Section Seventy (SSU 70)
- Published in History
SECTION SEVENTY left Paris for May-en-Multien on July 8, 1917, and on July 14 came back to Paris to take over its section of Fiat cars, then at Versailles. On July 16 it left Versailles en convoi for Noyon. After a week here it went to Rollot, near Montdidier, en repos with the 53d Division. On August 9 it returned to Noyon, and on August 13 was attached to the 38th Colonial Division at Bas-Beaurains. On August 20 it moved with the Division to the Aisne front, being cantoned at Missy-aux-Bois. On August 28 it moved to Sermoise, on the Aisne, and its Division went into line directly in front of Fort Malmaison. The Section served postes at Jouy, Aizy, and the Ferme Hameret, just under the Chemin des Dames Plateau. Vailly was the reserve poste, and Chassemy, and later Cerseuil were the evacuation hospitals. On September 23 it went en repos for a week at Écuiry, near Septmonts, back of the Aisne, returning to its old sector and cantonment on October 1. It worked there through the Fort Malmaison attack of October 23 until November 1, when the Fiats were abandoned and the men enlisted in the U.S. Army and took over the Fords of S.S.U. Eighteen, becoming Section Six-Thirty-Six.
'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)
Des terres d'Alsace aux plaines de la Flandre,
De la rive du Rhin jusqu'au bord de l'Escaut,
Autour des trois couleurs qui forment ton drapeau,
Tes enfants sont debout, France, pour te défendre!
HENRI DE REGNIER
CROUY --- NOYON --- CHEMIN DES DAMES
Section Seventy was officially formed at May-en-Multien on July 13, 1917, composed at that time of thirty-six men, the larger part of whom were from a Leland Stanford unit which went over in June on the Rochambeau. We left Crouy on the morning of July 14, going first to Paris, where we were joined by nine men who had come over on La Touraine, and going the next day to Versailles, took over a section of Fiat cars. The Section was under the leadership of Arthur J. Putnam, formerly of Section Nineteen.
On July 16 we left Versailles, and, making a détour of Paris, went out, through Senlis and Compiègne to Noyon. After waiting a week in Noyon we were attached to the 53d Division, then back en repos at Rollot, near Montdidier. We stayed with the 53d until August 3, when it left for the front --- and left us behind. We were very indignant until the French Automobile Service informed us that under the new "économiser 1'essence" régime, it was forbidden for an ambulance section to follow its division over a distance of more than two armies --- unless some other army had crying need for more ambulances. As the Division was going to Craonne, we were detached. So we again went back to Noyon to wait, and on August 13 were attached to the famous 38th French Colonial Division, then en repos near by. We were justly proud of this Division, which comprised the 4th Zouaves, the Colonial Régiment du Maroc, the 4th Mixte, the 8th Tirailleurs, and a detachment of Somalis --- regiments already wearing the fourragères of the Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire, and to whose famed standards many more decorations were to be added before the war was ended.
On August 20 the Division moved to the Aisne, and shortly thereafter took up positions on the Chemin des Dames. We were cantoned at Sermoise, about ten kilometres east of Soissons, which city we were able to visit often; and when the Division went into line, our postes were in Vailly, Aizy, Jouy, and the Ferme Hameret.
On September 7 we were visited by United States recruiting officers, who were full of promises. Thirty-six out of the forty-five in the Section enlisted in the newly created U.S. Army Ambulance Service with the French Army, while most of those who did not enlist left, in the latter part of October, for Paris or America, and many of them entered, later, various other branches of the French or American armies.
On September 17 the Section moved back with the Division to Écuiry for a short rest. To Écuiry, too, some of us came back, still conducteurs pour la France, after Foch's counter-attack of July 18, 1918 had driven the Germans from the Aisne-Marne salient.
On October 1, 1918, our Division again went into line in its old sector. We gave up the Ferme Hameret poste as our Division now occupied a shorter front. One interesting change was the moving of the hospital from Chassemy, about seven kilometres from, the lines, to Cerseuils on the hill above Braisne, about eighteen kilometres from the line. German airmen had dropped notes in which it was stated that the Germans intended to shell the district around there and would shell the hospital if it were not moved. The French agreeably moved the hospital farther back and installed in its place a barbed-wire pen for German prisoners! Needless to say, the Germans did not carry out their threat.
