery and from Mont-de-Billy. At the end of the month the Section went to Breuvery, south of Châlons en repos. Its next move was to Fontaine-sur-Coole, thence to Mourmelon-le-Grand, with postes at Ferme de Constantine, Ferme de Moscou, and Ludwigshafen. The Section then went back en repos at La Chaussée-sur-Marne and ended its existence shortly after resuming active service in the region of Suippes, where the Section was combined with old Section Seventy-Two, to be known thereafter as Section Six-Thirty-Nine of the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.
'The Ambulance Sections', History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France" 1914-1917, Told by Its Members, Volume II (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1920)
Armies of France, advance!
Forward the line of blue!
From the Alps away to the Channel sea
Into the battle to make men free,
Forward, again, to Victory!
Hail, Armies of France!
TO THE CHAMPAGNE
From different colleges and states, and not as a unit, came the twenty-three men who were to form Section Twenty-Seven. Most of them sailed together from New York, on May 5, 1917, on the Espagne, and, June 9, left Paris for the front in a long convoy. Proceeding through Châlons-sur-Marne, we arrived without incident at the little Village of Billy-le-Grand, where the Section considered itself fortunate, not because we were in this muddy and dusty village in which the cars were parked, but that being there meant work after the idleness and delay in Paris. The morning after arriving, ten cars went into active service, taking over from a French section the postes at La Plaine, Esplanade, and Prosnes, and entering upon hospital evacuation work, first from Villers-Marmery, and then from Mont-de-Billy.
The sector was all that could be desired as far as activity was concerned, for the 132d Division, to which Twenty-Seven was attached, was engaged in driving the enemy from the crest of Mont Cornillet, the only one of the famous Champagne hills on which he still retained a foothold after the April-May offensive.
The Section plunged right into the work, and before a week was over the number of cars on duty rose to eighteen. Thus, in our first period of active service, we were able to see and go through all that any section could reasonably desire; in a word experiencing everything --- arrivées and départs, night driving without lights over unknown roads, without maps and only verbal directions as to how to find the postes, and steady rolling, night and day, over shelled highways with but an occasional respite, owing to the volume of the work.
From the first, Esplanade, situated in woods filled with French artillery, was the worst poste. In the process of searching out and trying to strafe the surrounding batteries, the ambulances suffered, and Lars Potter's car was wrecked. Happily, however, the shells came in just before the car was loaded and no one was hurt. This good luck clung to the Section throughout its six months' existence, saving the drivers often by a matter of minutes or yards.
At this time the poilus, while undoubtedly weary of the war --- as indeed who could help being after three years in the trenches? --- nevertheless showed no sign of yielding. With America in the struggle, they felt confident of the final outcome; so the arrival of our troops was the subject of constant questioning.
THE COURAGE OF THE WOUNDED
The courage of the wounded also early attracted our attention and won our admiration; for they scarcely ever permitted even a murmur to escape their lips, despite unavoidable jolting over rough roads or through shellholes; and their sincere appreciation of what we American volunteers were doing more than compensated us for any hardships and dangers connected with the work.
The German wounded carried after the successful French attack of June 21 showed a surprising ignorance of what was happening in the outside world and did not even know that the United States had declared war.
On the days off duty the Aisne-Marne canal formed a welcome retreat. Indeed, had it not been for its cool seclusion and quiet where the danger, dust, and strain of the front seemed so far away as almost to be forgotten, those first two weeks when heavy rolling and little sleep were added to the newness of it all, would have been far harder to bear.
REPOS AT BREUVERY
Toward the end of June, again in a long, dusty convoy, but feeling quite a different section from the one which had arrived from Paris such a short time before, Number Twenty-Seven went back en repos to Breuvery, a village south of Châlons, where we enjoyed a delightful cantonment with grass, trees, a fair-sized stream, and an adjoining field for baseball. This pleasure was destined to be short-lived, however, for scarlet fever broke out and we left the village for Fontaine-sur-Coole, where two tents were set up, one serving as dining-room and the other as sleeping-quarters, although many of us still preferred to sleep on stretchers in our cars.
