Out of the valley of Bethincourt, over the hill to Esnes,
WHEN the American Expeditionary Forces reached foreign shores, the situation with their Allies was considered serious. Just to refresh our memories, the war the United States was entering had begun three years before our arrival, actually on August 3, 1914. Germany had invaded France by the way of neutral Belgium. In spite of heroic resistance by the Belgians, and some vital aid by a small expeditionary force from Great Britain, the French were rapidly forced back to the general line of the Marne River. In a great sweep, the enemy was stopped short of Paris (by the taxi-cab army) and the key stronghold of Verdun. Subsequent counter offensives by the Allies had won back some territory and secured the channel ports south of Nieuport. Italy entered the war on the Allies side and drew Austrian troops from the Eastern Front. Germany evidently concluded to remain on the defensive, while the Allies sought to maintain the offensive on the Western Front, as far as their strength would permit, in order to hinder Germany's conquest of Russia and if possible prevent a German attack on Italy. The British captured Messines Ridge, and near Ypres undertook a series of offensive operations which lasted from July 31, 1917 to November 10.
The French conducted limited attacks near Verdun and the Chemin des Dames. Only moderate gains were made, and with the collapse of Russia and the Italians suffering a disastrous defeat, it became necessary to send British and French divisions to their assistance. The Allied Command then felt there was no doubt that Germany would resume an all out offensive, and in fact she had begun the transfer of divisions to the Western Front in November, 1917. The American Field Service and the Norton-Harjes ambulance units had been working with the British and French divisions all during this period.
United States troops, represented by the 1st Division being formed from existing organizations, arrived in France, June 26, 1917. Major General John J. Pershing had been appointed Commander in Chief of the A.E.F. and landed in France June 13, 1917, and first set up Headquarters in Paris, moving to Chaumont on September 1, 1917. Although it had been agreed that the United States would train and take over an independent front at the earliest possible moment, the formation of an American army was interrupted in the spring of 1918, by the succession of German drives which required the use of every available American and Allied division to avoid defeat. For this purpose General Pershing freely offered to General Foch, Allied Supreme Commander, every American man and gun in France. The 1st, 2nd and 42nd Divisions were in the trenches, while the 26th and 32nd Divisions were also available.
The establishment of the Headquarters for the United States Army Ambulance Service with the French Army was a miniature "Quartier Général." It functioned through divisions or departments, with officers at their heads who were directly responsible to the Chief of Service. The peculiar status of the service, its detachment from the American Expeditionary Forces, and its attachment to the French Army, presented unique and difficult problems of organization and administration. Liaison was 'necessary with the American Army, as it was with the French, which led naturally to organization into a body complete and self-supporting. As the service was forced to operate more or less independently, it was necessary to get many special authorizations of general application. Activities began immediately with the arrival of Colonel Percy L. Jones and his staff, and a small detail of enlisted men to make up the office force. It was the duty of this advance party to establish offices, liaison with the French and Americans, and begin enlistments and militarization of the American Field Service and the Red Cross sections, then working at the front. It was during this period that Col. Jones had to lean heavily on the services of the former Inspector General of the American Field Service, A. Piatt Andrew and his immediate assistant, Stephen Galatti. The French Army contact was through Commandant Doumenc, Director of the Automobile Service of the French General Headquarters.
Commissioned a Major in the USAAS, and subsequently a Lieutenant Colonel, the American Field Service Inspector-General, A. Piatt Andrew, became the officer in charge of all transportation of this Service, and next in ranking officer to Colonel Jones. During the absence of the latter, he served as Acting Chief of Service. The efficient organization built up at the headquarters of the American Field Service, under the guidance of Mr. Andrew and Mr. Galatti, was of inestimable value. This was located at 21 Rue Raynouard.
We would like to digress for the moment, to point out that both A. Piatt Andrew and Stephen Galatti were original volunteer ambulance drivers. Piatt Andrew was with American Ambulance Section 1, working with the French Army holding the line, in the early days of the war, from the Channel to Ypres. It was during this period that Mr. Robert L. Bacon, former American Ambassador to France, visited the front and took Andrew back to Paris to start the formation of the American Field Service. In due time thereafter, Stephen Galatti was called in from his post with SSU Section 3, to become Andrew's assistant.
The War Department order, creating the United States Army Ambulance Service, made no provision for headquarters personnel, for personnel necessary to conduct the various assembling and repair, or for a base camp. The Chief of Service solved the problem by reducing the sections from 45 to about 40 or 36 men each. This caused considerable disturbance in the early contingents, but the answer always was, "c'est la guerre." The headquarters enlisted personnel was formed into a section (SSU 650), to which all men on duty at the headquarters in the Paris office, and all its subdivisions located in that city, were assigned. It consisted of 18 officers and 150 men. The base camp had 9 officers and 120 enlisted men. In the beginning headquarters' offices were situated at 10 Rue St. Anne, Paris. In October, 1917, they were moved to 27 Rue Constantine. With the growth of the service and the demand for larger quarters, they were moved again in December, 1917, to 47 Rue Penthieu, where they remained until recalled from service with the French Army.
The commanding officer maintained an office at Headquarters and directed all activities through the divisions. His executive officer assisted him in accordance with regular military practice. An officer of the French automobile service was attached to headquarters, to maintain liaison between the USAAS and the French Government.
The Assembly and Revision plant, to supply the great numbers near the base of supplies where automobile bodies were built and repairs made, was established in Paris on Avenue St. Ouen. Here, the chassis shipped direct from base ports were put together, and the bodies furnished by Paris makers fitted on. A number of men belonging to the Army Ambulance Service were kept constantly engaged. When a Section was completely worn out, the personnel of the section was sent to the base camp, and its transport, including motor ambulances, touring cars, trucks and motor-cycles was forwarded to the plant in Paris for overhaul, and replaced if necessary. The reserve cars of the Ambulance Service were held in this parc, where they could be shipped to the smaller parcs nearer the front.
