Section Seventy-One (SSU 71)
- Published in History
SECTION SEVENTY-ONE took over a section of Fiat cars in Noyon on July 31, 1917, and on August 2 was attached to the 158th Division, en repos at Nesle, on the Somme. On August 19 it moved to Lanchy on the Saint-Quentin front, with front postes at Holnon, Maissemy, a relay station at Marteville, and evacuation work at Ham, Cugny, and Noyon. The recruiting officers visited the Section on August 29, but the Section continued under the old régime until November, when the Fiats were abandoned; then the men transferred to a Ford Section at Belrupt, outside of Verdun, becoming, with what remained of Old Twenty-Nine, Section Six-Forty-One 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)
Some pledge I could but dimly understand,
Some subtle spell, lay on the calm and clear
Blue harbor of this mute, majestic land,
And hope shone smiling in the eyes of France.
GUY WETMORE CARRYL
TO THE SAINT-QUENTIN FRONT
On July 31, 1917, Section Seventy-One was formed, with Roland R. Speers as Chef, and James S. Brown as Sous-Chef. At Noyon we were assigned to Fiat ambulances, and on August 2 we joined the 158th Division, which was then en repos at Nesle, where we remained for nearly three weeks, passing the time with such diversions as chatting with the fair sex of the village, frequenting the café, and getting beaten 7 to 0 by the French divisional soccer team. As we were all craving action, being new to the game, the news that we were to leave for the front came as a welcome relief. In fact, on August 19 the Section moved to Lanchy on the Saint-Quentin front, where our Division had taken over the lines.
Of all the forsaken, desolate spots we had ever seen, Lanchy won first prize. Cold, rain, and mud added to the dismalness of our surroundings and tended to make existence pretty unpleasant, living as we did in tents and cellars.
The work in this sector was not very strenuous. We had two front postes, one at Holnon, the other at Maissemy, of one car each, with a two-car relay station at Marteville. Two cars daily were on evacuation. This latter work was very popular, as it took us to Ham and Cugny, the home of some American Red Cross nurses, and sometimes as far as Noyon, with its ice-cream parlor and cafés. As we were working in a repos sector we did not see much action, except for a gas attack, during which all the Section was called out. Of course, there were the usual wild rumors of big coups de main and attacks that were to come off "next week," but which never materialized.
Gloom descended upon us on August 31, when the United States recruiting officers appeared to enlist men for the army; but Seventy-One enlisted a larger proportion of its men than any other Field Service section. Toward the end of October rumors spread that we were to be relieved, and on November 1 an Allentown section, fresh from America, appeared with little pasteboard-walled cars. After two days, during which we showed them the postes, we were ordered to leave for Noyon and turn in our cars. So glad were we to leave Lanchy that the convoy out to Noyon, once beyond the limits of Ham, developed into a whirlwind at which the gendarmes could only throw up their hands in despair.
After two days of bliss in Paris, the Section was cut to twenty-five members, who moved to Belrupt just outside of Verdun, where we relieved the members of Section Twenty-Nine, taking over their cars and equipment, and where we became attached to the 120th Division and worked the poste de secours at the Carrière d'Haudromont between Bras and Douaumont. Here, on November 22, Way Spaulding was severely wounded in front of the abri. During the thirty-five days at Belrupt, five of our cars were smashed by shells and all but two cars were hit by éclats. On December 8 we were relieved by a French Section of Fiats and moved to Andernay en repos. On Christmas Day, with much "crape-hanging," we donned the "choker uniforms" and became S.S.U. Six-Forty-One of the United States Army Ambulance Service.
*Of Brookline, Massachusetts; Harvard, '20; served in the Field Service with Section Seventy-One, and subsequently in the U.S.A. Ambulance Service.
GETTING TO THE FRONT
Nesle, August 6
Gas-masks and "tin derbies" were given out to-day, and, with both of them on, I look like some prehistoric fish. We were also warned by our Lieutenant regarding the new German gas-shells. It appears that they are filled with a combination gas, make very little noise when exploding --something on the order of a defective giant firecracker --- and make their presence first known by a faint smell of garlic or mustard. Now we all run like fiends when some imaginative soul thinks he smells garlic. At the conclusion of his speech, the Lieutenant added that the present gas-masks were no protection against the new shells. I wonder what we're going to use them for.
At last we've carried our first wounded, and if the war were to stop to-morrow, which it won't, I could at least say that I've seen some service, even though not actually under shot and shell. Early this morning Harry and I answered a call at Masy and transferred two couchés from the first-aid station there to the base hospital at Ham. The roads were terrible, and I, riding in the back, had a chance to witness the tortures endured by the poor devils who were bounced about in a very gruesome manner.
This afternoon Dick, Harry, and I visited Herly, Curchy, and Manicourt, ruined villages to the west of the château. They were in utter ruins, and were uninhabited save for a company or so of our Division, who were living in the old German dugouts. Everything was in perfect order, as the Boches were forced to evacuate in such a hurry that they had little time for their usual "strafing." .The dugouts, which were about eight feet long by six feet wide and six feet deep, were lined with thick sheet iron, on top of which were placed sandbags, then logs, and finally a thick layer of sod, the final product being perfectly disguised, and for a distance up to a third of a mile practically indistinguishable from the landscape. Many of them bore upon their walls somewhat pointed and impolite messages from the retiring Germans to the entering Canadians. The dirty Boches had time, however before their departure, to chop down every fruit tree that lay anywhere near their path of retreat. I remember seeing a photograph of this atrocity in the pictorial supplement of the "Times" --- a devastated orchard of which, out of a total of one hundred trees, but two remained standing. You can imagine my interest upon finding that the original of the picture was one of the ruined orchards at Manicourt.