Except for the evacuation of the sick from near-by villages to Châlons, the men could now spend their time practically as they pleased. Bathing in an ice-cold spring, though rather a shock to the system, was fairly popular and rather interested the village children, who were always attracted to "les américains." It was the height of the cherry season, and roads lined with heavily laden trees whose owners had not the time to pick the fruit, also gave us much delight. In the evenings baseball furnished the chief diversion, and drew quite a number of spectators, for the game was new to the French. What might otherwise have been monotony in such a life was relieved by a special forty-eight-hour permission to Paris, granted through the courtesy of the French Army in honor of the Fourth of July. All but a few, who had to remain for sick evacuation, were thus permitted to see the magnificent welcome accorded at the Capital to the first contingent of the American Expeditionary Force and on returning were able to answer at least one of the questions so constantly asked by French officers, soldiers, and civilians ---"When are the American troops coming?" Those of us who had been unable to enjoy the Fourth in Paris had their leave ten days later on the French national holiday, when the occasion was marked by a special dinner at camp, and by shows and concerts.
BACK TO THE CHALK HILLS AND PINES --- MOURMELON
Finally our sojourn at Fontaine-sur-Coole came to an end, when to the general disappointment the Section went neither to Verdun, the Vosges, nor Alsace, as rumor said would be the case, but back to the country of chalk hills and pines, of choking dust or clinging mud --- the Champagne. However, a pleasant feature of the situation was that after a few days in a slaughter-house, Twenty-Seven moved into fine brick barracks in Mourmelon-le-Grand, where the cars continued to run to Prosnes and through it to all the forward postes --- Ferme de Constantine, Ferme de Moscou, and Ludwigshafen. The road to the last-mentioned was in such full view of the German saucisses, constantly up on the other side of the Champagne hills, that its use by vehicles was permitted only at night.
The first day of our sojourn at Mourmelon-le-Grand, the Germans went out of their way to give Section Twenty-Seven a warm welcome. In relieving the ambulance at Constantine, two Fords were out in full view, waiting until one of them could go into the trench dug by the English drivers to conceal and protect their cars, and the other proceed to Moscou. In those few minutes, the Germans sent in four shells, all of which came within fifteen yards of the cars and their drivers, enveloping them in smoke and showering earth on them. But by a miracle no one was wounded. There was nothing else at which to fire within a half-mile radius, and as the red crosses on a white background precluded any possibility of a mistake as to the character of the cars, the act was but another example of German contempt for international agreements in time of war. The car that went to Ludwigshafen that night had also a rather bad time, for it was caught in the relief going up and the road began to be shelled.
During nearly two months in this sector, Sapinière was the poste central where cars waited their turn to go forward; but unlike La Plaine, it was but once molested by arrivées. It was an excellent place from which to watch both German and French aeroplanes, when one could see the sky dotted all over with white and black puffs from anti-aircraft guns, and occasionally witness an air duel or the attacking of an observation balloon. And an old artillery observation post, built in some trees, commanded a view of the whole of the hill region, on which the Germans often laid barrages, terrible yet fascinating to behold. At night star-shells, signal rockets, and flashes from guns illuminated the scene in a way that one who has seen it can never forget.
On the whole the new sector was far quieter than the former one, but it had its bad times, too. Between nine and four one night nearly a hundred wounded had to be evacuated over a piste from Ludwigshafen, because the explosion of an ammunition train at Prosnes, always a shelled corner, had completely blocked the regular road. On another occasion shells wrought havoc in a battalion just descending from the trenches when, of the three men who went out over the badly torn-up piste to bring in those who were not beyond help, two were mentioned and later received the Croix de Guerre for their work. Five drivers in all were so honored, before the Section, with half of its cars now bearing marks of the front, once more went back en repos with the Division, this time to La Chaussée-sur-Marne.
The incessant rain and cold which marked October made the old doorless, windowless mill, in which Twenty-Seven was billeted at La Chaussée-sur-Marne, anything but pleasant, so word that the Division was going back into line came as a relief.
