|Henry Cutler Wolfe, '20, who received his college degree from Kenyon, has an international reputation as war correspondent and writer and lecturer on foreign affairs. He has been decorated by several European governments, including Rumania, Poland, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Austria. He is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers. His article deals with a phase of Andover history of which the school is rightly very proud.|
WHEN General John J. Pershing and his staff stepped ashore in France on June 13, 1917, there was an Andover unit serving on the Western front. As a section of the American Field Service, the Andover men were driving five-ton Pierce Arrow trucks that transported shells for the renowned French 75's. Working at night without headlights, they carried their cargoes up to the batteries defending a sector of the Chemin des Dames. This was a vital part of the defense line which barred the road to Paris against the German Crown Prince and his elite divisions.
Andover was the only preparatory school that saw service on the Western front. We had gone to France that spring to drive ambulances. When we arrived in Paris, however, we were informed that the French army needed a mobile force of fast trucks to serve their 75's. The Reserve Mallet, to be composed entirely of American volunteers, was being formed for this job. The Cornell Section was already organized and ready to leave for the front. We agreed to join the Reserve Mallet. But while we had enough men for an ambulance unit, our quota wasn't large enough for a camion (munitions truck) section. Accordingly, our Andover Section, as it continued to be called, was beefed up with college men, mostly from Harvard. Dartmouth formed Section Three, M. I. T. Section Four and other college units quickly came along. No other preparatory school was represented.
The history of the Andover Section goes back to early 1917. The war in Europe had been in progress two and a half years and several former Andover students were serving with the American Field Service or the Lafayette Flying Corps. To us students on the Hill, quite naturally, the great conflict was of intense interest. One morning after English class I remained behind to talk to Mr. Douglas Crawford and rather inadvertently let it slip out that I was thinking of applying for membership in the American Field Service. He was enthusiastic about the idea but suggested that I finish the school year. A day or two later the Headmaster, Dr. Alfred E. Stearns, sent for me. I entered his office with some trepidation but was immediately put at ease. Mr. Crawford had told him of my wish to join the AFS and he was all for seeing me through. Harold Buckley also came in on the scheme, and Dr. Stearns planned to have us go to France in June.
But as February and March days brought closer America's entrance into the war, it was decided to form an Andover ambulance unit and get us off as quickly as possible. In April we were on the way to France. Two members of the faculty---Mr. Frederick J. Daly and Mr. Alexander Bruce---were in charge of our unit.
In Paris, during the first week of May, we were outfitted with uniforms and equipment and stored our civilian clothes. From the French capital we rode by freight train out to Chateau Thierry and thence to our destination, Vierzy. There, camions from the Cornell Section met us and drove us and our baggage to a training camp. For about a week we were trained in French infantry drill, learned the rules of the road and were taught how to drive on rainy nights without lights over shell-pocked roads. Our most important lesson of all was the strategy of handling ourselves near the front so as not to draw the fire of the German 77's on our highly vulnerable cargoes and ourselves.
Then we were assigned, two men to a camion, and put to work as a munitions section. Mr. Daly was in command. In retrospect it is amazing how quickly we learned our job. Within three days after leaving the training camp we were making the night run up to Chateau Soupir, one of the hottest spots on the Western front. All along this sector (between Soissons and Rheims) the Crown Prince was probing for a weak spot; he was pressing his ruthless campaign of attrition. The losses on both sides were heavy.
I recall especially a June evening near Vailly. Our loaded camions were concealed under the protection of trees which lined the road. We were waiting for the darkness that would cover our progress to our batteries. The Germans were putting down a barrage to protect the shock troops that were trying to take Vailly. The French were laying a barrage down to defend their lines. There was a steady roar in which no single shell could be heard. Along the road to Vailly marched French reinforcements, poilus sweating under their heavy packs.
Here was the youth of France grimly pushing on toward the "abattoir." One could pick out a unit of marines, big blond fellows from Brittany, next a battalion of swarthy men from the Midi, then a shock troop outfit made up-our liaison officer whispered---of Apaches from Paris. But all of these Frenchmen---veterans of the Marne, of Verdun, of the Aisne---were inspired by the cry "On ne passe pas!" In a tragic procession headed in the reverse direction came the brancardiers carrying back the wounded and the dead.
