Blérancourt is located about 80 miles north, and slightly east, of Paris. It requires at least an hour and a half to drive there. If you take public transportation---the train from the Gare du Nord to Noyon---be prepared to pay for a taxi or...to hike the 14 remaining kilometers.
There are basically three routes to Blérancourt--- with variations:
A trip to Blérancourt is an opportunity for other visits--- on the way there or back. Given the emphasis of the museum's AFS collections on the World War One experience, a stop at the little private museum at the Clearing at Rethondes (where the Armistices of 1918 and 1940 were signed) or a healthy detour north to Péronne (to visit the WWI museum there) are worthwhile, as are visits to Château-Thierry, Soissons, the Chemin des Dames or Laon, ---this last being a hilltop medieval town, a gem in its own right. Compiègne is another "touristic high spot" as is nearby Pierrefonds, both favorites of Napoleon III and his retinue, a century and a half ago...
1. Head north on autoroute A1, past Compiègne to exit 12, and then take D934 back (map) to and through Noyon. D934 continues on the overpass beyond the railroad station and on to Blérancourt. This will also be the trail intrepid hikers will follow after they have descended from the train.
We were now ready to leave for the front. On June 26, Section Sixty-Five became officially a part of the French army, and left Beauvais in convoy for somewhere in the region of Noyon. Twenty ambulances in convoy, at equal distances apart along a poplar-lined country road, is a fine sight, and our first glimpse of ourselves made us feel proud. The ride was one that none of us will ever forget. The coquelicots --- the French poppies --- were in bloom everywhere and spotted the fields with a brilliant crimson, while yellow and blue flowers varied the color scheme, so that in whatever direction one looked, the eye was met by a mass of color. We passed village after village, each with its little church and cluster of white dwellings with red-tiled roofs, then out again on the roads lined with stately trees. Now for the first time most of us began to realize how charming a country is France.
Louis G. Caldwell, SSU65, AFSH, vol II.
1a. North via Rethondes. (map) Exit 9 (Compiègne) from A1. You'll negociate a number of traffic circles---following the signs to Soissons. Emerging from the last traffic circle, you will soon bear left on to the road leading to the Museum of the Armistice where, in a little train car, World War I came to an end at 11 AM on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. (This was also where the French signed their surrender in June 24, 1940.) A dramatic sculpture depicting a fallen eagle greets you. After parking the car, you can walk through the Clearing, graced by a statue of Marshal Foch, by a harshly-worded monument to the German defeat of 1914 and by the little museum which houses a duplicate of the original train car: the original, taken back to Berlin in 1940 as a trophy, was destroyed during the Allied bombings of 1945. What makes the visit to the museum particularly worthwhile are the three-dimensional slides of the war. They speak for themselves.
You leave the premises of the Clearing the opposite way you came in: turn right, in other words, and cross the Aisne River, turning left on D81, travelling west to Choisy-au-Bac where you turn right and continue north on D130 (as described in "1c" below).
Forêt de Compiègne
The other day, riding through the Compiègne Forest for miles without seeing a soul, we suddenly came to a place where a grassy forest road crossed our macadam obliquely. The trees were so thick and high that all our road was in deep shade. A little to one side, almost hidden by a large tree, was a cross with a wreath resting on the ground. As we came up to the spot, I thought that perhaps some French or German soldier was buried there, killed during the great retreat of the French at the beginning of the war; but, rolling on by, I saw the inscription which read: "Here are 160 men who died in defence of their country." In such a lonely stretch of forest land you can picture the effect of this simple cross, not within sight of the trenches or barbed wire, but miles from the nearest line. It moved one to think of this group of unsung heroes left in this shadowed backwater as the tide of battle swept on and away.
David Fairchild Bigelow, TMU133, AFSH, vol III.
1b. Back way to Noyon. (map) Exit 10 (Arsy) from A1 on to N31 east, taking the left fork to N32 north when it splits. Continue on through Ribécourt and on to Noyon where you pick up D934 east to Blérancourt.
On March 23 the long-rumored German offensive drew us to Noyon in the service of the army corps. We left Noyon hurriedly under orders at 3 A.M. on the 25th, one jump ahead of the Boches, and moved to Pont l'Evêcque, a few kilometres away. The Boches gave us no rest, however, and we moved out of the town that evening just as the German cavalry was entering it. No cars were on service at that time, as our corps was not yet moved up. Camp was made near Ribécourt that night and was abruptly moved again at daylight. The Germans were not so near that time, but it was orders. Permanent camp was made at Bienville, north of Compiègne, and the Section began army corps work again, this time for the 33d Corps d'Armée. The work consisted of evacuating the relay dressing-station of Chiry-Ourscamp to the rear railhead hospitals. This station was later removed to Ribécourt.
