Section 18 of The American Ambulance Field Service, composed largely of men who had landed in France on April 5th and 14th from the Steamships Espagne and Chicago, left Paris for an unknown destination on May 8th 1917.
The period of waiting was a weary one for most of us, as there was little to do outside of the driving lessons and the continual cussing of the weather which was miserable and the more distasteful on account of the lack of heat. He who did not contract the "Ambulance Sore throat" was indeed lucky.
On May second the first list of names for the section was posted and in a few days the section was entirely made up. All of the cars had been assembled in the park at 21 Rue Raynouard, looking very gay in their new paint and the crossed French and American emblems emblazoned on their sides. Each man looked over the group and chose the one that appealed to him most. It was largely a matter of chance and the choice of the majority of us was governed by the facility with which the engine could be cranked.
During the next few days there was a mighty tuning of motors, inspection of equipment, filling of bidons, trial spins and all the little acts that go with ownership. Also the attributes and performances of "my car" were discussed at great length by each driver, not that any one listened, for every one wished to talk.
Finally the name plates were attached and everything put in readiness. The date of departure was set several times, but on each occasion something happened. The Chef was not ready, or the French Lieutenant had not arrived, or the camion was not on hand. Much elation was followed by corresponding depression. On the night of May 5th, the Section banquet was held and we drank in many inspiring speeches and some sweet cider. The latter was probably remembered more thoroly than the former.
Monday it was stated that the Section would leave early Tuesday morning, so the cars were loaded that day and the men slept on their arms that night. About 9.30 the next morning we left the Park, lined up in the street in numerical order, made one last adieu and passed out through the streets and boulevards of Paris in convoy formation. It was a proud moment for us all --- the great adventure was about to commence. As the convoy wound its way among the traffic, with an occasional stalling of motors, the cars looked very brave in their fresh paint and the faces of the men were bright and eager in anticipation of what was before them. The progress through Paris was necessarily slow, but after the open country was reached Mr. Ford was given a chance to assert himself and right manfully did those new cars come to the front. The day was full of rain and sunshine and the countryside clad in its early spring investiture was a delight to the eye, while the excellence of the roads constituted a temptation which it was hard for the speed artists to resist.
The first stop of any importance was at Meaux where we had luncheon and a chance to compare notes. The morning drive did not seem to have seriously impaired the appetite of any of those present. From thus point on we began to come in contact with portions, of the war machine, working squads, troops en repos, cannon convoys, occasional detachments of artillery and other features, all of which were of peculiar interest to us who only knew war by hearsay. Soon an occasional wrecked house or group of wayside graves indicated where the spray of the most advanced German waves had reached, but on the whole, Dame Nature had been so thoro with her healing balm that the largest desolation of war had to he imagined rather than seen.
The final stop for the day was at Sézanne, "where we arrived about 6 p. m. and parked our cars in the court house square". The day's run had been rather a remarkable one, inasmuch as every car got in in good order, and outside of a bit of tire trouble and the stiffness of some of the new motors, the new cars and new drivers had come there without a casualty.
A can of "monkey meat" a hunk of bread and a bar of chocolate served for supper, then the cots were made down in the cars, tho some of the men preferred the band stand, needless to say there was no rocking necessary to get the section to sleep that night.
Early the next morning we were all up and about as the tanks had to be filled, the cars greased and oiled and various little odd jobs to receive attention. Breakfast consisted of a cup of coffee and a slice of bread. The Continental breakfast is no source of joy to the average American; he can't get his hand off of bacon and eggs and hot cakes. About 9.30 am, we took the road again and it was not the road of yesterday, being pitted from much traffic and powerful bumpy for a lightly loaded Ambulance. There was much jockeying for position and the convoy was much disarranged at times. We soon issued forth into the Valley of the Marne, which is a smiling country of plains and rolling fields which sparkled in the morning sunshine like a well cut emerald again had nature well repaired the ravages of man. It would require a man without a soul to devastate such a country as this. Now the roadside graves grew more numerous, and we felt that we were passing thru country where world history had been made.
Just before noon we arrived at Vitry-le-François where we halted for luncheon, rather a pretty little French city which showed no signs of war except for numerous soldiers. From here we proceeded thru St-Dizier, where we hung up at the Railroad gates and watched the endless freight go by, then to the outskirts of Bar-le-Duc (which is the distributing point for the Verdun Sector) where after much delay it was ascertained that our present destination was Fains. We arrived at Fains about p. m. and found it to be an unattractive treeless little town, consisting mostly of one street and a small open square where we parked the cars, and what interested us most, set up the stove by the side of a house. That night we had a hot meal and our first issuance of "pinard ", a species of claret which is generally more or less bad. It was rather treated gingerly at first, but it soon became a habit. One can't be a "poilu" and not drink "pinard ". The section remained at Fains almost two days and the cafés hated to see it go. Then on the morning of May 11th we turned our heads towards Verdun. How we wanted to see that place!
It was a name to conjure with, one that fired the imagination and kindled the enthusiasm. The prospect was surely a pleasing one.
An early start was made from Fains and we came to a halt just outside of Bar-le-Duc, where we awaited an inspection that never materialized. The convoy passed through the edge of Bar-le-Duc and then out into a fine rolling country over a good road that lead us slowly on among never ending vistas of hills and valleys, woods and fields. We were now on the main artery of communication with Verdun and there was much to catch and hold interest.
