The sky was blue,
Then it happened----
He was falling---falling---falling---
Through the clouds, against the sky's clear blue,
Los Angeles, California, October, 1918.
For a long time my ambition was centered on one thing---to get an aerial joy ride. After that initiation ----the first ride, that can compare with nothing else you have ever tried before---you count yourself one of the elect, and when asked what you are doing, you say, nonchalantly, "Oh, I am out at the school," and that is enough.
Before that---and for many of us it was a long time before---when asked what we were doing we would say, "Oh, I am a cadet at the aviation school," but after that first ride---you have "arrived" and can say you are "out there," with a jerk of the thumb, and they seem to know right away what you are and where you are.
Apparently, the people have learned the ear-marks, for they recognize an "élève pilote" for what he is. They never cease to wonder at an aviator and to hold him in awe, 'way down in their hearts, so deep, that only occasionally it shows, but, just the same, to these simple people one who does such queer things in the air is not normal---he is strange, in spite of the fact that he eats more than the average individual.
He would be foolish if he didn't for there aren't a great many ways to forget the pal that used to sleep just across the aisle. You have to develop an attitude something like our band. To me, that tells more than words can explain.
Being soldiers, every once in a while the full honors are accorded and the honor guard marches along and the band plays Chopin's great melody all the way down. Then the muskets are fired and the band turns back and plays "The Strutters' Ball' all the way to camp. That was quite the drollest thing I ever saw, but one would go crazy if the others didn't have that attitude.
After my first joy ride flying became like anything else you do every day, but, perhaps, this isn't quite the same. It is a wonderful game, with no limit to development, and if you like sport you will like flying. Of course, I wanted to "solo" right away and then "voyage." From the first day in camp I heard about Suzanne's, and, although I knew "Suzanne's" was a restaurant, the fact that it is an institution missed me until I was fortunate enough to get there on my "petite voyage."
All the time I was going through the D. C. class I kept hearing about "Suzanne's" and about Suzanne. One chap came back one evening having had luncheon at Suzanne's. That didn't sound like anything in particular until I noticed that everyone asked him the same thing, "Did you stop at Suzanne's?" Then, "Did you have any trouble?" Just that difference in asking told me lots, for it's just that little difference in putting a question that is the key to the thought.
At the English school they say with a grin, "Did you have a crash?" and they mean, "Well, here you are, so you're not hurt, and if you 'crashed' it's a good joke, for you slipped one over on Fate by not getting hurt; score one in the game." With them it's just that, a game to be played by the rule of good sportsmanship. The machine? They do not even consider such a trifle.
But the French rush out and ask, "Is he hurt? Is he hurt? Is the machine ruined beyond repair?" It is their regret over a possible loss of a good man that is uppermost in their minds; secondly, their economical strain comes forward and they estimate the damage if the man is all right. Then there are other schools where the only question is, "Did he smash the machine?"
All of which is entirely beside the point to which I was referring, for what I wanted to say was that when the time came for me to take my "voyage" I was thinking more of stopping at Suzanne's than I was of getting around and back safely.
Suzanne is a very pretty girl, I was told, but the charm of "Suzanne's" wasn't entirely with her alone, for, always, one spoke of the deliciously-tasting meal, how nice the old madame is and her "mari," the father of Suzanne. Then of the garden in the back ---and before you had finished listening you didn't know which was the most important thing about "Suzanne's ;" all you knew was that it was the place to go when on a voyage.
You see, after getting to a point where the instructors think you can handle a machine with, at least, the odds with you, they send you out on a voyage. When that is over you take your tests for the brevet militaire and then you are a "pilote" and may wear a monocle or walk with a cane or do most anything else you like.
Finally, my time came. When they told me to report to the voyage hangar the next morning I was feeling quite excited, for that is practically the end of the course, and, certainly, the most fun. You go away 'cross country to a point picked out, land, have your paper signed and then go on to another point before returning to the aerodrome. The three points make a triangle and with the heritage of the original French school it is called the "petite voyage."
It is this voyage that is so eagerly sought after and so impatiently awaited. Why? Because when you leave the old familiar grounds and go up to an altitude of, say, 1,200 meters and then travel by compass and map, you feel that you are really flying---and so you are.
In all the various stages of flying there is none to compare with that initial voyage. It gives you a most independent feeling and the excitement is incomparable. How can you help thinking of the stories you have heard; of accidents, of forced landings, of lucky, narrow squeezes? From such an altitude in good weather, as you fly along, the ground, apparently, slipping by beneath you, all the earth below is a garden most beautifully planned and you have a feeling of absolute ownership. All those green patches---dark green for forests, light green for the alfalfa, brown for the wheat, cut up by the silver white roads and, occasionally, by the light blue of a river or canal---are in your own garden; yours, it seems, for the idea of there being anybody but you in the world appears preposterous when you are up so high and can see so much. And is it not yours? If you want to come down what is to prevent you? Too often there is nothing at all to prevent you and then you are a story, too.
Forced landings are often both curious and interesting; seldom are they tragic, since from a good altitude a fair field can usually he found. John D----, who was under the same moniteur when I first came, had a good one. He was a little off the beaten track and was flying over when, suddenly, he lost his prop ---the motor went dead and down he came, gliding and looking for a landing place. You don't pick and choose in a case like that. You just look around and keep on coming down.
Johnny slipped along right over the town and landed in a strawberry patch in the back yard of an elderly spinster's house. She was highly indignant and Johnny had to pay her ten francs for the damage to the garden. Then he found the engine trouble, fixed it and took off over the stone wall, with things running as smoothly as before. Fifty feet more and the old lady might have been nursing a broken American head instead of ten francs, but, then, that's the luck! Then there was another fellow who flew along until came to a fine-looking old château, and landed. They treated him like a visiting prince and he stayed there, enchanted, for two days. He only made one error, and that was most unfortunate. He forgot to turn off the barograph and around it went registering zero attitude in a most inexplicable way.
At the pilotage office I found five others ahead of me, all of us bound in the same direction. We were given barographs, altimeters and maps and full directions as to forced landings and what to do when lost. We hung around the voyage hangar until about 8 in the morning, but there was a low mist and cloudy sky, so we could not start out until afternoon, and I didn't have luncheon at Suzanne's. After noon several of the others started out but I wanted to plan my supper stop for the second point, so I waited until about 4 o'clock before starting.
My mechanic was a fine chap and knew all about the rotary engine I had, so he gave me a good sendoff. He tested it on the blocks until every cylinder was working perfectly and then turned it over to me with a "bonne chance" and a bon voyage. I climbed in, adjusted the barograph and with a final look back at the hangars and the machines and the mechano, gave her the gun and slid along until, almost imperceptibly, I was flying instead of taxying and a second later I was up, up, and mounting in a wide circle. The last thing that stuck in my memory as I looked back was the mechano, tool bag swinging from his shoulder and gazing after me with a wistful smile.
It is pretty tough for some of them, you know, for it's just hard luck that they can't fly, too, and though many are well satisfied to stay on the ground, there are others who would give anything to fly. My mechano is an excellent mechanic and though he would like to fly he prefers to stay on good old terra firma; he has seen too many start off so bravely only to be carried back. But every time a ship goes up he has a wistful look on his face and he half wishes that he was the pilot.
I had decided to make the first leg of the triangle at one thousand meters so, to get the altitude, I circled round and round until the little inked needle registered one thousand in a straight, regular line. When I climbed up there the air was colder, and, occasionally, I ran into mist clouds, which always bumped me a bit. I throttled down the engine until it pulled without working too hard and then set off, following the "rue Nationale," which lay straight as an arrow beneath me.
Almost before I knew it a village, which on the map was twelve kilometers away, was slipping by beneath me and then off to one side was a forest, green and cool-looking and very regular around the edges. Pretty soon I came to a deep blue streak bordered by trees and was so interested in it---it wound around under a railroad track, came up and brushed by lots of back gates and, finally, fell in a wide splash of silver over a little fall, by a mill---that I forgot all about flying and suddenly woke up to the fact that one wing was about as low as it could get and that the nose was doing its best to follow the wing.
It is hard to keep a level course the first time you go up, for there is so much to see and it is all so interesting. Miles and miles of landscape stretch out beneath you and you don't pay particular attention to the old nose to see whether it is up or down, because, away ahead you see a big house and a marvelous little park and pretty soon it develops into a beautiful château, with turrets and wings, and the walks lead out to an immense stable behind. If you look closely, perhaps, you see white stone benches or can just make out a statue group in a tiny pool. And then you get on the job again and your barograph, with its relentless, tell-tale line shows that you have climbed one hundred meters or, possibly, have sunk. Later, the pilotage office asks you what happened. And what can you say---for they wouldn't understand if you did tell them.
