Various.

Friends of France online

. (page 6 of 20)
Online LibraryVariousFriends of France → online text (page 6 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


is rushing to and fro placing bowls in front of those arriving, and
practising on each the few English expressions he has picked up by
association with us. Two men of the Section enter who look very tired.
They throw their caps or fatigue hats on to a side table and call for
Mignot. They have been on all-night service at M - - , the hamlet where
the most active _postes de secours_ are located.

"Much doing last night?" asks one of the crowd at the table.

"Not much. Had only sixteen altogether."

"Anything stirring?"

"Yes; Fritz eased in a few shrapnel about five-thirty, but didn't hurt
any one. You know the last house down on the right-hand side? Well,
they smeared that with a shell during the night."

"By the way," continues the man in from night service, addressing
himself to one across the table, "Canot, the artilleryman, was looking
for you. Says he's got a ring for you made out of a _Boche_ fuse-cap,
and wants to know if you want a Geneva or Lorraine cross engraved on
it."

The men in the Section leave the room one by one to take up their
various duties. There are some whose duty it is to stay in reserve, and
these go out to work on their cars. Others are on bureau service, and
they remain within call of the telephone. Two leave for D - - , a town
eight kilometres below, where their job is to evacuate from the two
hospitals where the wounded have been carried down the day and night
before. This town, too, suffers an occasional bombardment, and wounded
are left there no longer than necessary. They are taken to a sanitary
train which runs to a little village a few kilometres below, which is
just beyond the limit of shell fire.

Sometimes our cars are called upon to evacuate to X - - , which is a
good many kilometres distant. The splendid road runs through a most
charming part of the country. Just now everything is in bloom, and
the gentle undulating sweep of highly cultivated fields is delineated
by plots of yellow mustard plants, mellow brown tilled earth, and
countless shades of refreshing green, while near the tree-bordered
road one can see stretches of waving wheat dotted with the flaming red
of poppies and the delicate blue of little field flowers. On those
trips it does not seem possible that war is near; but on high, sharply
outlined against the deep-blue sky, is a sausage-shape observation
balloon, and looking back through a little window in the car one sees
the bandaged and prostrate figures of the wounded occupants.

There are only two cars on service at M - - during the usual run of
days, for unless there is an attack comparatively few wounded are
brought down from the trenches to their respective regimental _postes
de secours_ in the village.

Down the single, long street of this town, which had been changed from
a quiet country hamlet to a military cantonment, strolls a motley
collection of seasoned soldiers. The majority are uniformed in the
newly adopted light bluish-gray; some few still carry the familiar
baggy red trousers, black anklets, and long, dark-blue coat with
conspicuous brass buttons. The _sapeurs_ and artillerymen wear dull
green-and-yellow splotched dusters that make them almost invisible in
the woods and impart the most striking war-working appearance to them.
There is the cavalryman in his light-blue tunic with pinkish trimmings,
and his campaign cloth-covered helmet, from the crest of which flows
a horse-tail plume. Here and there are the smartly dressed officers
with their variously colored uniforms designating their branch; but
their gold galloons of rank do not show conspicuously on their sleeves
now, and the braid on their caps is covered. Some wear the splotched
duster which hides their identity entirely, and others are dressed
in serviceable thin brown uniforms which bear hardly any insignia. In
front of four or five of the low masonry houses a Red Cross flag is
hung. These mark the _postes de secours_ where the wounded are bandaged
and given to the ambulances. An American car is backed up in front of
one, and the khaki-clad driver is the centre of interest for a group
of soldiers. Some he knows well, and he is carrying on a cheerful
conversation. It is surprising what a number of French soldiers speak
English; and there are hundreds who have lived in England and in the
States. Some are even American citizens, who have returned to fight for
_la belle France_, their mother country. I have met waiters from the
Café Lafayette, _chefs_ from Fifth Avenue hotels, men who worked in
New York and Chicago banks, in commission houses, who own farms in the
West, and some who had taken up their residence in American cities to
live on their incomes. It seems very funny to be greeted with a "Hello
there, old scout!" by French soldiers.

"Well, when did you come over?" asks the driver.