Norman C. Nourse, USAAS624 (SSU67), AFSH, vol II.
1c. Noyon bypass. (map) Exit 10 (Arcy) from A1 and then north on N32, as above. Take the first right after entering the slow curve at Clairoix.
After crossing the tracks, the Oise and, at Choisy-au-Bac jogging across the main road, you come immediately to D130, with a sign pointing left to Blérancourt.
D130 takes you through the two Tracys ---Mount and Vale--- and on to Carlepont where you turn right and then left, skirting the ruins of the château on the hill. Then on to the junction with D934, turn right and, after passing through Cuts and Camelin, you will reach your destination.
2. (map) You pick up A4, the autoroute east, at the Porte de Bercy, and take it past Eurodisney to A436, the turnoff to Meaux.
One cannot head east from Paris without remembering the great battles of the Marne, the first in early September of 1914, when the French's spirited defence of Paris ---symbolized by Gallieni's "taxi army"--- upset the German's plan for a putting a quick end to the war; and the second in March of 1918, when the newly-arrived American forces helped stop German last gasp efforts to defeat the Allies.
From Meaux, take D405 (or one of the scenic routes along the Ourcq River to Crouy-sur-Ourcq) north to May-en-Multien. This is the site of the farm of the Moulin-de-May where AFS had its driving school in the summer of 1917. After a visit of the area, you can continue on north on D405 through La Ferté-Milon and on to Villers-Cotterets.
Cross N2 and take D973 to Pierrefonds where, after admiring or visiting Viollet Le Duc's restored castle-on-the-hill, you turn right on D335, heading north. You will cross through the town of Trosly-Breuil, across railroad tracks, across the Aisne River by a large sugar-beet processing factory, and on up onto the plateau where the beets, wheat, corn and other crops are grown. You will have just entered what, during most of WWI, was German territory.
Later, the road takes a dip, curving down to the right. You can see the entrance to a stone quarry to your right. And then the first of the German cemeteries. When you come out of the dip and back onto the rise, at the intersection of another road, you'll see the second cemetery. It is beautifully kept, a repertory of all the graves is at the entrance. 11,600 soldiers were buried here, four to a plot plus three mass graves.
Past the cemetery, D335 takes you into Nampcel, where the German Crown Prince once maintained his shelter. And then you'll go up over hill and dale and the last seven kilometers to Blérancourt. A detour left to Blérancourdelle (map) is interesting, taking you through this little village with its old church and farms, typical of the region. Leaving the settlement, and as you turn onto the triumphal entry road north to the château, you'll catch a glimpse of a small field chapel dedicated to St. Roch.
It was on the 6th of September 1914 that the first call for help came from the Marne battlefield. It was reported that hundreds of wounded lay uncared for at Meaux. A convoy of ambulances was dispatched with all speed by the hospital to Meaux. In a deserted Meaux, 350 wounded soldiers were waiting, cared for by a few elderly peasants and the archbishop, Msgr Marbot. Fifty wounded were brought back immediately to the hospital at Neuilly and thus it was that American Ambulance began work.
Another development of this period was the opening of the French Officers' Automobile School at Meaux to members of the American Field Service, a privilege extended only to Field Service men. This action was taken primarily to train our men so that they would be capable of commanding transport sections, but it was also intended to give the American officers of the ambulance sections sufficient technical knowledge to enable them ultimately to handle their sections without a French officer.
Volunteers began to stream over in May and June, as many as five hundred arriving within three days. To cope with this influx, barracks and tents were erected in the garden at rue Raynouard, and a house near by was put at our disposal by the same generous friends to whom we owed rue Raynouard. Three camps were established for the training of these men, their large numbers making Paris now an impossible centre for this purpose. The ambulance camp was established at May-en-Multien, a picturesque farm belonging to a friend of the Service, on the road between Meaux and Soissons,
About noon of the 28th the train which was carrying these forty-two men and their belongings sighed its way into the station at La Ferté-Milon and the future Section Sixty-Eight dragged itself from the cars. A convoy of camions was waiting there for them, into which they piled with much anticipation of a pleasant ride to somewhere; but at the end of the first mile every one was taking his punishment standing, in vain attempt to keep his various inner organs from being joggled into a hopeless mess. After twenty-five kilometres of this, the convoy rolled into Parc Levecque, one of the automobile repair parcs near the Soissons-Reims front.