Long before I came to the stopping point I could see the little white hangar and later the "T." The field is not large but it is strange, so you come down rather anxiously, for if you can't make that field the first time you never will be able to fly, they tell you before leaving.
I glided down easily enough, for, after all, it is just that---either you can or you can't---and made a good-enough landing. The sergeant signed my paper, and a few minutes later off I went for Suzanne's. The next stop is near a little village---Suzanne's village---so when I came to the field and landed I was sure to be too tired to go up right away. Instead, off I went to town after fixing it with the man in charge. Fixing it wasn't a bit difficult, either, for all I did was wink as hard as I could and he understood perfectly. Good old scout! Didn't he know?
I knew where Suzanne's was, so made directly for it. It was a little early, but you never want to miss the "aperitif." With that first, success is assured; without, it is much like getting out of bed on the wrong foot.
Up I marched to the unimposing door and walked in to the main room. A big room, with long, wooden tables and benches and a zinc bar at one end, where all kinds of bottles rested. It isn't called Suzanne's, of course, it only has that name among us.
As I closed the door behind me and looked about, a "bonne" was serving several men at a corner table, and behind the bar a big, red-faced, stout man was pouring stuff into bottles. He looked at me a moment and then with a tremendous "Tiens!" he put down the bottle he held, came out from behind the tables and advanced toward me with his hand outstretched.
"Bon jour," he said, "bon jour; do you come from far?"
"Oh. no," I answered, "only from ----."
"Tiens," he repeated; then, "Ah, you are from the school." "L'école," he called it. He would not have been surprised if I had said I came from London, for often they have visitors from all over.
From "l'école," I admitted, and, taking me by the arm, he led me to a door at the rear. Through this he propelled me, and then in his huge voice he called "Suzanne, un pilote!" and I was introduced.
As he shut the door I could just see the corner table with the three old men staring open-mouthed, the wine before them forgotten, the bread and cheese in their hands untasted; then, down the stairs came light steps and a rustle of skirts, and Suzanne was before me with smiling face and outstretched hands.
Her instant welcome, the genuine smile! Almost immediately I understood the fame of this little station, so far from everything but the air route.
Her charm is indescribable. She is pretty, she is well dressed, but it isn't that, for these are too obvious. It is a sincerity of manner, complete hospitality; at once you are accepted as a bosom friend of the family and why?----that is the charm of Suzanne's.
Alter a few questions, when they rapidly knew where I was from, how long I had been there and where I was going, Suzanne led me upstairs to be presented to "Ma belle mère," a white-haired old lady sitting in a big straight-backed chair. Then, after more courtesies were extended to me, Suzanne preceded me down to the garden and then left me alone while she went in to see that the supper was exceptionally good.
Suzanne's garden is surrounded on three sides by a stone wall-green and moss covered. It contains a rabbit run, a chicken coop, where one lone cock lorded it over his subjects and then, swimming in a little stone pond, was a solitary duck, happy and contented. It wasn't until later that I learned about the pets. There are three of them: a cat, a dog, and the duck. The dog is named Spad, the cat, Nieuport, and the duck is called Farmon. Perhaps, that is where the M. Farmon received its name of "Galloping Goose."
As I sat there in the garden with the slanting rays of the sun climbing higher and higher up the far stone wall, the whole atmosphere seemed to permeate and penetrate everything and I wondered again wherein lay that charm which was so palpably evident, yet so difficult to define.
A soft footstep on the gravel walk sounded behind me and I turned to see one of the most beautiful women I ever beheld. She was tall and slender and as she came gracefully across the lawn she swung a little work bag from one arm. All in black she was. with a lace shawl river her bare head. Like everyone in that most charming and hospitable house, there was no formality or show. On she came, smiling, and sat on the bench beside me, drawing open her work bag. I could not help noticing, particularly, her beautiful eyes for they told the story, a story too common here, except that hers had changed now to an expression of resigned peace. Then she told me about Suzanne.
Long before, ages and ages ago it seemed, but really, only four years, a huge, ungainly bird fell crashing to earth and from the wreck a man was taken, unconscious. He was carried to Suzanne's---it was not called that, of course---and she nursed him and cared for him until he was well again. "Suzanne was very happy then," madame told me. And no wonder, for the daring aviator and Suzanne were in love. She nursed him back to health, but when he went away he left his heart forever safe with her.
They were engaged and every little while he would fly over from his station to see Suzanne. Those were in the early days of aviation---well, even at that, it hasn't changed so much.
One day a letter came for Suzanne and with a catch at her throbbing heart she read that her fiancé had been killed. "Mort pour la patrie," it said, and Suzanne was never the same afterward.
For many months the poor girl grieved, but, finally, she began to realize that what had happened to her had happened to thousands of other girls, too, and, gradually, she took on the attitude that you find throughout this glorious country. Only her eyes now tell the sad story.
One evening two men walked into the café and from their talk Suzanne knew they were from "l'école." She sat down and listened to them. They talked about the war, about aviation, about deeds of heroism and Suzanne drank in every word, for they were talking the language of her dead lover. They spoke of new motors, of a new type of "helice," of "holes" in the air and other strange things. The two aviators stayed to dinner, but the big room was not good enough. They must come back to the family dinner---to the intimacy of the back room.
They stayed all night and left early next morning, but before they went they wrote their names in a big book. Today, Suzanne has the book, filled full of names, many now famous, many names that are only a memory, but that is how it started.
When the two pilots went back to "l'école" they spoke in glowing terms of "Suzanne's," of the soft beds, of the delicious dinner and, I think, mostly of Suzanne.
Visitors came after that to eat at Suzanne's and to see her famous book. Then they came regularly and, finally, a triangle point was established near the village, and then "Suzanne's" became an institution.
Always a "pilote" was taken into the back room; he ate with the family, he told them all about the news from l'école, and, in exchange, he heard stories about the early days, stories that will never be printed but examples of heroism and intelligence that have done their part to develop aviation.
Suzanne's "papa" is half the secret of the place for, long ago, he was the chef of the Savoy Hotel in London. You doubt that when you first hear it, but after one meal you doubt no longer. You spread his reputation as no one has ever failed to do after stopping at Suzanne's.
Suzanne knows almost as much about aviation as any of the "jeunes pilotes" who stay there. For a long time she has been absorbing details and gossip. "Café flying" and "barracks flying" is a bad practice, but an irresistible temptation.
Often, an overnight stay is necessary because of had weather or, perhaps, because of a forced landing, and then Suzanne will awaken you at the first break of dawn or, if the wind is too strong to make flying feasible, she will let you sleep---she knows flying weather as well as you do.
Soon, we went in to dinner, and such a dinner! Truly, nothing is too good for an aviator at Suzanne's and they give of their best to these wandering strangers. They do not ask your name, they call everyone "monsieur," but before you leave you sign the book and they all crowd around to look without saying anything. Your name means nothing yet, but a year from now, perhaps, who can tell? In the first pages are names that have been bywords for years and some who are famous the world over.
How did my beautiful informant know all this so well, I wondered! And it was Suzanne herself who told me.
Madame's husband was the first man killed at "l'école." He had been the "chef de la piste," the actual man on the field in charge of all flying before he joined the list of immortals. Madame had been Suzanne's friend, but after their similar grief they became real and fast friends. Today, at l'école, there is a street between "l'infirmerie et le bureau du pilotage" called the rue Vinot and it is named in honor of the premier chef de la piste---the first man to die on the field.
After dinner, Suzanne slipped away, presently to reappear with a special bottle and glasses. I felt sure this was part of the entertainment afforded all their winged visitors, for they went about it in a practiced manner; each was familiar with his or her part, but to me it was all delightfully new.
Our glasses were filled and Suzanne raised hers first. Without a word, she looked around the circle. Her eyes met them all, then rested with madame. She had not said a word; it was "papa" who proposed my health and as the bottoms went up Suzanne and madame both had a struggle to repress a tear. They were drinking my health but their thoughts were far away and in my heart I was wishing that happiness might again come to them. Suzanne certainly deserves it.
When I returned they asked, "Did you stop at Suzanne's?' And now to the others just ready to make the voyage I always say, "Be sure to stop at Suzanne's."