Following the establishment of the Ambulance Service Headquarters in Paris, steps were taken to procure a suitable site for a base camp. The first location was as Sandricourt, about 35 Km northwest of Paris. This soon proved inadequate, and in February, 1918, after many disappointments, a new location was established at Ferrières-en-Gatinais, about 100 km south of Paris. The main building here had formerly been a monastery, built 700 years before. In this building were established the headquarters of the camp, the infirmary, the pathological laboratory, the quartermaster's storehouse, and the guardhouse. Barracks were erected to accommodate 500 men on the grounds around the monastery, and later by taking over an old tannery near by, and the building of more barracks, the capacity of this base camp was increased to 2000. There was a permanent personnel of about 150 officers and men attached to the base, from which were furnished all permanent details of a teaching force for a school for cooks, a school for mechanics, and a school for instructing non-commissioned officers in paper work. Sections were fitted out here with personal equipment, quartermaster and medical supplies.
It is interesting to note that when the U.S. Army Ambulance Service took over the operation of the existing volunteer ambulance units, there were in use 2113 Ford ambulances, 152 Ford touring cars, 94 heavy trucks, 135 light trucks, 57 kitchen trailers, and 62 motor cycles, including several workshops. Of the above totals, the following were received as gifts to the United States Government: 709 ambulances, 32 heavy trucks, 33 touring cars, 28 light trucks, 28 kitchen trailers, and 5 workshops. There is no doubt that this equipment, made immediately available to the Ambulance Service, accounts for the splendid continuity of service to the French Army at the front.
It should he pointed out that there had been a steady evolution in the types of ambulance chassis and bodies, from the early years of experience. At first the French ambulances were made with painted canvas walls and tops. In some cases the chassis was made by Fiat or Peugeot. Later the Ford chassis became standard, with the bodies made of wood panels. Then the final refinement included the bodies made of fibreboard, with openings under the driver's seat and folding oilcloth or canvas pockets cut in the rear door, into which stretcher handles would fit. Some of these ambulance models are shown in illustrations on these pages. We have also shown an illustration of the General Motors ambulance which was used mostly by the Italian Contingent in the mountainous regions.
It is essential that the Parc system be described, in order that the operation of the ambulance service in the field may be understood. To each French Army serving on the Western Front, 12 in number, were attached about 3000 vehicles of all sorts. To each army there was attached a Reserve Parc; to each group of armies a Revision Parc; and for the whole army a central clearing Parc was maintained at Versailles. The Reserve Parc served essentially as a distribution point for automobile sections, whether these were equipped with camions for the transportation of personnel or matériel, or were Sanitary Sections for the evacuation of the wounded. The number of sections depended upon the number of divisions in the army, its activity, and its liability to attack. These Reserve Parcs, though a fixed organization, could be moved promptly, in case of offensive or defensive action. All gasoline (petrol-essence) tubes and tires, mail, food and equipment passed through the French Reserve Parc. Where there were sections of the Army Ambulance Service on duty with the French Divisions concerned, there was an American Parc or Echelon. The Revision Parc of the Army Ambulance Service was attached to the French Revision parc at Chalons. A reserve of 50 ambulances, new or repaired, was always on hand to be requisitioned from it by the Reserve Parc commanders.
The personnel differed slightly in those sections attached to the French Army, in that they had an additional French officer, a French noncommissioned officer, usually a French cook or two, and sometimes a French private. The operation in the field, for those sections serving with a French Division, followed a definite pattern. See chart prepared by the American Field Service, shown below. This is a complete plan of action for a typical ambulance unit at the front. An explanation of this chart, we feel sure, would be helpful.
"A division of the French Army, normally included three infantry regiments and an artillery regiment, each of which had its own sanitary formation of stretcher-bearers and doctors, who gave hasty dressings at the first-aid shelters. In addition the division had its own corps of surgeons, doctors, attendants, and stretcher-bearers (G.B.D., Groupe des Brancardiers Divisionnaire), who maintained at least one central dressing-station or poste de secours, where re-examinations were made and, when necessary, further treatment given, and who served as a reserve for regimental postes. In addition, the divisional corps maintained a mobile hospital unit, which served as a sorting station (triage), assigning cases according to their nature and gravity to particular hospitals in the rear, not attached to the division.
"Where conditions of the terrain allowed, motor ambulances brought wounded directly from regimental first-aid shelters. Ordinarily wounded were brought in on stretchers slung on a light two-wheeled frame. The ambulances then carried them back to the triage, and from there again to the base or evacuation hospital."
(The above is quoted in its entirety from Volume I of the History of the American Field Service in France.)
Those sections who were loaned by the French Army to serve with the American Divisions early in 1918, to stem the tide of the German offensive, will remember how the fearless American Medical Officers, in their effort to bring quick aid to the wounded, called upon the ambulance drivers to go into areas beyond the normal second line of trenches. Some of the accounts of these experiences will be given later in this chapter.
To tell the story of the Western Front at the time the United States Army Ambulance Service was formed and sent to France, we are fortunate to have a complete summary which has been made a part of this chapter and is quoted in full, with the permission of the Editors of 1'Illustration. Arranged by Commandant Louis Rivière for l'Illustration, Paris, France, this was included in their series of publications during the period of the war from 1914 through 1919. We are placing this as a quick reference at the end of this chapter.
As we have said in this and other chapters, the young volunteer ambulance drivers that preceded the United States Army Ambulance Sections, were permitted by order of the Secretary of War to continue serving with the French Armies, just as they had from the beginning, until the proper procedure could be set in operation to have their sections militarized. Their experiences all along the Western Front have been recorded in many books. Permission was given to quote from certain portions of Edward Weeks' vivid accounts in his book, entitled "In Friendly Candor." From the chapter, "Learning from the French," he relates:
"We were assigned to the Moroccan Division, 1st and 3rd Zouaves; 1st and 3rd Tirailleurs; and the Spahi Cavalry. Here the French educated us in many things; to speak French (since they manifestly had no intention of speaking English); to eat horsemeat, which was our main ration; to drive an ambulance with a respect for shattered men; to pause and check the shelling before committing ourselves to any crossroads within range of the Germans; and at Verdun, where we served in July and again in November, to do our work by night over roads deep in mud and wrecked beyond belief.