The taking over of the ambulance sections with the French by the U. S. Army had now begun, and an officer came to La Chaussée to secure a list of those who would sign on for the new régime. A grand farewell party was held the evening before going back to active work for the last ten days --- to the Aubérive-Souain front, which was quiet; with its six forward postes, calling for ten cars at Bussy-le-Château in case of a gas attack, and its evacuation work from Suippes and Cuperly. The whole Section was thus nominally on duty.
Those of us who reënlisted were transferred to Section Eight, and the enlisted personnel of old Field Service Section Seventy-Two was sent out to take over Twenty-Seven's cars, but as this did not occur until November 4, we had the distinction of being the last of the old American Field Service Sections to give up volunteer work.
HOWARD RADCLIFFE COAN*
*Of New York City; Williams, '20; served with Section Twenty-Seven in the Field Service; later a driver for the Y.M.C.A.
IN THE RÉGION DES MONTS
Région des Monts, Champagne
Friday, June 15
Tuesday afternoon, while I was trying to write in the terrible heat, Lars came along with three sailors and asked whether I wanted to go for a walk to see their guns. I accepted readily and a half-hour's walk brought us to the Aisne-Marne Canal where are some inland gunboats. They showed us all over them and then we went in swimming. You can't imagine how delicious that swim was. While we were still in, the sailors told us their Commandant was there. Accordingly we met him in our borrowed trunks, and he immediately invited us to tea aboard the "L." He is married to an American and speaks English well. We had a most pleasant tea with M. Caumartin, and on leaving he presented us with some shell fuses and "New York Tribunes," both equally welcome and deadly. He also insisted that we come and see him again, and we shall be nothing loath. Down there the war seemed so far away, a peaceful canal with the guns seldom audible. It is certainly most weird in a thunder storm to hear the cannon and thunder echoing each other alternately.
At the poste central, La Plaine
Sunday, June 17
Have kept this letter so as to be able to tell you a little of actual work at the front --- the previous part of the letter was too dull to send. Provided my state of mind will permit my writing intelligibly, the interest should not be lacking now. We arrived about eight-thirty with both the French batteries, with which all three postes are literally surrounded, and the Germans going full tilt. I never before in my life knew what real fear was. Unless one has been there, one cannot in any way appreciate the sensation. The only way that one can distinguish the arrivées and départs is that the former whistle, then explode; the latter give the explosion of the gun, and then whistle. Both are the same in meaning terrible destruction, but only the former for us. Although the latter are harmless for us, I couldn't keep from instinctively flinching every time a battery went off. They were worse than any Fourth of July celebration I have ever heard, and the strain of listening to every whine and explosion was something awful. Incidentally we learned what kind of business they meant. Wheeler took us to one of the postes to learn the road. While cranking to come back we had to drop flat twice while the éclats rattled down through the trees around us, and on the road we slowed up while they pattered down in front of us. Even back here, a three-inch piece missed the cook by just a yard. I can certainly sympathize with the ostrich, for somehow it gave a feeling of safety to be under the covering of the car, with only the top over me. And yet this was as dangerous a place as any because there was no chance to watch for and dodge pieces coming down. One comfort, however, was that I could hear most of them from an abri, for I have n't had a call all day --- and it is now almost four.
I had to go over to one of the batteries to get a man hit in the shoulder. He is another I shall never forget, for his wound was from one of these wicked things that have been whistling all day, and that made it come near. Those I have taken from hospital to hospital have n't been so fresh from the effects of the wounds, and their bandages a little older, and more a matter of course. I am now a little more used to the French guns, and the whistling of the arrivées is n't so bad unless they get too near. I am expecting a call almost any time now. The men out here are a wonderful lot, the doctors, brancardiers, and cooks. They are not hardened by it at all, after three years; every victim that comes causes the same amount of interest and sympathy. But oh! they are all so tired and sick of it all --- three long dreary years, and all the fighting on French soil. It is n't the thought so much of themselves that is uppermost but la pauvre France.