France, August, 1918.
Here we were, four husky freshmen, two from Yale, one from Harvard and one from Cornell---three months in France and within ----- kilometers of Rheims. Applications for "permission" to visit the shelled Cathedral City we were morally certain would be denied. It was deemed advisable not to take any chances with the commandant of our camion division. A day arrived when we had no orders for a "roll," and as my car was clean and passed by the inspector I was free of duty, so that when Ned sprung Rheims on us at dawn, Paul and Harry and I were keen to go.
We dressed hurriedly, ate breakfast without dawdling, and at once started off across the hills back of camp without stopping to "tip our hand" to any one. Our immediate objective was the railroad station to Mt. Notre Dame where we hoped to catch a train to Fismes and then take a chance of hooking a ride into Rheims, or as far as the railroad runs. That meant a long walk, with no telling how we would ever get back. But---we kept on. We figured that the trip would be worth the punishment. As it was. Our hike was enlivened by the reflections of what might happen to us for leaving camp without a permit. Paul cheerfully related the experience of a Frenchman who was given five years' penal servitude for taking two days ungranted leave. Luckily for us, we were not under French military rule and we hooted the recitalist.
We began famously. Just as we reached Notre Dame station a freight was pulling in. We climbed on a flat car and were waiting for them to pull out when a station guard came up and asked us what we wanted. We understood him perfectly but pretended ignorance. We simply smiled and said "Americaines! Fismes " and refused to understand him. He wearied of waving his arms after a while, and as we did not get down he went off and left us there, which was exactly what we wanted him to do. The train stopped at every station to cut out cars, so we finally went up to the caboose (which, over here, is immediately behind the engine) and fraternized with the conductor who smoked our cigarettes and let us all pile in with him.
We were shot full of luck, for the train took us all the way to Muizon, a station nine kilometers from Rheims. That is as near as trains can go, because the lines are so close the Boche can see. From there we walked about six kilos and were beginning to figure out a plan to run the gendarme on guard when our good fortune again helped us. A big six-wheeled auto came tearing along behind. We waved our arms and stopped it and asked for a ride. They made room, climbing in behind, we found it full of soldiers who were returning to the trenches. They whizzed by the guards so fast none of them knew anything about us. Another liberal dose of cigarettes and "bon camarade" and they said we could go into the trenches with them. They thought we were crazy to want to go, but we explained we had never seen trenches while they had had three years of them, so they laughingly agreed.
As we did not have any gas masks or helmets the corporal in charge refused to take us with him. However, we rode through town and out to the road leading to the trenches, but there the corporal declined to be responsible any further. He went with several of his men to get a drink of vin before returning, and left us there---four kilometers or less from the first German trench!
One of the soldiers turned back then and said he would take us out---he was only a poilu and did not care what he did. More luck! We walked with this chap through the outskirts of Rheims and out on the road. Before leaving Rheims we saw the location where barb-wire entanglements were put up in the middle of the street, and where the two armies fought from the houses on opposite sides of the roadway. That was in the retreat of three years ago. September 4, 1914, is the day the Germans were driven from Rheims, and they have held the same positions ever since. Beyond Rheims it is something like this: The city is surrounded on the northeast side by Germans; they control the hills and overlook the town, controlling completely all approaches to it. They have guns higher than the town and of course it is at their mercy, which, judging by Rheims, is where I would not like to be. All the buildings on that side of town are a crumpled ruin.
We five walked out the road until the trees became so shattered they did not afford any concealment, so then we took to the communicating trench at the left. passed the regimental kitchens, which are just to the right of the road and partly sheltered by a bluff. The food is taken in at night. Our guide led us past line after line of trenches until we came to what I judged were the third line defenses. There several non-commissioned officers came out and wanted to know what the blue blazes we were doing there. Harry told them we were Americans in training and our "higher-ups" wanted us to learn what we could of trench life. We sat in a hollow about six feet deep and explained this. Suddenly, a bullet sneezed overhead, and they asked us if we would like to see their "abri" or dugout.
They had rooms about twenty feet underground; a long steep entrance led to a passage and that opened into rooms for sleeping. They have three-tier bunks that looked awfully dark, damp and dirty to me. The abri had two entrances. After that our obliging guide was induced to take us nearer the front. We were then five hundred meters from it and, not having helmets or masks, it was hard to coax him, but we finally succeeded.
We had barely started forward when we bumped into a lieutenant. He did not have time to get inquisitive, as Harry hailed him as a brother officer and told him we were sent out to view things. That bluff worked perfectly, and our lieutenant was graciousness and kindness itself. He deplored the lack of helmets and masks, but said if we were foolish enough to want to go he would be only too glad, if not charmed, to be our guide. Away we went, preceded by the lieutenant and followed by our other temporary comrade. The soldiers we passed were awed and delighted to see us. I guess we did look like hot stuff with our smart uniforms, as the trench uniform seems to be mostly overall. Anyway, we camouflaged them all and got by with it.
Just before turning a corner our officer halted and cautioned us to be quiet. We were, believe me! We rounded a bank and were within fifteen meters of Mr. Fritz! The front line trench! We passed sentries on guard peeping through sand bags, with a loaded and cocked gun at hand, an array of vicious hand-grenades in front of him and a pile of bullets arranged so he would not have to reach into his belt for them. The trench had a little shelf or ledge handy, for the sentry. Around each post six or seven men were lying asleep. There were many more in the dugouts.
We passed several sentry posts and came finally to a trench periscope. This was one of the main sentry posts and about a dozen Chasseurs, "Blue Devils," were lolling around it. We all looked through the glass and could see the German trench fifteen meters away. The ground between was full of barbed-wire entanglements and torn up beyond description. It was like plowed ground on a tremendous scale. Holes six or seven feet deep and ridges or rock blown up by shells. We walked a little farther, and just as we were turning around two snipers' bullets hummed overhead. They evidently heard us talking or detected the movements.
We could not go forward any farther, so we turned back and looked through the officers' quarters. On the way we crossed the road and could see straight up to the hill where the Germans were entrenched. Our poilu friend told us the French would stick out fake clothing in order to bait the Boche. The spot is covered by a German machine-gun (mitrailleuse) and the Frenchmen play tag with it.
Our lieutenant was in a trench bomb company, in charge of six mortars. Each one can shoot eight hundred meters. They are little guns about thirty inches long, and the bombs are shaped like birds, only with four wings. The trenches are fitted up with telephones and electric lights. The trenches, remember, have not materially changed position for three years.
We saw everything that was worth while and started to walk back toward Rheims, as we wanted to see the cathedral. We would have lost our way in the intricacies of the trenches, but for our poilu guide, who remained close until we could see the road. On the way we passed the "Hamburg Trenches," the "Hindenburg line," "Roosevelt Trench" and "Wilson Bayou," as we saw by the neatly lettered signs.
We walked and walked and finally reached the town about 3 o'clock. At a house on one side of the street we bought chocolate and "petits gatos," little cookies, and there we met more French hospitality. The proprietor spoke English and insisted upon our accepting a glass of light wine. He has stayed with his property all through the invasion and retreat and bombardments. Every day, from 6 to 7 p. m., the town was bombarded for several months. Now there is nothing much left worth destroying, but the day before our visit sixty-eight bombs had landed. At first, 20,000 bombs struck Rheims in one day! From 120,000 inhabitants the population is reduced to less than 4,000. All of these wear helmets and carry gas masks.
We took pictures of the cathedral and scouted around wondering how we were to get inside. Our star must have been shining, for we saw the curé come walking down the street. Harry and I made a run for him and threw a very fast, hot line about the bravery of the inhabitants of Rheims, the glory of the cathedral and how much we wanted to see it, being Americans with much more of the same. He beamed and smiled and went after the concierge, had a long argument with him, because no one is allowed in the church, and the end of it was we were personally conducted all over it. One of the boys made an excellent time exposure of the interior. We were put on our honor not to touch anything, so we couldn't pick up any glass or other souvenirs.
Inside, we met an American artist, Mr. Louis Orr, who was sketching the ruins for the government. Mr. Orr is the only painter who ever had a picture hung in the Louvre gallery in the lifetime of the artist. He was very nice to us and gave me a running history of the place and what has happened since 1914. The Germans shell the cathedral regularly every afternoon, dropping, perhaps, two or three shells at a time on it. It is a terrible ruin. First, they sent fire bombs, which completely gutted the woodwork, the famous hand-carved interior. Then they sent shrapnel shells which have broken all the wonderful windows.