"In August. Been through the whole thing."

"Where were you in the States?"

"New York, and I am going back when it is over. Got to beat it now. So
long. See you later."

[Illustration: IN FRONT OF A "POSTE DE SECOURS"]

[Illustration: AN AMERICAN AMBULANCE DRIVER]

A few companies of soldiers go leisurely past on their way up to the
trenches, and nearly every man has something to say to the American
driver. Five out of ten will point to the ambulance and cry out
with questionable but certainly cheerful enough humor, "Save a place
for me to-morrow!" or, "Be sure and give me a quick ride!" Others yell
out greetings, or air their knowledge of English. "Hello, Charley!"
heads the list in that department, and "Engleesh spoken" runs a close
second. Some of the newly arrived soldiers take us for English, and
"_Camarade anglais_" is in vogue; but with old acquaintances "_Camarade
américain_," cried in a very sincere tone and followed by a grip of the
hand, has a very warm friendship about it. Yes, you make good friends
that way. Working along together in this war brings men very close. You
find some delightful chaps, and then ... well, sometimes you realize
you have not seen a certain one for a week or so, and you inquire after
him from a man in his company.

"Where is Bosker, or Busker? - I don't know how you pronounce it. You
know, tall fellow with corporal's galloons who was always talking about
what a good time he was going to have when he got back to Paris."

"He got killed in the attack two nights ago," replies the man you have
asked.

And you wonder how it happened exactly, and what he looks like dead.

Some days it is very quiet up there at the _postes de secours_ - even
the artillery to the rear is not firing overhead; and at other times
it is rather lively. Soldiers will be sauntering up and down the long
street, collecting in groups, or puttering around at some task, when
suddenly there is a short, sharp, whistling sound overhead and a loud
detonation as the well-timed shrapnel explodes. The aggregation does a
turning movement that for unison of motion could not be excelled, and
packs against the houses on the lee side of the street. There are some
who do not bother about such a comparatively small thing as shrapnel,
and keep to their course or occupation. I have seen men continue to
sweep the street, or keep going to where they were heading, in spite of
the fact that shrapnel whistled in at frequent intervals. I have also
seen some of these immovable individuals crumple up and be still.

One evening the firing was so heavy that every one had sought the
protection of the walls, when down the street came a most gloriously
happy soldier. He was taking on up the street carrying a bottle, and at
every explosion he waved his free arm and a wild yell of delight issued
from his beaming face. It appeared to entertain him hugely, as if a
special fireworks exhibition had been arranged on his behalf. It always
seems to be that way. A sober man would have been killed on the spot.

With shells it is a very different story than with shrapnel. One can
avoid the latter by backing up against a house, but the shells are apt
to push it over on you. When the deeper, heavier whistle of a shell is
heard, it sounds a good deal like tearing a big sheet of cloth. Men do
not brave it. They know its hideous effects, and take to the nearest
cellar or doorway. The first one or two that come in, if well placed,
often claim victims. A group of soldiers will be talking or playing
cards in front of a house. There is a swish; the shell hits the hard
road in front of them, and the jagged _éclats_ rip into the little
crowd, sometimes killing three or four of them. The soldiers who find
themselves at a greater distance have time to throw themselves flat on
the ground, and it is seldom that the singing fragments do not pass
well overhead.

It is quite remarkable that none of the Americans have as yet been
hurt at X - - , for the evacuation of the wounded goes on regardless of
the shelling. Often the escapes have been very close. Just yesterday
ten big shells came in, killed six men and wounded forty others, and
yet our two cars on duty there escaped without being hit. One day,
following an attack, the firing was rather frequent. Nearly all of the
ambulances were lined up in the village waiting for the wounded to be
brought down. Our commander was talking to one of his drivers when a
shell exploded on the other side of a wall behind him. He walked down
the street to give instructions to another man. A shell hit the roof of
a house there and covered the two with _débris_. He started to return,
and as he passed a certain house a shell went right into it. They
seemed to be following him. It frequently happens that an ambulance
will be running down the street and a shell hit a house just behind or
in front of its course. Now and then one's breath will stop when a car
is enveloped in the clouds of dust and _débris_ coming from a shell-hit
house, and start again when from the haze the driver emerges dirty but
smiling. Of course, the cars have been hit. A shell tore off the front
top of one ten inches from the driver's head, but as yet no member of
the American Section has been hurt.

