Section Sixty-Nine (SSU 69)
- Published in History
SECTION SIXTY-NINE came into being on July 13, 1917, at May-en-Multien, going to the French parc at Saint-Martin-d'Ablois to get the French Fiat cars which were assigned to it. On July 23 it left via Saint-Dizier and Bar-le-Duc, for Issoncourt. On September 7 it moved to Glorieux, near Verdun, evacuating to hospitals at Landrecourt, Souilly, Souhesme and Fleury-sur-Aire. From September 14 to 19 it was at Génicourt in the Mouilly sector. Then it was at Mirecourt and Jussécourt en repos for eight days, from where it went back to Glorieux on September 13, succeeding Section Sixty-Four at postes at Verdun --- Vacherauville, Bras, Carrière des Anglais, and La Fourche. It left Glorieux on October 18 to go en repos at Chardogne, near Bar-le-Duc, where it was recruited by United States officials. Subsequently it was amalgamated with Section Twenty-Six, the Ford cars of which it took over, becoming Section Six-Thirty-Eight of the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.
'The Ambulance Sections', History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France" 1914-1917, Told by Its Members, Volume II (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1920)
O France of the world's desire,
O France new-lighted by supernal life,
Wrapt in your battle-flame,
All nations take a splendor from your name!
EVACUATIONS AT BAR-LE-DUC
Section Sixty-Nine came into existence at the Field Service camp near May-en-Multien, July 13,1917, when forty-four men, with our Lieutenant, André Fraye, left for Saint-Martin-d'Ablois, where we were joined the next day by our Chef, Charles Allen Butler, of New York City, who had been the Sous-Chef of Section Thirteen. At Saint-Martin twenty Fiat ambulances and a Fiat camionnette awaited us which we took over from S.S. Sixty-Nine of the French ambulance service.
The cantonment at Saint-Martin was all that one could desire, and the formative period of our Section passed pleasantly in this little Champagne village, which was the more acceptable because of its proximity to Épernay and Reims. Our red-letter day there was July Fourteenth, which was properly celebrated by French and Americans alike, with an extraordinarily fine dinner and champagne and cigars, the gift of the French Government.
After ten days in Saint-Martin, days of practice-driving with the Fiats and of necessary inventories of equipment, we left in convoy on July 23 for Saint-Dizier and Bar-le-Duc, en route for Issoncourt, in the Verdun sector, where we learned that the Section had been put en réserve with the 2d French Army, and where seven weeks of waiting were destined to elapse before it saw active service with a division. In the meanwhile, we learned to excel in French infantry drill of a rudimentary sort. But the cantonment at Issoncourt left much to be desired. Life among the fowl and sheep of the barnyard compared unfavorably with what we had known at Saint- Martin-d'Ablois. However, there was compensation in the fact that we were nearer real war, nearer the ever-booming guns, nearer, in short, to what we had come to France to do, so that the inconveniences of Issoncourt were to some extent mitigated.
The first work of the Section came on the afternoon of Monday, August 20, when we were ordered to evacuate wounded to the large central hospitals of Bar-le-Duc. The big attack at Verdun on the morning of that day had resulted in a tremendous success for the French. The number of blessés was large, and fifteen of our ambulances were employed in carrying the couchés. Five cars remained at Vadelaincourt, and were present on the night of the 20th, during the Boche air raid there, which so completely destroyed the operating-wards of the hospital and brought death to a number of devoted doctors and nurses. This raid, the main topic of conversation for weeks to come, was a strenuous but fitting introduction to Boche methods and gave us a taste of what lay in store for us.