All the thirteenth century glass is gone---shattered to bits. Now they send their big shells in on it and soon it will crumble away. The beautiful room where all the French kings were crowned and consecrated is entirely demolished. That room faced the German batteries, and there is nothing left of it. The older and most precious parts of the cathedral are already gone---only the newer parts are left. On the outside are sand bags. They make an abri for the workmen. They go between the sacks and the stone wall when a shell comes; then the éclat is harmless. You can see how the roof is shot away. They say that because the keystone is demolished the rest will tumble any time. They expect it daily.
Our guide was so pleased with us (and our tip) he gave us each a bit of the glass from the big front window. It is thirteenth century glass, Mr. Orr told us, and, possibly, of value---certainly as a keepsake of the visit. The day before a huge shell had struck the roof and gone through the floor without exploding. The shell was removed and we saw it. It is a 305 men. (about fourteen incises), and as high as my waist. There can be absolutely no doubt about the shelling of the Rheims Cathedral, in my mind. It is done purposely and thoroughly. Mr. Orr then took us to his particular café and we had a very good dinner. In fact, we were fairly famished and had walked a long, long way. We had cream of tapioca soup, two big omelets and salad, coffee and pears. A real meal---all for five francs "per." (Also bread and butter and wine.)
To get back to Muizon and the station was the next question. We learned that a train for "permissionnaires" left at midnight, and autos took the soldiers out there from Rheims. Could anything be fairer than that? It was then about 8:30. We wandered down town to get cigarettes and just as we crossed a bridge a gendarme yelled at us and wanted to know what we doing so late and so far down town?
We refused to understand him and said we wanted tabac. Harry then asked him if he would not come with us and have a smoke, and he said, "It is not just my line of duty, but I guess it is all right." Then he pounded on a door and bawled out that some Americaines wanted tabac. We were waited on and gave him a share of our spoils. Then another gendarme came, attracted by the noise in the deserted city, and heat once asked if we were on permission. Gendarme number one replied that he did not know, so the old bluff shot us by again. He gave us the right directions and we reached Muizon safely.
We could have waited for the autos, but we were all feeling so well, in spite of the long hike, that we walked the nine kilos to the station. We looked around for the right car and then crawled in and went to sleep. We did not have tickets or an "ordre de movement" or anything, so we laid low in a second-class compartment. I was so sleepy I did not even know it when the engine hooked on and the soldiers piled in. Two officers joined us, and when the guard came around we said, "Mt. Notre Dame, Americaines," and did not understand anything else, so he went away disgusted, slamming the door on us. We reached our station at about s 1:30 and were soon back in bed.
That is the most adventurous trip I have had in France so far. We saw more in one day than in the other five months we have been here. Of course, if we had been caught there is no telling what would have happened to us, but it was worth the risk.
France, July, 1917.
(Comparatively little has been written in America regarding the camion service, though it is in some respects more perilous than the ambulance service. This thrilling story of personal experience was written by a Yale freshman of twenty who went to France last May, 1917---Editor Collier's)
Slowly and carefully the convoi crept along, mounting higher and higher until at last the level plateau was reached. The anxious sergeant at the head stopped and the ten cars behind slowly closed into line, leaving only a few feet between each of the heavily laden camions. The night was inky black. No stars were visible through the drizzling mist which had been falling for hours---fields, roads, everything was covered with a wet, slushy crust. Time and again muddy ditches had tempted the sliding wheels, but the well-chosen route of the experienced leader kept the cars on the hard road and now the last and most dangerous stage of the trip lay just ahead.
For two hours the curtain of night had hidden the approach of supplies---supplies which an entire battery had been calling for all day. As soon as the obscuring dark had closed in the camion section had started from an ammunition parc to bring the hungry "75's" their daily rations.
Through the day enemy observers in airplanes and observation balloons watched the roads along the front for any signs of activity. Artillery regiments returning to their posts of duty, infantry troops, and all supply trains wait for night to cover their advance over the zone under the spyglass range. Lights are never used, of course, and even the glow from the cigarette of a tired and dusty soldier is forbidden. Before starting again the sergeant hastily went down the line of his charges, counting them to make sure none was left behind and questioning each driver for any trouble; how the motor was running, if they were going slow enough, etc. In the dark any kind of an accident might happen. A collision with a passing wagon train, a slip into the ditch, a bad bump---and there are always plenty of those---or ramming the car ahead. The strain of the pilot makes even two hours of driving seem ages: the constant nervous tension, the fear of hitting an obstruction---because often it is only by the feel of the wheel one can find the road---but, most of all, fear of the car ahead making a sudden stop. Because of the darkness it is necessary to travel close together; an unexpected turn might lose half the convoi, for a bad road makes each car follow the track of the one in advance hence close running is imperative A rear-end collision is no novelty
when the dark renders eyes useless and the bumpy rattle of the car makes noises almost indistinguishable. I was doing the best I could with the wheezy old car assigned to me, but that best was only enough to keep me from being lost altogether. Any kind of a hill forced me into a slower speed than the others and I was continually trying to even up the wide space ahead.
To the sergeant's relief I finally made the last long grade and joined the end of the convoi with the precious six-ton load of trench bombs. Again the convoi began to move, and this time the greatest care was necessary. Four kilometers away the sharp-eyed observers of the enemy were on watch, and that four-kilometer drive was to be reduced to three kilometers, then to two, and then, under cover of dark, the waiting soldiers would take the load into the deep underground bombproofs, close to the concealed battery and safe from the fire of those thousands just over the ridge.
Just over that ridge! On the other side of the plateau an unexpected offensive, which was being pushed for control of the Chemin des Dames, had been repulsed, but both sides had used up precious lives and tons of costly ammunition had been sent hurtling through the air to explode in the occupied trenches and force the holders to evacuate.
Camions form an indispensable part of the army in present-day warfare. When an offensive suddenly changes the base of supplies it is the camions which change the base and keep the guns supplied with shells, the new trenches filled with wood and steel to replace the material blown up, and, at times, transport troops to a sorely pressed point. The French government's appreciation of this unpaid service was shown by the warm welcome and considerate treatment given to the volunteers.
This road, which since the memorable days of the invasion of long ago had scarcely anything more warlike than a threshing machine pass over it, has been changed now into the main artery of one of the bloodiest scenes of the bloodiest war of all history. At a certain point, leading from Craonne to Soissons, a sharp turn deflected all traffic from the protecting shelter of a hill. A short, open space intervened before the road was again hidden by an overhanging bluff. This bit of clear was screened with brushwork and the color blended from a distance with the brown ground of the hill. The watchful enemy had found the range of this strip and also of the small village only a few meters beyond.
At regular intervals through the night, through every night, a battery sent a shower of shrapnel and heavier missiles to cover this stretch so necessary to the communicating line of the foremost battery of the defenders. In daylight it was impassable. While this regular bombardment went on the convoi waited behind the hills. As soon as it stopped they made their break, but by that time the covering of brushwork was usually blown away and deep holes rendered the former road as rough as fresh-plowed land.
At the sergeant's whistle, T. M. No. ---- moved forward, and, limping along in the rear, I silently but eloquently blessed the mysteries of ignition and the treacherous slipperiness of wet roads. One by one our cars ahead scurried around the sharp turn and crossed the open space to the protection beyond. Each of them made the dark, bumpy passage in safety, and I, dragging behind and vainly trying to keep up with my comrades, suddenly found myself confronted with the dangerous turn.
As I started across it a huge star bomb went up from the ground and burst almost overhead, showering the sky with shooting stars and changing the inky darkness to a glow of brilliant light. The sudden flash illuminated the torn road, showing with ghastly vividness the holes in the muddy way. Too late, I jerked the wheel around to avoid a pit opened by the last bombardment. A terrific jolt tore loose my hand, and with a sinking heart I realized that the car had plunged into the muddy ditch with the rear wheels buried almost to the hubs. Sunk in mud of a two days' rain and in soft dirt torn up by accurate shell fire! The brief light above went out. I examined my predicament in darkness.
Back along the route the staff car of the convoi came looking for the lost camion. It brought the French officer and the American head of the section. As they jumped out of the machine and examined the embedded wheels a large French Berliet truck started to pass. In a few words the officer explained the situation to the driver, who backed in and prepared to poll my car out with the towline.
