Perils of a Blizzard
The other night, just as I was going to crawl in, three blessés arrived from the trenches, another was down the road in a farmhouse waiting for the médecin chef; he was too badly wounded to go farther. They asked me to take the men to the hospital at Krût, which is back over the mountains twenty miles, and of course I said I would. I dressed again (I hated to because it was warm in the little log shack and it had begun to rain outside); I lit my lantern, and went out to the shelter where the cars were, got my tank filled with gas, and my lights ready to burn when I could use them. It was so black one could see nothing at all. We put two of the blessés on stretchers and pushed them slowly into the back of the car; the other sat in front with me. We did this under the protection of the hill where the poste de secours is located. When one goes fifty yards on the road beyond the station there is a valley, narrow but clear, which is in full view of the trenches, and it is necessary to go over this road going and coming. In the daytime one cannot be seen because the French have put up a row of evergreens along it which hides the road. I started and proceeded very carefully, keeping my lantern under a blanket, and we soon arrived at the house where the other blessé was waiting for the doctor. It was a typical French farmhouse, little, old, and dirty inside, and white outside. I pushed in the door and stepped down into the flagstone kitchen. On the floor lay the chasseur on a stretcher, his face pale under the lamplight from the table. The médecin chef was bending over him injecting tetanus (lockjaw) anti-toxin into his side, and with each punch of the needle the poor fellow, already suffering from terrible wounds, would squirm but not utter a word. The soldiers stood around the tiny room, their heads almost touching the brown rafters above. We took the man out to my car on the stretcher, carrying the light under the coat of one of the stretcher-bearers. If the Germans see a light moving anywhere in the French territory, they will fire on it if they think it near enough. I started up the mountain with my load of wounded. On either side of the road the French guns at certain places pounded out their greetings to the Boches, and the concussion would shake the road so that I could feel it in my car. I could light my lights after about a mile, so I proceeded slowly up the mountain in low speed. The heat from my motor kept the blessés and myself warm. About halfway up, we ran into the clouds and it became so foggy one could scarcely see; farther up it became colder and began to snow. I had no chains on my car (none to be had). They need so many things here, if they only had the money to buy them. I thought of the time you and I got stuck at Princeton, and it worried me to be without chains, especially since I had three helpless men inside and one out. I kept climbing up and the higher I went the more it snowed and the harder it blew. Near the top it became veritably blinding --snow, sleet, and wind --- a typical northeasterly American blizzard. The little car ploughed on bravely; it stuck only once on a sharp turn, and by backing it I was able to make it by rushing it. I could not see the road, the sleet was blowing into my face so and the snow was so thick. At last I reached the summit and the wind was so strong there it actually lifted my car a little at one time. On one side of the road was a high embankment and on the other a ravine sloping down at least one thousand feet. I was scared to death, for without chains we were liable to skid and plunge down this depth. The snow had been falling all day, and it had drifted in places over a yard deep. Twice I took a level stretch to be the road, but discovered my mistake in time to back up; the third time was more serious; I plunged ahead through a drift which I thought was the road, and finally I stuck and could move neither way. I could not leave these men there all night wounded, and the blizzard did not stop, so my only means was to find help. I walked back to what I thought was the road and kept on toward a slight, glimmering light I could see in the right direction. It was an enclosure for mules which haul ammunition over the mountains, and I felt safe again, for I knew there were a lot of Territorial soldiers with them. I hauled them out of bed; it was then 10.30. They came with me and pushed me back on the road, also pushed me along --- ten of them --- until they got me on the descent, and from there on the weight of my car carried me down through the drifts. I arrived at the hospital at 12.30 and was the happiest man you have ever seen to get those poor fellows there safely.
What night trips without lights sometimes mean
The dangers of the road
I was sent back to Mittlach the next day to get four more wounded. They were what are called assis, not couches, fortunately, because the snow on top of Trekopf had been falling and drifting all day and night. When I got to the top of the mountain and started down, the roads had been broken and beaten down by munition wagons and were like a sheet of ice. I started down without chains, and with all my brakes on the car began to slide slowly down the road. It slid toward the edge of the ravine and the two front wheels went over; it stopped, I got it back on the road, and turned the radiator into the bank on the other side and tried tying rags on the rear wheels to keep the car from going down, when a big wagon with four horses came down the hill behind me. It was so slippery that the horses started to slide down on their haunches, and, with brakes on, the driver could not stop them. The horses came on faster and they slid into the rear of my car, pushed it along for about six feet, and then nothing could stop it. It started down the road. I yelled to the wounded, "Vous, jetez-vous." They understood and piled out just in time. The car ran across the road and plunged down into the ravine. There was a lot of snow on the side of the ravine, and it had piled up so that it stopped the car part way down, and it was not injured very much. It took nine men and as many mules to pull it out. Now that the snow has come, I think our service to Mittlach will have to be abandoned.