About noon we arrived at Vadelaincourt, which was to become our regular "port of call". Then we passed into a section where trenches and barb-wire entanglements formed a goodly portion of the landscape. In the distance could be heard the occasional boom of a gun, while about us were ammunition dumps, parked camions, cavalry en repos and other military essentials that led its to believe that at last we were going to have a first hand view of the real thing. As we turned into the edge of Verdun we realized that the reputation of this locality had not been overdrawn. Skirting the edge of the town we swung into the cantonement at Glorieux and brought our cars to a halt in a place we were destined to know quite intimately in the months to come.
At Glorieux we relieved Section 8 who had done enormous service in this sector in the various attacks of the preceding months. Section 18 was attached to the 126th Division of the 15th Army Corps of the second Army, the Division being commanded by General Mathieu and the Army Corps by General de Fouclare. This Division was, generally known as a "working division" but was being turned into an "attacking division" for the coming offensive in this sector.
The cantonement at Glorieux is about one mile from the Citadel of Verdun on the south-west side and is located on the slope of a hill from the crest of which a large portion of the defences to the North of Verdun can be seen. It is made up of several stone hospital buildings and numerous long frame barracks now used partially for hospital purposes and partially as accommodations for ambulance sections and G.B.D. units.
The bâtiment which section 8 evacuated the morning after our arrival and which we took over was a commodious one and we were able to fix ourselves up very comfortably indeed. These quarters were said to be among the most comfortable at the front.
In an adjoining bâtiment was an English Section, also number 18 and attached to the French Army. They did evacuation work alternately with us and the two sections were thrown very close together and became very firm friends.
The postes de secours assigned Section 18 at the outset were only two, one being located in the ruins of the village of Bras and the other across the Meuse from the village of Thiervillc and known as Montgrignon. The village of Bras was located just at the fort of the Côte du Poivre and about four miles north from the Citadel of Verdun, the poste de secours being installed in a well constructed .abri which was partially filled with rats and acetylene gas. This town formerly housed about 1500 inhabitants, but now there is hardly a wall standing and the ruins are intersected in every direction by communication trenches leading to the Côte du Poivre and various bomb proofs. At the time this post was taken over, it was about 1200 yards from the German first line trenches.
As the road to Bras could not be used in the day time, the wounded were brought down the canal in the péniche and unloaded at the poste at Montgrignon from which point the ambulances carried them to the Maison Nathan.
The Maison Nathan was a residence originally built for and occupied by general Bouvet who planned the fortifications of Verdun. It was in the nature of a villa. being constructed on three sides of a square, the fourth side being open to a very pretty garden, which is now cut up by communication trenches. The fruit trees are sadly shattered and among the flowers lie unused hand grenades, unexploded obus and various other specimens of the flotsam of war, but still the apple blossoms, the lilacs and the columbine made a brave show while here and there was to be seen the bleeding heart of a flower which typifies France in this hour of agony.
This Maison is located in the city of Verdun, just inside the gates of St Paul, and it was to this point that we brought the wounded from the poste de secours. The building itself was badly shell torn, and as it was still subject to bombardment the wounded were handled in specially prepared rooms in the cellars. This place was used as a kind of clearing house. The doctors here classified the wounded or sick and then tagged them for evacuation to various hospitals in the vicinity according to the nature of their wound or ailment. Here in the courtyard we kept our cars, ready to go to Bras or Montgrignon when a car came in or evacuate to the surrounding hospitals on call.
The arrangement of the Ambulance Service was as follows: The section was divided into three squads with six drivers and ambulances to the Squad, then each of these squads was further divided into two groups of three each. Every other day a squad of six was on duty and on the intervening days a squad of three. When a squad of six was on, they were called upon not only to bring down the wounded from the poste de secours, but also to evacuate these wounded and those brought down by the English Section from their postes, to the various field hospitals at Vadelaincourt, Souhesmes, Jardin Routier and Dugny. When a squad of three was on duty they only brought down the wounded from the postes and the English handled the evacuation work. Each squads shift of duty was for twenty-four hours, from 6 P. M. to 6 P. M.
In the beginning we were assigned as quarters at the Maison Nathan a room in the cellar adjacent to the kitchen which was a veritable hole in every respect, no light except artificial, part of the time electricity and part oil lamps. There were beds but we slept fully clothed and dared not investigate the blankets, we used these beds alternately with a cat and her kittens which ate and slept thereon.
Later a room was secured on the first floor, where we were made fairly comfortable and where fresh air and sunshine could at least be had, tho at night the windows had to be carefully covered in order that no light might show. In case of bombardment the abri was quite handy and we know every foot of the way in the dark. As a general thing there was always sufficient variety to keep one entertained while on duty there were the blessés, the brancardiers and the poilus to talk to, there were the ruins of the town to explore if time permitted, there was reading and writing and many arguments on various topics to be settled, all of which passed the time away very pleasantly.
The daily life in the cantonnement followed rather a simple routine. Breakfast at 7.30 AM., dinner at noon and supper at 7. P.M. Each squad on their return from duty handled the table for the meals, i. e. they set the table, brought in the feed and cleared the table. When cars came in off duty they had to be washed, cleaned, greased, oiled and generally gone over. --- the washing of the cars was always a bug-bear and the pet aversion of practically all the drivers. The men were not allowed to visit Verdun nor to stray far from the cantonement particularly in the directions where batteries were stationed, but just before dusk the top of the hill behind the cantonement was quite a gathering place as from there could be seen such places of interest, together with the flash of the guns, the bursting of rockets, all of which furnished a scene of never ending fascination to some of us.