"Our real instructors were the brancardiers, the stretcher-bearers, men in their gray fifties who had been pulled out of the infantry and assigned to the tender but hazardous task of conveying the wounded from the front line to the poste de secours. These men were old enough to be our fathers, they had seen more than they wanted of death, and yet they were endlessly patient in their teaching of its raw Americans, to whom a pile of stiffs under a tarpaulin in the shed behind the poste was still a curiosity to be stared at. They taught us their card games, and how to enjoy pinard at their popote. They taught us the humor and irony of the French newspapers; they taught us tenacity and, in their handling of the wounded, the meaning of mercy. And finally, in those perilous days of March 1918, when the Germans had broken through at St. Quentin, they showed us the anguish which is in every Frenchman's eyes when his country seems dreadfully in peril ...There were five Harvard men in my Section (641) . . . two of them spoke French fluently (Editor's note: One of the men mentioned in this account was later part of the orchestra in the famous USAAS show "Let's Go!" produced in France, after the Armistice, written by William Kernell and Richard Fechheimer) . . . Among the six of us were four books which circulated in the Section and gnawed at when we were en repos. Harry contributed the 'Oxford Book of English Verse,' and Stuart, 'Pickwick Papers;' I can't remember who owned 'Apollo: the History of Art.' and my offering was Lockhart's 'Napoleon.' .
"On my return from leave I found Harry in a highly nervous state. His ambulance had received a direct hit at the very instant he had arrived, empty, at a forward poste. He was still at the wheel and the fountain of the explosion which enveloped him, and totally destroyed the car, had carved his silhouette on the backboard but had nicked him only in the little finger. I have never known a closer shave and the shock of it was plain to see,
"Our Christmas was celebrated in the Vosges. The ambulances were parked two feet deep in snow on the grounds of a chateau at Darney. . . . we twenty Americans were concentrated in a brick toolshed, lit by one window, heated by one potbellied stove; here we waited for the Christmas letters and packages that never came. How could the French postal service know where we were, how could they care? But they came on January 14; a French camion crunched up the driveway and when the tail-gate was lowered out poured hag upon bag of mail, parcels, love in familiar handwriting. This was the day! . . . We were deep in paper, opening, ejaculating and comparing, Johnny said how would it be if we chipped in a total of twenty francs, ten to go to the guy who got the goofiest gift, ten for the goofiest letter --- and the pot was collected. . . Now I have five aunts and I was their only nephew overseas, they had all been knitting for me. From their gifts I selected three entries: a khaki knitted helmet with no face, a pair of giant bootees to be worn over one's rubber hoots, and a narrow knitted hand of camel's hair wool with cord ends. 'This, my dear Ted,' wrote Aunt Liz, 'is what they call a Cootie String. We are told that if you tie it around your waist the little rodents are attracted by the body's warmth and when they have gathered sufficiently in the wool, you go off by yourself, detach it, and hang it on a tree.' I was awarded the first prize for gifts, but there were those who said I should have had both prizes.
"When men are hard-driven, as in war, they will sleep anywhere: in an abri or foxhole or sitting upright in a hocking plane or jeep. I fell asleep twice while driving my ambulance, once at Verdun and again at the time of the German break-through in March 1918. In each case the ambulance was empty . . . . I could feel the doze coming . . . . The Ford rocked over tree roots ... and hung itself halfway up on the muddy bank from which we were extricated by the crew of a French 75. . .
"But what remained in the back room of the mind, stored away like an unhung painting, was not the comedy of that smoky dawn, with the artillery putting me hack on the road, nor the fact that in swerving off the road I had missed colliding with a tree by the narrowest margin. What remained and is still there is the inescapable anguish of the drive in . . . On one run, in the summer of 1918, I carried a French Colonel who had been dreadfully wounded and was bleeding internally. He was clear headed, very pale, and calm, and he smiled at me as they were loading his stretcher into the holders. All through the early torture I could hear the priest who was riding with him, talking in a low voice. We came to the long hill, and as we neared the top I suppose I let up on the low pedal too soon. The Ford bucked and stopped, and at that instant, so the priest told me, afterwards, the Colonel died. Had I driven better, could I have got him back alive? The question kept recurring in my mind long after the Armistice, when J was in college and suffering from insomnia. Again in my dream I would be lurching through the mud, grinding up the hill incapable of averting what was to happen. Insomnia is a form of self-examination, and perhaps it is just as well that those who have been to war should be left with such reminders of guilt and compassion."
Many experiences, such as those just told in the words of Edward Weeks, were duplicated over and over all along the Western Front. One of the earliest contacts our American troops had with the enemy was when a battalion of infantry of the 1st Division entered the lines with a corresponding unit with the French Army, in the Lunéville Secteur southeast of Nancy, October 20-21, 1917. At this time these small units of American army divisions were in training with the French. Units from the Provisional Section in Paris and other U.S. Army Ambulance Service units were engaged with them or their French counterparts.
One of the sections which saw early service on the Western Front was a unit which later prepared a wonderful combination album and memoirs, from which we are privileged to quote. This USAAC section also published one of only two newspapers printed at the front. Theirs was called, "The Exhaust." Three issues altogether were printed, usually when their French Division was "en repos," and the ambulanceers had time to collect their thoughts.
To return to quotations from these memoirs. Having gone through that period of "Get ready, get set, no go!" they finally were selected and shipped out with a stop-over in Halifax. They watched the Drake go out from the inner harbor, never to return again, having lost a skirmish with a submarine. They were held over in Halifax awaiting orders to proceed with a convoy coming out of New York harbor. Whenever they would gather with their comrades in other sections they were sure to be asked, "Were you in Halifax before or after the great disaster?" Their answer was that they were there before. The contingent led by Major Metcalf, which sailed on the H.M.S. Carmania, spent two days in the Halifax harbor, 30 days after the explosion. Much of the news at that time was strictly censored and some of us only learned of the events leading up to the disaster from a reprint, by permission of "The American Mercury," in an early issue of the "USAAC Bulletin." Parts of this reprint are quoted herewith:
"On the morning of December 6, 1917, life in Halifax, Nova Scotia went on serenely for 17 minutes after a flicker of blue flame first appeared aboard the munitions ship Mont Blanc.
