Section Thirty-One (SSU 31)
- Published in History
SECTION THIRTY-ONE left the training-camp at May-en-Multien July 24,1917, and after getting their cars in Paris, proceeded via Vitry-le-François to Bar-le-Duc. After a few days it left there for the little village of Erize-la-Petite on the road to Verdun. Here the Section was attached to a division, and on August 10 left for Récicourt, which village was its base during the Verdun attack. Postes were served in the sector of the Bois d'Avocourt and Hill 304. The Section was relieved on August 18, and went back to Erize. On September 13 it was attached to the 14th Division, and shortly afterward enlisted in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service, becoming Section Six-Forty-Three.
'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)
What calls to the heart, and the heart has heard,
Speaks, and the soul has obeyed the word,
Summons, and all the years advance,
And the world goes forward with France --- with France?
"The Flags of France!"
GRACE E. CHANNING
MAY-EN-MULTIEN TO BAR-LE-DUC
Section Thirty-One began unceremoniously on July 24, 1917, with the publication of the list of drivers who had been receiving instruction at the old mill of May-en-Multien. The following morning the Section left the mill for Paris, to take out the Ford ambulances which had been donated to the Service by generous members of the New York Cotton Exchange. Here we first met Chef C. C. Battershell, an old Section Thirteen man. Another day was spent in adding final equipment to the cars, and on the morning of July 27 the Section left for Bar-le-Duc and "points north." Finally, on July 31, we left Bar-le-Duc for Erize-la-Petite to await assignment to a Division.
Erize-la-Petite is a little village of some thirty ex-houses strung out along the "Sacred Way" to Verdun, about twenty kilometres north of Bar-le-Duc, and which received its share of "strafing" during the Battle of the Marne. Here the fellows found quarters in one of the less damaged barns, which proved to be an entomologist's paradise. Here we waited for twelve days, bathing, playing ball, putting a final polish on the cars, and watching the "Broadway and 34th Street " traffic flow through the little town.
This traffic in itself deserves a word in passing. just north of Erize the great highway begins to branch out into the various roads leading to the Verdun front. Through the town runs the main road from Bar over which the greater part of the troops and supplies going to Verdun passed. It was the privilege of the Section to observe this road for many days before the fall attack of 1917, when cannon of every calibre, from the tiny trench "37's" to the huge eight-wheeled "220" mortars, cavalry, engineers, pontoons, artillery, ambulances, ravitaillement, mitrailleuses, passed by, singly or in convoy a steady stream of every conceivable means of conveyance from Rolls-Royces to donkeys. But these were only incidental to the real traffic of the road --- the endless lines of troop-laden camions pressing forward or coming back. And "endless" is no idle figure, for during days after days they passed in double line, a camion. every fifteen yards, twenty-five men to the machine, hour in, hour out, soldiers all gray with mud or dust, sometimes singing and sometimes grave, but with an ever-ready greeting for "les américains," if any of our fellows were in sight.
At first this greeting was returned as regularly as it was given; but after a few hours one's very arm became tired, and finally we only watched the trains with half-indifference, on the lookout for refugees, "75's" or whatnot, that might be sandwiched in between the trucks. Lessening of interest in the camions or their contents, however, was somewhat replaced by the sobering --- rather, even depressing --- effect of watching what seemed like half the men of the world on their way to battle, or of being awakened for a moment late at night or in the early dawn and to hear still the swish and rush of the passing camion trains, regular as the waves on a lonely shore. It gave one for the first time some appreciation of the immensity of the war.
A little later was confirmed the rumor, to which the immense traffic lent weight, that a general attack was forthcoming on the whole Verdun front. It was with the greatest delight that the Section learned of its attachment to the 25th Division to do front work during this event. So on the evening of August 10 the men were put through a rigid gas-mask inspection, received final instructions, and early the following morning we started to join the troops holding the trenches in the Verdun sector in front of Avocourt and to the left of Hill 304.
Quarters were first found in a military barracks at Ville-sur-Cousances well beyond the range of fire; but that the postes might be more accessible, it was deemed advisable later in the day to move forward to Récicourt where the fellows were housed in an abri --- an old wine cellar --- protection necessitated by the daily shelling which the Germans accorded the town. Here the Section remained as long as it was with the 25th Division.