After dark all windows in the cantonement had to be carefully screened to prevent any light from being visible from the outside.
---Verdun itself was a continual source of interest to its all and whenever possible we walked its streets and clambered over its ruins. It is surely a remarkable monument to the efficiency of modern explosives. Apparently there is not a house untouched and the general aspect is that of a city which has been visited by an earthquake. There are cafés with the fronts gone, glasses still upon the tables, chairs grouped around and bottles (needless to say empty) ranged upon the shelves. In a taxidermist's shop with the stuffed birds and beasts all around sits a chair drawn up to a table upon which there lies a woman's shawl and amber comb. It seemed as tho the occupant would return at any time. When the inhabitants left they could take but few things with them and the remainder they packed away as best they could. Since that time there has been some looting, and now it is pathetic to see the little treasures of some family scattered to the winds, the family photographs, a child's toys and Sunday clothes, bits of bric-à-brac and sundry objects that have no meaning for the stranger, and one can only surmise what sentimental ties bind them to their former possessors. It will be a sad home coming for many.
As regards the handling of the sick and wounded by the Section the evacuation work was comparatively simple, the roads to the field hospitals were generally good and at night lights were allowed which were a great comfort and assistance. In the poste de secours work however it was different. There no lights could be used and this was the driving that put the heart in the mouth and strained the five senses to the utmost. The Road to Bras with all its twists and turns, bumps and track crossing is burned into the memory of most of us. How we hated that call about one AM.. "Car for Bras" and how reluctantly we arose rubbing our eyes and wondering where the devil we put our hat and belt. Then after mechanically cranking her up we slid out of the portals of the Maison Nathan, then the gates of St Paul, down the dark vault of arched trees, a quick turn by the statue to the Defenders of 1870, and then we were out in the open still blinking at the darkness as we side stepped a convoy and wondered whether there was anything on the Pont.
Passing this narrow little bridge with whistle blowing we swung into the Faubourg Pavé and passed thru the remains of the village of Belleville, and now the traffic would be met, may be a train of burros who cared not for a whistle or the rules of the road, perhaps a ravitaillement convoy going in one direction and an ammunition train in another, or else a line of camions that loomed up out of the darkness like huge spectres. There were many things to be met on that road to Bras, 'twas duel and dodge and twist and turn, and when the eye strain became too great, we sometimes dodged the things that didn't exist. Along the Faubourg Pavé we went and up the Belleville hill, striving to snake it in "High", a turn to the right at the top and 'twas a straight run to Bras with the camouflage on the left and the open fields on the right and plenty of twists and turns as the traffic rattled by with a flash of a searchlight here and there to indicate position or a dazzling light from a star shell that soon expired and left the darkness blacker. A wave of relief swept over us as we passed under the waving arches of camouflage that graced the streets of the ruined town, which was accentuated when we slipped the car into the shelter and descended the steps to the abri where the brancardiers, the rats and various odors welcomed us. --- Yes we won't forget that Road to Bras in a hurry.
There were many little episodes that helped to form the high lights of Section Eighteen's first stay at Verdun but space will not permit their recounting here. Such as the wrestling match with Section Four when Angus Frantz "brought home the bacon" and depleted the exchequer of Number Four for our benefit ; the decoration of our Chef Mr. Paul Kurt, with the Croix de Guerre for services previously rendered, which made some of the boys think they were celebrating their birthdays; the concert given by the "poilus " at Glorieux, which was wonderfully rendered ; the concert and shadowgraph performance pulled off by the English Section wherein the English burlesqued the English and both they and ourselves enjoyed it. Then there were the more war-like happenings such as the explosion of the ammunition dump near the Maison Nathan, the almost daily bombardment of the Jardin Fontaine by the Boches, the constant shrapnel firing and the anti-aircraft guns against the aeroplanes and an occasional air fight or the bringing down of a saucisse, all of which lent its variety and gave us food for our letters to the States.
Of course the men got a touch now and then of shell fire, which none of us particularly enjoyed, and the distance at which they lit was always a matter of debate as the teller of the story generally had them marvellously close. However the shelling during this stay was rather sporadic and never very intense, just an occasional exchange of compliments. Most of the wounded handled were the victims of trenches, torpedoes, bombs, sometimes a well placed obus and not unfrequently the result of fishing with hand grenades. We did not see much of the members of the regiments of our Division, the 173rd, the 112th and the 55th except when we had occasion to handle them in the ambulances. The G.B.D. unit we were thrown with rather closely and grew to know some of the brancardiers and medical officers quite intimately and pleasantly even tho our French seemed a foreign language to them at times. The Médecin Divisionnaire M. whom we carried in our Ambulance whenever he wished to visit the postes was uniformly kind and courteous and seemingly indifferent to the vagaries of a Ford. A short while before the Section left Verdun the work at the Montgrignon poste was practically discontinued and in its place we were required to keep a car at all times in a new poste established in a ruined dwelling on the side of the Belleville hill. The entrance here was rather narrow but by constant application we managed to widen it considerably. This poste was never a popular one as there was little to do except haul the Médecin Divisionnaire around and the inaction did not appeal to the boys.