L. C. D.
At Tomansplatz the other day an officer and I started for -----, one of our postes. We took a short cut over a high hill from which one could look easily down on -----, where all the fighting had been going on. There is a path over this hill which is hidden by trees, and on the top is a long boyau to pass through so as to keep out of sight of the Germans in clear weather. When we reached the top, we stepped out of the path to get a view of the valley, and it was wonderful looking down on the French and German trenches, and to see the hill all shot to pieces and the trees broken to stubs --- living scars of the fighting that had gone on. We did not get by unseen, for the Germans are always on the job. They have observation posts in the trees, hard to be seen, but easy to see from. There was a lot of firing going on, and we could see the French shells landing in the German lines. I had a premonition that something was going to happen and stepped behind a tree. I heard particularly one big gun fire, and wondered if by any chance it was meant for us. It took only three or four seconds to confirm my suspicion, for the shriek of a shell came our way. As they often pass high over our heads and we are familiar with the sound, I was still in doubt, when it burst not fifty yards away. We did not wait to investigate further, but jumped for the boyau when another shriek was heard, and we were just in time, for the shell burst not far behind us. We could tell when they were firing at us, for we could hear the gun fire, --- it sounded like a 150 mm., which is about 6-inch bore, --- then came the shriek, and then the bursting. It certainly is a strange, unwelcome sound when you know you are the target. We ran down the boyau toward the back of the hill for all we were worth, and they followed us, but we did not stop to look or listen, we almost rolled down the other side of the hill, but it was to safety, thank Heaven. The only thing that happened to me was a scratch on the back of my hand. Never again I The sensation of shells coming at one is novel but nauseating, and I keep away from the lines from now on.
Mule convoy in Alsace
The "poste" near Hartmannsweilerkopf after a bombardment
I must tell you that we have received a citation, and Colonel Hill's brother the Croix de Guerre for the work we did during the attack of October 15 to 19. Two more citations and we receive, each one, the Croix de Guerre.
L. C. D.
I had a wild ride last night in the rain. A German shell landed in a town only two kilometres from the front and killed four civilians and wounded one woman. I had to go and get her. For two kilometres the road runs over a slight rise in the plain, in full view of the Germans. It is all screened off with brush cut and stuck up along the side toward the lines, but here and there the brush was blown down by the terrific wind which came with the storm. We could not use lights, but we did not need them, for, though it was raining like fury, the Germans were sending up illuminating bombs which lighted up the country for miles around. They are the most fascinating yet weird things you have ever witnessed. This ball of fire rises from the trenches to a height of one hundred feet, and then floats along slowly through the air for a quarter of a mile, illuminating everything around. At one time one came directly for us, and we stopped the car and watched it. At the roadside stood a huge crucifix, and, as this ball of fire approached, it silhouetted the cross, and all we could see was the beautiful shadow of the figure on the cross rising from the earth against the weird glow of white fire. It seemed like the sacrifice of Calvary and the promise of success for poor France.
One of our cars in trouble
Coffins in courtyard of Base Hospital in Alsace, among them Richard Hall's
We did not dare to use our low speed for fear the Boches would hear us, so we tore over this road on high, rushing past the bare spots, afraid of being seen. The illuminating bombs are used for this purpose only; the one which came toward us went out before it reached us, for which we were grateful. We got the woman. She had to have her arm amputated.
We have had very strenuous times, as a big attack has just taken place and the wounded have come in so fast and so badly cut up they could not give them the care they would like to, as everything is so crowded. The Germans lost a lot of trenches, and almost two thousand of them were taken prisoners. They have been shelling the French lines and towns constantly; since the 22d, our cars have been more or less under fire. We moved our quarters about six kilometres nearer the line and bring the wounded in to the hospital three times a day. The Germans shelled this place, --- why we do not know, for there is nothing military here but the hospital, and why should people of any intelligence and feeling wish to shell a hospital?
One of our men was killed on Christmas Day and we are terribly broken up over it. He was going from this hospital to the poste we go to daily over a road up the mountain. At four o'clock Christmas morning one of our boys started up this road, which goes up and up with no level place on it. He passed the middle of the journey when he thought he noticed a wagon turned over about forty feet down in the ravine. He went to a point where he could stop his car, took his lantern, and walked back. He found one of our Fords so demolished it could not be distinguished. The top of the car was up in a tree and so were the extra tires; there was nothing on the ground but a chassis. He saw no one around, but on going down a little farther, he saw a bundle of blankets which we always carry for the wounded, and, on walking up to it, he found one of our fellows, Dick Hall. He was lying on his side with his arms fixed as if driving and in a sitting position, cold and rigid. He had been dead a couple of hours. Walter, who found him, went back up the road for assistance, and, while there, Hall's brother came along in his car and asked what the matter was and offered his assistance. Walter told him his brakes were not working and he was fixing them, so Hall, knowing nothing of his brother, passed on up the mountain, got his load of wounded, and took them to the hospital.