RÉCICOURT --- BOIS D'AVOCOURT --- HILL 304
The postes which were served during the preparation for the attack were all in the Bois d'Avocourt which covered the rolling ground before Récicourt and served to conceal the largest part of the artillery of both the Avocourt and Hill 304 sectors of the line. As far out in these woods as it was possible for a car to remain with reasonable safety was "Poste 2," where two cars waited for blessés, the greater part of whom were carried from here, or, on a call, from the other forward postes. These were "P. J. Gauche," forward and to the left of "P. 2," and "P. J. Droit" and "P. 3" to the right, which were too "warm" and too scantily protected at that time to warrant a car remaining longer than was just necessary for loading the wounded. These four postes spread out fanlike in front of a fifth, "P. 4," which, though somewhat to the rear and primarily intended as a station for the relief cars of the outposts, nevertheless furnished an appreciable number of wounded engineers and artillerymen. All of these blessés were evacuated to the triage at Brocourt.
The roads connecting the various postes, despite the constant reparation of shell-holes and clearance of fallen trees and wagon debris, were very bad, and, what was worse, were quite black at night. If there was any moon, it was always hidden by clouds --- and overhanging trees, which lined almost the whole of the way, and shrouded the major part of any illumination furnished by the starshells or constant cannonading. Furthermore, during the first few days, through lack of familiarity with both the French language and the route, there was an epidemic of lost roads. One car spent a heated two hours wandering through the Bois-de-Hesse, while another, in broad daylight, ran past the poste at "P. J. Gauche" and almost succeeded in reaching the trenches before it was stopped by some astonished officers. Nor did our troubles stop here; for later, even when the men became better acquainted with the route, the cars, as soon as it was dark, seemed to develop an uncanny magnetic attraction for ditches or ammunition wagons, of which there were legions.
GAS AND MISFORTUNES
The cars served the postes without serious misfortune until the French bombardment reached its height on the evening of August 13. Until then the German reply had been rather haphazard and desultory, but at about seven o'clock the Boches began a more concerted attack inaugurated by an extremely heavy general high-explosive fire which continued until about ten-thirty. Then came a rain of gas-shells, which did not abate until well past midnight and which was followed in turn by a second salvo of high explosives. The night was rainless and fairly calm, so that the heavy, poisonous gases, "mustard," "chocolate," chlorine, and a new gas which burned the flesh, clung close to the trees and underbrush and settled in dense fogs in the little valleys between the low hills over the whole of the Bois d'Avocourt. The French cannon were almost silenced that night; but morning brought some relief in the form of a light breeze, and the batteries gradually reopened fire, to continue the preparation for the attack which turned out so successfully.
But that gas attack spelt the nemesis of the service of Section Thirty-One with the 25th Division. Mills and Loomis had been on call at the outpost during the evening and at eleven o'clock were both sent to "P. J. Droit" for some wounded engineers. When the blessés had been found, both of our men started for the triage; but in the meantime, at a crossroads in one of the little valleys between the outposts and "P. 4," an ammunition wagon train had been smashed during the high-explosive fire earlier in the evening, blocking the road with débris, and before the way could be cleared, the gas attack began, when the drivers of the ravitaillement and ammunition wagons, forced to cut loose their horses and find what shelter they could, blocked the road until daylight. Into this mess ran Mills and Loomis with their blessés, Mills badly damaging his car in the dark before he could discover the heaped-up wagons and dead animals. As soon as they had determined the extent of the blockade and being unacquainted with any road by which it might be circumvented, they decided to find shelter for their blessés and if possible send for relief. They discovered an artillery abri for the wounded, but could find no means of communication either to "P. 4" or to Récicourt and so remained until morning with their men. After waiting until past midnight without word, the Chef had a presentiment that the outpost drivers might be in difficulty, and so decided to investigate with the aid of the relief cars at "P. 4." But it proving impossible to find a way about in the heavy gas fog, to say nothing of assisting a possible damaged car beyond, the squad returned to "P. 4" to await daylight.
Meanwhile at Récicourt a call for special cars came by telephone from the outposts. Bingham had returned earlier in the evening from a call a little beyond "P. 4" with a report of the extent of the gas, and so, uninformed of the seriousness of the obstruction, though cognizant of the general condition of the road, Sous-Chef Mueller organized a squad of five cars, to answer this special call. When, however, this squad reached the blockade, they too realized the hopelessness of the situation, and while the men did finally succeed in climbing over the dead horses and wagon débris, leaving the cars behind, the gas was so bad that they, too, before they could return, were forced to seek shelter in an abri. At daybreak the squad, by using an artillery road to circumvent the obstruction, succeeded in bringing all of the wounded, unharmed, to the triage. By nine o'clock that morning the engineers had cleared a way, regular runs were reëstablished, and we were congratulating ourselves on our singular good fortune, for apparently the drivers on service the previous night had escaped unharmed, when during the afternoon they began to suffer extreme nausea, cramps, and flesh burns, and by evening were quite ill. In fact, over half the Section was thrown out of service, and despite the assistance of Section Seventeen and lessening of the work the following day, the men were too exhausted or ill to carry on much longer; so on August 17 Lieutenant Maillard asked that the Section be relieved.