Our routine usually began about mid-afternoon. We formed a convoy, drove to a rail head, picked up our munitions, and waited for darkness. Sometimes the roads were badly damaged by shellfire, often it rained, but our camions rarely went into a ditch. We seemed to develop an unerring ability to hold the road, even a temporary one, on the darkest night. Occasionally we had narrow escapes, usually from random German shelling. One evening, for instance, Playford Boyle and Robert Dole were in the camion a hundred yards ahead of the one Paul Crane and I were driving. It wasn't dark yet, but we were protected from enemy eyes by low hills and woods. In the half-light the war seemed a long way off. Suddenly, ahead of Paul and me sounded the dread whizz-bang of two German 77's. They bracketed the camion ahead, but fortunately did not strike near enough to inflict damage. Our convoy speeded up and got by that spot before the next German salvo.
The Andover Section, though made up of college men, alumni, and preparatory school boys, was a homogeneous and friendly crowd. This was due in no small degree to the fact that Mr. Daly, a former Yale All-American football captain, commanded not only the section but everyone's loyalty and respect. Two of our Harvard colleagues, later to attain intellectual distinction, were Malcolm Cowley and Bruce Hopper. Our mascots were acquired through the former.
One evening the convoy was stopped for a few minutes in rubble that had yesterday been the village of Viel Darcy. The 77's and probably some larger shells had been pounding it all day. Plaintive little cries from the ruins got Cowley down from his camion seat. He found two beautiful gray-striped kittens, which he put inside his shirt and took back to camp. The kittens grew up to be winsome creatures---and very possessive. One day a big shaggy dog wandered hopefully into our barracks. Before we could even greet him, two furious bundles of fur flew at him and drove him yelping out the nearest door.
One of the sports which entertained us on days when we didn't work was wrestling. Particularly memorable was the series of thrilling wrestling matches between Mr. Bruce and Frank Talmadge.
Certainly our greatest source of interest that summer was the constant air activity along the front. It was the day of the great individual aces, knights of the air joining battle as in the days of chivalry. One late afternoon, we watched a French plane take on apparently hopeless odds, four German fighters. In something like six minutes he had shot down all four enemies. Our liaison officer shouted in excitement: "It must be Guynemer!" And it was the great Guynemer in one of his most brilliant victories.
On another occasion, just before sunset, we saw a lone plane approach six others. There ensued the rattle of machine guns, and the lone plane started down. At the last moment it straightened out and came down in the French third-line trenches. We were so far away that we could not tell which side had won the clash. Next day we learned that the lone pilot was an American in the French service, James Norman Hall. Though seriously wounded, he somehow survived the action.
In late summer, when seven of us went to Paris on a short permission, we decided to take the tests for the Lafayette Flying Corps. At his office on the Avenue Bois de Boulogne, Dr. Edmund Gros put us through the tests. I had the humiliating experience of failing the "piano stool trick," a balancing test. The others all passed. Within a year all six were killed. Two of them, Schuyler Lee and Jack Wright, were Andover men. In that pioneer era the mortality rate among airmen, especially pursuit (fighter) pilots, was tragically high.
In November the U. S. Army took over and the Reserve Mallet passed into history. Some of the fellows went into the U. S. Army's motor transport, others entered the French artillery officers' school at Fontainebleau, a good many joined the French or American air forces. Harold Buckley, who became a member of the famous "Hat-in-ring" squadron, was credited with seven official victories and received the Distinguished Service Cross. George Dresser and I went down to Italy and drove ambulances on the Piave front.
Of our original Andover unit of some two dozen men, Mr. Bruce, Schuyler Lee, William Taylor, Jack Wright and George Dresser lost their lives in the First World War.
Perhaps the real test of the Andover unit was that, as a group of teen-agers, we were thrown into competition with college students and alumni not only in the other camion sections but within our own as well. I think it was the sober and critical judgment of our colleagues that the "Andover boys" came through. When the unit was disbanded Mr. Daly said with deep feeling: "You men won your letters in a hard test that reflects credit on your school and on you."