Issoncourt's proximity to Souilly, the Headquarters of the Second Army, made it a favorite place of visitation for enemy avions, and every clear night found the Section safeguarding itself in caves voûtées, lying down with the sheep in folds secure. Two of these raids, I may add, proved most exciting. But just as we had got accustomed to this sort of thing, the Section moved on September 7 to Glorieux, a half-kilometre from Verdun, where for five days it assisted Section Four in evacuation work from the triage at Glorieux to the various hospitals at Landrecourt, Souilly, Souhesme, and Fleury-sur-Aire. The task was difficult, but especially interesting to us as the Section here had its first opportunity to serve as a unit; and our return to Issoncourt, which followed, brought us discontent, for real work had tasted good. But we were destined to remain only four days in Issoncourt, as we were soon attached to the 131st Division of the French army and went in convoy to our new cantonment at Génicourt in the Mouilly sector, where we remained from September 14 to September 19.
The cantonment at Génicourt was only a makeshift, and the nights found most of us on the floor of the abri, for hostile avions were very numerous. Later we returned to Glorieux: and were billeted in the old seminary, where we were most comfortable. While working at the difficult poste of La Fourche, five of our cars were pierced with éclats, but during the work on the Verdun front no member of the Section met with any serious mishap. Two Croix de Guerre were awarded to members of the Section for work done with the Division. The Section left Glorieux: on October 18, to go en repos with its Division at Chardogne, near Bar-le-Duc, where the United States recruiting officers visited us, and the Section again made an excellent showing --- twenty-one men enlisting and the Chef getting a commission. On October 20 Lieutenant Butler and the men who had enlisted were moved to Ancemont, where they took over the Ford ambulances of Field Service Section Twenty-Six. The Section became officially Six-Thirty-Eight and continued to serve the French Army until long after the Armistice,
HENRY B. RIGBY*
*Of Mansfield, Ohio; Yale, '15; Sous-Chef of Section Sixty-Nine. later Chief of Disbursements, War Registration, and Draft for Ohio for the remainder of the war.
THE BOMBING OF VADELAINCOURT
August 24, 1917
I shall never forget the night of August 20, 1917. We were sent to the evacuation hospital at Vadelaincourt to help take back to the rear the many wounded of the first day's fighting of the great French attack of the day before; and many there were, too. It was late in the afternoon when we reached the hospital; the sun was just setting against a beautiful, clear sky. We had to wait until about nine o'clock, and the night was clear and still. Scarcely any breeze was stirring, but the cannon flashed and thundered continuously on the horizon. Mack and I, our Chef, and the drivers of the other two cars were all sitting on a bench just outside the main hospital shack, watching the beautiful star-shells burst in the distance, while now and then two or three powerful searchlights would scan the sky above our heads for enemy craft. We were all enjoying this; and some one jokingly remarked, "Doesn't it remind you of a great Fourth-of-July celebration in the United States?" Suddenly the whirr of an aeroplane in motion sounded over our heads. Scarcely had we jumped to our feet when two crashes sounded about a square away from us; and for ten seconds at least everything was aglow and lighted up as bright as day. We all realized instantly what had happened.
There is a large aviation parc not far from the hospital. An enemy plane had climbed high into the air on his side of the line, and then shut off his motor and glided down until he came to this parc, dropping two incendiary bombs as he passed. It was the explosion of these that we heard and saw. just as he dropped them he turned on his motor and darted back toward his own lines, amid a shower of bursting shells from the French anti-aircraft guns. We could see him just a little way above us in the bright glow of the explosion, dashing ahead at a terrific rate.
As soon as this occurred, the Chef gave orders to put on our steel helmets, stay near our cars, and to have our gas-masks ready, because a gas-bomb might be dropped. In the meantime our three cars were lined up in front of the main hospital shack. There are about sixty of these long wooden buildings arranged in two rows facing each other.
About ten-thirty we were all inside the shacks looking at some of the many wounded Boche prisoners, when just as one of us was remarking, "I feel sorry for them," we heard the same roar again, and in an instant three crashes hurled showers of earth and missiles upon our hospital, caused every light in the place to go out, and everybody, including ourselves, fell flat on the floor. It was then quite evident that the Germans were trying to hit this hospital, for these three bombs had missed it by only about one hundred feet, landing in a field just behind the hospital where they made three deep pits.