"It was 9 o'clock, and work had begun in offices, warehouses and factories, all burdened with the rich business of war. Out in the Narrows, freighters were being warped into piers, cruisers and transports swung at anchor. Suddenly a lifeboat appeared manned by French sailors rowing furiously for the northern shore. A second boat followed, also filled with men, all glancing backward in desperation at that thin blue flame on the Mont Blanc . . . . The sailors flung themselves ashore in terror, gibbering French curses and prayers, and shrieking: 'Pou-dar! Pou-dar!'
"'She's afire!' blurted a Canadian. 'The Mont Blanc, the Imo collided with her. Munitions aboard!' He raced away.
"Meanwhile H.M.S. Highflyer, a British cruiser anchored nearby, had put a boat overside. As the flame waned, sprang up again, this boat swung smartly alongside the Mont Blanc. Watchers on the shore saw officers and men clamber to the deck and run toward the fire.
"The 17 minutes were up. A shaft of yellow light no thicker than the Mont Blanc's masts, streaked upward from her deck, piercing the sunny air for a mile. For an instant it whirled like a waterspout. Then its top spread, and the whole pillar of fire mushroomed into an enormous purple cloud.
"Four thousand tons of TNT had exploded the greatest detonation ever heard on earth. The Mont Blanc vanished. A fragment of her anchor, weighing half a ton, flew three miles amid sheets of flame.
"Death then advanced, roaring over the water The Captain of the Imo and 30 of his crew were squashed on her deck by the concussion . . . . A huge rock ripped from the harbor bottom, hurtled through the air and killed 64 workmen on a pier. The afterblast of the explosion rushed onward into the city of Halifax itself, broke windows, toppled walls and started fires in a thousand places . . . . The death list mounted to 2,000, injured totaled 20,000. Five hundred persons never were found, having vanished from the face of the earth.
* * * * *
"What was the origin of the Mont Blanc explosion? This is the generally accepted version:
"As the Mont Blanc, arriving from New York, entered the Narrows that morning, the Imo, a Norwegian grain ship was proceeding down the Narrows. There were many other ships moving in the channel, and in a confusion of signals, the Imo headed directly for the munitions ship. The prow of the Into cut into the Mont Blanc and overturned a drum of benzol up forward. Some maintained that the clash of steel threw out the sparks; others insist the Frenchmen had a fire going in the forecastle. In any event, the fatal flame appeared.
"The litigation following the disaster was carried to the highest tribunal in the Empire, the Privy Council, which found both ships equally at fault
"But the officers and men of the Highflyer offer an example of bravery that will long be remembered in naval history. They saw what had happened. They knew what was in the Mont Blanc's hold. Yet three officers and 20 seamen boarded her to quench the flames. No one ever knew how close they came to winning. They were dissolved in that globe of fiery gas."
With this tragic story retold for the men who missed being involved by a few weeks, we must get back to the Western Front in France. We were about to quote from a history written by the men of a section recruited at Princeton, which was so typical of most of the early sections, which had been selected by Colonel Persons as the First Contingent to leave Camp Crane with Colonel Percy L. Jones. Some of these 20 sections left Allentown August 6, 1917, and sailed the next day on the S.S. San Jacinto and the S.S. Antilles. The contingent was split up due to last minute changes, and 8 sections, including the Princeton section and at least one University of Pennsylvania section, were on the H.M.S. Baltic, at anchor in the Halifax harbor.
"Then at sunset, September 5th, with 12 other ships, our convoy set sail, nosing out into a long swell which we either laughed at, or shot at . . . . After days upon end of seeing endless wastes of water in every direction, the Irish coast, although easily ten miles away, seemed to be only a short swim from us. Bets were upon our time of arrival at Liverpool.
"Leaving Liverpool, we embarked on one of the 'queer' English trains for Southampton. On the 16th of September convoyed by the British 'D-34,' we went across to Le Havre. In France at last, sunny France, beautiful France! Finally on the night of the 20th of September we arrived at St. Nazaire.
"We found we had been blessed with good fortune. The first 12 sections were still there--- they had come on small, filthy, uncomfortable boats, had found nothing prepared when they arrived, had spent arduous days unloading big boxes of Fords from ships and placing them on trucks for transport to the camp." (Each box contained either two chassis or two ambulance bodies --- see accompanying illustrations.)
We would like to suggest a break here in the quotations covering the activities of this section, and pick up a thought which was brought out by their feeling of "good fortune" in their accommodations to date. Some sections were fortunate to secure passage in former passenger liners turned into troop ships. Others had to endure the crossing in revamped freighters which had limited crews and the ambulanceers doubled as lookouts or messengers from bridge to radio room. One man writes that a trip up the rope ladder to the crow's-nest, to watch for subs, was not for weak stomachs. The swing of the mast on this banana boat, when in the trough of a rolling sea, brought the water directly underneath a times, where it seemed to be reaching up at him.
These old freighters had been hurriedly fitted with bunks and leftover tarantulas. The depth of the hold seemed to be bottomless and gaining an open deck for fresh air involved an endless series of nearly perpendicular ladder-like steps with rope railings. With a good sea running and life-preservers in hand, the exodus of the seasick soldiers from the lower fields was a tragic sight, especially following three short blasts, calling all hands on deck.
Some men, complaining about the food on the trip across on H.M.S. Carmania, or other ships like her, should hear about a voyage on the S.S. Pastores or the S.S. San Jacinto. Major Paul Chaudron tells a vivid story of his crossing on the S.S. Antilles, weathering a storm in midocean, with many men ill with measles, flu, and seasickness. The Antilles made one more round-trip to the States, but was torpedoed on the return trip for another load, with the loss of 67 men. It was the first troop transport ship lost to subs and fortunately(?) it was on a crossing back to America.