During this stay we experienced but one casualty which consisted of a broken arm sustained by Piggy Stewart while engaged in raising an iron dumb bell.
On June 28th we were notified that we would leave the next morning for repos. --- In view of the expected offensive in the near future in which our Division was to take an important part. They were to be given a good rest behind the lines and the Section was to accompany them. So the cars were loaded that day and the next morning early we took the road to the roar after seven fairly busy weeks in the immediate sector of Verdun.
The convoy had a pleasant run thru some very charming and typically French country. The day was ideal and the wealth of colors in the landscapes suggested the hand of a master painter. We followed the broad highway to Bar-le-Duc and were interested in seeing civilians again, while the sight of the feminine gender filled us with excitement. There are practically no civilians or women in the immediate vicinity of Verdun and few of us realized before how necessary a part the latter played in our existence.
Passing thru Bar-le-Duc, the Section proceeded to, St. Dizier and then to Joinville where there was a brief halt before we passed on to Suzannecourt which was reached about 5 P.M. --- This proved to be a fairly pretty little village, mostly of one street, three cafés and a very curious and interested population. This was where we were supposed to be located and the prospect of surrounding hills, the adjacent river and the proximity of Joinville filled us with much pleasure. The cars were parked near an ancient and run-down chateau, where quarters were secured for most of the boys, the stove was unloaded and set up and the other paraphernalia (which the lieutenant had been a long time collecting) disposed of, then after a good meal we were all glad to turn in. The next day however we received a jolt. It turned out that the French authorities had sent us to a wrong town, so we had to pack up again, bid goodbye to our new made friends and take our departure for a town ten kilometers further west. A short run brought us to our destination, Thonnances-les-Moulins, a small village of only two cafés, nestling in a valley among some well defined and wooded hills and with a delightfully clear and cold little stream wandering near by, where the drivers and the cars could both receive necessary attention.
We were billeted in a semi-barn and dwelling where part of the boys slept in the loft and others secured quarters in various houses in the village. The cars were parked in a field behind the mairie and adjacent to the stream, while the kitchen and the atelier were set up in the stable yard of our main billet. Those who had the good fortune to be quartered among the town's people now experienced the exquisite pleasure of sheets, a pillow and feather mattresses, something it was mighty difficult to pull us away from in the morning. The old peasant women who rented the rooms did not understand our habits any better than most of us understood their mitrailleuse speech, this being their first experience with the Americans at close range, but everything considered, we managed to live together in peace and harmony and at the same time had an opportunity to gain rather an intimate knowledge of the French peasant class.
Besides Section 18 there were quartered in this village a good portion of the G. B D. of the 126th Division and also a Company of gendarmes. At the front the latter are about as popular as the average base ball umpire, also they are just as essential. The other Units of our Division were scattered about in various villages in the vicinity, Thonnance-les-Moulins being near the center of the district utilized for repos.
As a rule those members of the Division needing medical attention would be brought to Thonnance in the wagons of the G. B. D., tho when the cases were bad one would go after them in an ambulance, and each day an ambulance with driver and aid would leave for Joinville where there were two hospitals and where the Médecin Divisionnaire had his headquarters.
At Joinville the period of duty was twenty-four hours and as we were allowed to sleep and take our meals at the hotel, the duty was in no way onerous. Another pleasant feature lay in the fact that our poste was located in an old and wonderfully preserved chateau known as the Grand Jardin. It was surrounded by beautiful and well kept grounds where we could sit under the trees, listen to the birds, watch the fish play and wonder if the suffering and desolation of Verdun was really a fact or merely a figment of the imagination.
Soon after our arrival at Thonnance the Glorious Fourth came to pass, so a large United States and a French flag were hung at the entrance to our stable yard and that evening we had a sumptuous repast including champagne and several speeches wherein we spoke very nicely of ourselves. It was indeed a large day and tho the natives did not know what the Fourth of July was they suspected that it was quite an important occasion.
About this time Mr. William Slidell was appointed to the position of Sous-Chef and of course the event was fitly celebrated. It was regretted that we could not have two sous-chiefs.
This was followed by the French Government, in view of the fourth of July and the landing of American troops in France, allowing us a two days leave in Paris, which by travelling at night was stretched into four days. This was indeed a welcome break in our daily life, and the "bright lights" were thoroly enjoyed by those who could scrape together sufficient funds to last them thru the four days.
Towards the latter part of the month we had the misfortune to lose our Chef Mr. Paul Kurtz who left to become an aviator, however we were fortunate in having Mr. Slidell to step into his place. Mr. Frank Boyd was then made sous-chef and more celebrations were in order.
During the stay at Thonnance the Section lost several of the old men who left on account of sickness or aviation and also had four new men to join our ranks.
The principal amusements at this place were cards, quoits (played with horse shoes) writing, sleeping and complimenting the weather which threatened to set the country adrift. The two principal events of the day were lunch and dinner --- breakfast was a side issue.
The regiments of the Division were busy practising for the offensive at Verdun with more or less rehearsing of their parts while the G. B. D. Unit had to listen to lectures on their duties. There was little for Section 18 to do but sit and wait and as we had almost eight weeks of that, the inaction began to tell on the men before the end came. With a world war in progress within cannon sound of us we were spending our time as tho we were at some summer resort.