Orders sent us across the Aisne before night because the French expected to have to destroy all the bridges before the next day. For two nights and a day we bivouacked beside the route nationale, in the dust and rush of the retreat, while trenches were being dug along it, and we made impossibly long evacuations to Compiègne and Villers-Cotterets. There was a terrifying sense of desperation and hopelessness in the air, even when on June 1 the enemy seemed at least temporarily halted just north of Vic
A third town we visited was Pierrefonds. Here there is a wonderfully restored château which, with its battlements and towers, at once took us back in spirit to the age of brave knights and fair ladies. This was the château which, according to rumor, had appealed to the Kaiser's eye. In 1914, his son, having captured the region, sent to his father for advice as to whether or not the château should be destroyed, and father, they say, wired: "No, no! I want that château myself, to live in on my way to Paris," or words to that effect.
On February 9 we took up our abode at Berneuil-sur-Aisne, between Compiègne and Soissons, being attached to the French auto parc there. No service was done during our stay, and the time was occupied in getting the Ford fleet in good order --- something we all, of course, thoroughly hated and escaped from whenever possible.
As the lines advanced, we had postes in Nampcel, Blérancourdelle, Blérancourt, Saint-Paul-aux-Bois, Trosly, and numerous abris in the hillsides between these two places. Shaw, Kendall, and McCreedy were wounded during this attack, and Iselin, Bender, and Russell.
2a. Direct route to Villers-Cotterêts. (map) From Paris' peripheral highway, take route A1 north (Porte de la Chapelle) to route A104, which becomes route 2; or take route A3 northeast (Porte du Bagnolet) to route 2. Just after Mitry-Mory, a detour to Juilly may be taken by turning right on D83.
Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney ---née Gertrude Vanderbilt--- financed the conversion of Juilly's 16th century Oratorio into a field hospital. (Mrs. Whitney was a sculptress who, as many American artists, had studied in France. Her activities bear witness to the link between artists and patrons of the arts, on the one hand, and medical service on the other. Today's Harry Payne Whitney Clinic in New York is a further reminder of this.)
During the war, what is today a prestigious private boarding school, was an outpost of the great American Ambulance. It had its transportation fleet, as did the latter---not to be confused with the Field Service! On March 25, 1917, one of the drivers at Juilly service wrote:
Section "0" (zero) of the American Ambulance, operating from Neuilly-sur-Seine and to which I am attached, is like all the other sections of the American Ambulance, engaged in the transportation of the wounded. [..] Section "0" consists now of 32 cars, Buicks and Garfords (mostly Buicks) all donated by Americans. The normal complement of the section is about 65 men, two to a car, but it has been somewhat below this during the Winter. The ambulanciers are in reality members of the Motor Division of the French Army, and wear its insignia, a circle and wing on the collar. They have no specific military rank, being American citizens, but the uniform is virtually that of a commissioned officer, and they are treated on that level by the citizenry and soldiery. The French soldiery extend to them the officers' salute. In return for their services the ambulanciers receive their lodging and rations but pay all other expenses themselves. The headquarters of Section "0" is the main American Ambulance hospital in Neuilly, where the cars are parked. [...] The specific work of Section "0" is to meet the trains of wounded, including the famous American Trains Sanitaires, unload them and transport the wounded to the various hospitals throughout Paris and its environs, also to make transferrals of wounded from one hospital to another (known as "evacuations"), to respond to all Zeppelin air raid calls and also to serve the branch hospital at Juilly pronounced "Jew-ey" located in a former college building, Juilly being about 25 miles into the war zone and on the edge of the Marne battlefield. Five cars are kept at Juilly all the time; each Neuilly squad taking turns. My squad is out there now. From Juilly we go to the towns of Meaux and Creil (pronounced "Crey") which are much further toward the front, and transport the wounded from them to the hospital. We also transport wounded aviators from Blessis de Belleville. The principal receiving depots to which Section "0" as a whole goes for wounded are the stations of La Chapelle and Gard Lest [sic]. The former before the war was a large freight station but was transformed at large cost by Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt into a great receiving depot for wounded. This station is barred to the public.