The heroical experiences of our typical section, driving their self-assembled Ford ambulances over the old Napoleonic roads across France---often by-passing Paris to gain time in reaching the base camp at Sandricourt --- are hard to believe. They are well recorded in our memories, and at times even startled the early volunteer sections they were to relieve.
"It was just becoming dusk on October 18th as the first cars of the Section whirled into Bussy le Chateau, a little village in the Champagne. We say 'whirled' advisedly for certain it was just that at the end of one of the section's speediest spurts. In fact it was so violent that it completely took away the breath of Chief Butkiewicz, head of Red Cross, S.S.U. 24, which we relieved.
"The next few days were spent in getting the different men to know the different postes. . . Our triage (sorting place) was at Suippes. Our work was light and consisted mostly in bringing back from the postes men suffering from frozen feet, sickness or slight wounds, and occasionally a gas case.
"From the triage we took them to one of the several hospitals . . . . Three of our postes in this sector were extremely interesting --- Capron, because here we lived practically with the Frenchmen; Souain (which had three stops Madeleine, Paulinier, and Cabane); LaBarraque and Boudet. The poste at Paulinier was the most unique --- one of those famous underground caves of endless passages and rooms- --and fitted out with little iron beds with sheets, electric lights and water . . . . Our stay at Bussy was a delight --- a day or two at the postes and between trips usually occupied by the trifling matter of K.P.. duty. After this greatest of all Army sports had been played in Allentown and St. Nazaire, Bussy K.P. duty was more like serving tea for the duchess.
". . . Just before Thanksgiving, the subject of permissions or leaves came up, and after considerable talk, a bunch was picked to go."
We interrupt this typical section activity at the front, to tell that as a part of the French Army regulations, the Ambulance Servicemen were entitled to a week away from the active front about every four or five months. We cannot remember reading a better report on a "permission," than the one which came to light in a letter found among other war memoirs, dated August 5, 1918. As this letter went into more details, which would bring back fond memories to the men of this service, we want to quote it herewith:
"The war is over for a week as far as we are concerned and we are again at peace with the world in general. We are at last on 'permission' and enjoying it immensely. We got up early the next morning and reached Aix les Bains in time for lunch. We were assigned to a small hut comfortable hotel and ate outside at the different restaurants. One of our first acts was to wander over to the YMCA which is in the old Casino there. It is a magnificent place, almost a palace in proportions. There is a ballroom, a huge rest room, a sizeable opera house at one end with large verandas to cool off on. Also a big reading and writing room, which was most likely the gaming room in peacetimes.
"We went up to the canteen to buy something to eat and were immediately attacked by two English 'Y' girls who had seen the numbers on our tunics. They had been very chummy with several of our men who went down before us and we were carrying letters to them and several others. Hence we were immediately introduced properly to the surroundings and made to feel at home.
"The YMCA at Aix is just like a big family. A wonderful lady, Mrs. Anderson, is at the head of things and is like a mother to the whole flock. Then there is Mrs. Jenks from Philadelphia at the information desk. Among the male of the species there is Gerry Reynolds, the central battery of the whole plant. He rarely appears by daylight, but is everything at night from leader of the dance orchestra to master of ceremonies. In short he is the life of the entire place. Then there is Guy Maier, the whimsical jokester who is very efficient for arousing enthusiasms. Now as for the YMCA girls, they are certainly a wonderful lot, all of them. They sing they dance, and are working at one thing or another all the time, and when not working or performing they're doing their best to make the multitude of 'permissionaires' feel at home. They sit with the boys and chat, or take them out on Dutch parties when they have a little time off. You don't realize it, but after you have been cut off from civilization of the other world for six or seven months, and see nothing but war and the dregs of civilian humanity, you grow rather cynical without knowing it, and gradually get the idea that there's not much good left in the world.
"But as soon as you get down to Aix, the entire outlook of life changes, and you feel almost as if you were back in another age again. The only thing different than being at home is that you have to adopt a new mother and brothers and sisters.
"That evening we spent at the 'Y.' Towards the end of the evening we had a song-fest around the piano but had to leave early because our hotel locked its doors at midnight. Gerry Reynolds heard of our reason for leaving early, and ever thereafter we could drift in as late as we wished. The next day we got up in time to attend services held in the 'Y.' In the afternoon, we went in swimming in Lac du Bourget, and then rode back to town and stopped at the Malborough Tea Room, where we got some luxurious hot chocolate and cakes. The hot chocolate was so rich you could dip the cakes in it and make perfect chocolate cake. You also get delicious American ice-cream and ice-cream sodas there. The place is run by an English girl. How they get their sweets is hard to know.
"Baseball games; a trip up the cog-tram to the top of Mt. Revard for a picnic lunch; a boat ride on the lake to visit the Abbaye de Hautecombe --- fill most of our daytime; with dances or shows at night.
"The week passes all too quickly and on the train ride back to pick up the section, it does not seem real, more like a dream, as we enter the nightmare of our other world."
Returning now to our section and the report from the Western Front:
". . . Suddenly word came. Our Division was to go! The trip from Vertus to Ribécourt was filled with intense suppressed excitement . . . . We stopped at one of the many Fertés. Someone bought a 'Petit Parisien.' It said they were firing on Paris. 'Are they going to reach Paris?'
"When at last we reached Compiègne, it was a sight to remember. The city, partly shot to pieces, was crowded with French, English and Scotch soldiers, refugees, aviators and American Red Cross workers. With few exceptions, had we ever seen a town crowded with so many different people, going in so many directions, and apparently not knowing where they were headed for.
"And even more amazing, was the sight which met our eyes on the road from Compiègne to Ribécourt. A steady stream of trucks, loaded with refugees, with their meagre belongings, driven by little, dark territorials, wearing big goggles and coated in dust. Ambulances with sides ripped off, loaded with wounded, dressed in blankets, ragged coats and bandages. Struggling English soldiers, fatigued to the point of exhaustion, dragging themselves along or flopping by the roadside. Old men pushing little wagons . . . an old woman pushing a huge baby carriage with a new born calf in it --- And on the face of each, discernible even through the dust, the mark of fear. (typical of all main roads in or near the war zones).