Richard Hall's car after shell landed under it
In the Hospital
January 1, 1916
This brings the war home to us! This and the suffering and torments of the wounded make me sick at heart. I have seen them suffer particularly since this last attack, as I am a blessé myself --- and am in a French hospital. It is only a slight arm wound; the bone is cracked a little, but not broken. I am here to have the piece of shell drawn out and am assisting these poor wounded all I can. I was sent to the poste we have nearest the lines, on the other side of the mountain and hidden in the woods. The trenches begin at this poste. The poste itself is an abri, a bombproof dug-out in the ground. The roof and supports are made of timbers a foot or more thick, over these are placed two feet of heavy rock and again two feet of earth. When I got there the Germans began bombarding, and fired shells into these woods and into this poste for almost five hours. I never want to see another such bombardment; it was frightful. I saw shells land among horses, smash big trees in half within ten and twenty yards. I saw three men hit; one had his face shot away. The poste became so full of wounded we had to stand near the doorway, which is partly protected by a bomb-proof door. It was not exactly safe inside, for the shells, if big enough, when they hit such an abri often loosen the supports, and the roof, weighing tons, falls in and buries people alive. A man in the same room with me in the hospital here was in an abri not far from where we were when it was struck; the roof fell and killed three men who were with him and he was buried for an hour. A shell struck a tree not eight feet off from where we were standing and smashed it in half; it fell and almost killed one of two brancardiers (stretcher-bearers) who were carrying a dead man past the door. A piece of the éclat hit the other brancardier in the head and killed him. The man standing beside me had his hand shot off, and I got hit in the elbow. Three pieces went through my coat, but only one went into the arm. If I had not been standing against the door I might have fared worse. I was carried with two other wounded by one of our fellows up the steep mountain road to our second poste. They were bombarding that road as well as the poste. We could see the sky redden from the flash of the guns below and we could hear the shells shriek as they came toward us, and the éclat not too far away. Twice we started the Ford on the way up; it stalled and took five precious minutes to get it going again. The force of one explosion knocked the fellow with me over when he walked ahead to try and make out the road. We stuck in the road twice, not daring to pass a wagon conveying munitions. We could not make the hill, it was so steep, and we had to seek men to push us. It was pitch-black and we could not use our lights. This with two gravely wounded men on our hands rather took the nerve out of us. We finally got back to headquarters and found them bombarding there, one shell having struck not far from the hospital.
I am still in the hospital, but am glad to say my arm is almost quite well again. It does take time. The bombardment by the Germans of all our former postes has become pretty nerve-racking. The house we took for the attack has been hit twice. We had moved out only the day before. They struck a schoolhouse close by and killed a nun and wounded three harmless children. Our cars have been hit by scraps of shell, but fortunately when none of the men were in them.
The suffering of the men in this hospital and the cries in the night make it an inferno. Though I am glad I can help a little, I must say it is on my nerves.
In this hospital --- which is one of the best --- they need very badly beds for men who have had their vertebrae broken. These men live from two to six months in a frame on their backs all the time. This is the way they spend the last months of their lives. We have three men in this condition now, and each time they are moved it takes at least four men to change them and they suffer terribly. The special beds I speak of are made on pulleys with bottom and sides which can be opened for washing and service purposes. They cost forty dollars and France cannot afford to buy them, as she has so many needs. If you could raise some money for this purpose, you would be doing these poor fellows the last favors they will have on this earth and help them in their suffering.
L. C. D.
August 6, 1915
I was delighted to see "Doe" to-day. He arrived yesterday evening from Paris, but I was on M----duty, so we did not meet until this morning. We had a long talk and I told him the story of the fatal 22d; the recital of it only seems to have reimpressed me with the horror of that night.
We are now quite comfortably settled in our new quarters, a house never shelled until just after our occupation of it , when we received a 77 a few feet from our windows. I do not know why it has been spared unless the Boches were anxious not to destroy a creation so obviously their own. Architecturally it is incredible --- a veritable pastry cook's chef d'oeuvre. Some of the colors within are so vivid that hours of darkness cannot drive them out of vision. There is no piano, but musical surprises abound. Everything you touch or move promptly plays a tune; even a stein plays "Deutschland über alles" or something. Still the garden full of fruit and vegetables will make up for the rest. Over the brook which runs through it is a little rustic bridge ---all imitation wood made of cast iron! Just beneath the latter I was electrified to discover a very open-mouthed and particularly yellow crockery frog quite eighteen inches long! A stone statue of a dancing boy in front of the house was too much for us all. We ransacked the attic and found some articles of clothing belonging to our absent hostess, and have so dressed it that, with a tin can in its hand, it now looks like an inadequately clad lady speeding to her bath-house with a pail of fresh water.
A "poste de secours" at Montauville
Last night "Mac" and I were on night duty at M-----, and when we arrived at the telephone bureau ---where we lie on stretchers fully dressed in our blankets waiting for a call (the rats would keep you awake if there were no work to do) --- we were told that they expected a bad bombardment of the village. " Mac" and I tossed up for the first call, and I lost. "Auberge Saint-Pierre, I bet," laughed "Mac." That is our worst trip --- but it was to be something even more unpleasant than usual. About eleven o'clock the Boches started shelling the little one-street village with 105 shrapnel. In the midst of it a brancardier came running in to ask for an ambulance ---three couchés, "très pressé." Of course, I had to grin and bear it, but it is a horrid feeling to have to go out into a little street where shells are falling regularly ---start your motor --- turn --- back --- and run a few yards down the street to a poste de secours where a shell has just landed and another is due any moment.