A FEW HUNDRED METRES OF TRENCH
Tuesday, June 19
By noon we had eight instead of the usually five cars working, and we were busy too --- the price of the four hundred metres of trenches. The extent of human endurance never ceases to amaze me. The wounded never have any anaesthetic or hypodermic unless they require an operation to extract a piece of metal, or to amputate or enlarge the wound to prevent infection; and they have to undergo at least two or three dressings before they reach a permanent hospital. A man with half the face shot away, with a leg, arms, and hand wounded, often rides as an assis. One chipper little fellow beside me had a rifle ball through his neck; I have had to carry for half an hour over these rough roads a couché, with an unset compound fracture of the leg, with stomach, arm, and leg wounds, most of them bleeding into the car, and never did a murmur or groan escape his lips. Such fortitude is unbelievable unless one sees it himself. But the most pitiful men I carried, of the forty rescued in a day and a half, from midnight Sunday until ten Tuesday morning, were those who had been buried by shells. Those I carried acted queerly, but I did not know what was wrong until they started to walk into the hospital. They reeled like drunken men and did not take interest in anything. You could snap your fingers in their faces and there was no reaction. They may regain their minds in the course of two months, perhaps never.
We had a good many Germans, and it is another revelation of the superb qualities of the French at the front to see how the Fritzes are treated. Until wounded or captured they are Boches; afterwards, they are merely prisoners. I tried to brush up my German on the assis I carried, but after five weeks of French it was hard to go back. All are so young --- many boys of seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen --- and so sick of it all and glad to be out of it. Yet their discipline of fear controls them as a lion-trainer controls the beast. The latter does not dare use his superior strength except occasionally to resent what he hates to do. One, however, in whose questioning I acted as interpreter, said that in his regiment the soldiers were so angry at their officers for loafing in the rear that they had thrown grenades into their abris. It may not be true, and yet it is an indication.
Some of the poor fellows had been in the trenches two, others five hours when wounded. And hungry --- they had had no food for two days, no drink for five days, and they had no trenches, just shell-holes. That fact nearly cost us a whole company of men --- for the French advanced nearly four hundred metres too far, expecting to find trenches, before they realized they had already passed the German lines.
LOOKING BACK ON THE EXPERIENCE
In the course of one of my trips I investigated the road I had gone over the night before. Aside from the fact that it is terribly shelled several times every day, I don't see how I ever got through it without smashing my car. Honestly, the shell-holes I straddled, the coils of barbed wire I must have wound my way through, the bridge I crossed --- I shudder yet to think of it all. For, of course, we drive alone, and there is no communication by telephone between postes. Suppose I had been hit --- I could have rotted there before I should have been found, as no one traversed that road. The fact that I took an hour and a half instead of ten minutes to come out caused no one any anxiety. With two men to a car, aside from the tremendous comfort of company, there would be much less danger of being stranded somewhere. We are alone and only one who has done it, in the middle of the night, in the rain, on unknown, shell-filled roads, can appreciate the terrible loneliness of it all. Wheeler says he has never seen postes situated as these --- surrounded by batteries and also without telephonic connections for the tracing up of cars.
Between midnight Sunday and 10 A.M. Tuesday, today --- not quite a day and a half --- I carried 39 wounded in my car. About 175 passed through the poste in that same time, and after about noon Monday we had extra cars out here and also at the hospital.