(source unidentified, William Foley Collection)
At Villers-Cotterêts you have the option to turn left onto D973 and continue on through Pierrefords, as described in "2" above, or else continue on with "2b", following.
Off to the southwest, in a magnificent forest bearing the same name, is the quaint little city of Villers-Cotterets ---by the Squad rechristened "Veal Cutlets." It was here Dumas was born and lived. The city owed its chief interest to us, however, to the fact that here was located one of the field hospitals to which we transported wounded.
Robert Whitney Imbrie, SSU1 & 3, AFSH, vol I.
2b. From Villers-Cotterêts to Soissons. (map) Villers-Cotterets has its own château, although it is not quite as spectacular as the one at Pierrefonds, restored by the 19th century architect Viollet-le-Duc, the saviour of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral and creator of the Gothic spire which sits like a feather on the cap of the Roman church of Mont St. Michel.
From "Veal Cutlets", National Route 2 continues through historic WWI countryside and on to Soissons. After visiting the town, you can continue on N2 to Laon, following itinerary "3b", below, or drive directly to Blérancourt as described in "2c", following:
...it was found necessary to organize a second one to care for the ever-increasing number of volunteers joining the Camion Service. Chavigny Farm, near the village of Longpont, fourteen kilometres south of Soissons, was chosen for the "annex," and upon the Princeton Section fell the duties of organization. Did we not find Chavigny a farm, and leave it an encampment? Did we not pitch tents, build kitchens, construct dining-shacks, dig drains, bank up ditches, lay down corduroy roads, and, all the while, drill and practise driving?
Frederick W. Kurth, TMU537, AFSH, vol III.
AFTER it had been definitely decided that Commandant Doumenc's appeal was to receive a favorable reply, and that the American Field Service was to supply men for the French Réserve Automobile, the first step was to locate with the least possible delay a practicable site somewhere near the front areas for an automobile training-camp. Obviously such a camp was necessary, for the men had to be trained in "truck technique" under conditions as near actual war conditions as, possible, and (obviously again) Paris and a training-camp to instil military discipline into Americans but newly arrived from across the seas were incompatible. So, following a diligent search in the region directly south of Soissons, a site near Dommiers was finally chosen, and in the first days of May the "Cornell Unit" --- the first section to take up trucking instead of ambulancing, and "the first armed American force to go to the front" --- was sent to that place for instruction ---and beaucoup corvée. To this Section belongs the credit of setting Dommiers on its feet as a camp and as a successful training-centre.
Frederick W. Kurth, TMU537
Midway, on that five-hundred-mile stretch of the western front, lies the city of Soissons, whose life of yesterday is still felt intensely in the things that yet remain among its ruins of the past. In its beautiful promenade grounds, "The Mall," one of the most famous in France, were encamped during the summer and fall of 1917, four of the motor transport sections that were in the American Field Service, namely, Nos. 397, 210, 242, and 155. Approaching Soissons from Chavigny, where the Field Service camion drivers got their training, we look over the valley of the Aisne to the heights beyond, where the Germans dug themselves in, until driven out in April, 1917; and, from which heights, whenever an attack failed, they vented their spite by hurling shells into the city. For two years, before the spring of 1917, the Germans were only across the Aisne on the other side of the promenade ground, and their coarse gutturals could be heard from the south banks of the river.
David Darrah, TMU397, AFSH, vol III.
2c. Soissons to Blérancourt. (map) Reminders of World War I abound in Soissons where, at 31 Rue Anne Morgan, you will find the headquarters of the AMSAM, the Association socio-médicale Anne Morgan, which provides visiting nursing services to the entire region. The AMSAM's logo is the griffin and it currently describes itself as engaged in "health and social action, with its 400 competent and motivated staff, serving the 90,000 inhabitants of the Soissons region."
Skirt Soissons by the western peripheral route. At Mercin-et-Vaux, take D6 northwest through Pommiers, Cuisy-en-Amont, Vézaponin and on to Blérancourt.
April 13 the Division moved back, with short rests at Campdeville and Pernant, until on May 7 it was again in line, this time in the supposedly repos sector west of Soissons. The Section was quartered in abri grottoes above the Aisne at Fontenoy, with postes at Saint-Mard, Épagny, and Vézaponin. Activity began to increase about the 25th, then suddenly on May 27 the violent Boche attack began.