On October 17 the artillery bombardment preparatory to the attack began, when it was estimated that 3800 guns were used covering a front of eleven kilometres. At five-fifteen on the morning of the 23d, the infantry advanced, at seven all the ambulances were called out, and the postes were soon crowded to overflowing. Most of the wounded who were able to walk went down to a point slightly below Vailly, where they were taken en masse by camions to the hospital.
The 38th Division came out of line during the night of October 30, and the following morning a decoration of various members of the Service de Santé was held at Vailly, in which seven of our members received the Croix de Guerre. Then on October 31, Section Seventy was broken up. The Fiats were turned in at the parc at Vierzy, and the following day we left for Paris, twenty-four of us to go out and take over old Section Eighteen, eleven to fill in Section Sixteen, and the rest to scatter.
ROBERT A. DONALDSON*
*Of Denver, Colorado; Leland Stanford, '17; served in Section Seventy of the Field Service, and continued in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service until the Armistice. Author of Turmoil, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919, and with Lansing Warren, En Repos and Elsewhere, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918.
We have been doing front work now for about a week and have had a good try-out in a very interesting sector. It is a great satisfaction to be doing something at last and our morale has gone up several points since we started in. The fellows take to front work like ducks to water, and if the Fiats only hold out, I am sure that we shall come through with flying colors.
Lieutenant Prévost has been replaced by Lieutenant Gibily, the officer in charge of the French Ambulance section we relieved when we joined the 38th Division. Lieutenant Gibily has been with this Division for over two years and seems to be very well liked by every one who has known him. The fellows like him as much as I do, and, despite the fact that he can hardly speak a word of English, he always manages to have a pleasant word for everybody, and when he can't make himself understood in either French or English, he acts out whatever he has to say in pantomime, which is enough to bring down the house; and best of all, his sense of humor never fails him. Although in civilian life he is connected with a wholesale chemical company, his chief interest in life seems to be nineteenth-century French poetry, and his most vicious boast is that be knows ten thousand lines of verse by heart including all of Cyrano de Bergerac. His present aim is to learn English, and before coming to the Section he supplied himself with two second-hand textbooks. The one which he prefers and from which he studies constantly must have been written about the time of Shakespeare or shortly after, and to hear him read off this obsolete English in the most serious way and with an accent all his own, is funny enough. I have been doing my best to help him out, but it is a rather hard job. In order that you won't get a very one-sided impression of the man, I ought to add that he is a fine-looking chap with a very military manner, has served in both the infantry and artillery early in the war and has been badly wounded in the leg. Also he has been decorated four times.
Sermoise is not a village, but only the remains of one, and lies on the main road between Soissons and Reims. All of the houses have suffered and many have been razed to the ground. Of the church only a part is left standing, and that, with its whitewashed interior laid bare, looks like a great, pale, ruined monument of desolation. The men are quartered, as at Rollot, in barracks just outside the town, and we have two near-by houses, or rather hovels, one for a workshop and another for a kitchen. Gibily and I occupy a little dugout near by, a remnant of the days when Sermoise was much nearer the front than it is now.
ARTHUR J. PUTNAM*
*Of Deposit, New York; Cornell; served in Section Nineteen of the Field Service; Chef of S.S.U. Seventy; Lieutenant of Section Eighteen, and of Section Six-Thirty-Six, U.S.A. Ambulance Service, under the Army; later Captain commanding a parc.