[Illustration: ON THE ROAD TO BOIS-LE-PRÊTRE]

[Illustration: FONTAINE DU PÈRE HILARION, A SPRING IN BOIS-LE-PRÊTRE
WHERE FRENCH AND GERMAN SOLDIERS FRATERNIZED IN THE EARLY DAYS OF THE
WAR]

A kilometre up the climbing, winding road is a lone _poste de secours_
in the woods just off the highway. The approach and the place itself
are often shelled. There have been times when the drivers were under
a seriously heavy fire on night duty; times when trees have been
shattered and fallen across the road and huge craters made in the soft
earth of the adjacent fields. A kilometre beyond is still another
point of call, and from there one can look directly into one of the
most fought-over sections of ground in the long line from the sea to
Belfort. It is a bit of land that before the war was covered with a
magnificent forest. Now it is a wilderness whose desolation is beyond
description. It is a section of murdered nature. The black, shattered
things sticking up out of a sea of mounds were at one time great trees.
There are no branches on the split trunks now. No green can be seen
anywhere. Where the trenches ran there are but series of indentations,
jumbles of splintered trench timbers, broken guns, rusty fragments of
shells, strips of uniforms and caps, shoes with a putrid, maggot-eaten
mass inside. It does not seem possible that life could ever have
been there. It looks as if it had always been dead. What testimony
to human habitation remains is but mute and buried wreckage.

This last _poste de secours_ is in the very line of fire, but then
there are bomb-proofs near by and one can find shelter. One must be
careful running up to this _poste_, for new and very deep holes are
continually being blown in the road and there is danger of wrecking the
cars.

Section Y has performed its duties so well that the work of an adjacent
division has been given to it, and in a few days now the little cars
will roll past the last-mentioned _poste de secours_ over to the
exposed plain beyond and into the zone of its newly acquired activities.

The American cars literally infest the roads in the day. They buzz
along on calls to the _postes_, return from evacuations, and keep so
busy trying to accelerate the work that a casual observer might imagine
that a whole division had been annihilated overnight. A car with three
stretcher-cases in the back, a slightly wounded soldier sitting on the
seat next to the driver, and a load of knapsacks piled between the hood
and the fenders, starts down from the _poste de secours_, spins on
through a village full of resting troops, and turns on to the highway
leading to the evacuation hospitals at the town eight kilometres
below. At first the holes in the walls and houses along the way, and
the craters in the fields where the _marmites_ had struck, made one
continually conscious of the possibility of a shell. Now one does not
think about it, save to note the new holes, observe that the older ones
have been cemented up, and to hope that an _éclat_ won't hit you at
those exceedingly rare times when a shell bursts ahead or behind. The
closest call so far on that stretch of road was when a 210 hit eleven
feet to the side of one of our cars, but failed to explode. Of course
there is a chance that even at that distance the _éclat_ might take a
peculiar course and miss one; but the chances are that if that shell
had gone off one of our men would have been minus several necessary
portions of his anatomy.

The work at night is quite eerie, and on moonless nights quite
difficult. No lights are allowed, and the inky black way ahead seems
packed with a discordant jumble of sounds as the never-ending artillery
and _ravitaillement_ trains rattle along. One creeps past convoy after
convoy, past sentinels who cry, "_Halte là!_" and then whisper an
apologetic "_Passez_" when they make out the ambulance; and it is only
in the dazzling light of the illuminating rockets that shoot into the
air and sink slowly over the trenches that one can see to proceed with
any speed.

It is at night, too, that our hardest work comes, for that is usually
the time when attacks and counter-attacks are made and great numbers of
men are wounded. Sometimes all twenty of the Section cars will be in
service. It is then that one sees the most frightfully wounded: the men
with legs and arms shot away, mangled faces, and hideous body wounds.
It is a time when men die in the ambulances before they reach the
hospitals, and I believe nearly every driver in the Section has had at
least one distressing experience of that sort.