Nesle, August 16
Rather a humdrum day. The only outstanding event was the Lieutenant's leaving for his permission. He made us a little speech, during which he read us an official communication from the Division Commander in which the latter complimented the Section upon its general behavior and its quickness in responding to calls. When he had finished, we were purring like so many cats!
Lanchy, August 20
Promptly at eight o'clock we left our quarters and set out for the front, destination unknown. Arrived at this town shortly after ten and parked behind S.S. Fifty-Eight, a French section, decorated with the Croix de Guerre for splendid work at Verdun. As soon as the French cars leave we should get our chance to do some of the real work for which we have been waiting.
THE FRENCH SECTION "A" TENT
S.S. Fifty-Eight left at eight o'clock this morning. I might say that until to-day we have been sleeping in our cars, secretly envying the Frenchmen who had provided themselves with tents made with poilu ground sheets. "Sandy," "Stew," and I had an opportunity, fortunately, to buy one, and very promptly did so. It is one of the larger type, about ten feet square, well entrenched and very sturdily put up. "Castle Cootie" is richly luxurious compared with our cramped and somewhat scented ambulances. We paid only fifty francs for the compartments, including an extra roof, and though tents have been ordered for the entire Section, I feel sure that we shall be greatly advanced in years before they arrive. Meanwhile our purchase is the admiration of the Section. We carried out our business transaction last evening, and I therefore felt it my duty to be present at the departure lest our newly acquired home were to take it into its head to leave with them. My appearance, shivering in my B.V.D.'s, was the signal for untold merriment. I accepted the tribute in stern silence.
Last night the wind did blow; also the rain pattered, dripped, and drizzled through every possible crack and crevice in our most esteemed tent until "Castle Cootie" was one damp puddle of floating possessions. And yet the merry(?) patter of raindrops is a cheery sound under even the most discouraging conditions, and the three of us were soon wrapped in noisy but peaceful slumber. At 2.45 A.M., by actual observation of our wrist watches, tent number 2, owned by Messrs. Crosby, Fox, Salinger, and Spaulding, collapsed with a piteous sigh. Muffled curses, groans, and wails. At three, Crosby, a most heart-rending sight, indeed, crawls under the flap of our swaying mansion, dragging behind him two wet, muddy, and exceedingly tired blankets. His entrance was greeted with suppressed snickers from our three cots, but he haughtily rolled himself up in the blankets, on the muddy floor, and, no sympathy forthcoming, silence followed. In the morning Harry presented a never-to-be-forgotten appearance: one belly-band, a pink pajama top, a heavy woollen undershirt, a white St. Mark's sweater, a raveled blue sweater constructed by "Her," and, as an outer shell, a goatskin coat; while his props were encased in a damp, mud-bespattered pair of pajama trousers, around which were wound, in a most uncertain manner, a pair of roll puttees!
Blue Monday! It's raining as consistently as it did all day yesterday. The tent maintains its reputation as a sieve. And a huge mail from the States arrived, my share of which may be represented by the latter half of the number 10. Gloom!
Wonder of wonders!! Last night's rumors were verified this morning. Shortly before eleven, two United States officers and a very young-looking Army doctor drove up. After lunch the Section was addressed by Lieutenant Webster, and told that the Government had decided to take over every independent American organization on this side of the water. Then followed the necessary recruiting officer's "line," telling of the advantages, joys, and untold privileges to be derived from "signing up." We were given an hour to make up our minds, at the end of which time seventy per cent of the Section signed. "I'm in the army now," rendered by Private Weeks.
Still recovering from yesterday's dismal prospect. Suppose this damnable war lasts for some seven years. I return, a rheumatic, crabby old bachelor, losing my hair in bunches, to be greeted by strange faces on all sides and the consoling news that the object of my tenderest affections married some slacker five years before.
We had our first real work last night. It appears that the Boche artillery had a holiday and spent the greater part of the evening throwing gas-shells into the second and third lines near Holnon. Their range was good --- it always is --- and they successfully cracked a few abris and threw things about in a most unpleasant manner. We got a call for "several ambulances" a little after ten, and I believe we made a record time to the poste. When we got there a rather unpleasant sight greeted us. All about the abri and in the forepart of the trench the ground was covered with gasping, prostrate figures of men, their faces a livid green, their foreheads shining with sweat, mumbling incoherently, twisting and turning in agony. It was our first experience with gas and one that did not tend to heighten our respect for the Hun. The curé was among those gassed, but he refused to accept any aid until all his men had been attended to, lapsing into unconsciousness just as the doctor bent over him. just two-score men gassed, an incident too trivial to be mentioned in the daily communiqué; just one of the million unrecorded sacrifices for which the Boches will have to pay some day.
EDWARD A. WEEKS, JR.*
*Of Elizabeth, New Jersey; Cornell, '19; served as a driver in Section Seventy-One of the Field Service and, subsequently, with the U.S.A. Ambulance Service. The above are extracts from his unpublished diary.
NOTE. Early in November most of the American personnel of Section Seventy-One, including the American Officers, were transferred from the borrowed French cars to the Field Service Fords of old Section Twenty-Nine. Shortly thereafter this latter Section was renumbered by the U.S. Army, and became Section Six-Forty-One. Under this title it continued to function until after the Armistice.
- Section (WWI): S.S.U. 71