IN "LA FRANCE RECONQUISE"
Noyon, July 19, 1917
This town, about ten miles back of the front in a part of France which the French call "la France reconquise," was regained last spring during Hindenburg's "strategic retreat." It was in German hands for a long time. Some of the population who did not get away in 1914 remained. A good part of them, however, fled before the German invasion, and only now, in 1917, are they getting back to their homes, their shops, and their little pieces of land. When the Germans left, they took all the gold ornaments out of the cathedral, along with everything else of value they could lay hands on. They had started to take the chimes, but had so much trouble in trying to get the bells down out of the spires that they had to leave them. They had begun, too, boring holes for powder charges in order to blow the place up. But the French cavalry got in here much sooner than the Boches expected; so the latter left in an immense hurry, and had to abandon, just outside the town, a number of cumbersome wagonloads of stuff which they had stolen. They carried off, however, all men and boys between the ages of sixteen and fifty. What household goods they couldn't take with them, they smashed up with axes. All edibles were taken, and the peasants had all their chickens, cows, rabbits, etc., stolen. But the most wanton act of all was the cutting down or encircling of all the orchards. Many of the shade trees, the poplars which line the roads, and the, like, were similarly destroyed --- a thing which could have no possible military value, particularly when the trees were only encircled and not cut down. All the water was poisoned, and much of it is still unfit to drink. Many of the houses, especially those along the banks of the small stream which runs through the place, were blown up. Innumerable traps were set to kill or maim unsuspecting soldiers or civilians --- grenades which exploded when the door was opened, and the like. The worst thing they did was to take off numbers of young girls and women with them when they retreated.
The thing that astounds one the most is the vast amount of underground tunnelling done. Everything from the front-line trenches back seems to be connected by tunnels. In the front lines there are deep dugouts every little way, which go down some twenty feet underground, and are protected by alternate layers of timber and earth on top. There are also very deep special cement dugouts for the storing of munitions. The lines of communication toward the rear are quite as remarkable. The whole network becomes a vast maze, burrowed and tunnelled under, until I should think it would be utterly incomprehensible. Scattered all around between the front lines and the town are very cleverly concealed machine-gun positions, with tunnels leading from them to the trench positions, so that one could go into them without being observed by the enemy.
Lassigny itself is literally burrowed like a prairie-dog town with its labyrinths of abris and tunnels. Every cellar has been deepened and reinforced from the top --- usually with timbers and rocks of the fallen walls.
One of the most tragic things I have seen in France was a little shop in Lassigny. Although the house had received no direct hit, the roof had been blown open in many places by the force of near-by concussions and the tiles ripped off, while the interior had pretty much disappeared --- probably for firewood, and there was left only a crude earth floor. The place had formerly been a little café, and now that the Germans had gone, the woman, who, with her husband, had once run it, had come back to find almost nothing left, not even doors or windows, for long ago they had been smashed out. Her husband and sons were fighting in the army. But, with the fortitude that is French, she had started out to set up her shop again, even in these miserable surroundings. A few rough army tables and some benches had been procured from somewhere and were set on the bare ground just inside the door. In what was left of one of the rooms Madame had set up a stove. Her barrels of wine and her supplies were placed around inside. She and her sister did the cooking and serving for whoever happened to come that way ---ourselves among them. And the remarkable thing was that she could turn out a very good meal. Somehow one would expect persons in this sort of situation to be more or less gloomy or morose. But these poor people, driven from their homes so long ago, are not. They are happy, are glad to be back --- satisfied, I suppose, even to be alive. This endurance and bravery of the French women in the face of the most terrible hardships is something splendid. This improvised café, with its rusted, battered sign of a walking rabbit, well punctured with holes, and these women who had come back with willingness and a smile to try to get together and rebuild the work of a lifetime, will always represent to me the essence of the spirit of France.
In the village we met a couple of old poilus who insisted on showing us the town, particularly the graveyard, which was on a rise in back of the place. The Germans had strung barbed wire through it, and it being a commanding position, had placed a nest of machine guns there. A number of French shells had also lit there, smashing up a number of the graves. The exhibit, however, was the fact that the Germans had dug into about half the graves and removed the lead linings from the coffins, as they are in great need of lead. Some time just before the war, the Mayor of Lassigny had died and been buried in a vault. The Germans broke into it, chiselled a small hole, about four inches wide and a foot and a half long, in the side of the steel casket, and then reached in and removed the rings from the dead man's fingers. There was no doubt. The telltale hole above the hand spoke louder than words. Kultur is a great thing.