I was stuck in the most exposed and dangerous part the road with a load of several thousand pounds of explosives---contact bombs, in fact. No wonder the Frenchmen waved their arms up and down at each other---they had seen three years of such incidents and knew what might happen.
High overhead another star shell burst and cast its bright light over the scene. Almost immediately afterward a bullet crashed through the staff car, scaring the driver almost to death and changing the officer's gyrations to real action. He ran for his machine, the French driver dashed for his Berliet and both drove on out of danger as fast as they could go. I was told to abandon my truck and go to the village to wait for dawn---and help---to get me out of the ditch. My chief drove off for the remainder of the convoi with its needed cargo.
Three meters ahead was the bridge, as yet intact, behind was the sheltering hill; on each side the open country offered no protection or hiding place. Even while I stood wondering what to do, the few preliminary machine-gun bullets that had so narrowly missed their mark were followed by a shrapnel bomb. Four or five illuminating bombs went up in rapid succession and a regular bombardment of the communicating line began again, as it always did at the sight of activity along the road.
I waited no longer beside my immovable car. As shells began the ominous whirring that precedes the explosion I started on a run for the village. Twice the terrifying whizzing seemed almost directly overhead and I stopped in my tracks and flung myself flat on the ground. The shell fragments scattered harmlessly, but it served to increase my speed.
V------, like numberless other little French villages, consisted of a main street with close-set stone houses on each side. As I flew along the road I looked for a cave or cellar. Half the houses of the town were long before razed by shell fire, but the half nestling close to the ridge had, somehow, escaped. After entering two houses packed to suffocation with soldiers, I found a little shop with a rear room, a kind of cellar storeroom, containing five other refugees. They volubly invited me in and asked me how I happened to be there at such an hour.
The regular bombardment of the exposed strip was on, but this time it was on with more purpose. The lynx-eyed observers had spotted the passing convoi and, guessing that they were possibly hiding in the village, turned their range on the town. Of course, they could not tell where their shells were hitting, but previous daylight bombardments had given them the range and shells, shrapnel, and high explosives soon started landing with uncomfortable accuracy on the helpless village.
Following the example of my five war-wise companions, I lay flat on my back. Several dropped off to sleep, but not having had the "trois ans de guerre" which makes all the Frenchmen blasé to a mere shelling, I lay with staring eyes and beating heart while one terrific explosion after another shook even the solid walls of our shelter.
Whizz-z-z! My heart almost stopped beating, waiting for the explosion. Whizz-z-z-boom! the suspense was over. In the brief time between the warning hiss, and the éclat the world seemed to hang by a thread. I stopped hugging the table leg, uncovered my face and realized that the Frenchman nearest me was laughing. Even while I was thinking about it, another hiss made me duck my head. I uncovered it in shame, but it did seem that the shell was only about ten feet away.
For what appeared hours I lay on my back in the darkness of the little storeroom. Shell after shell exploded with a horrible, smashing sound. Thoughts! I couldn't remember afterward what I was thinking about when I lay there. Only one idea was uppermost, and it always came with the warning whirr growing louder and louder: "Will this one get me?" When the explosion came, after shaking the walls of the house, the question was answered---no.
After a time, unable to sleep, I arose, passed through the front room and opened the outer door. By the glare of a bomb I saw a French ambulance come tearing up the road from the bridge. About fifty feet away it stopped with a jerk, and the driver, who evidently had his spot all picked out, made a dive for a doorway. Scarcely had he left his car when a shrapnel shell lit fair and square on the hood. The car seemed to vanish like a soap bubble, leaving only chunks of the heavy engine scattered in the road.
I stared at the spot, then turned back to my meager shelter. After that the worst explosions of all did not seem to matter much. Half a minute---even less---just the time it takes to run twenty feet---is what death had missed her grip by. The vivid picture, a star-bomb flash, the sudden stop of the machine---the rabbitlike dash for a doorway and then only a dismantled heap of useless iron---that picture was printed upon my mind.
With the earliest shimmering of dawn the bombardment ceased. We emerged from our hiding places. The first thing that struck my sight as I left the room, was the house on the opposite side of the narrow village street. The night before it had been a duplicate of the one next to it, a two-story, plain stone structure built close to the street. Now a shell had torn out the front wall and the roof. It had skimmed right over the house in which I had lain for three cold, terrifying hours and gone on just far enough to strike the roof opposite. A giant hand had seemed to wipe out everything---roof, floors, windows, leaving only the bare side walls. Twenty feet above the ground, in what had been the second-story front room, a gilt mirror, still miraculously intact, clung to the bare stone wall, and at one side of it hung a crucifix.
With the help of my cellar-room companions I finally retrieved my mired and undamaged car. In a few hours I was safe in camp. Safe in camp! How many times had I wondered, as the warning whirrwhirr of a shell struck my ears, if I was ever going to get back again. My first taste of life with the camion service was over; it had come quite up to my wildest dreams of excitement. But this was, if I had only known it, tame to many of the exciting situations that were coming to me before my six months of enlistment were over.
France, August, 1917.
Before the war Jean Descamps was a member of the Society of Beaux Arts and one of the most distinguished members of the French school of sculptors. Now, he is merely a poilu, a common soldier, detached as a camion driver. But the respect his comrades have for him places him far above the rest, even far above the officers of the groupement. They recognize talent and genius, and are glad to show their appreciation of him. I quickly saw that by the way the soldiers around camp saluted him, respectfully and admiringly.
M. de Launey (my French teacher) took me to a house, surrounded by a stone wall, with one big double gate having a little hole cut in one side to lift the latch. We swung the gate in and were in a cobblestone court covered with littered straw and with numerous chickens and cats running about. It was like all the entrances I have seen around here---the back yard comes first. We passed a low, stone building filled with many kinds of barnyard animals---rabbits, rats, chickens, a cow, etc----until we came to the house. On the right wing of the house an addition had been built, at an anterior period long passed, of a low-ceilinged room with a loft overhead. It was there that we found M. Descamps, in a dirt-floored room that had once been the stable. He shared the room now with three others as we saw by the cots filled with straw.
As we crossed the court to this room I saw a short, stocky man, with a bushy beard and the ruddiest of cheeks, sitting on a home-made stool and painting a picture which rested on a box for an easel. On our approach he arose and faced us with his kindling mild eyes. M. de Launey presented me, and the artist, dressed in the rough clothes of the poilu, became himself---anything but a common soldier. He spoke in a quiet voice and with a much better accent than we commonly hear---even I could tell that.
Jean Descamps is about forty-six years old and has been in the army since the beginning of the war. The first six months he was in the infantry and fought in the trenches before being transferred to the automobile service. When asked if he would show me a plaque he is making he laid aside his brush and paints, led us into the room and to a long work table covered with paints, boards, shavings, and two box casings in which are kept the clay models on which he is working.
With great care M. Descamps removed the covers and exposed the brown clay on which his bas-relief was worked. I suppose this is a secret because the plaque is to be presented to General Pershing, but it was so interesting to see how it was done and particularly where it was done that I cannot help describing it.
In the left-hand foreground Is the figure of a reclining poilu, smoking a pipe---just before dawn, when the charge is expected. He is fully equipped, with his helmet in place and his gun beside him. In back and in the center of the trench the misty, vague figure of the Statue of Liberty throws a huge shadow. To the soldier's astonished eyes there then appears the figure of an American soldier in a new uniform, with his pack on his back and at "present arms." Beneath is the inscription (quoting General Pershing, saluting at the grave of Lafayette), "Here I am!"
This work is marvelously well done, and the allegorical idea is certainly apropos. M. de Launey chose the words for the sculptor. On the reverse side of the plaque, French and American flags are crossed. Underneath, in the left hand corner, you can just make out the ruins of the Rheims cathedral. On the other lower corner is the shadowy outline of New York, with the Statue of Liberty in the foreground.
I was quite overwhelmed, and wanted to praise it so much that I had to have M. de Launey translate it for me. I think the French government is planning to present the bas-relief to General Pershing. After closing the box and putting it away, M. Descamps opened a cloth case and showed me photographs of his completed work. He has a statue of "Pomona," which was bought by the city of Bordeaux. Another is in Paris, and he was working on "Diana in Her Youth" when he was called to fight, three years ago. It shows the young goddess facing the west, with one hand on the head of a deerhound and the other grasping her long bow. The figure is nude and standing ready to move. Even though incomplete, the statue was purchased by the city of Paris. It is this man with such unusual talent who is now a camion driver and only has time to devote himself to small bits of work on his days of repos.