Early one morning there was an urgent call for a single wounded. The
man's comrades gathered around the little car to bid their friend
good-bye. He was terribly wounded and going fast. "See," said one of
them to the man on the stretcher, "you are going in an American car.
You will have a good trip, old fellow, and get well soon. Good-bye
and good luck!" They forced a certain cheerfulness, but their voices
were low and dry, for they saw death creeping into the face of their
comrade. The driver took his seat and was starting when he was asked
to wait. "Something for him," they said. When the car arrived at the
hospital, the man was dead. He was cold and must have died at the start
of the trip. The driver regretted the delay in leaving. Why had they
asked him to wait? Then he saw that the ambulance was covered with
sprigs of lilac and little yellow field flowers. The men knew the car
would serve as a hearse.

Once an American ambulance was really pressed into service as a hearse
in a very touching funeral. A young lieutenant, the son of a prominent
and influential official, had been killed in a gallant action. The
family had been granted permission to enter the lines and attend the
funeral. The young officer, who but a few days before his death had
won his commission, was held in the deepest affection by his company,
and they arranged that, as something very special, he should have a
hearse. A car from Section "Y" was offered, and went to the church in
the hamlet back of the trenches. The soldiers literally covered the
ambulance with flowers and branches, and then stood waiting with the
great wreaths they had brought in their hands. The little group emerged
from the partly wrecked church, and the flag-covered coffin was slid
into the car. The _cortège_, headed by a white-robed priest and two
censer boys, wound slowly down the tortuous path that the troops follow
on their way to the trenches.

The mother was supported by the father, a venerable soldier of 1870,
who limped haltingly on his wooden leg. Back of the two came the
lieutenant's sister, a beautiful girl just entering her twenties. The
captain of the company was at her side, then followed other officers,
and the silent, trench-worn soldiers behind. The funeral halted on
the hillside near a grave dug beneath the branches of a budding apple
tree. The coffin was pulled from the ambulance and lowered into the
grave. And the mother knelt at the side, sobbing. The old father, who
struggled to suppress his emotion, began a little oration. His voice
trembled, and when at intervals he tried to say, "_Vive la France!_"
it broke and great tears ran down his face. The soldiers, too, were
crying, and the American's eyes were damp. Behind, a battery of 75's
was firing - for on no account must the grim details of the war be
halted - and at every deafening shot and swish of the shell tearing
overhead the girl shivered, huddled close to the captain, and looked
in a frightened way at the soldiers around her. In her small, thin
shoes and black wavy dress she seemed strangely out of place in those
military surroundings.

The Americans have a faculty of adapting themselves to any service
they may be called upon to perform, and many times they undertake on
their own initiative various missions that are not in exact accord
with their military duties. They very often transport dead civilians
after a bombardment. Though nearly every one takes to the caves when
a bombardment starts, the first shells that come in frequently kill
a number of people who have not had time to get to shelter. In the
past few weeks nearly all the civilians have left the dangerous town,
and it is seldom now that soldiers and the residents - men, women, and
children - are found mixed up in pitiful dead groups.

During one bombardment, some time ago, however, a considerable number
of women and children were killed. A couple of the American ambulances
were on the spot immediately after, and the men were silently going
about their sad work. The little children who cry out to us as we pass
were gathered around holding to their mothers' trembling hands. They
said, "_Américain_," when they saw the khaki uniforms, but their tone
was hushed and sad instead of loud and joyous, and had a surprised
note, as if they had not expected to see the Americans at such a task.

In one place a large crowd of people had gathered around an ambulance
in front of a baker's shop. In the upper part of the building was a
great irregular hole that included a portion of the roof, and inside
the freshly exposed stone rims the interior of a room with shattered
furniture could be seen. Below the huge rent on the gray face of the
building was the fan-shaped design made by the shell's _éclats_. On the
side-walk were the bodies of two women and a soldier. A vivid red pool
had formed around them and was flowing into the gutter. For some reason
the gray dust covering the motionless black dresses of the women seemed
to make the picture very much more terrible. The face of one of the
women had been torn away, but her hair and one eye, which had a look of
wild fear glazed in it, remained. As the stretcher the woman had been
placed on was carried to the car a yellow comb fell out of her bloody
hair and dropped on the white-shod foot of a young girl standing near.
The child pulled up her skirts with a disgusted look and kicked the
comb off into the street.