"ONE OF OUR MACHINES DID NOT RETURN"
August 10, 1917
Friday I was out driving again. It was a wonderfully clear day, perfect for aeroplanes and photography. It was so clear, and so many German saucisses were up, that I waited outside of the ruined village, not daring to go to No. 1 until the car there came out. I was not going to give them another chance at more than one car there, not after that first Sunday. Except for the hum of motors and the occasional pop-pop of the mitrailleuses, nothing happened until ten-thirty, then I was an unwilling witness of one of the most terrible things I have yet seen. Mitrailleuses were particularly persistent, and George and I went out, just in time to see the end of a fight. A big Farman started falling, falling from a tremendous height, almost above us. First it started gliding fairly slowly, and not until its first drop did we see the ill-betiding smoke and a little flame. Either by skill or accident, it came into a spiral and fell quite a distance, but the flames were gaining. The mitrailleuse was going, and a second time it got into a perfect spiral. That fooled us and we waited with bated breath, cheering or groaning as the battle to land seemed a winning or losing one. A third straight drop and the ground did not seem so far away. Again it glided, but just as we lost sight of it behind the tree-tops, it turned clear over. Then a tremendous volume of smoke poured up. Did they make it or not? That was what we were asking. Then I remembered that when the machine was still very high up, I had seen objects pitching out. I had no glass to see what they were. When it was down, one realized that it could only have been one thing, men, and there had been three. And we had seen them die, powerless to do anything. We could not understand why the men should have jumped, unless because of the heat, yet the machine had appeared to be under control until then. Later I found out.
WAITING GRAVES --- THE CROSSES
Just outside the village we pass on the way to the hospital, I overtook our photographing friend, M. Bardielini, and took him in. He was out hunting for the place of the aeroplane's fall, as it is only the third that has fallen anywhere near here since the war began. I asked if I could go along, and having pretty good information as to its whereabouts, we struck off from the postes centrals. We passed the cemetery --- I say the because it is the largest in the neighborhood --- smaller, isolated ones are never out of sight. Even worse than the regular rows of crosses, with the monotonous "Mort pour la France," were the waiting open graves.
Neither of us was feeling very bright or happy, as we crossed open stretches and skirted woods down whose regular avenues we could see the chalk of the much-contested range. Shells were coming in to the left regularly but far away. After a hot walk of over a mile, through stretches peppered with shell-holes and strewn with pieces of shell, we came upon the wreck of the plane, still smoking. It was upside down, the left wing almost intact, the right and most of the rest of it twisted and broken. Despite the two guards, we got some pictures that ought to be good, and started back. We fell in with some artillerymen who showed us where the three unfortunates had fallen. They were fully five hundred yards from their machine, and we realized that the heat had killed them or had forced them to kill themselves by jumping. I found the machine-gun cylinder with every cartridge exploded.
That was what we had taken for the mitrailleuse being fired. A few pieces of burned coat and a pair of shoes showed where the mitrailleur had been. A captain and two lieutenants had suffered that terrible fate. The unhappy Farman's compass, a few rods from the spot, is a good remembrance of the catastrophe. We were feeling more depressed than ever, but in the evening when we saw a German saucisse burning, the fourth during the day, we realized that the French had secured pretty good revenge, especially as they also bagged a German plane that fell one hundred yards this side of the French first line.
HOWARD RADCLIFFE COAN*
*These are selections from home letters.
SUMMARY OF THE SECTION'S HISTORY
UNDER THE UNITED STATES ARMY
Section Twenty-Seven, reorganized as Section Six-Thirty-Nine, served in Champagne, in the Suippes sector, with the 132d French Division from November, 1917, to March, 1918. In March it moved up, after the drive on Amiens, to the Somme-Oise front, being stationed at Gournay-sur-Arronde. It remained here until May, when it moved into the Montdidier sector, near Montigny and Ravenel. On July 18 it went to Bresles en repos. From the latter part of July until August 18 it worked in the Marne-Château-Thierry sectors --- Orbais, Chavenay, and Dormans. It was serving here with the 18th Division.
Leaving this front on August 18, it went to the Verdun sector, at Béveaux. On September 18 it moved again, this time to Camp Fréty, on reserve with the American army. From the latter part of September until just before the Armistice it took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, working near Séchaut and Monthois. It was in Nancy when the Armistice was declared. Then followed the trip with the Army of Occupation, through Alsace, Lorraine, and into Baden into the neutral zone. The towns visited were Saverne, Morzheim, Ludwigshafen-am-Rhein, and Mannheim. Then followed the trip to Base Camp. The Section received a sectional citation during the Second Battle of the Marne, in the orders of the 18th French Division.
COLEMAN G. CLARK*
*Of Chicago, Illinois; University of Chicago, '18; served with Section Seventy-Two of the Field Service and subsequently in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.