Carlton Fay Wright, USAAS635 (SSU8), AFSH, vol I.
2d. Detour to Rethondes. (map) Heading north on D335, take N31 west at Trosly-Breuil until you reach the turnoff, right, to the Musée de la Clarière.
After visiting the Clearing and its little museum, exit the opposite way you came in: turn right, in other words, and cross the Aisne River, turning right again onto D81. This will bring you into the little town of Rethondes where you will turn left just before the church. The sign points to St. Crépin-aux-Bois.
Almost immediately, you must turn right again or else you'll find yourself bound for D130 (in which case follow instructions for "1c" above).
Past St. Crépin, you pass through a pretty little valley and by a picturesque château. As you come out of the curves climbing the hill past the château, turn right, driving past some stone buildings, then crossing over D16, continuing on to a large farm building where the road dead-ends onto D335. A left here will take you to Blérancourt.
Forêt de Compiègne
The night of July 4, orders arrived, and the following after noon the Section moved to the centre of the great forest just east of Compiègne, traversing the desolate streets of that city in the gathering dusk. Here a stop was made for two days near the Château de Franc Port, where the Section was quartered a week in 1916 on the way to the Aisne front. (Later the enemy armistice delegates were here to spend their first night within the allied lines.)
Edward A. G. Wylie, USAAS625 (SSU1), AFSH, vol I.
Scenic detour east through Château-Thierry
3. From the Porte de Bercy, take the Autoroute East (A4) to the Château-Thierry exit---and swing back west to visit the site of the celebrated Belleau Woods (map) before working your way back to D1 north. Or continue on to Reims (itinerary "3a" below).
D1 brings you to Soissons and beyond to Coucy-le-Château which holds the hilltop ruins of the fortified castle of the Lords of Coucy, made famous for American readers by author Barbara Tuchman in her Through a Distant Mirror. The castle's famous tower made an excellent observation post and, accordingly, was demolished by the retreating Germans in 1918.
From Coucy-le-Château, D934 goes on directly to Blérancourt.
The men of the American Mission, Mallet Reserve, were in all the desperate fighting that checked the German drive across the Aisne and held them at Château-Thierry. They hauled American troops, of the 26th Division and Marines, to the lines about Château-Thierry and the battles in which they won so much glory. Transport work during the month of June was adjusted to the line of advance made by the Germans. Though there were some troop convoys, particularly those in which the Americans were hauled, the greater number of the convoys were of munitions hauled to the Villers-Cotterets, la Ferté-sous-Jouarre, and Château-Thierry sectors, part of it for French and part for American batteries.
The civilians were rapidly evacuating Meaux, but the town was busy with the handling of American Marine wounded who were being brought in from the neighborhood of Bouresches and the Bois de Belleau. That day, by the way of Senlis, Creil, and Clermont, the Ferme la Quadre, near Nointel, was reached, where the Section rested and prepared itself, on June 8. It was apparent that a great Boche drive was pending, but the Section, though prepared, hardly expected to be ordered to the alerte at dawn on June 9 with the rumble of a tremendous barrage in its ears. It later proved to be a terrific attack extending between Montdidier and Noyon.
Then we were ordered back for the ever-famous attack of July 18. Our Division went over in the first line of assault, helped out by tanks. We advanced steadily, and as our front progressed, we passed with it up through Longpont to our old stamping-grounds at Villers-Hélon, Blancy, Saint-Remy, and le Plessier-Huleu. The hottest spot was le Plessier-Huleu. There many of the men had to drive through almost a barrage to get to the poste, which was supposed to exist in the above-mentioned village.
The night of the 22d a remarkable array of Scotch regiments, composing the 15th Division, entered the lines on the right; among them were some of the recognized élite of the British Army --- the Black Watch, the Gordons, the Seaforths, the Camerons, and the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders. These troops went up to the skirling of the pipes, every man immaculate and the acme of military precision and orderliness; and after a week of terrific attacking, which terminated in the triumphant storming of Buzancy, came out the same way, unruffled and undisturbed, notwithstanding extreme losses, every man shaved and perfect in attire and equipment. The Section was privileged in evacuating many --- too many --- of them from Missy and temporary postes beyond Chaudun in the neighborhood of Ploisy and Berzy-le-Sec.