These same Germans took the statues of all the saints from the church and had put them in a graveyard for German dead, just on the edge of the town back of a large wall. When they left they blew up the church.
A GENERAL AND A REFUGEE
Lance went over to visit the old castle at Septmonts a couple of days ago, and while in that town he met a bent, old peasant woman who was a refugee from Craonne, where she had continued living, close as it was to the lines, after the German occupation. When the French attacked so terribly there this spring, the Boches were forced to retire, but not until they had rounded up the civilians and herded them out of the place. But somehow in the scramble this old woman got lost and took refuge in a cellar, where she stayed during the bombardment by both sides, being afraid to come out. Finally, the French found her in a deplorable state, and took her back to the État-Mqjor of the Corps d'Armée, where, she said, the General asked her various facts about the Germans. "And then, monsieur," she said to Lance as the tears streamed down her face, "the General himself took me beside him in his big automobile, drove me all the way down here, and installed me in the home of some of his, friends --- moi, I rode beside the great General all the way!" It was the proudest moment of her life; and it shows, too, the fineness and inherent kindness, even in the littlest things, that is continually encountered in the French, from the most lowly poilu up to the highest officer.
PREPARING FOR THE ATTACK
This sector is livening up considerably. The other night a camion convoy came up as far as the road between Aizy and Jouy --- a very bad spot, and was engaged in unloading some munitions when a shell came in and wounded two of their fellows, Lamont and Thompson. They apparently did n't know about our poste, a few hundred metres away in Aizy, for they sent clear down to the reserve poste in Vailly for a car. There was an awful lot of excitement for a while, for about all the news we got was that two Americans, supposedly of our Section, had been wounded. One of the cars went up and brought them back. Lamont was very badly hurt, having had his hand cut off, and was suffering greatly.
New cannon, machine guns, and trench mortars come into the sector every night. The roads are jammed and packed from dark until one and two in the morning with convoys, and driving is terribly hard. At every moment we get held up on the road, and usually at some of the worst spots, such as "Suicide Corner" at Aizy, or the gendarme poste at the cross-roads on the hill or down by the railroad track between these two places in the valley. In addition, there is always a fog toward morning, which makes it next to impossible to see anything, and we just have to go groping along yelling, "à droite !" hoping we won't bump anything. Artillery caissons often appear very suddenly out of the fog. If we hear anything definitely, which is seldom (for the guns are never entirely still), we give a quick flash with a pocket-light on the left side of the car to show our position.
Sermoise, Wednesday, October 17
It is wonderfully fine October weather, with a tinge of cold in the air. The sunshine has broken through and dispelled, little by little, the crisp haze that lay over the land. The sky is intensely blue with great fleecy clouds floating high, and the mud that we have been wallowing in for the past week is fast drying. So we have been living a very enjoyable life ---when not on duty at poste! Nearly every one has made a purchase of a gasoline vapor stove. At night, in groups of four or five, we take our grub to our cars and eat there, and afterwards toast bread over the stove, get out the jam to go on it, and make chocolate. It is quite warm and comfortable inside with all the doors closed and the stove going; but outside during the past week it has been miserable. We were up to our necks in mud, slippery, without bottom, and ever-present. Nearly every car had to have some aid in pushing when it left, as our parking ground under these trees has become a veritable sea of boue. Nobody is sleeping in his car now because of the cold at night, and we only have half a barrack, which makes us very crowded.
This evening the fire of the artillery has greatly increased. The big railway guns and those on the canal boats are all in position. The thunder of the cannon this evening sounded like waves in a high sea running against a rocky shore --- long intervals of low, rushing sound, and then heavy, reverberating crashes. All day our barrack has been vibrating and shaking from the rush of sound and volume of air. One is lulled to sleep by the monotonous beating, just as if he were on the seashore.