"Are your wounded ready?" I asked, as calmly as I could. "Oui, monsieur." So out I went --- and was welcomed by two shells --- one on my right and the other just down the street. I cranked up No 10, the brancardier jumped up by my side, and we drove to our destination. I decided to leave the ambulance on the left side of the road (the side nearer the trenches and therefore more protected by houses from shellfire), as I thought it safer on learning that it would be fifteen minutes before the wounded were ready; and luckily for me, for a shell soon landed on the other side of the road where I usually leave the ambulance. My wounded men were now ready; it appeared that one of the shrapnel shells had entered a window and exploded inside a room where seven soldiers, resting after a hard day's work in the trenches, were sleeping --- with the appalling result of four dead and three terribly wounded. As I felt my way to the hospital along that pitch-black road, I could not help wondering why those poor fellows were chosen for the sacrifice instead of us others in the telephone bureau --- sixty yards down the street.
However, here I am writing to you, safe and sound, on the little table by my bedside, with a half-burnt candle stuck in a Muratti cigarette box. Outside the night is silent --my window is open and in the draught the wax has trickled down on to the box and then to the table --- unheeded --- for my thoughts have sped far. To Gloucester days, and winter evenings spent in the old brown-panelled, raftered room, with its pewter lustrous in the candlelight; and the big, cheerful fire that played with our shadows on the wall, while we talked or read --- and were content. Well --- that peace has gone for a while, but these days will likewise pass, and we are young. It has been good to be here in the presence of high courage and to have learned a little in our youth of the values of life and death.
The Poetry of War
We have had much talk to-night about the probable effect of the war upon art and literature in different countries, and gradually the discussion shifted from prophecy to history and from the abstract to the concrete, and narrowed down to the question as to the best poem the war has already produced. In France enough verse has been inspired by the war to fill a "five-foot shelf" of India-paper editions, but we all had finally to admit that none of us was in a position to choose the winner in such a vast arena. Among the short poems in English, some voted for Rupert Brooke's sonnet which begins: --
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England."
But nothing that any of us has seen is more inspired than the verses which poured from the heart and mind of a young American in the Foreign Legion here in France. His name is Alan Seeger, and the poem was written in, and named from, the region in which his regiment was stationed. It is called " Champagne, 1914-15," and was printed in the North American Review for October, 1915.
IN the glad revels, in the happy fêtes,
When cheeks are flushed, and glasses gilt and pearled
With the sweet wine of France that concentrates
The sunshine and the beauty of the world,
Drink, sometimes, you whose footsteps yet may tread
The undisturbed, delightful paths of Earth,
To those whose blood, in pious duty shed,
Hallows the soil where that same wine had birth.
Here, by devoted comrades laid away,
Along our lines they slumber where they fell,
Beside the crater at the Ferme d'Alger
And up the bloody slopes of La Pompelle,
And round the city whose cathedral towers
The enemies of Beauty dared profane,
And in the mat of multicolored flowers
That clothe the sunny chalk-fields of Champagne.
Under the little crosses where they rise
The soldier rests. Now round him undismayed
The cannon thunders, and at night he lies
At peace beneath the eternal fusillade....
That other generations might possess --
From shame and menace free in years to come --
A richer heritage of happiness,
He marched to that heroic martyrdom.
Esteeming less the forfeit that he paid
Than undishonored that his flag might float
Over the towers of liberty, he made
His breast the bulwark and his blood the moat.
Obscurely sacrificed, his nameless tomb
Bare of the sculptor's art, the poet's lines,
Summer shall flush with poppy-fields in bloom,_
And Autumn yellow with maturing vines.
There the grape-pickers at their harvesting
Shall lightly tread and load their wicker trays,
Blessing his memory as they toil and sing
In the slant sunshine of October days.
I love to think that if my blood should be
So privileged to sink where his has sunk,
I shall not pass from Earth entirely,
But when the banquet rings, when healths are drunk,
And faces, that the joys of living fill,
Glow radiant with laughter and good cheer,
In beaming cups some spark of me shall still
Brim toward the lips that once I held so dear.
So shall one, coveting no higher plane
Than Nature clothes in color and flesh and tone,
Even from the grave put upward to attain
The dreams youth cherished and missed and might have known.
And that strong need that strove unsatisfied
Toward earthly beauty in all forms it wore,
Not death itself shall utterly divide
From the beloved shapes it thirsted for.
Alas, how many an adept, for whose arms
Life held delicious offerings, perished here --
How many in the prime of all that charms,
Crowned with all gifts that conquer and endear!
Honor them not so much with tears and flowers,
But you with whom the sweet fulfilment lies,
Where in the anguish of atrocious hours
Turned their last thoughts and closed their dying eyes,
Rather, when music on bright gatherings lays
Its tender spell, and joy is uppermost,
Be mindful of the men they were, and raise
Your glasses to them in one silent toast.
Drink to them --- amorous of dear Earth as well,
They asked no tribute lovelier than this --
And in the wine that ripened where they fell,
Oh, frame your lips as though it were a kiss.
SOLDIER OF THE FOREIGN LEGION
KILLED IN ACTION
JULY 4, 1916
Yet, sought they neither recompense nor praise,
Nor to be mentioned in another breath
Than their blue-coated comrades whose great days
It was their pride to share, ay! Share even to death.