The morning of August 28, the attack to cross the river was commenced and a few hours later the immediate suburbs of the city beyond, including strongholds at the distillerie, the briquéterie, and the abattoir were cleared and a tiny pontoon bridge laid. The first vehicle of any kind to cross the Aisne at Soissons or to the right was one of the Section cars driven by Irving Moses. The new postes de secours were all on the far bank along the fringe of the city, the briquéterie, almost immediately made utterly untenable, the abattoir, and the Abbey Saint-Médard, the last being the resting-place of ancient kings of France. Attack followed attack, the flats beyond the river were cleared foot by foot, but the Boches still retained the dominating heights along the edge of the plateau, and every inch of every road was open to machine-gun-fire. Toward the last days of August, the Division resumed its heavy attacks, crossed the Aisne, cleared the suburbs of the city on the other side and numerous positions in the valley, stormed up the heights to the plateau, captured Crouy, and put the enemy to open flight across the plateau top, pursuing them beyond Bucy-le-Long, Vregny, and Pont Rouge toward Vauxaillon, being relieved on September 7 at Moulin de Laffaux. The achievements of the 69th Division during these fifty-one successive days of terrible struggle have been recognized as one of the most heroic annals of the French Army.
On November 9 we moved in the train of our Division, the 154th, to Juvigny, ten miles northwest of Soissons. Our postes in the Coucy-le-Château sector were rather quiet due to a lull in the fighting. One car, however, was wrecked by shell-fire at the Landricourt poste on the Aislette. Clever work on the part of the Section mechanic put this car in rolling order again. There were no parcs then, and the parts for it were unobtainable until the following February. It was towed in all convoys until that date.
3a. Grand detour via Reims and Laon. (map) A4 east beyond Château-Thierry leads to Reims whose bombarded cathedral became a effectively-used symbol in 1915 to arouse pro-Ally feelings.
After visiting Reims, take N44 northwest to Laon (which was occupied by the Germans during most of the War). The national archives at Laon house 50 cartons of AFS and Lafayette Escadrille material---mostly photographs and can be found on the flat. But it's up on the hill you want to go to visit this charming town.
To the southwest of Laon (map), pick up D542 and, at Givy, turn right onto D5. West on D5 takes you through Anizy-le-Château and to Coucy-le-Château where---after a visit---you'll continue on west on D934 to Blérancourt.
Reims, November 30
I wish I could adequately describe my first impressions on beholding this city. Imagine yourself suddenly thrust into a deserted town, where all the marks of former beauty and prosperity remain even in the midst of ruins. The church bells are silent. The car tracks no longer rattle to the moving tram. The shops which had formerly echoed to the merry laughter, the gossip and confusion of bargain days, are silent, deserted, and many are crumbled heaps of plaster and bricks. Piles of débris fill all the streets. Broken glass lies everywhere. Whole blocks have been burned or shell-torn to mere skeletons of chimneys and walls. Over all, the spires of the cathedral still cast their holy shadow, like a mother determined to defend her home and her children from all wrong. Silently we steered our cars along the paved way --- no traffic or busy shoppers to be dodged, no traffic policemen to stop us; only a wounded city and a few shells to tell us our mission.
During the latter part of May the Section began working in connection with a division of dismounted cavalry attached to the Fifth Army. The line extended from Cauroy to Brimont, the poste de secours being located on the Reims-Laon highway, in sight of the German trenches. The work was very light and two cars, stationed at Villers-Franqueux, went down at night only. One of the interesting sights from this village was the occasional shelling of Brimont, about three kilometres away, by the French guns, which from various points on the road between Muizon and Villers-Franqueux, the German shells could be seen falling on Reims.
On returning to the lines, the Division took over a sector still farther to the east; between Berry-au-Bac and Reims, with the postes formerly served by old Section Twelve. These were at Cauroy, Cormicy, and Hermonville, with two advanced postes between the French first and second lines and located on Route 44, paralleling the Aisne Canal. These two postes were known as Maison Bleue and Saint-Georges, respectively. The Section went into camp at Châlons-le-Vergeur.
During the stay in this sector only two events stand out prominently. The first was in retaliation for an unexpected bombardment of a section of the Boche trenches and consisted in the dropping of some thousand gas-shells on Hermonville at a time when it was filled with sleeping soldiers. As a result the Section carried nearly five hundred gas cases out of the town in a day. Shortly after this the Boches took to nightly shelling of the Section's cantonment, finally culminating on the fourth night in a grand display of H.E. and gas, mixed. So the camp was moved to Prouilly!