The following morning another section arrived as relief and Section Thirty-One returned to Erize-la-Petite for an indefinite repos. During the afternoon Dr. Gluge very kindly came down from the hospital at Chaumont to give the men an examination, and while he pronounced their condition serious, he said that with attention all would successfully recover without harmful aftereffects. Six men were ordered to the hospital, while the remaining sick, who were not so badly affected, reported for daily treatment only; and at the end of two weeks all but two were on their feet again.
EN REPOS AGAIN
In the meantime we learned of the fall to the French of Avocourt, Hill 394, Hill 344, and the resistance of the impregnable Mort Homme, and during the following week the "Sacred Way" was again crowded with traffic; but now the camions were full of prisoners and the returning victorious French, ever joyous, and loaded with souvenirs of the attack.
Time dragged in Erize for a while, but the men recuperating in a splendid manner, soon the old ball games, trips to Bar or Rembercourt, or lazy observances of the traffic, became the order of the day. Twice Boche avions attempted to bomb Bar-le-Duc, and on August 26 did bomb a near-by camp of Bulgarian road-menders and even honored little Erize with a machine-gun fusillade. But aside from these diversions, little disturbed the calm until September 13, when the Section learned that it had been attached to the 14th Division, which it was later to serve at Mort Homme. The following day we moved to Condé to join this Division, which was en repos there and in adjacent villages. Splendid quarters were found in an old hospital barracks, and here the men stayed until October 4, evacuating malades to Bar-le-Duc, which was later so successfully bombed. Life there was very pleasant, indeed, as the Division was most hospitable and courteous in its reception of us. The men off service were frequently invited to participate in the hand-grenade or machine-gun practice of the various companies or to give a Rugby game for the Division team or to take part in the variety theatricals played in a near-by barracks. But before the piece under way could be given, Section Thirty-One was relegated to history, for on September 22, 1917, the United States recruiting officers arrived to take over the Service.
KENT DUNLAP HAGLER*
*Of Springfield, Illinois; Harvard, '18; served in Section Thirty-One and in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service with the French Army during the war.
FROM THE NOTES OF THE CHEF
Erize-la-Petite, August 19, 1917
We went into the sector near Hill 304 on August 11 and were cantoned in a village, Récicourt, that was under shell-fire all the time. In fact there was never a night when there was more than a two hours' interval between shells, and part of the time we were shelled continually. We had no abris, except a couple of makeshift affairs, which, besides being unsafe, were so wet and muddy that it was impossible for the men to sleep in them. On two occasions when gas-shells were used, one was compelled to use a gas-mask even in the village. I felt pretty anxious about this, and tried to get our cantonment farther back, for when men are working under fire it is only fair that, between times on duty, they be allowed rest at some place where they may feel reasonably safe. However, they got along all right with the work in spite of the fact that the shell-fire was so hot that driving would have tried the nerves of even an experienced Section.
On the night of August 13, we had a call for four cars, and though I heard the enemy was using gas, I took the cars up, only to find the road so blockaded that I left them at the poste de secours and came back to telephone that we were unable to reach the farther postes, but would keep cars near the, blockade to bring back any blessés whom they could fetch to us there. In the meantime I found that Mueller had taken five cars out to meet a guide, sent by the Médecin Divisionnaire, who was to show him where the cars were needed. Mueller got as far as the blockade, where the gas was so thick that he took the five men and walked through to try to find the guide. But when he saw that the guide was not there to meet him, he waited until the gas cleared a little, then got about thirty-five blessés who had been injured by the gas at a near-by artillery poste, and brought them back. I would like to say a word commending Mueller for his work that night, for he had charge of those five new men and it was due to his efforts that they ever came out alive.
Well, there was the usual number of narrow escapes, for the fire was exceptionally heavy that night. We had two cars slightly damaged by shells and Lieutenant Maillard's staff car was ruined by one. Luckily we did not have a man hurt, except by gas, and yet in all the time I have been at the front I don't believe I have seen a more strenuous night. All the soldiers say that it is the worst gas attack they have ever experienced, and it was estimated that about ten thousand gas-shells were thrown into our sector. It was the new gas they used that did the harm, for besides being an asphyxiant, this gas has a nauseating effect which causes a man, who may get only a little of it, to vomit for several days after. It also makes the body break out with small sores. The next day I found we had suffered from the gas to the extent of having eleven drivers too ill to work.