I talked with him afterward, and he told me he hoped to be transferred as an artist, attached to the army. I could not help asking him how he liked the camion service, though it was an unfair thrust. I thought I knew what he would say. What would you say if you were in his position and some one asked you how you liked to drive a truck---to fill grease cups, to clean motors, to paint cars---if you had statues in the parks of Bordeaux and Paris and pictures in the Luxemburg Gallery?
He is a real philosopher, for he said he was glad to be fighting for the cause his country stood for, and added, "What I cannot understand is, how the Germans, who have progressed so far in letters, in arts, in music and in science, could ever have committed the terrible blunder they have made." Then he, looking down at his worn uniform and smiling ruefully, remarked---what they all say, the cause and explanation of everything---"à la guerre!"
He wanted to know the details of an American soldier's equipment (to finish the plaque), so I brought him a number of pictures from camp. [Since this was written M. Descamps has had his wish granted, and has been transferred as an artist attached to the army.]
France, August, 1917.
It sounds like a homely simile to liken the luck of our camion convoi section to a game of "craps," where you "roll" and win, "roll" and win; you "natural." You pyramid and then---the old percentage gets you, as it surely must in the end. That is the way it was with us. We were luckier and luckier until, finally, we just naturally ran out of luck, and all the medaille militaires in the world couldn't restore what was lost.
Orders came in for a "roll" at 3 p. m. That meant a night run up fairly close, so every one wanted to go. The day runs are most interesting, because you see so much, but they lack the excitement of a dark run up close behind a hill, with guns shooting over your head and shells breaking behind you. We had not been out on a night run for quite a while, and the instructions were to unload at a new parc de genie, one we had never seen before.
After luncheon we took our musettes out to the cook and "drew" our supper. A quarter of a loaf of army bread, a piece of chocolate, a piece of meat, and a can of jam. We always get that for a trip. At 2 o'clock the boys began looking over the cars and searching for trouble---it is not found often on these Pierce trucks---they are wonders. At five minutes to three the sergeant came out, picked the lead car and told us to line-up.
Just an hour later we pulled into the loading parc---ten cars. All kinds of trench material were put in; sacks for sandbags, steel roofs for "abris," steel rails and logs for trenches. Fifty tons of material is quite a bit. At about a quarter of eight our convoi stopped behind a hill to wait for dark. Around that hill was a narrow valley and just over the ridge on the other side were the trenches. Cutting one end of the far ridge we could see the white line where the trenches had been before.
We had supper there and passed the time watching the airplanes flying about. First a burst of white shrapnel smoke told us a Boche was somewhere up there, and then he would come farther over until he was directly overhead. By that time a French plane would have him spotted and be coming for him. The wily German turned full tilt for safety and they exchanged a few harmless shots with their rapid fire guns before Mr. Fritz escaped. They played hide and seek up there in the clouds for an hour or so, until it grew dark.
As soon as dusk set in we cranked up and prepared for the last stage of the trip. Our destination was an infantry parc de genie, and the road was exposed all the way up. The parc itself nestled close to the hill in what was left of a wood. Just as we started, a furious bombardment began---not at us, but just ahead, where we wanted to go. By walking to the brow of the cliff we saw what the objective was. A battery of four guns placed on the ridge, just above the parc, was being shelled. The shells were coming about fifteen a minute, and each one raised a black cloud of smoke which settled over everything like a huge cloak.
After half an hour's racket the noise suddenly stopped. Looking down from our hill, the smoke seemed like a huge inkspot splotched on the dusky brown of the ridge. Into that we ran our cars as fast as we could and the corvée (workmen) came out of their dugouts to unload us. Everything was hidden in the wood or under a camouflage covering. We had been there about twenty minutes when the battery behind us opened up. They shot four times and then, two minutes later, another round would come belching out.
We were almost under the cannon's mouth and the flash, the boom, and then the rushing sound of the projectile as it went overhead seemed uncomfortably close. Soon, the battery in front started up with its four guns and then the noise and the flashings were continuous We were in between the two batteries and I suppose they made all that disturbance to cover us. Even one shell with the range they had been using a few minutes before would have done untold damage, but none came and we edged out and ran safely home with no accident.
Next day, when we awoke, the ground was muddy and a drizzling rain had been falling all morning. Orders had come in while we slept and this time it was for two trips. The first was a short haul of logs for fixing a corduroy road. That did not take long, so the second trip was started well before supper. All along this part of the front there are innumerable guns and batteries and material parcs. Our trips are either to a battery or else to one of the material depots.
We had been lucky on the last run, but this one was even a closer shave. The mud and slippery roads made the going rather slow, but our luck held ---and we reached there all right. The night was very dark, so no one felt nervous about going up close. When we came to unload, two trucks with barb wire had to go over the hill and discharge not more than a kilometer from the trenches. They both went ahead with the sergeant and in a few minutes were at the station. The corvée came out, but had no sooner started unloading the rolls of wire, than they turned and ran for the abri. We were right after them and took those steep stairs for the underground in one jump and a slide. It is a queer feeling that creeps in on you when you hear a long whirr, which increases to a sharp whistle, and then suddenly culminates in a tremendous explosion.
We felt better when there was about twenty feet of earth over our heads. It happened that it was only a stray shot, at least, no more came there, but the corvée refused to budge, so we either had to unload the stuff ourselves or else wait there until they felt like doing it. As no more shells came exploring around, we jumped out and stripped the camions. It took a long time, so the rest of the convoy had gone on ahead of us when we came back to their unloading parc. They had left in a hurry, as the shells were dropping all the time. The gunners did not seem to have any very definite aim as the shells fell irregularly and all along the side of the road, but just as we drove up it grew more interesting.
One big caisson was stuck in the mud at the side of the road, blocking all the traffic. It was necessary to unhitch two more teams and put them to the caisson before they could get it out. Finally, with eight horses and many wonderful words, punctuated by frantic arm waving, the caisson was put back on the road. With the delay, the traffic was blocked for a long way, and the few shells that did hit the road caused a lot of commotion. One in particular lit just ahead of our camion and in front of a wagon, killing both horses, hut, strange to say, not touching the driver. That is the way it seems to happen, the most amazing escapes come with the most gruesome accidents.
We pulled into camp at about two in the morning and found one car was lost. The chef of the section went out with the staff car and came back two hours later. He had found the camion in the ditch with both wheels of one side deep in the mud and the other two spinning free. In the dark we had passed it without noticing it---not at all surprising considering the rain, wind, mud and pitchy blackness. The chef sent for a tractor, a truck fitted up for pulling others out of mud and holes, etc., and they went back to get the stuck camion out before daylight.
It proved no easy job, and dawn was just breaking when the tractor finally succeeded in dragging her stranded sister back to dry land. The chef and his driver were standing in the road just ready to go when a shell came with no warning whatever and landed not thirty feet away. The explosion knocked both Americans down, and when they scrambled up to look for the two Frenchmen, they found them both dead. Do you wonder that we thought our section had a horseshoe hanging over us? That was the final straw, I guess, but even at that we are luckier than the unfortunate Frenchmen who were killed.
We had hardly been in camp long enough to change to dry clothes when orders came in for another "roll." Every car was out that night in spite of rain and wind. When the army needs a thing it needs it, and nothing short of the impossible keeps it away. By now you have probably heard of the accident that happened in the camion section, but this may correct certain details. It is what happens every time we go out at night, except we have the luck with its, usually. That means no shelling of roads and parcs.
After a hard passage through mud and rain the convoy struggled on to the parc and the cars lined up to unload. The staff car was about thirty feet ahead of the first camion and the chef and his sergeant were talking to the marechal du logis in charge of the parc. All three were within fifteen feet of the staff car. The section sergeant turned to the chef and said, "We are as safe as in camp." They both laughed, and the next instant an explosion knocked them flat. Without any warning hiss---the explosion always precedes the whirring---the big high explosive shell struck the ground and burst.
For a second all was quiet, then, pandemonium broke loose. Everyone was running for the big abri, which in a second was crowded. The chef managed to get to his feet and looked about. All was dark, but beside him the sergeant lay stunned. One bit of shrapnel had gone completely through the steel helmet and injured his head. Two more were in his back and one in his thigh. The left hand was hanging by a bit of skin, and as the chef raised him up his wrist watch slipped down. It had stopped at 15:20 p. m. The right hand was also injured and bleeding profusely.