Sidney Clark Doolittle, SSU68, AFSH, vol II.
3b. Soissons-Laon. (map) Laon is worth the detour if you have time. Continue on RN2 past Soissons. From Laon, several departmental roads (see "3a" above) will take you west to Coucy-le-Château, where you can pick up D934 to Blérancourt.
It is not given to many to take part in the preparations for a great offensive. Now that "it" is over and the glorious French troops are storming their way toward Laon, we can tell a bit of that which censorship would otherwise forbid. For weeks we had been carrying small lots of munitions and génie material such as barbed wire, iron ingots, planks, logs, and sacks. Often our run took us within three or four kilometres of the lines, where we were able to see the many interesting sights of reoccupied territory and watch the daily aerial skirmishes.
Paul F. Cadman, TMU133, AFSH, vol III.
3c. Chemin des Dames. (map) Between Soissons and Laon, turn right from N2 onto D18 which runs along the famous Chemin des Dames. At the Caverne du Dragon, just before Hurtebise, you can visit quarry caves where American and Canadian soldiers left sculptures carved into the limestone of these temporary shelters. Vassogne, just south of here, is where AFS drivers Gailey and Hamilton were killed.
Several departmental roads east from Craonne or Craonnelle---both well-known to AFS drivers---bring you to N44, which heads north to Laon on the "3a" itinerary.
Chemin des Dames
All June, July, and sporadically in August and September, the army of the Crown Prince attempted in vain to push the French off the California Plateau and the Chemin des Dames --- a road coursing along the top of the plateau from east to west for about twenty-five kilometres, constructed by Louis XV to facilitate the visits of one of his daughters to her maid of honor. Attack after attack was delivered, masses of men were hurled lavishly into the attempt, but the French held their ground. Opposite Cerny the front lines were only forty metres apart, and the plateau became a great upheaved stretch of shellholes. Trenches disappeared and men lived and fought in improvised troughs between shell-holes.
Gas and liquid fire played their part in the struggle. The lay of the land was such as to favor the effectiveness of the gas, for by pouring gas-shells into the valleys which cut into the plateau, it would settle there, and traffic along the valley road for artillery trains, infantry, or ambulances --- be rendered very dangerous. Much of the artillery itself was reached by the fumes. It was estimated that the Germans were pouring forty thousand gas-shells a day into the ranks and rear of the French along that one small sector. Such was the sector to which we had come, all of us except our Chef uninitiated into the sights and sounds of war.
Louis G. Caldwell, SSU65, AFSH, vol II.
"Perley Raymond Hamilton, volunteer American driver of Section Sixty-Six.
An excellent driver, devoted and courageous, was killed in the accomplishment of his duty, while loading his car with wounded at the poste de secours of Vassogne on the 29th of July, 1917, at five o'clock in the morning.
"James Wilson Gailey, volunteer American driver of Section Sixty-Six.
During the night Of July 25-26, 1917, while evacuating six severely wounded men, found himself blocked in Vassogne by a fallen building and numerous shell-holes. Although the road was being heavily shelled and in spite of the thick gas, he ran to the neighboring poste and brought a reserve car into which he transferred his wounded, then evacuated them to the hospital. He was killed the 29th of July, 1917, by a shell which fell squarely upon his ambulance filled with wounded.
"Hamilton and Gailey, in the name of the officers and soldiers of the 9th Army Corps, your brothers in arms, I bid you a heartfelt Adieu!"
General Niessel, as quoted by William Gorham Rice, SSU66, AFSH, vol II.
The first real taste of war began July 23, 1917, when the army of the Crown Prince attacked on the Craonne Plateau. This called for lively night work for a time, and many trips to Villers-en-Prayères. Many a truck has rivalled the best roller-coaster in the world by coasting down the long hill north of Fismes. After this engagement began the preparation by the French for their famous drive on the Chemin des Dames, in October, 1917. During this drive it was estimated that if all the guns used were lined up side by side, there would have been one every four yards along a front of twelve kilometres. It is to the men of the American Field Service that the credit is due for having hauled, by official figures, every one of the more than one million shells fired in this battle, in addition to the thousands of tons of truck material used. It was during this battle that several of the men in the service were given the Croix de Guerre, and one the Médaille Militaire.
Frank O. Robinson, Réserve Mallet, AFSH, vol III.
Note: AFSH = History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France" 1914-1917, Told by its Members. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920, in three volumes.