". . . We made our way slowly to the front. We were not alone. Ammunition, cannon, fresh troops, supplies were on the way up. We found our place in the endless line and slowly drew closer and closer.
"Our poste at Chiry became, in a way, a triage for the first few days --- from there the ears were sent to the outlying postes: Passel, Dives, Dreslincourt. Later the triage was established at Ribécourt. . . Our division had been sent in to check the advance and had done it. But the loss was terrific. Little by little, the small villages of Dives, Passel and Chiry began to lose their individualities, as they were reduced to rows of wretched houses torn to pieces.
"All this was taking place in the spring. . .We looked out an open window and there were flowers, green vines and trees. Easter Day the calendar said--- the wandering permissionaires that had left us at Vertus found us again. They had had Bussy. None of this mess. We had lived through some tough days, and all had narrow escapes, had worked night and day. At Ribécourt, these at rest were singing all the old favorites . . . . An ambulance stopped in the street, the door opened, Lieutenant was asked for. A hush, and imperceptibly the awful news seeped into the consciousness of every man in the room. For the first time .... the hideousness and nearness of the war was felt . . .Life went on. Routine went on. Then came the 30th of April with a determined attack by the enemy after a preparatory day of sprinkling gas. (It was the beginning of the great spring drive of the Germans.)
"Sanconin, the valley of the shadow! With a swoop and rush our division hurled itself from its crouch, like a pack of tigers, across the valley to meet the oncoming Boche. It was May 31, 1918. The section followed them. A halt along a dusty roadside at Laversine, the establishment of the triage on the hill farm Riverseau, the quick placing of a relay poste, and the scouting trip of our chief to find the advanced postes, and the scrap was on.
"In the three days that followed we suffered five casualties. Two men were killed instantly in line of duty at Sanconin, by the bursting of a shell of heavy calibre. Three men were taken prisoners. The three days pass description. A stubborn resistance availed little before the determined onslaught of an overwhelming force of German infantry, bolstered up by the most intense shell fire we had ever experienced.
"From the hillside above Sanconin, you could see the town being gradually reduced to punk as by the licking of a flame. Following a whistle, and in immediate advance of the report of a shell, a house would tumble like a tottering house of cards.
". . . Sanconin! They'll never forget! . . .In seven months the section had lost one man these four days took five. . . A French division fights till it's ordered to stop. The line here was maintained by as gallant a resistance of rifle and field piece as the General Staff could desire. But tactics demanded a fresher body of men, and the relief was as welcome as sunshine after a storm."
This report of Sanconin was quoted in part from the ambulance section's own newspaper, "The Exhaust."
We have brought the work of a U.S. Ambulance Service unit with a French Division from its arrival in France, through the fall of 1917 and winter of 1918. Up to this time, American fighting troops had been used in small units along with French divisions. The main force of U.S. troops was being prepared to enter the lines as an independent army, but as we have already covered in the early part of this chapter, the gravity of. the Allied position required General Pershing to defer his plan. It was at this time that the importance of the quick movement of the wounded was brought forcibly to the attention of the United States Army surgeons, and resulted in the request being made to the French Government to borrow some sections of the United States Army Ambulance Service. This statement has always been confusing to the outsider, as it is hard for them to understand why an American Army General would have to request a foreign army general for the use of men recruited in the United States Army Service. It, of course, all stems from the fact that the United States Army Ambulance Service was an entirely new organization in the Medical Department of the army, and was established, at the request of the French Government, for use solely with the French Army. It is also interesting to piece together the reasons for the rush to Italy of the remaining sections at Allentown, and the sudden departure of Colonel E. E. Persons and his staff, by way of France, to become the Chief of Service in Italy. It was important for Col. Persons to know the great need for additional ambulance sections on the Western Front. And only through direct conversations with Colonel Percy L. Jones, Chief of the U.S. Ambulance Service in Paris, could arrangements be made to release some of the sections going to Italy, immediately upon their arrival in Genoa, for service on the French Western Front. Again we must recognize the importance, during these periods of decisions, of the inestimable value of the liaison between Lt. Col. A. Piatt Andrew and the French Army officers involved.
The First Division was in the lines near Montdidier. The Second Division was north of Paris on the way to relieve the 1st Division, when they were thrown into the breach of the oncoming German drive on Paris. The reports of many ambulance sections recount the terrific hand to hand fighting that took place in stemming the tide in Belleau Wood, Lucy-le-Bocage, Bouresches and Vaux. Even the German estimates of these engagements stated, "The moral effect of our own gun fire cannot seriously impede the advance of the American Infantry." Involved in this resistance or defensive action, were included the 7th Infantry of the Third Division, and the Twenty-eighth Division who were working with the French 5th Army.
"One of the first casualties carried by our ambulance sections was Colonel Catlin of the 5th Marine Regiment with the 2nd Division. This same section worked in the Bois de Belleau, in the west half of the village of Bouresches, triangle farm, Le Thiolet, east of Vaux, both of which straddle the main Paris-Metz highway. On a return trip from a hospital, one of their men entered Bouresches, with his car loaded with much needed medical supplies by the 6th Marines. Four other ambulance service sections were working in this sector, during this pitched battle for the main roads and railroad at Chateau-Thierry."
Later in the same month when Section 524 was attached to the 3rd Division, four of their men in two ambulances were captured. They had been stopped by an American Captain of the 28th Division at a cross-roads, who told them that a first-aid station up the road about a mile was filled with wounded awaiting evacuation.
The drivers had no orders to evacuate these men but volunteered to do so. All this happened south of the. Marne and not far from Chateau-Thierry. One of the men knew as soon as they had left the Captain that something was wrong as machine gun bullets started to fly all around them, and there were too many dead horses and men on the road, but they drove through the barrage and arrived at a place where they expected to find the wounded. There were a lot of American wounded there---but also an entire German machine-gun company. The road was too narrow to swing their cars around and they had no opportunity whatever of getting out. They were searched for arms and relieved of their cigarettes.