He was carried to the abri and then three drivers went with the chef to look for the staff car driver. They found him conscious, but severely wounded. He had just opened the car door to get in when the explosion came. The éclat struck him in the back and in the legs. One fragment lodged just to one side of the backbone, missing it barely an inch. Both these men were carried to the shelter before the second shell landed. After that they came in a series---seven shots---then a wait of five minutes---then seven more shots.
The driver of the first camion found a bit of éclat in the top of his helmet. It had pierced the steel and stuck in the roof of the casque!
Suddenly, a Frenchman cried out, "Ou est le marechal?" and no one knew. He had been talking to the chef just before the first shell struck. The chef went out with three others to bring him in. As they came to the prostrate figure two went to the head and two to the feet. The chef reached down to pick him up, and his hand lay on the bleeding stump of a leg! They quickly lifted the mutilated body and tried to carry him in, but as they raised him his leg dropped off! They bound the stump with leather belts and tried again to get him inside the abri, but it was no use. His entire side was shattered and he died before any medical assistance could get there.
At A------ there is an ambulance station, but the ambulance was out on a call, and so it was impossible to carry the wounded Frenchmen to a post de secours. Two litter-bearers came by about an hour later, with empty stretchers. These were used to carry the two drivers to a post de secours. It was not until five hours later that they were able to get to a hospital.
All this time the bombardment kept up; seven shells, five minutes quiet, then the shells again. This became so regular, the drivers timed the shells and between arrivals unloaded all the camions and drove away down the road to safety. The Frenchmen merely shrugged their shoulders at such American stupidity---as they call it!
Only the three men were hit, but every camion was filled with holes and scratches. One camion had ninety holes in it. An explosive shell had struck beside it. The driver was safe in the abri when that happened. The two blessées were taken in to Neuilly to the American hospital, where every attention was given them. A few days later the C. O. went up to see them and holding the wrapped stumps of a left arm while he spoke a few brief words of praise, pinned the médaille militaire on the sergeant's breast. A croix de guerre with a palm was given to the staff car driver.
So far, that is all the wounded men we have had. I hope they will be the last. Nothing can ever repay the sacrifice of an arm, or leg, or hand blown off by an exploding shell. But all the time we knew we were awfully due for an accident for the percentage was all against us.
France, September, 1917.
Now that the attack is over, the Germans pushed back and the French in repossession of the famous is old Fort de la Malmaison, I see what we have been doing for the last five months. Ever since the disastrous April offensive, when all attempts to advance were repulsed, the French have been slowly concentrating their resources for another attempt. Reverses had shown them the way to win and that way was carried out in October with perfect success. This time there was no case of infantry and artillery failing to coordinate their movements; no case of barrage fire falling on their own men, no case of columns wiped out by machine guns of the enemy. Instead, a perfectly planned offensive was carried out on a perfect schedule which called for no needless sacrifice of men.
When we first came out here to haul material for the French army we carried nothing but ammunition; shells for batteries, for anti-aircraft guns, for trench cannons. Day after day the convoys hauled shell cases to replenish the reserve stores. Along the front are innumerable batteries----a solid row of artillery defense To these we toted our loads all through the summer. There was not much activity---according to the official communiqués---little doing after the tremendous effort of April, so we wondered at times where all the ammunition went, what it was for.
May passed-June, July, and still the guns lacked their supply. An occasional artillery duel explained away a good bit, but the supply could scarcely have been touched by those brief cannonades. In August and September we learned what T. M. stands for. Not military transport, but "transporte materiale." No longer did we carry ammunition; our camions were loaded with engineering supplies and our unloading stations became a sign hidden somewhere marked "parc du genie," or engineering depot. These parcs sprang up all along the road (the road running parallel with the trenches) and in convenient ravines well hidden from observers by trees or, at times, by camouflage.
Every week a new one seemed to shoot up until along ten or fifteen kilometers of the front there was a parc around nearly every turn of the road. In these depots all kinds of material were concentrated. Iron frames and barb wire to make wire entanglements, corrugated iron for abri roofs, trench walks for captured trenches, rails of iron to brace deep dugouts, logs, stakes; in fact, every imaginable attribute to the engineers' department. All these we hauled to the front and with them filled up the newly-made parcs from early dawn to dark. Many parcs were located close to the trenches, and as we crept to them on a dark night, the tat-tat-tat of the "mitrailleuse" could be heard just over the hill ahead. Often a star shell would burst in the sky and occasionally a rocket would scatter its falling sticks ahead of us.
Along the front, in back of the guns and in front of them, the parcs were placed. At intervals, one would be found by the boche and then a regular bombardment would begin. Certain of the parcs used to be shelled every night at regular hours. Bits of exposed road, too, were subjected to periodical bombardments. While the firing went on no one would pass along the road, but as soon as it was over---the spells lasted from half an hour to an hour---traffic continued as usual. Many times we have waited behind a sheltering hill for an hour or more while the stretch of road ahead was undergoing a hail of shell fire. When it stopped, in we scurried with the barb wire, or lumber, or whatever it happened to be, and unloaded and hustled away again.
That went on up to the first of October. The parcs were apparently full. Ammunition we knew must be there. in plenty. Soldiers we picked up on the road said an attack was to be made. Where, they did not know, in ten days, two weeks "peut etre." The ten days passed and the movement of troops began. Every day a regiment would pass by camp. The lieutenant ahead, on foot, the wire cutters coming next, then the soldiers with their heavy packs strapped to their broad backs. Many of the latter carried canes, or rather sticks, to aid them in their long, hard journeys, and all wore their overcoats. In any kind of weather the poilu wears his big coat buttoned up tight. Even on hot, dusty days they seem to prefer wearing a coat to carrying it.
On the other roads, too, we passed division after division, battalion after battalion, regiment after regiment, all marching toward the front. Every soldier picked up told us of the expected offensive. "Permissions" had all been stopped, they said; the old line troops were replaced in the trenches by younger, fresher men; everything was in preparation.
One morning we went through a big town (S----), and on the other side, toward the lines, we met the chasseurs. "Blue Devils" they are called, and with reason, They are the attacking regiments, composed of the youngest and strongest men in the army. Originally, they were recruited from the Alps, and the Alpine Chasseur regiments are the pick and flower of the army. They look it, too, for they are all well set up, young fellows, and in their distinctive blue uniforms, with their rakish, soft, brimless fatigue caps, they are a bad bunch to have against you.
They were not walking along the road, these Blue Devils; they were riding in "Fiat" transports. They are only used for attack and none of the drudgery of war falls on them. They do not hold trenches, nor do they have the lesser duties en repos. They attack, and then they are through. When we saw them "going up" we knew the offensive could not be far off. Nor was it.
Early morning calls had become such a habit that one morning I woke up voluntarily before the guard came around. It was about 3 o'clock or 3:30, and in the distance I could hear what seemed to be a continuous thunder. There was no intermittent explosion of a battery that was heard, but a constant rumble punctuated by deeper, louder notes, like a heavy surf pounding on the beach; it seemed to come in waves of sound.
Evidently, the attack had begun. All day, all night, all the next day and night this terrific artillery fire kept up. The second day we went up to a parc beyond the last battery. In the river were steel gunboats moored to the bank and braced with outriggers. These were adding their music to the terrible din. At the side of the road a newly-laid railroad track held a battery of armored guns. They were huge protected steel cars braced from the track by iron jacks. The battery was named, one gun the "Lorraine," another "Alsace," another "Revanche," and the last "Esperance." Isn't that almost what France is fighting for? Alsace-Lorraine---revenge for outrages---and hope for eternal peace?
These big guns are of long range and large caliber. Each time a shot is fired the turret swings around so the breech can be opened. The recoil is sudden and slows up with a deliberate motion, exactly like a cat, after striking, couches bath for a spring---slowly, deliberately and with an appearance of latent strength. These guns were the last line of artillery. On the hills and over them on the other side were more. They formed in the two or three kilometers between the river and the lines a zigzag line of batteries, so that almost every meter of ground was covered by a line of fire. From the enemy standpoint a solid front of guns was opposed to them.
One artilleryman attached to a "75" told me his gun belched 2,800 shots during the attack, and that was only one gun of a single battery! Then I knew why we had carried so many thousands of shells through the summer.
Early in the morning of the third day the artillery fire stopped suddenly---we, waiting behind, knew what that meant---the rush was on! Up and over! God help them. . .