Finally when on August 6th we were told that we would return to Verdun the next day there was universal rejoicing. So we packed our things. hitched on our kitchen trailer, which we had secured in the meanwhile, and about noon, on a bright August day took the road back to what we knew would be a wonderful experience if we lived to see it thru.
The trip hack to Verdun was a pleasant one for the greater part of the way and good progress was made until we neared Souilly Then we commenced to get into the fringe of the heavy motor traffic which was bringing up the great volume of supplies to the Verdun Sector in anticipation of the expected attack. So we left the main road and took to the by-ways where the mud from the recent rains sadly disfigured our nice clean cars. About dusk we reached Vadelaincourt and there took the main road again ; here we found it dense with traffic going in both directions and as one convoy is not allowed to pass another, there was nothing to do but put the machines in low and creep along thru the dust and darkness at a snail's pace, while the water boiled and the foot grew numb from the constant pressure. When the convoy finally rolled into the familiar cantonement at Glorieux a very weary crowd of drivers climbed out of their ambulances and made ready for bed.
The return to Glorieux was somewhat like a home coming to most of us but this time we did not have the commodious quarters that we formerly occupied, indeed we were restricted to three rooms and the remainder of the bâtiment was given over to a French G. B. D. transport squad and our English friends of S.S.A. 18 who arrived soon after we did and had to be partly quartered in tents. What were barracks before had now to be converted into hospital wards.
Things had not changed much since our departure, the cemeteries had grown a bit, some temporary structures had been erected and there was an observation balloon station near by that interested us mightily, also the hill from which we were accustomed to make so many observations of interest was also there but alas we were forbidden to ascend to the top. Luckily many plum trees grew near the crest of the hill and we were all very fond of plums. As the cross road where we were accustomed to take our cars for washing in the stream, was now shelled at times, we were unable to give them their usual washing and naturally thus created a great deal of dissatisfaction among the various members of the Section.
During the first week of our stay there was very little for us to do, as our Division, which had been augmented by another regiment, in view of the attack, had net yet moved up to the trenches. Section four was handling our old postes at Bras and Montgrignon, so most of our activity consisted in keeping a car at the Caserne Griboval for the purpose of hauling the Médecin Divisionnaire around on his various inspection trips and to his various conferences. Occasionally a car went on a special trip and on such occasions the driver was to be envied.
The roads were now being strictly policed and illuminated signs were placed all along the routes at all crossings and various traffic rules had to be observed ad literatum.
The, Maison Nathan had been discontinued as a clearing point for the wounded and the "triage" was established in an old seminary at Glorieux. In going to Bras, we passed thru the City of Verdun and returning passed around it. There was a gate at the beginning of the Bras Road and in the days preceding the attack we had to give our names before we could pass thru. The Montgrignon poste had been considerably enlarged by the erection of hospital tents and it was proposed to handle here only assis, who would be brought down the canal in the péniche. The Bras poste was augmented by the addition of a large metal abri. All the preparations for the attack appeared to have been worked out carefully and the indications were that a merry time was going to be had by all.
The impression was when the Section left Thonnance that our Division was to go in the trenches soon after their arrival, --- that the attack would he pulled off, they doing their bit and we ours. Then we would all adjourn to the rear for repos again and count up the losses. All of this it was presumed would take about ten days.
"Man proposes and God disposes". For the first week or ten days it rained off and on most of the time just when we thought the artillery was working op a regular preliminary bombardment the heavens would open and 'twas all off for the time being.
Whenever it was the least bit fair or decent, the observation balloons and aeroplanes were up in great numbers and the attempts of the planes to bring down the saucisses and the occasional aerial fights together with the large amount of bombardment by antiaircraft guns were always scenes that had the greatest fascination for us. The rush for the windows when a Boche plane hove in sight was almost a riot at times.
Also during this period the batteries were far from idle and often in the small hours of the morning we would be awakened by the rattle of a bombardment that sounded as tho something very serious was happening. Then there was a large calibre battery over towards the Dugny Road that disturbed everything except our appetites. Indeed batteries seemed to be in every available spot and about dusk when a good many of them got busy it was rather an awesome spectacle. Nor were the Germans absolutely quiet: every now an then they would toss a few in and about Verdun, not forgetting their old love the Jardin Fontaine.
Along about the fifteenth of August our Division began to move into the trenches and about the same time the Médecin Divisionnaire moved his headquarters to Bras and now we began to work this poste regularly. In the beginning most of the men handled were gas cases. The Germans were using a shell containing a new kind of gas ; it had an odor and the effects were not felt to any degree until a good many hours after the victim had been subjected to it. It affected the eyes, the nose, throat, lungs and stomach, besides penetrating the clothes and raising large blisters where it came in contact with the sweaty parts of the body. This gas was used with a good deal of success and was particularly severe on some of our batteries.
About the time we started working Bras again the traffic on the various roads was terrific, but particularly so on the Bras road, which incidentally was very much cut up and rough to ride upon. On the night of the 17th some of the boys were hours making a distance of between three and four miles, there was a gas attack, horses were overcome, vehicles stalled and traffic generally held up.