Sermoise, October 18
Woke up early this morning to hear it raining! More mud, more gloom. The weather cleared a little after noon, and while the low clouds were still wavering, the "sausage balloons" went up, and soon countless aeroplanes appeared. The sky was soon clear and the sun bright, though a fine October haze still rendered indistinct the distant hills. Then, indeed, with the planes to spot for them, did the guns cut loose, filling the air with a continual set of reverberations --- punctuated by the medium-sized guns, which boomed dully with a rush of wind, such as one experiences when going through a tunnel on a fast train, and split every now and then by the crashing of the great marine or railway artillery.
About a quarter past five, just after the sun had set behind the hills on this side of the Aisne ---although it was still shining with long, slanting rays on the high plain beyond --- we went out on the heights to view the spectacle. The day was indescribably wonderful --- the October haze mingling blue with the smoke of a thousand guns and streaking into the dim distance to the wooded hills up beyond the Aisne. At our feet was spread out the ruined village of Sermoise, picturesque and beautiful, the spire of its ruined church rising above it, its gray walls and battered buildings standing out in cameo-like distinctness, and its red roofs --- where there were still roofs! --- seeming redder than ever in this light. The poplars that line the Grande Route were splotched with the yellow of the falling leaves.
Down in the valley of the Aisne and on up the ravines toward the lines the guns flashed everywhere to the accompaniment of the rumble, rising or falling, increasing or subsiding. We could see the great railway guns between Missy-sur-Aisne and Condé firing --- first a long red flash, then a great burst of gray smoke, and finally, three or four seconds later, a deafening, thunderous boom that seemed to tear asunder the whole air.
We walked up on the hill with a good pair of field-glasses, in hopes of seeing again the shell-bursts about Fort Malmaison. But it was too dark. However, the bird's-eye view of the whole attack was marvellous --- a sea of red flashes below us, red signal rockets occasionally sailing up over the lines, and the interminable pageant of star-shells commencing at dusk. Back of us in the west was the last vestige of a red sunset, with purple clouds above that shaded off into the fading blue sky. In front of us the "sausages" hung with a haze about them that made them look even larger --- huge, porpoise-like, calm, their sides bright in high air in the last vestige of sunlight. Then darkness came and still they hung there ---huge, monstrous bats above the scene of battle.
It is now late at night, and the artillery still continues its rolling, rushing, surging noise, and the sky is ever lit with the lightning-like, merging flashes of the guns, the flicker of the star-shells.
THE ATTACK ON MALMAISON, OCTOBER 23, 1917
Sermoise, October 25
Am back at camp again after fifty-two hours of service at postes, with probably not more than twelve or fourteen hours of sleep, snatched at odd intervals, during the whole attack. For the first twenty-four hours the whole Section was "rolling"; then the cars which were on duty the night before the attack were sent back to camp, and as they came up again the rest were relieved. I have just got up this evening after sleeping all afternoon, and feel in fairly good shape.
At eight on the morning of the 23d --- the attack began at five --- the wounded began to stream down the roads to the postes --- zouaves, bleeding beneath their hasty bandages, but the proud fire of victory still in their eyes; childish, black, wounded Somalis with uncomprehending pain written in their faces; men with arm wounds helping men with foot wounds; and wounded Frenchmen supporting still more badly wounded Germans, and vice versa. There is a camaraderie of suffering that knows no law and no country. All, all came down the roads leading from the front --- human wrecks, the jetsam of the battle. The postes were crowded to overflowing, and still they came. They staggered in and sat on the fallen stones about the poste, their heads in their hands, waiting to be tended and ticketed and sent back; they came in wheel-stretchers from the front, and they came in horse ambulances from the spots where they had fallen in the lines. Frequently they were dead when taken out at the poste, and were carried aside to a yard that was used for a morgue. All those who could walk had to do so; had to go farther down until they were picked up by the camions. During the morning we could only take couchés inside the cars. The assis had to crowd outside, on the fenders, on the hoods, anywhere. Several times we took as many as twelve in one car. German and Frenchman went alike --- all according to the seriousness of the wounds.