It took the Americans a long time to learn the value of prudence. At
first during the bombardments they would rush to the street as soon
as a shell landed and look to see what damage had been done. Then,
when some _éclats_ had sizzed uncomfortably close to their persons,
they became a little more discreet and waited a while before venturing
out. Ten days ago, during a bombardment with the large 210 shells, a
few of the Americans were gathered at the entrance to the courtyard
of our headquarters to observe the shells hitting in town. It was all
very well until quite unexpectedly one hit the eaves of the building
at a point about thirty yards from the group and carried away with its
explosion about twenty feet of that part of the structure. Fortunately,
the _éclat_ took a high course, but great building stones crashed
down and blocked the roadway. The Americans were unharmed save for a
thick coating of mortar dust, but that experience has discounted the
popularity of orchestra seats during an exhibition in which shells
larger than 77's appear.

One of the men was twenty-five yards from a 210 high-explosive
projectile when it carved a great crater in the ground and killed two
French Red Cross men near him, and he, for one, has no overpowering
desire, after that murderous, crushing, breath-taking explosion,
for any intimate personal research work into the effects of other
large-calibre shells.

Even now the members of Section Y have much to learn. They still
persist in remaining in their chairs in the exposed garden when
aeroplanes are being fired at directly overhead, when balls of shrapnel
have repeatedly dropped into the flower-beds, and when one man was
narrowly missed by a long, razor-edged fragment of a shrapnel shell.
And this has not even the excuse of a desire to observe - for the
novelty of these performances has long since passed - and one hardly
ever glances upward. They won't even move for a German Taube, though it
might at any minute drop a bomb or two. As a matter of fact, however,
explosives dropped from German machines are comparatively harmless.

When a certain great stone structure on the water's edge is being
shelled, the men off duty adjourn to the shore for the entertainment.
They know the various schedules the shells run on, and time their
arrival. The German guns firing them are so far off that the report
cannot be heard. There is a deep, bass, tearing roar, closely followed
by another, for they come in pairs; then two huge columns of water
hurtle into the air for a hundred feet, accompanied by two heavy
detonations. The bleacher-occupying Americans - they have installed
a bench to sit on - then jump up and scurry for a wall that affords
protection against the _éclats_ that sing back from the shells. In a
second there is a rush for the hot chunks of metal, while the natives
emerge from their shelters to collect the fish that have been killed by
the terrific concussion - and fish _à la bombardement_ is served to us
the next day!

For some reason or other the German prisoners - and the Lord knows there
are enough of them these days - still remain a subject of humorous
interest to the Americans, while the _Boches_, as the Germans are
called, stare at us in wild-eyed amazement, flavored with considerable
venom, thinking us British and wondering how we got so far down the
line.

No matter how long the war lasts, I do not believe that the members of
Section Y will lose any of their native ways, attitudes, or tastes.
They will remain just as American as ever. Why, they still fight for
a can of American tobacco or a box of cigarettes that comes from the
States, when such a rare and appreciated article does turn up, and
papers and magazines from home are sure to go the rounds, finding
themselves at length in the hands of English-reading soldiers in the
trenches. I never could understand the intense grip that the game of
baseball seems to possess, but it holds to some members of the Section
with a cruel pertinacity. One very dark night, a few days ago, two
of us were waiting at an advanced _poste de secours_. The rifle and
artillery fire was constant, illuminating rockets shot into the air,
and now and then one could distinguish the heavy dull roar of a mine or
_torpille_ detonating in the trenches. War in all its engrossing detail
was very close. Suddenly my friend turned to me and, with a sigh,
remarked, "Gee! I wish I knew how the Red Sox were making out!"

Well, there may be more interesting things in the future to write of
the Americans serving at the front, and, again, their work may become


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryVariousFriends of France → online text (page 6 of 20)