Things were becoming really serious, so the Chef told us to look for an abri. But alas! before we could. do this, six more bombs fell all around us. Then wild excitement followed. Frenchmen were dashing at full speed for an abri; and we followed suit. Some fell down in the gutters beside the hospital, some dived under the ambulances. By this time there were several planes above us, and one of their bombs had hit its mark, for the section of the hospital across the road was now a mass of roaring flames, and the whole place was as bright as day. The screams of the wounded were drowned by the crashes of the bombs, and, to add to the horror, the gas-signal was flashed, for the Germans were dropping bombs charged with gas, one whiff of which would finish any one.
We clapped on our masks as did every one else, and it is needless to say we all thought our time had come, for the bombs were now raining in all directions, and the whole village was aglow from the burning hospital. The miserable aviators had been able to swoop down low and take good aim before letting a bomb fall; so of course the hospital was set on fire. We had to crank our cars and stand by them so as to be ready to rush the wounded away as soon as they could be brought from the burning building. But presently another bomb burst still closer to us, when we were all ordered to fly to an abri at once. While Mack and I, along with three French officers, were doing so, we looked up and saw a plane just above us. The bomb beat us; we were still about twenty feet from an abri; and just as it burst, we dived under an ambulance near by, the Frenchmen coming down right on our backs. The explosion sent a shower of rocks and earth against and on top of the car; but I am thankful to say that no one was hurt. We did n't wait there for the next one, however. We scrambled out from under the car, and all of us dived into the abri, head-on. It was quite a "mix-up" when we hit the bottom; but that was better than a "blow-up," we thought.
After this bomb had fallen, there seemed to be a little lull. So our Chef led the way out of the abri, and we all hurried back to our cars. The hospital was still burning furiously, but the fire had not reached across the road where we were. The lull was only for a moment; another lot of planes now flashed over our heads strewing incendiary and gas-bombs in all directions. The work was now too serious for us to leave our cars, for the wounded were being rapidly loaded into them; so we stood by, patiently awaiting our finish.
My car was the last one to be loaded; and you can imagine how Mack and I felt when we saw the other two cars load up and pull out, leaving us still there! I confess, however, that I never want to be caught in such a place again; the suspense was a little too much. It seemed to us as if the brancardiers took months to load our car, while every moment the flying machines increased in number. Apparently the big anti-aircraft guns were having no effect on them. I never felt so happy in all my life as I did when the signal was given for us to pull out, when we passed right beside the burning buildings and could see many of the poor, helpless wounded trying to drag themselves out of reach of the hungry flames.
As this hospital was filled with seriously wounded patients, none of them had the slightest chance of escaping unless some one helped them, which, of course, everybody tried to do. Strange to say, the majority of cases were Germans, and most of those lost were Boche wounded. Of course, many were killed by the explosion of the bomb and many were lost in the fire. Needless to say, the part of the hospital which was hit was totally destroyed, but the part on the other side of the road was not harmed.
This is another addition to the long brutality list drawn up against the Germans. I may add that the Boches make this kind of addition quite frequently.
It was four-thirty in the morning when we finally got our ambulance loads of wounded back to the hospital in the rear of the fighting zone and got into our beds.
ROBERT RANDOLPH BALL*
*Of Biltmore, North Carolina; University of Virginia, '17; served in Section Sixty-Nine of the Field Service until October, 1917; subsequently a Second Lieutenant of Artillery in the French Army. The above are extracts from a home letter.
EDITOR'S NOTE. --- The subsequent history of the greater part of the personnel of old Section Sixty-Nine is told at the end of Section Twenty-Six's history, as they took over the cars of this Section which became Six-Thirty-Eight of the U.S.A. Ambulance Service with the French Army.
- Section (WWI): S.S.U. 69