I doubt if we have a section in the Service which has had a more severe test on its initial work at the front, and I am proud of the boys and the effort they made.
C. C. BATTERSHELL*
*Of Milton, Illinois; born 1890; Whipple Academy, '10; American Field Service, Sections Thirteen and Thirty-One; First Lieutenant U.S.A. Ambulance Service in France during the war. The above report was written to Field Service Headquarters and is a fair sample of the scores of letters of this kind found in the archives.
SUMMARY OF THE SECTION'S HISTORY UNDER THE UNITED STATES ARMY
September 23, 1917, Section Thirty-One, while in Condé-en-Barrois, signed with the American Army and became S.S.U. Six-Forty-Three. October 2 it relieved S.S.U. Fifteen at Jouy-en-Argonne, serving on the left bank of the Meuse with the 14th French Division. Line postes at Hills 232, 239, Montzéville, Marre, and Chattancourt. During November five cars were detached to assist S.S.U. Thirty during the attack on Hill 344. January 4, 1918, the Section was relieved by S.S.A. Four, and Six-Forty-Three conveyed to Velaines, where it was detached from the 14th Division which continued its way to the Vosges, two armies distant. Two weeks were spent at Savonnières en repos, and then the Section proceeded to Souilly, where it did evacuation work for the Second Army for a period of three weeks.
February 2 the Section went en repos at the Bois de Ravigny. On account of the Section being quarantined for diphtheria, it was six weeks before moving to the casernes at Bévaux. Two months were spent on the right bank of the Meuse doing line work for the 20th French Division at the following postes: Carrière d'Haudromont, Berges, Nice, and several call postes. From March, 1918, until March, 1919. the Section was attached to the 20th Division. In April, 1918, Lieutenant Battershell was replaced by Samuel S. Seward. The middle of May found the Section en repos at Ligny-en-Barrois, where it stayed for six days. May 28 the 20th Division and Section Six-Forty-Three were ordered post-haste northward to stop the gap made by the Boches on Chemin des Dames. The first Division to arrive on the scene on May 29 was the 20th and it got almost as far as Ville-en-Tardenois when it had to fall back.
For two days, though resisting stiffly, they were obliged to drop back until, on the night of the 30th, they crossed the Marne just to the right of Château-Thierry. The battles of Villers-Agron and of Jaulgonne are given high significance in the history of this German drive and here the Section did good work sticking with the line units and being obliged to evacuate its blessés sixty kilometres.
During the retreat Section cantonments were at Varennes, Baulne, and Celle-les-Condé. The month of June was spent working postes along the Marne from Celle-les-Condé as a headquarters. While here the 3d American Division joined the 20th French, and Six-Forty-Three did the line work for both Divisions, in the so-called halt of the German armies at Château-Thierry.
Leaving Celle-les-Condé, June 28, the Section proceeded to Dammartin, where it stayed for seven days with its Division in reserve for an expected drive at Villers-Cotterets. On the 5th of July it returned to the Marne, taking positions in the second line of defence between Château-Thierry and Dormans, the Section camping at la ferme "Les Anglais."
After driving the Germans across the Marne the 20th Division and Section Six-Forty-Three followed in active combat the ensuing retreat to the river Vesle. The advance was made through Châtillon, Ville-en-Tardenois, and finally stopped at the river, the Division holding from Fismes to Jonchery. Here the Section worked postes along the river Vesle from a cantonment at Lagery until September 1. Then the Division went en repos and the Section, making a cantonment at Châtillon, worked twenty cars a day evacuating for the Corps d'Armée. September 20, Division and Section went to the Vosges, making headquarters at Saint-Dié and Raon l'Étape. While here Section Six-Forty-Three worked for the 82d American Division as well as their own French Division.
Taking position early in November behind Baccarat for the expected drive against Metz, Armistice Day found the Section at Thaon-les-Vosges. The 20th Division made a triumphal procession on the heels of the Boches, and were the first Allies, and the men of Section Six-Forty-Three were the first Americans to reach the Rhine, arriving at Strasbourg on the dot of the permitted hour. After two weeks at Strasbourg the Section and Division moved south to Schlestadt, taking over the Rhine line, and remained here until Section Six-Forty-Three was called into Paris for demobilization on March 13, 1919. A Section Citation to the Order of the Division was received at Strasbourg, November, 1918, for work on the Marne and Vesle.
GORDON F. L. ROGERS*
*Of Dedham, Massachusetts; Harvard; with Section Thirty-One in the Field Service; in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service for the remainder of the war.
- Section (WWI): S.S.U. 31