Night driving under these conditions became largely a matter of good judgment and luck. Now that the rains had ceased the dust had become an important factor and when the gas mask became necessary progress was mere guess work. The Bras road was barely wide enough in places for three vehicles abreast and then it was necessary for one of them to run on the dummy track alongside. When an ambulance dashed out from behind some convoy and took a chance in the darkness and dust, it never knew what it was going to meet and when some vague shape loomed up almost upon one, it was essential to find a hole somewhere and find it quick if there were horses on the right hand side of the load one could push them into the ditch and make a hole (and incidentally be glad he could not understand the driver). Everything else however is larger than a Ford ambulance and generally one has to rely on a hole being made for him. Perhaps one may lose a mud guard, dent a fender or smash a lamp but that is just a part of the game.
These of us who were out on the night and the early morning of the eighteenth and nineteenth will hardly forget that occasion in a hurry. It was just two days preceding the attack, the roads were crowded with traffic of all kinds and the batteries about it were working continuously. The night was star lit and this together with the flash of the guns and the bursting star shells enabled us to get some idea of what we were doing, tho the intense dust was a great handicap.
It required from two to three hours to cover the few miles from Verdun to Bras and as long or longer to return. Most of the time one had to force the ambulance into or behind a convoy and trail along in a succession of advances or halts and as something was continually happening in front, the latter seemed interminable. Once an opening offered, one could dash out, travel a short distance and then duck back into a convoy again, with possibly a few souvenirs of the attempt. Traffic policemen in the shape of mounted gendarmes, rode back and forth straightening out the marls and endeavouring to keep the procession continually moving in both directions. Woe to the vehicle that obstructed its progress for it was immediately pitched into a ditch or field on the side of the road and a post-mortem could be held over the remains the next day. This traffic provided the nourishment for the attack and nothing could be allowed to stop its flow.
As one approached Bras this night it was a scene of bewildering confusion the road was choked with horses and vehicles of every description seemingly mixed in an inextricable chaos, brancardiers were going forth with furled brancards or returning with silent burdens, batteries roared and flashed in every direction while shells whistled overhead continuously, the whole scene was lit up by the glare of two burning camions which had been struck by German shells and the ruined town with its waving arches of camouflage presented a weird and grotesque appearance with the lights and shadows playing about its distorted walls and crumbling piles of masonry.
A short while after midnight gas shells began to come over and then the confusion became worse confounded, as the breath soon condenses on the lenses of the mask to see thru it at night is well nigh all impossibility --- the horses affected by the gas pranced all over the road, the drivers like so many ghouls cursed inaudibly beneath their masks while, due to their inability to see the traffic assumed more and more a condition of turmoil and confusion, finally everything had to be halted until the worst had passed. Those of us at the poste were compelled to enter the abri where every crack and crevice was tightly closed and what with every inch of space occupied by sleeping, eating or smoking poilus it was a question of whether the air without was not preferable to that within.
As soon as there was a lull in the gas attack the ambulances were loaded and started on their way, but most of them did little more than start, for soon the gas was as bad as ever and again the traffic became badly congested and had to halt. With gas masks on and wedged in the mass we waited, while on one side fell the gas shells, on the other the high explosives and overhead occasionally burst the shrapnel. Sometimes a shell would find its billet and the screams of horses and shouts of men would add to the hideousness of the scene. After what seemed an interminable time the gas let up, the road was partially cleared and still with gas masks on we crawled and felt our way towards Verdun to deposit our burdens at the triage with a feeling of relief that no words can describe.
It was during the night just described that "Shorty" Long hearing an aeroplane bomb burst behind him, got out of his car and investigated, finding a man with his leg nearly torn off, he applied a tourniquet, using a piece of trace rope, a hammer and one of his tire tools, then loading him with two other wounded into the ambulance he hurried to the hospital, thus saving a life by his prompt action and earning a croix de Guerre.
The last three nights preceding the attack were all of the same nature, tho the days were comparatively quiet, as no attempt was made to send supplies up during the daylight hours.
During the attack all the cars made Glorieux their base, generally four cars were held at Bras, and when one of their brought down a load the wounded were delivered at the "triage" and the car returned to Glorieux, the next man on the list proceeding to Bras. This was a particularly convenient arrangement as it gave one a chance to grab a cup of coffee or something to eat, and sometimes to seize a little nap. This arrangement was changed however on the first day of the attack and the extra cars were parked in a warm little spot behind the camouflage at Petit Bras, where they would be within easy access of both Bras and Vacherauville and incidentally of the various little tokens the Boches were casting over.
During the night of August twentieth and the early morning of the twenty-first the bombardment was intense and soon after dawn the troops went over. The road to Bras, early that bright August morning was not a pleasant sight; its sides were partially lined with dead and dying horses and the wrecks of vehicles. Near the junction of the Petit Bras, with the Bras road was a particularly gruesome sight : a bursting shell had involved a camion and a horse drawn ammunition wagon, the bodies of four horses lay in the ditch, two partially burned, the wreckage of the conveyances and numerous loaded shells lay all about and in the midst of it all lay the body of a poilu that had been completely severed at the waist with the skin burned from the nether limbs At Bras the wounded were streaming down the roads to the poste de secours and those who could walk were being sent on to the poste at Petit Bras that they might take the péniche to Montgrignon. German brancardiers had already been pressed into service and the first batch of prisoners were making their way to the rear.