Nay, rather, France, to you they rendered thanks
(Seeing they came for honor, not for gain),
Who, opening to them your glorious ranks,
Gave them that grand occasion to excel,
That chance to live the life most free from stain
And that rare privilege of dying well.
From a poem written by him in memory of American Volunteers fallen for France, upon the occasion of a memorial service held before the Lafayette-Washington statue on the Place des États-Unis in Paris, May 30, 1916.
FOUR LETTERS FROM VERDUN
In the Hills of France,
June 23, 1910
Your two letters of May 23d and June 4th have both arrived in the last week, but I have been too busy and too sleepy to answer them. They have given us a very important work as well as a dangerous one, --- to evacuate the wounded about one and a quarter miles from the first-line trenches, --- and since we have been here, about a week, our little ambulances (holding five wounded) have carried some hundreds of men. We are quartered in a town about four miles away from the front, which the Germans take pleasure in shelling twice a day. About fifteen minutes ago, while we were at breakfast, they dropped two shells, "150's," which landed four hundred yards away; but I seem so used to running into danger now, that it hardly affects me at all. We got here a week ago, on Friday, and on Saturday morning I made my first trip to our poste de secours on a French machine. The first part of the drive is through the valley, where there is a beautiful winding river, and some pretty old towns. There you begin an ascent for about two miles on a road which is lined with French batteries and quite open to the view of the Germans, who have a large observation balloon only a mile or two away. Consequently the road is fired over all the time, so you feel that a passing shell might at any moment fall on you. Just this morning, about four o'clock, three shells went over my machine and broke in a field near by. When one reaches the top of the ascent, there is a piece of road, very rough and covered with debris of all kinds ---dead horses, old carts and wheels, guns, and confusion everywhere. This road leads to an old fort where our wounded are, and on this road the German fire is even worse. Well, this first morning, just before we arrived, the Germans began a bombardment which lasted five hours. The shells landed all around us, but we finally got in safely. It was altogether the most awful experience I have ever been through. We discovered a small tunnel holding three of our cars, and here I waited five hours without any breakfast, hearing the roar of the shells --- they make a noise like a loud, prolonged whistle --- and then hearing the French batteries answer with a more awful roar, because nearer. To add to the interest, two or three gas shells exploded near us, which made our eyes water. Luckily we had our gas masks with us, but we had got it in our faces before we could put them on. Meanwhile, the wounded were being carried in from the first-line trenches by the stretcher-bearers who, by the way, are some of the real heroes of the war. The time came for us to go out into the open in order to let the other cars get in after us. As you may imagine, it was an awful moment for us; however, we went along slowly but surely, and finally we got down the hill, away from all the noise and danger. It was worth while, though, for we were carrying many wounded with us. For a week we have been doing this work and are all still alive; and we have to our credit about seven hundred wounded men. The French are, of course, very appreciative of our work. I wish that I could describe things more fully, but I am too much "all in." I am well in spite of the excitement, but tired to death of the horrors, the smells, and the sights of war. We will be here but a few days more and after this will be given an easier place for a while; so you need not worry after receiving this. I am glad to have gotten a taste of real war, though, so as to know what it really means.
Your affectionate son,
Saucisse above Verdun
Dear K., --
It is I quiet and cool to-night; the moon is shining just as it will with you a few hours later, for it is now 9.15 here, and only 3.15 with you. Last night it was quiet and I slept from half-past nine till seven! The night before, however, the guns roared all night long and increased in vigor up to six o'clock in the morning. We were waked up a little after five o'clock by the scream of a shell which hit somewhere back of us. The house shook amid the roar, as it always does whenever there is much firing.
We are quartered in one of the farmhouses belonging to the château, which is now a hospital. You remember, no doubt, the French farmhouses: a blank wall on the roadside with only an entrance to the courtyard, a dark kitchen, a few bedrooms, and a loft with a few sheds out back. The loft is divided into two parts. We sleep up in the loft on stretchers propped up from the floor by boxes or our little army trunks. Some don't prop up their stretchers, but I find it better to elevate mine, as the rats run all over the floor and incidentally over you if your stretcher rests on the floor. The fleas seem more numerous near the floor, and there are spiders, too. I've been pretty well "bit up," but yesterday I soaked my blankets in petrol and hung them on the line in the courtyard for an airing, so I think I've left the vermin behind. I also sprayed my clothes, especially my underwear, with petrol, which does n't make much for comfort, except in so far as the animals are baffled. We are better off than the other Sections, though, for our house is very commodious, and we have a river to swim in every day. The river is quite near by, so it is no effort to bathe.
We carry the wounded from the château to the trains. Some trips are about seventeen kilometers one way, and others are more. As the roads are well used, they are rather bumpy, so you have to go very slowly. You do not dash at full speed with your wounded! It is slow work, for, in addition to the necessity for making the trip as easy as possible for the blessés, you have to dodge in and out among the transports, which usually fill up the roads. There is a steady stream going and coming, horses, mules, and auto-trucks. You never saw so many of either one of the above. Thousands of each kind. You well know the dust on the roads. We have to drive ahead regardless of the clouds of dust, so you can imagine what sights we are when we get back to our farmhouse. Scarecrows, each one. The dust is powdery and comes off easily, however, so you can get comfortable in a short time. There is no lagging or loafing; you blow your whistle and the driver of what's ahead of you gives you six inches of road and you squeeze through and take a chance that the nigh mule on the team coming the other way does n't kick.