I forgot to say that rain had been falling steadily for days and days. Mud was everywhere, on everything and over everything. The disputed land must have been a sea of mud. That day we crept tip there in the afternoon. At one point where a road led out from the lines, thousands of prisoners were brought down. They were haggard and tired looking, and oh, so dirty! Mud was cluttered on their unshaven faces and stuck to their legs and clothing. They said they had not had anything to eat for two days, and no doubt a square meal was only a memory.
They filed on down the road to a prison camp, to be numbered, examined and then, perhaps, detailed for work. As they went by us they looked up questioningly, calling "Englander?" We shook our heads and replied American at which they smiled and called, "kamarades!" "kamarades!" One stopped by the car and gave me a button---the friendly act was rewarded by a bayonet prod from the guard, but I managed to give him a few cigarettes anyway. Half a dozen prisoners were halted near by and they clustered around us with great curiosity. Looking on their intelligent faces, for they do look intelligent, it was impossible to believe them capable of the atrocities attributed to them.
One came up who spoke English. He had been in school, he said, was just out of the training period and had only been at the front nine days when the attack started. Nine days of warfare for that nineteen-year-old boy! But he was glad he had been taken prisoner! One day in the trenches had made him prefer a prisoner's life to that of a soldier. Most of the captured Germans were young, but seemed to be in poor physical condition. They were all thin and worn looking, with poor teeth and uncouth appearance.
When the prisoners had all marched by we continued the trip to the parc and unloaded. It was dark before we were ready to return, and I then found I had a guest on the camion. A young officer with his orderly. They had followed the attack on the Fort de la Malmaison and after holding it with the Zouaves until the supporting columns were installed, he had been sent back for repos.
How he did talk! Young, excited, making a successful attack and living through it! Pride was in his voice as he told of the gallant rush that had driven the German from his stronghold. He pointed to the tired orderly for corroboration, and he, poor fellow, would agree with a weary "oui," "oui," to everything.
What did the victory mean for him? A short repos, that was all, but for the officer-a "permission" in Paris---probably, promotion ---certainly, praise and flattery.
He started in again, and this time I gathered more about the actual fighting and there was less of the imaginative in the recital. With his officers' map he pointed out everything, positions, attacking points and all, and I could get a wonderfully vivid idea of the plans. Days and days of artillery fire had been accompanied by constant downpours of rain. Over the land between the lines a sea of mud stretched, and over this rushed the troops. At dawn the fire of the cannons lengthened suddenly---the massed troops jumped out of the trenches and started off for the fort (Malmaison). That was the principal point for this officer's regiment, and that is what he told me about.
On the left were the colonial troops; on the right the Blue Devils. When the rush started they all piled over and struck out for the fort. The ground was a succession of shell holes, ranging from six feet to twelve in depth, and mud was everywhere---a slushy slough. When they had gone a few meters they were outdistanced by the Zouaves, coming from the left. At the right the Chasseurs were held in check for a while by a sturdy resistance. They stormed the line in the face of machine-gun fire, and finally swept everything before them. The German line gave in and then the Blue Devils completed their rush to the fort. It was said that when the Germans found out where the Chasseurs were they concentrated all their resistance there. Certainly, the Chasseurs lost heavily---one complete regiment being annihilated.
On the left the Zouaves were irresistible. Mud holes, barb-wire, Germans, machine-guns, trenches---all became nothing to the frenzy of the black Senegalese as they rushed with their long sharp knives gripped in their teeth. Getting within striking distance of a Boche, all instincts, save one, were forgotten, and the slash of a knife would sever a head from the trunk in a single stroke. No use to cry "kamarade!" to those chargers. The fort was their object, and the fort they would reach!
In the center were the old French regulars. They marched in perfect order to the attack and as the officer said: "We were very, very fortunate," for they lost few men. He told of the death of the lieutenant of the company. Charging at the head of his men, he was struck by a bullet, which pierced the ribbon of the croix de guerre he wore, burying it in his heart. The company carried on until they reached the captured fort, which they held for reenforcements.
Three days later I walked up to Malmaison and saw with my own eyes the scene of that terrible struggle. It was a sunshiny morning and most of the mud had dried up, leaving the shell-holed "No Man's Land" more visible as a field than it was when the attacking soldiers waded through. From the French side I saw the result of the tremendous artillery duel that had preceded the charge. Every inch of ground within half a mile of the actual lines was a shell hole or bomb crater. Not a crater had escaped the rain of iron hail, and as I walked along the road dwindled to a path winding between the shell holes On one side would be a chasm, perhaps, six feet deep; on the other, one three or four feet. The path between was only eight or ten inches wide.
As I drew nearer to the front lines and crossed into the real "No Man's Land" the depth of the holes increased. These actual chasms from ten to fifteen feet deep were scattered between the former opposing lines. Now, after the terrific shell hammering they had undergone, the front lines were no different from the rest of the field. All had been battered into a similarity ---a spreading field of yawning holes and cone-shaped craters.
Famous Chemin des Dames, marking so bloody a chapter in army records, was indistinguishable from the land around it---all, all was a horrible ruin of devastating war. There was scarcely a pit that did not have a tell-tale pile of débris at the bottom, a bent bayonet, a scrap of a coat, a helmet, a cartridge belt and pouch or worse. In one pit I saw a leg---the shoe still attached, but that was all. To the left of the fort, in what was probably a machine-gun pit, three Germans lay---not yet found by the overworked "brancardiers." They were as gruesome proof of the fury of the Senegalese---each one was decapitated.
In front of the sand bag pit a French soldier lay in a huddled heap---about four feet in, back of him, was the lower half of his body, ripped off like a guillotine blow by the murderous machine-gun fire. This was three days after the attack, when the field had been supposedly cleared. What a horror it must have been when the stretcher-bearers first followed the rush!
Behind the hill which holds the fort two caterpillar tractors were stuck in the mud. One had tried to draw the other out of a hole, but only succeeded in sliding down a shell pit with the rear end left high in the air. They had brought up guns which were installed in the captured fort. The French cleared out much of the débris from the ruin, and are using it just as the Boche did, but an officer stopped my curiosity and suggested I turn back or explain why I was taking pictures. It was a good suggestion, so I turned.
All the way back from the fort to the former French lines the ground was a litter of débris, holes, and, occasionally, a corpse huddled in a grotesque attitude. A little burro lay on its side, the empty saddle baskets, full of provisions at the time of the accident, shattered by the shot that killed the harmless beast. Farther on two more lay on their backs in a trench.
Dugouts, bomb-proofs, trenches, gun pits, were all battered to nothing; anything that could afford protection or refuge was shattered to the common level, a shapeless mass. Farther from the front the ground was less irregular---the road again took shape until behind the first cliff of the plateau the land resumed the aspect more familiar to our eyes.
Here hundreds of soldiers were busy repairing the damage done by the shell fire. Roads and communicating trenches were cleared out, mitrailleuse pits repaired, new gun positions prepared, etc. Many hastily-dug graves were along the road, the trees became more plentiful and less barren, then patches of grass appeared until, finally, around a bend of the road and, perhaps, due to the sheltering hill, the meadows looked natural, the trees still bore their leaves and all trace of the terrible, bombardment on the other side of the hill had vanished.
Farther down the road was a battery and all around it was the pock-marked ground again---the leafless trees. The deadly quiet of an abandoned place showed that war had passed that way. Before coming to a ruined village-nothing now left but a few acres of rocks piled and hurled in confusion---a solitary grave struck the eye. The familiar six-foot mound of freshly-turned earth; the cross at one end with the red, white and blue circle of tin attached to it---and on this one an eloquent helmet laid on the grave told the tale. Through the top of the steel casque was a jagged hole, on the cross was the inscription "Inconnu---mort pour La France."---Unknown---Died for France. What need to say more?
On the main road near V----- a graveyard was being dug by German prisoners. Already, several hundreds of the little crosses were up, and under a canvas, lying stretched out on flat boards, were about forty or fifty more sheeted figures, waiting for their last home to be dug by their captured slayers.
That was all. We stayed around camp most of the time after that. The big work was done. Perhaps, two or three times a week we "rolled," but it was uninteresting, dull. All the excitement was over and the few following events were only to finish up the entire work. A triumphant revue of the victorious army took place. Crosses of the Legion of Honor were given out and other honors came to those who so richly deserved them.
That was the offensive as I saw it. The other things, the minor details, I hope to be able to forget. The memory of the victorious attack, of which I formed so infinitesimal a part, that will always be with me as something I am proud to have been in.
France, October, 1917.