In addition to this the roads were frequently packed with lines of gray, haggard prisoners--- hundreds of them. The first bunch that came down the doctors grabbed and put to work to help the tired brancardiers, and from then on they loaded all our cars. They soon "caught on," and worked willingly and well. The postes overflowed and the doctors were tired and overworked and half-sick from the strain of the days before the attack. The ambulances were backed up, filled, and immediately left, and others soon rolled up to take their places. The road to the hospital was like a section convoy. You passed countless ambulances coming and going in an almost steady line. The hospital at Cerseuil was soon overcrowded. The traffic got jammed; there was a line of ambulances half a mile long waiting to unload; and often you had to wait an hour before you could get through the mess. It was a struggle to get stretchers, and all of them were bloody and uncleaned.
The first day we kept going without tiring at all, sustained by the excitement of the affair, the wounded streaming back on the roads, the prisoners, and the continual roar of the guns about us. Such excitement keys you up to such a point that you don't care what happens; somehow your fear is lost; you scarcely duck when shells come over --- a thing that is almost involuntary in ordinary times. If I should be killed, I would want to be killed at a time like this, when your heart is full to the overflowing, your nerves keyed up to the limit, when victory and excitement are in the air, when the suffering of others would make you count your own as nothing, and sacrifice would seem a privilege.
Toward the end of the second day we were about all in, and all the fellows who were on duty before the attack began were sent back for rest. The principal reason we had been kept going was because Pierre, our cook, came up to the front with a camp stove, a coffee boiler, and the canned food, and worked day and night, with the aid of the cognac supply, and served us something hot every time we rolled in. He fell asleep against his stove once, but was shortly awakened when the wood under him smouldered and caught fire. " Bluebeard," the mechanic, put him out with the water bucket. He has been quite funny the whole time, and continually called out to himself: "En avant toujours, Pierre!"
By the way, toward the end of the attack the Médecin Chef at Jouy got disgusted with the French ambulances, and sent down word for them to send up no more as long as there were any American ones --- which we considered quite a compliment.
Sermoise, October 27
Yesterday was my birthday, and I celebrated by going up to Fort Malmaison. It was a gray day. The ground around the lines and in No Man's Land is nothing but a series of overlapping shell-holes --- a waste. It looks, as far as the eye can see, as if it had been turned over time and again by a giant plough. The German first lines are so battered that it is almost impossible to tell them from the surrounding terrain. Nothing is left of the barbed wire save torn and buried tangles here and there. There is not a vestige of the Chemin des Dames. In fact to walk at all you have to pick your way along the ridges of overturned earth between the overlapping shell-holes. The world on this plateau, as far as the eye can reach, is nothing but chaos. The marvel is how the attacking troops themselves ever advanced over it.
An amusing incident occurred to-day with Davis as principal actor. He was going up to Fort Malmaison for a visit when he ran into the General of the Army, General Maistre, who was in charge of the attack, and his staff. One of the staff came over to him and asked him the inevitable "Anglais?" "Américain," he replied. At this General Maistre burst forth in praise and rushed over and shook Davis by the hand, saying something which had the general trend of "Américain---conducteur d'ambulance --- très bon --- bon service --- toujours au front, " --- I suppose adding the usual line about "méfiance de danger --- beaucoup de bombardement --- sang-froid --- admiration de tous ---postes avancées très encombrées."
Vierzy, October 30
This has been a day of full hearts! In the first place, the Section is disbanded, and we have moved up here to Vierzy to the parc, where we have turned in our Fiat voitures. To-morrow we are to go to Paris, where the Section will be broken up, part of us taking over Section Eighteen, the rest going to Section Sixteen, and the others who did not join the Army scattering to the four winds.
ROBERT A. DONALDSON*
*The above are extracts from an unpublished diary.
NOTE. --- When the U.S.A. Ambulance Service took over the Field Service sections, Section Seventy, which up to this time had used ambulances loaned by the French Army, was disintegrated. The officers and twenty-four men of the Section were transferred to the Field Service cars of old Section Eighteen, which a little later was renumbered Six-Thirty-Six. Eleven members of the original Section Seventy were attached to Field Service Section Sixteen, which became, under the U.S. Army, Section Six-Thirty-Four.
- Section (WWI): S.S.U. 70