At a dressing-station near Verdun
The blessés are a quiet lot, especially after you give them cigarettes. I always pass around the cigarettes before starting, for then I'm sure those en derrière will be quiet. Every now and then you have a "hummingbird," that is, a blessé who is so hurt that the least jar pains him and he moans or yells. You can't help him any, so you just have to put up with it. However, I don't like "hummingbirds," for you feel that you hit more bumps.
I went to a show down in town where some of the soldiers are en repos. It was wonderful, for there, right within range of the Boche guns, the soldiers were giving one of the best musical shows I have ever seen. Among the actors --- men who only a little while before were in the trenches --- were professional musicians, singers, and actors. It was not amateurish --- in fact, it was highly professional. The theatre was fitted up more or less like the stage at the Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard (an amateurish back, however), but everything else savored of the real Parisian touch. Among the audience were generals, colonels, under-officers, poilus, and five of us (we were invited, inasmuch as we had lent some of our uniforms for the actors). The soldiers who could not get in thronged the courtyard and cheered after every song or orchestra piece. The orchestra was made up of everything in a city orchestra, including a leader with a baton. You see each regiment is bound to have professional men in it and they get up the shows. (I saw my cap walk out on the stage on a fellow with a little head, so it did n't even rest on his ears, but rather on his nose). On the whole, it was one of the greatest and most impressive sights I've seen, and on top of it all, there was a continuous firing in the near distance. Imagine it, if you can!
We have a cook, a chambermaid, --- one of the poilus who is quartered here, too, and who earns a few sous on the side by serving us, --- also a French lieutenant who is really the head of the Section, a maréchal de logis, and a few other French retainers. They sleep in the same loft with us. Every night they chatter very late and kid each other about the fish they caught or did not catch during the day in the river. They laugh and giggle at each other just like kids. They are awfully amusing. All the poilus who are en repos fish, although there are only minnows around here. I asked several to-day how many they caught, and they said they were only fishing to pass the time. I guess it's a great diversion, for they all do it. They all bathe, too, every day. We go in with them, the mules and the horses; probably somewhere else the Boches are bathing in the same river. Such is life, but we are extremely lucky to get a chance to wash at all and I'm afraid when we move from here, for we shall soon be moved to poste duty, we shan't have the comforts such as are found here.
I mentioned poste work in the last paragraph.
There are two kinds of work for ambulances --- evacuating and poste de secours work. The former consists in removing the blessés from the back hospitals to points where they are put on the trains. The poste de secours work is going up to the point where the blessés are dragged from the trenches and carrying them back to the above-mentioned hospitals. Of course, the poste work is the liveliest and the most dangerous. We shall be sent up to do that within a week or so, as they shift about: several months of poste work and then several months of evacuating. The Section had done its turn at poste de secours before I joined it; it has also been evacuating from here quite a while, so we shall no doubt be sent out nearer the front pretty soon. That's what we are here for. We are not a great distance from the lines now; in fact, shells have come over us and landed right across the road, but when we move, it will mean the most dangerous of work, for the roads are full of shell holes, no doubt, and wild shells get loose now and then. I'll write you again soon, but now I'm going to bed, --- that is, roll up in my blankets on my stretcher, for there is an early call for to-morrow morning. Early call means getting your machine over to the château at six o'clock, all ready for the day's work. It's great fun and I am awfully glad to be here. Moreover, there is a satisfaction to realize that you are helping. The French are very appreciative, from the poilu up to the highest officers. Oh! I forgot to mention, in describing our billet, that flies and mosquitos are abundant. We all have mosquito nets which we put over our heads in the evening, making us all look like the proverbial huckleberry pie on the railroad restaurant counter. The poilus around us have adopted our methods, and you see them sitting around looking for all the world like Arabs in the distance. Before closing I might mention also that besides fishing to pass the time, the poilus en repos catch foxes, hedgehogs, rabbits, and other animals and train them. There are two of the cutest little foxes I have ever seen over across the road in one of the courtyards. They play around and are just like little collies until we show up; then they scamper and get behind a box or a stove and blink at us. We tried to buy one of them, but the owners are too fond of them to let them go.
Well, good-night and best love to you and G.
Have not seen George Hollister yet, as he is in Section 3. Maybe I'll run across him later.
S. S. Américaine No. 3.
July 3, 1916
I never meant to let so long a time go by without more than a postal or so. We are back, far back, of the lines in repose with the tattered remains of our division. I have a lot that is worth while writing about, but make allowances if it comes disconnectedly. We have just come back from two weeks at Verdun! Our cars are battered and broken beyond a year's ordinary service. Barber, though seriously wounded, is on the road to recovery. No one else was more than scratched.