About this time the work commenced in earnest and for the rest of the day the little Fords went up and down the Bras road like so many mechanical toys. Before noon the road to Vacherauville had been opened up and we started to serve the Marre poste, which was located in a dug out on the side of the Côte de Poivre and also the Vacherauville poste which was located in an abri among the ruins of the village of that name situated near the foot of the Côte de Palou, the shellings was still pretty warm in these localities and the road was so full of shell holes that it was a wonder the springs ever stood the strain.
The wounded were brought into the "triage" so rapidly that its facilities were overwhelmed, the drivers had to act as their own brancardiers and the wounded had to be deposited in the open court yard until room could be made inside. Finally we had to all turn in and evacuate them to the railroad station at Souilly to he transported to hospitals in other sections.
August the 31st was the red letter day in the annals of Section 18. Between 700 and 800 blessés were handled during the day and the cars were kept in motion almost constantly. The men performed their work efficiently and thoroly and the wounded were removed from the poste de secours just as rapidly as they could receive necessary attention and be placed in the cars. Section Four furnished ten cars which worked in conjunction with Section 18 during the major portion of the attack and they are entitled to the greatest praise for a consistent and efficient performance upon their part.
From this time on the work lightened, the blessés were much fewer in numbers and we were able to operate with shifts of four cars every twenty-four hours, one car being kept at Bras and three at Vacherauville.
However as the work decreased the danger if anything increased for the French batteries were pushed forward to advanced positions and now that the German batteries were recovering from the terrific bombardment they had received and had changed the location of their guns they began to try and seek out the location of the French batteries and to bombard the surrounding roads. The Bras road was bombarded so frequently that we were forbidden to use it during the daylight hours, and were compelled to proceed to Bras and Vacherauville by a round-about route that led thru the ruined village of Charny and crossed the Meuse on a pontoon bridge (erected subsequent to the attack) between Charny and Bras. This road was in part lined with batteries, contained some very bad shell holes and had one particular dead horse alongside that was an abomination to the olfactory nerves. Also it was rather narrow and in the dust and darkness it was not an altogether pleasant place.
During the week following the attack the artillery actions were very severe at times, several of our cars were struck by éclats while one of Section Four's cars was put out of commission and a blessé who was sitting beside the driver was again injured. Shells dropped all about the poste de secours both at Bras and Vacherauville and on one occasion at Bras a shell wounded a brancardier just in front of the poste and when no one would go to his aid on account of the heavy fire, two of our drivers Raymond Croke and young Chauncey Olmstead seized a brancard and brought him in, thus earning their Croix de Guerre.
A new poste de secours known as La Cage was put into operation on the edge of the Côte de Talou and half a mile beyond Vacherauville but we made only a few trips to this post practically, our entire service now being devoted to the one at Vacherauville. This post was also used to a large extent as a dressing station and consisted of a rather commodious abri which by the sardine method accommodated about fifty men and almost as many odors but when the Germans took it into their heads to bombard the batteries in this vicinity, the abri was a most welcome spot and the odors were hardly noticed.
It was rather amusing one day when the Boches were doing a vigorous bit of "strafing" in this locality, a sous-officier who happened to he passing alighted from his horse and being in a bit of hurry was about to lead the horse down the slope into the abri when the Médecin chef yelled to him that what he was entering was a poste de secours and not a stable.
This village, if possible, was in greater ruin than Bras and thruout the debris there were trenches, abris and dug-outs of all kinds which with the recently occupied trenches adjacent to it proved a great deal of interest to us. From this point an excellent view was to be had of the Côte de Poivre, the Côte de Talou and the Section over towards Bapaume and Hill 344.
Indeed our work in and about Bras and Vacherauville was at all times very interesting and upon occasions fascinating, not to mention warm while the experiences we had at these points we would not part with at any price.
About this time the rumors of our leaving began to be persistent and for several days we expected to depart daily but were disappointed as all of our Division was not yet out of the trenches. Our English friends of S. S. A. 18, who incidentally had given a very fine account of themselves during the attack, picked up their "old kit bags" and left us feeling rather lonesome. Finally it was definitely settled that we were to leave on Sept. 2nd, so we immediately began to set our house in order. The cars were rather in a sorry plight, hardly one that did not bear scars from the work of the attack --- rear mud guards gone, fenders pushed in, radiators bent, lamp smashed, holes punched in the bodies and side boxes knocked off. These defects were remedied as far as possible, the mud cleaned off as best we could and everything put in shape for a long cross country run. Section 4 moved into our bâtiment and prepared to take our posts the day of our departure.
At three A. M. on the morning of October 2nd we awakened to a wet drizzly morning, threw the rest of our stuff in the cars, caught a quick breakfast of coffee, jam and bread and by the time it was fairly light we took our last look at Glorieux and the environs of Verdun, swung into the Bar-le-Duc Road, and were on our way to peace and rest.
Altho in the beginning the weather was very disagreeable it cleared in a short time and the major portion of the trip was made beneath sunny skies. We made our final trip past Vadelaincourt thru Souilly, then again we traversed the streets of Bar-le-Duc and passed on to St Dizier. On the start we were led by the White truck tossing the kitchen trailer, so we moved with great deliberation but after a while a steep hill proved too much for our bell-wether, and we were compelled to pass her by, then we really moved, arriving at Moutier-en-Der about lunch time but as the White and the kitchen trailer had not yet come up we repaired to he restaurants of the town and gave an excellent exhibition of plain and fancy eating. From this point on we passed thru some very pretty country of wooded hills and winding roads, finally pulling up in the village of Dolancourt at 2.30 P. M. after a thoroly pleasant and successful run.