Shortly after their capture, the 3rd Division put on a counter attack. It is quite possible that American troops were firing on the ambulances trying to stop them. Fortunately they were not injured and their ambulances were empty. There was a similar report of the capture of a man driving a loaded ambulance of Section 502, who had made a wrong turn returning from an advanced dressing station---the Marines he was carrying were not too happy with him.
These ambulance men were put to work as stretcher bearers, carrying wounded and dead German officers across the Marne on pontoon bridges, for many miles behind the lines. Later they were assembled with other prisoners and spent one night in the woods, which was under American heavy counter barrage. Next morning they were marched under guard, spending about two days on the road, and near Laon, they were joined with a larger group of English, French, American, and French Colonial prisoners. They were loaded into box cars, with the doors locked, and finally unloaded at Gilsen. After being paraded through the streets, they were reloaded on trains and taken to a large Prison Camp at Cassel. The Red Cross arranged for their transport at Christmas time 1918, first to Frankfort-on-Main and then to Strasbourg. Later the army returned these men to Tours, and from there home.
With the examples we have quoted of the work of the ambulance sections on the Western Front, we hope some erroneous impressions have been dispelled. The ambulance driver has never been laboring under the spell of heroics in war---but rather we hope we have been able to prove his mettle under fire, in his desire to save the wounded. These reports quoted in this chapter are repeated over and over in the recorded experiences of many sections serving all along the front, while working with the British, French, and American Armies. The great difference was the advantage those sections had in remaining with the same French regiment to which they were originally assigned. That advantage was not learned early enough by the American Army Staff.
Before we go on to the story of the Italian Contingent, there is an interesting event which may have been the cause for the false Armistice celebration in the United States. The counter offensives by the Allied Armies had caught the spent German army in several disastrous engagements, in which the enemy lost many men and equipment and were being forced into retreat on every front. 'The American forces had arrived in sufficient numbers to take over an independent sector.
The German High Command was faced with two alternatives --- accept proposals for a ceasefire, or continue to fall back with further damage to the Fatherland and disgrace to the army. They of course, chose to entertain cease-fire talks and arrangements were made to hold these in the forest above Compiègne. The meeting place was in the private railway car of Marechal Foch. Two of the U.S. Army Ambulance Sections have reported their experiences in witnessing the passing through the lines of the German Envoys. It involved two of France's finest divisions, the 34th and 35th.
We quote first, the report from a member of Section 631, which was attached to the 34th French Division and whose ambulances were stationed at post de secours, serving the 171st Infantry Regiment.
"We again entered the front lines north of St. Quentin which had been recaptured in early October. The section had changed its headquarters eight times in 10 days, passing through Meharicourt, Maucourt, Chaulnes, Omiecourt, Morchain and Le Quesnel, until the division finally crossed the Somme River, before going on a brief repos. Taking up the Aisne-Oise offensive, we encountered some of our most active war experiences carrying many wounded soldiers over road under heavy shellfire and also mined. Even though the Germans were in rapid retreat, they were putting up a stubborn rear action. The Division captured Guise and advanced as far as Villete-de-Guise by Wednesday, November 6. As the front line advanced,, we were stationed at the second line around Guise. For a distance embracing four kilometers on either side of the St. Quentin-Guise road, beginning Thursday, November 7, a special armistice was declared. We learned later that the German envoys left Spa on Thursday at noon, and were scheduled to arrive at the French lines at 5 P.M. However, they were delayed by the confusion over the - German front and finally reached the French lines around 8 P.M. They were met on the road between Haudroy and La Capelle by Captain Lhuillier, Commander of our 171st Infantry Regiment, as an advanced unit with the 166th Division, which had taken over the front line. It was some sight to see several cars coming down the road. into Guise with search-lights trained on them, and with white flags flying from posts on each front fender. Their own head-lights were on. The cavalcade of cars passed on down the road out of sight.
"The period of the cease-fire in this area, where section 631 cars were operating, lasted from Thursday, November 7, to the following Monday, November 11, when the final Armistice ended the war at 11 A.M. It was a thrill for a few of our men whose cars still had head-lights that worked, to have them turned on during these few breathless nights.
"At La-Capelle, the German envoys had been turned over to Major de Bourbon-Busset. who was commissioned to deliver them to Marechal Foch, who with his aides was in his historic railroad car in the Forêt-de-Compiègne. On the way, the envoys ate their second meal in the Roman Catholic parsonage in Homblières, from which our Section had evacuated its headquarters, only the day before. During the period of these four days, while the Armistice negotiations were going on, our men saw the German staff cars on the road and also saw the plane trailing white streamers, which bore the terms of surrender back to the German Headquarters at Spa.
"It is interesting to note that the so-called 'fake' Armistice which the people in the United States celebrated on Thursday, November 7, resulted from a garbled cable version of the events in which Section 631 were the actual participants."
Thus SSU 631 claims rightly as being the first ambulance section to spot the German Armistice envoys, but it was natural that any supporting division at that time, with a U.S. Army Ambulance Section attached to it, would witness the event.
So it was that Section 523, serving with the French 35th Division, reported the following: "The lines were moving up very rapidly and in a day or two we moved our camp up to Anguilcourt with postes at Nouvion-et-Catillon After a few days there, we moved our triage and camp up to Nouvain and there we stayed until November 4, when the shortening of the front squeezed our division out and we pulled out of our last sector in the war. Later that day we moved back to the small town of Charmes, near LaFère, and went 'en repos' again in the mud and rain in almost roofless houses. . . .It was during our stay here that we saw the German envoys come down the St. Quentin road on November 7, to take the train at Tergnières for Compiègne. Little did we think that this meant peace. Everybody scoffed at the idea."
These quotations bare the ugly face of war. At the very moment the men of 631 and 523 were awaiting the decision from the railroad car at Compiègne, the men in many other ambulance sections continued to pick up the maimed and dying American boys in the Argonne fighting on through these four days.