The Section we relieved told us what to expect. It began strong. The first night the fellows worked through a gas attack. I was off duty and missed out on one disagreeable experience. One has to breathe through a little bag affair packed with layers of cloth and chemicals. The eyes are also protected with tight-fitting isinglass, which moists over and makes driving difficult. The road was not shelled that night, so it might have been worse. The second night was my go. We rolled all night from the poste de secours back to the first sorting-station. The poste was in a little town with the Germans on three sides of the road and all in full view, which made daylight going impossible. The day work was evacuating from sorting-stations to field hospitals. There our work stopped. English and French sections worked from there back to the base hospitals. The road ran out through fields and a little stretch of woods, French batteries situated on both sides the entire way; that is what drew the fire. Four trips between dusk and dawn were the most possible. The noise of French fire was terrifying until we learned to distinguish it from the German arrivées. It is important to know the difference, and one soon learns. The départ is a sharp bark and then the whistle diminishing. The arrivées come in with a slower, increasing whistle and ripping crash. In noise alone it is more than disagreeable. The poste de secours was an abri in a cellar of four walls. Of the town there was scarcely a wall standing: marmites had done their work well. The road was an open space between, scalloped and scooped like the moon in miniature. We would drive up, crawling in and out of these holes, turn around, get our load and go. When the place was shelled, we had time to hear them coming and dive under our cars. The drive back was harrowing. One was sure to go a little too fast on a stretch of road that felt smooth and then pitch into a hole, all but breaking every spring on the body. I'll never forget the screams of the wounded as they got rocked about inside. At times a stretcher would break and we would have to go on as it was. Of course we would have to drive in darkness, and passing convois of artillery at a full gallop going in opposite directions on either side. Each night a bit more of tool box or mud guard would be taken off. Often I found myself in a wedge where I had to back and go forward until a little hole was found to skip through, and then make a dash for it and take a chance. One night there was a thunderstorm with vivid lightning and pitch darkness. The flash of guns and of lightning were as one and the noise terrific. That night, too, the road was crowded with ammunition wagons. But worst of all, it was under shell fire in three places. Traffic became demoralized because of the dead horses and wrecked wagons smashed up by shrapnel. All our cars were held up in parts of the road. There is no feeling of more utter helplessness than being jammed in between cannon and caissons in a road under shell fire. No one was hit that night. Two of the men had to run ahead and cut loose dead horses in order to get through....
American ambulance in Verdun
Barber's car was hit the next night. He had stopped and was crouching by it, which probably saved him. Subsequently the Germans corrected their range on the road by the sight of the car, and on our last run it was level with the ground. The bodies of the wounded he was carrying mingled with the wreckage. That night was the climax of danger. Things eased off a bit after, but the strain was telling and our driving was not so skillful. Next to the last night I collided with a huge ravitaillement wagon coming at full gallop on the wrong side of the road. The entire front of the car went into bow knots, but I landed clear in safety. This occurred under the lee of a cliff, so we went in search with wrecking car the next day. After twenty hours she was running again, shaky on her wheels, but strong in engine. She goes to Paris soon for shop repairs. Poor old Alice! A wrecked car in so short a time. Patched with string and wire and straps, she looks battle-scarred to a degree. Her real battle souvenirs are five shrapnel balls embedded in the roof and sides. I don't believe in collecting souvenirs, but these I could not help!
There were humorous incidents; that is, humorous when we look back on them, safely in camp. One goes as follows: Three cars running out to the poste about thirty yards apart. The whistle of shells and a great increase in speed in the cars. (Somehow speed seems to give the feeling of more security.) Road getting too hot --- shells falling between the cars as they run. First car stopped short and driver jumped about thirty feet into a trench by the roadside. Landed in six inches of water and stayed. Car No. 2 stopped, but not short enough to prevent smashing into tail-board of No. 1. Driver made jump and splash No. 2 into trench. Ditto for Car No. 3 (me). Whistle and bang of shell, crash of hitting cars, and splash of falling men in water. Here we remained until the "storm blew over."
I am mighty glad we are through and out of it all. Whatever action we go into again, it cannot be harder or more dangerous than what we have been through. That will be impossible. I don't know yet whether I am glad or not to have had such an experience. It was all so gigantic and terrifying. It was war in its worst butchery. We all of us lost weight, but health and morale are O.K., and we are ready for more work after our repose. When you read this, remember I am out of it and in less dangerous parts....
The French military is giving half of us forty-eight hours permission for the Fourth of July. We are going for a two days' spree in Paris!
My debits to date are one letter from mother of the 7th; one shirt, chocolate, and corduroy suit.
I would rather you did n't pass this letter around much. It is too hurried and slapdash, and I may have quite different opinions after we have calmed down a bit.
P.S. Barber was given the Médaille militaire --- most coveted of military honors.
----France, June 30
Dearest "folks at home," abroad --- and Grandma!
Four nights ago I had a pretty narrow escape. I can mention no names here, but this is the gist of the story: ----
I was driving my car with three wounded soldiers in it along a road that was being shelled. Well, I got in the midst of a pretty hot shower, so I stopped my car and got under it. A few minutes later I supposed it was blowing over, so I got out. I had no sooner done so than I heard one of those big obus coming, the loudest I had ever heard. I ran to the front of my car, crouching down in front of the radiator. When it burst it struck the car. My three soldiers were killed. I was hurt only a little. I am not disfigured in any way. It just tore my side and legs a bit.