Dolancourt which had been selected as our place of repos proved to be a very quaint and pretty little village with fine trees and attractive surroundings. It nestled in a valley that was almost by hills, a stream that provided the essential washing place for the cars flowed thru the town and the river Aube was close by. The cars were parked in a barn yard, and most of the boys were quartered in the four rooms of a vacant house, while the others scattered about the village, some even being so fortunate as to land in the principal chateau of the place. By night fall every one was comfortably fixed and we settled down for that complete rest which soon becomes the bug-bear of the average repos.
The work we were called upon to do here was similar to that of our first repos. The Médecin Divisionnaire had his headquarters at Vendeuvre, a pleasant little town about eight miles from Dolancourt and there we kept a car on duty at times, each driver serving twenty-four hours. Occasionally we would be called upon to transport a malade to Bar-sur-Aube, or Troyes or Chaumont and as the roads were magnificent and the country most attractive such trips were very much sought after.
There was little to do at Dolancourt to pass the time away and again we entered upon a summer resort existence, varied it times by some one having a birthday and the regular amusements of feeding the ducks in the little stream that ran thru the village. After every meal the boys collected the scraps of bread and proceeded to make the chicks happy. It was not long before most of them had a name on and their individual peculiarities were the subject of much discussion.
Soon after our arrival the regular eight day permission, which we had been steadily looking forward to, was in order for those of the Section who had served three months and we left in groups for Paris and other parts of France. The permissions were not all concluded until the latter part of September and by that time the enlistment of a portion of the Section was expiring.
The latter part of September was marked by several occurrences of interest, including the arrival of the U. S. Officers to enlist the boys in the regular Army: The loss of Lieut. Blanchy, who left us to take up work at General Headquarters and the arrival of his successor Lieut. Goujon. The departure of several of the boys for home or aviation work, also several new men came out to the Section to replace those who were leaving. Indeed about this time the Section was very much stirred up and undergoing a good many changes.
The principal event however and really the climax of the Section's career, was the conferring of the Croix de Guerre upon it, in recognition of the work done at the Verdun attack during the latter part of August.
The work of the boys had been warmly praised in high quarters and a "divisional citation" had been issued. For some time the actual ceremony of the presentation had been expected and this was finally set for Sept. 29th.
On the morning of the 29th all the cars were made spick and span and a rehearsal of the ceremony was held. The event itself was set for the afternoon and at the appointed hour we returned to the field where the cars had been left in position.
The location selected for the purpose was superb being a small plateau just at the outside of the quaint little village of Dolanourt which nestled beneath in a verdant cup; in every direction stretched the rolling fields and hills covered with vineyards and wood plots, the stately poplar reared its head wherever the eyes turned, the succession of green hills seemed to dissolve in the distance, while here and there bright bits of color flashed out where the mustard and the poppy held sway.
Such was the scene when there swung into the field, passing the ambulances with their drivers at attention, the various detachments of the G.B.D. Companies of brancardiers trim and polished for the occasion, horse-drawn vehicles of the Service Sanitaire equipped for various purposes of aid and relief, --- the Red Cross was everywhere, -- indeed all the units of a Divisional S. B. D: were present and each proceeded to their allotted positions with military precision and despatch, forming three sides of a hollow square, the other being left open for the Médecin Divisionnaire and the reviewing party.
Soon the Medecin Divisionnaire arrived and with his staff and his decorations glistering in the sun marched upon the field and made a brief inspection of the assembled units. Then the individuals who were to he decorated formed a line in the center of the square with the Médecin Chef carrying the official emblem of the G. B. D. and the Lieutenant carrying that of S. S. U. 18.
Unfortunately out of the six men in Section 18 who were to receive decorations only the chef and young Olmstead were present.
The citation of the G B. D. and S. S. U. 18 were read out and the Médecin Divisionnaire pinned a Croix de Guerre upon the flag of each, this being followed by the reading of the individual citations and as each was concluded a Croix de Guerre was pinned up on the breast of the man cited, by the Médecin Divisionnaire, accompanied by a few congratulatory words and a shake of the hand.
When this was finished the Médecin Divisionnaire, his staff and the honor men retired to the open side of the square, where they watched the entire organization pass in review.
As the procession swung by in the midst of this wonderful setting, the sight was an inspiring one: here was a well equipped and efficient unit of men, motor and horse-drawn vehicles which devoted itself entirely to a work of construction, that of succouring and aiding those upon whom the sufferings of war had fallen too heavily.
In the passing there were many faces that all of us knew intimately, the faces of men with whom we had spent the long night watches, with whose work we had been in close contact and to whom our admiration and respect went out. Their decoration had been well earned and the events of the day proved that even those who do not fight have their rewards.
The little American Ambulances chugging slowly along in the rear of the procession slipped over the hill and back to their park and thus Section 18 of the American Ambulance Field Service, as a voluntary organization, passed out of existence.
BROWN, H. C., Washington D. C.
CROKE, R. R., Denver Col.
BLANCHY, Guy (succeeded by M. (Goujon), Lieutenant.