1917 ALLIED OFFENSIVES:
A great German retreat on the Somme in the direction of Saint Quentin, brought about by the English (Generals Gough, Rawlinson, Home, Allenby) and by the French (Fayolle and Humbert, under Franchet d'Espernay) a pursuit (24 February: 6 April), then a victorious assault (8 April), when it stopped in May, the retreat of the enemy, between Lens and Soissons, on a front of about 150 kilos, and to a depth which attained sometimes as much as 50 kilos, liberated more than 200 cities and villages. The Allies reached the vicinity of St. Quentin, followed the Oise River between Moy and La Fère, and broke into the heights of St. Gobain,
At the same time (16 April-22 May) a French offensive on the Aisne and in the Champagne captured a part of the heights of Soissons (Battle of Malmaison: Generals Mangin, Mazel, under Micheler), and progressed in mountains of the Champagne (Anthoine under Pétain).
Entrance of the United States into the war.
Two Allied offensives in Belgium advanced in the Region of Ypres and captured the Heights of Flanders.
20 August -8 September
A French offensive below Verdun (General Guillaumat) retook some ground, notably Cote (Hill) 304.
23 October -2 November
A second French offensive on the Aisne (Maistre) completed the recovery of the Heights of Soissons and reached the banks of the Ailette.
20 November -5-December.
An English offensive in the Secteur Cambrai (Byng), at first victorious (20-25 November) was checked by a German counter-offensive (27 November 5 December).
1918 GERMAN OFFENSIVES:
I. 21 March-9 April
An offensive in Picardy, led by Von Bulow, Von Marwitz, Rupprecht of Bavaria, the Crown Prince and Von Hutier, in the direction of Amiens, on a front of 80 kilos, broke the British Front and separated the English and French armies.
II. 9-25 April
An offensive in Flanders between Ypres and La Bassée on a front of about 40 kilos, before Calais and Dunkerque as objectives brings about a new withdrawal of the British Army and seizes Armentières (11-12 April) and Mt. Kemmel (25 April).
III. 27 May -2 June
An offensive on the Aisne led by Von Boehn and Von Bulow between Soissons and Rheims in the direction of Paris, breaks the French Front on a front of some 60 kilos, seizes the Chemin des Dames (27 May) and Soissons (29 May), conquers the Tardenois and the Northern section of Chateau-Thierry (1 June).
IV. 9-12 JUNE
A renewal of the offensive in Picardy, led by Von Hutier on a front of about 30 kilos, seizes DeResson-sur-Matz and deepens the pocket between Montdidier and Noyon.
V. 12 -28 JUNE
A renewal of the offensive on the Aisne, led by Von-Boehn between the Aisne and the Marne, in view of reuniting, by reduction of the wooded heights of the north, the two salients in Santerre and in Tardenois, grinds to a halt at the edge of the Forest of Villers-Cotterets.
VI. 15-17 JULY
A double offensive on the Marne (Von Boehn) and in the Champagne (Von Einem and Von Bulow) ends in the passage of the Marne to the east of Chateau Thierry.
1918 THE ALLIES OFFENSIVES
I. 18 JULY -3 AUGUST
A French-American offensive between the Aisne and the Marne (Generals Mangin, Degoutte, Mitry, Bethelot, against Von Boehn and Von Mudra), throws the Germans back on the north side of the Marne (20 July), retakes Chateau-Thierry (21 July), Soissons (2-3 August) and drives into Tardenois as far as the Vesle River.
II. 8- 10 AUGUST
An Anglo-French offensive in Picardy, between the Somme and the Oise, led by Generals Rawlinson, Debeney, and Humbert, against Von Marwitz and Von Hutier, retakes Montdidier, takes 30,000 prisoners and seizes 600 cannons.
III. 18 AUGUST GENERAL OFFENSIVE takes place on entire front. The operations move simultaneously on six secteurs of attack.
1. In Artois and Flanders (King Albert, Plummer, then Degoutte against Von Arnim, and Von Quase) an English offensive, from 18 August to 1 September, retakes Mt. Kemmel. An offensive launched on 28 September, retakes Dixmude (28 - 30), Lens (2 October), Ostende, Lille, and Douai (17 October), Gand (11 November).
2. In Cambrai Secteur, an English offensive launched 21 August between the Scarpe and the Somme, by Byng, Home, Rawlinson, and Humbert against Von Bulow, Von Marwicz, seizes Bapaume (29 August) Péronne (1 September) and Cambrai (9 October) and proceeds in that direction.
3. In Santerre, a French-English offensive from the 22 August between the Somme and the Oise, led by Rawlinson, Debeney, and Humbert against Von Marwitz and Von Hutier, seizes Noyon (29 August), St. Quentin (1 October) and proceeds in the direction of Guise. The 23 October offensive of the Cambrai Secteur and the Santerre combine into a single offensive, headed between the Escant and the Oise, and which seized Valenciennes (2 November), Avesnes (8 November), Maubeuge (1 November), and Mons (11 November).
4. An offensive in the Laon Secteur, launched 13 August) between the Oise and the Aisne, by Mangin and Degoutte against Von Ebern goes beyond the Ailette, captures the two Coucys, conquers foot by foot the wooded heights of St. Gobain, and seizes Laon (13 October).
5. In the Tardenois Secteur, a French-American offensive, led by Mitry, Betholet, then Guillaumat, and Liggett against Von Mudra and Von Boehn, crosses the Vesle (4 October) and advances as far as the Aisne.
24 October the offensives in Laon Secteur and the Tardenois are united into one offensive, led by Debeney, Humbert, Guillaumat and Liggett, and which take Guise (4 November), Vervins, Rethel (6 November), Charleville (9 November), Rocroi (11 November).
6. In the Champagne, Argonne, and Lorraine, Generals Gouraud and Liggett against Von Mudra and Von Einem, an American offensive reduces (12-15 September), the Saint Mihiel salient. A French-American offensive commenced the 26 September, resumed the 5 October, conquers the Secteur of the Heights of Champagne, seizes the Argonne Forest (10 October), Vouziers (12 October), Grandpré (17 October), reaches the Meuse 8 November), takes Mézières (9 November), and Sedan (10- 11 November).