The French treated me wonderfully. I succeeded in getting the next American Ambulance driven by Wheeler (a great boy) who took me to the City of --- where our poste is. Here I was given first aid, and the Médecin chef personally conducted me in an American Ambulance, in the middle of the night, to a very good hospital. They say I have the best doctor in France --- in Paris.
American ambulance at a dressing-station near Verdun
Well, I woke up the next day in a bed, and have been recuperating ever since. Every one is wonderful to me. General Pétain, second to Joffre, has stopped in to shake hands with me, and many are my congratulations, too, for above my bed hangs the Médaille militaire, the greatest honor the French can give any one. Really, I am proud, although I don't deserve it any more than the rest. Please excuse my egotism.
Mr. Hill and my French lieutenant come to see me every day, and some of the boys also. They joke around here, saying that I am getting so well that they have lost interest in me and must move on. In three or four days I go to the hospital at Neuilly where I can have every comfort.
Of course you won't worry about me. I will be just as good as new soon, and really this is true.
The Germans peppered the life out of my car. No one goes over the road in daylight, but the fellows brought me back the next day a handful of bullets taken from it, and said they could get me a bushel more if I desired them.
A-----, I got your letter; it was great. The first one that I have received from some one who has heard from me.
F-----, thanks for the $-----. I am sorry I have made you so much trouble about the prescription. It is just my shiftlessness.
For three days I was not allowed to eat or drink and could hardly move in bed. My spirits were high, too. I will try to write better and take more pains.
Neuilly-sur-Seine, July 10, 1916
Well, I am here at Neuilly! This is a wonderful hospital and they do treat you great! I am just getting back to normal and have no temperature. The doctors here are the best in the world . . .
Now I want to ask your advice or permission. When I get well, in two or three weeks, how would you like it for me to spend a week resting in some suburb of London? I would just take a room there and live and sleep. I have read so much about life in England that I am dying to try it and I think it would do me good. I don't think the cost would be heavy and I will consider it a go if you cable me a loan for the trip.
When my wounds heal up, which they are fast doing, I will be just as good as new, no scars at all. I am very happy here and hope every day that you are as happy and never worry about me. I surely have given you a lot of trouble and anxiety, and hope that I will do always as you say after this. The best of my experience is that I have never once regretted this great trip, and I think I have done a small part of a great work, and my Médaille shows what the French think of my services. I will throw aside modesty for the moment. It is given for discipline and valor, and by the way, what amuses me, there is an annual pension of one hundred francs. I have been treated wonderfully since I had it given me. The French keep me in official quarters and give me officer's grub, which is about one hundred per cent better than the soldiers'. I am having some wonderful experiences....
I am still continuing my diary, and I assure you it is full of thrills. I am the only ambulance boy who has been given a Médaille, and I am told that Mr. Balsley, an American aviator, is the only other American who has it. Well, enough of this conceit.
Excuse writing; written in great haste in bed.
Please cable me some money if you will permit me to go to England for a week. Perhaps I can get to go with me.
Lots of love to all; my best to Grandma.
[The following paragraphs are from a letter written to the family of William Barber by his Section leader, Lovering Hill.]
... William was wounded on the night of the 27th of June while bringing back wounded from the poste de secours.
It was a dangerous road, and seeing some shelling on the road ahead of him, he had stopped to await its cessation. He was about to start up again when a shell fell a few feet away, many small fragments of which struck him, one large one striking him a glancing blow on the side. He ran back a few yards and was picked up by one of his comrades who brought him to the dressing-station at Verdun, where I was at the time. There his wounds were dressed; one of them proved to be serious.
I got in touch at once with the Médecin divisionnaire, who is the chief of the Service de Santé of our Division, who immediately took charge of the case and personally accompanied your son in the ambulance which brought him to Vadelaincourt --- the nearest surgical ambulance, twenty-five kilometers back. There he awakened a very well-known Parisian physician and surgeon, Dr. Lucas Championière, who operated at once.
As soon as I could leave my work, at six o'clock the next morning, accompanied by our French lieutenant, I went to Vadelaincourt to see William, who was just coming to from the anaesthetic. The doctor told me it was serious because the fragment had cut into the peritoneum, but without injuring the intestine --- the danger being in the chances of peritonitis setting in; that he could tell me in forty-eight hours whether there would be the danger of this complication. On your son's insistence, and on my own judgment, I decided not to cause you needless anguish by cabling until his case should have been judged. On the third day I was told he was out of danger, so I advised William to cable you, and I cabled his brother myself.
One of his other wounds consisted in a small splinter that lodged in his lung, but this was not considered by the doctor to be the cause of any concern, the only wound which might have dangerous consequences being the abdominal one.
A corner of Verdun, July, 1916
The Section was moved away shortly after, so that July 1st was the last day on which I saw him, but I have telephoned for news daily, and have been always told he was doing well.
Before closing I wish to tell you how courageous he has been throughout, not only after he was wounded, when he showed the most splendid pluck, but before, when he was doing really dangerous work with enthusiasm and coolness. The French authorities have recognized this in awarding him the Médaille militaire, the highest medal for military valor in France.
Tributes and Citations
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