Various.

Friends of France online

. (page 7 of 20)
Online LibraryVariousFriends of France → online text (page 7 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


dull. But it makes no difference to the Section. The men will do what
is asked and gladly, for there is no work more worth while than helping
in some way, no matter what, this noblest of all causes. One does not
look for thanks - there is a reward enough in the satisfaction the
work gives; but the French do not let it stop at that. The men from
the trenches are surprised that we have voluntarily undertaken such a
hazardous occupation, and express their appreciation and gratitude with
almost embarrassing frequency. "You render a great service," say the
officers, and those of highest rank call to render thanks in the name
of France. It is good to feel that one's endeavors are appreciated, and
encouraging to hear the words of praise; but when, at the end of an
evacuation, one draws a stretcher from the car, and the poor wounded
man lying upon it, who has never allowed a groan to escape during a
ride that must have been painful, with an effort holds out his hand,
grasps yours, and, forcing a smile, murmurs, "_Merci_" - that is what
urges you to hurry back for other wounded, to be glad that there is
a risk to one's self in helping them, and to feel grateful that you
have the opportunity to serve the brave French people in their sublime
struggle.[5]

JAMES R. MCCONNELL

[5] This Section, after ten months' service at Pont-à-Mousson, has
worked for eight months in the Verdun Sector during the great battle.
(_November, 1916._)

[Illustration]




VI

AN AMERICAN AMBULANCE IN THE VERDUN ATTACK[6]


"OUR artillery and automobiles have saved Verdun," French officers and
soldiers were continually telling me. And as I look back on two months
of ambulance-driving in the attack, it seems to me that automobiles
played a larger part than even the famous "seventy-fives," for without
motor transport there would have been no ammunition and no food. One
shell, accurately placed, will put a railway communication out of the
running, but automobiles must be picked off one by one as they come
within range.

[6] This article was printed in the July issue of the _Cornhill
Magazine_, and is reproduced by permission of the author and the
publishers of the _Cornhill_.

The picture of the attack that will stay with me always is that of the
Grande Route north from Bar-le-Duc, covered with the snow and ice of
the last days of February. The road was always filled with two columns
of trucks, one going north and the other coming south. The trucks,
loaded with troops, shells, and bread, rolled and bobbled back and
forth with the graceless, uncertain strength of baby elephants. It was
almost impossible to steer them on the icy roads. Many of them fell by
the wayside, overturned, burned up, or were left apparently unnoticed
in the ceaseless tide of traffic that never seemed to hurry or to stop.

All night and all day it continued. Soon the roads began to wear out.
Trucks brought stones from the ruins of the battle of the Marne and
sprinkled them in the ruts and holes; soldiers, dodging in and out
of the moving cars, broke and packed the stones or sprinkled sand on
the ice-covered hillsides. But the traffic was never stopped for any
of these things. The continuous supply had its effect on the demand.
There were more troops than were needed for the trenches, so they
camped along the road or in the fields. Lines of _camions_ ran off the
road and unloaded the reserve of bread; the same thing was done with
the meat, which kept well enough in the snow; and the shells, which a
simple _camouflage_ of white tarpaulins effectually hid from the enemy
airmen.

At night, on the main road, I have watched for hours the dimmed lights
of the _camions_, winding away north and south like the coils of some
giant and luminous snake which never stopped and never ended. It was
impressive evidence of a great organization that depended and was
founded on the initiative of its members. Behind each light was a unit,
the driver, whose momentary negligence might throw the whole line into
confusion. Yet there were no fixed rules to save him from using his
brain quickly and surely as each crisis presented itself. He must be
continually awake to avoid any one of a thousand possible mischances.
The holes and ice on the road, his skidding car, the cars passing in
the same and opposite directions, the cars in front and behind, the
cars broken down on the sides of the road - all these and many other
things he had to consider before using brake or throttle in making his
way along. Often snow and sleet storms were added to make driving more
difficult. Objects six feet away were completely invisible, and it was
only by watching the trees along the side of the road that one could
attempt to steer.

I was connected with the _Service des Autos_ as a driver in Section N{o}
2 of the Field Service of the American Ambulance of Neuilly. We had
the usual French Section of twenty ambulances and one staff car, but,
unlike the other Sections, we had only one man to a car. There were
two officers, one the Chief of Section, Walter Lovell, a graduate of
Harvard University and formerly a member of the Boston Stock Exchange;
and George Roeder, Mechanical Officer, in charge of the supply of
parts and the repair of cars. Before the war, he was a promising
bacteriologist in the Rockefeller Institute. Our Section was one of
five which compose the Field Service of the American Ambulance, and are
located at various points along the front from Dunkirk to the Vosges.
The general direction of the Field Service is in the hands of A. Piatt
Andrew, formerly professor at Harvard and Assistant Secretary of the
United States Treasury. He has organized the system by which volunteers
and funds are obtained in America, and is the responsible link between
the work of the Service and the will of the French authorities.

In each of the five Sections there are twenty drivers, all Americans
and volunteers. Most of them are college men who have come over from
the United States to "do their bit" for France and see the war at the
same time. Certainly our Section was gathered from the four corners of
the "States." One, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, had
worked for two years on the Panama Canal as an engineer; another, an
Alaskan, had brought two hundred dogs over for the French Government,
to be used for transportation in the Vosges; a third was a well-known
American novelist who had left his home at Florence to be a chauffeur
for France. There were also two architects, a New York undertaker,
several _soi-disant_ students, and a man who owned a Mexican ranch that
was not sufficiently flourishing to keep him at home.

The term of service required by the French authorities is now six
months, though, of course, some of the men have been in the Section
since the battle of the Marne. We all get five sous a day and rations
as privates in the French army, which was represented in our midst by a
lieutenant, a _maréchal de logis_, a mechanic, and a cook.

On February 22 our French lieutenant gave us our "order to move," but
all he could tell us about our destination was that we were going
north. We started from Bar-le-Duc about noon, and it took us six hours
to make forty miles through roads covered with snow, swarming with
troops, and all but blocked by convoys of food carts and sections
of trucks. Of course, we knew that there was an attack in the
neighborhood of Verdun, but we did not know who was making it or how
it was going. Then about four o'clock in the short winter twilight we
passed two or three regiments of French colonial troops on the march
with all their field equipment. I knew who and what they were by the
curious Eastern smell that I had always before associated with camels
and circuses. They were lined up on each side of the road around their
soup kitchens, which were smoking busily, and I had a good look at them
as we drove along.

It was the first time I had seen an African army in the field, and
though they had had a long march, they were cheerful and in high
spirits at the prospect of battle. They were all young, active men, and
of all colors and complexions, from blue-eyed blonds to shiny blacks.
They all wore khaki and brown shrapnel casques bearing the trumpet
insignia of the French sharpshooter. We were greeted with laughter and
chaff, for the most part, in an unknown chatter, but now and again some
one would say, "Hee, hee, Ambulance Américaine," or "Yes, Ingliish,
good-bye."

I was fortunate enough to pick up one of their non-commissioned
officers with a bad foot who was going our way. He was born in Africa,
which accounted for his serving in the colonials, though his mother was
American and his father French. From him I learned that the Germans
were attacking at Verdun, and that, to every one's surprise, they were
trying to drive the point of the salient south instead of cutting it
off from east to west. As we were passing along, one of his men shouted
something to him about riding in an ambulance, and I remarked that they
all seemed in a very good humor. "Oh yes," he answered; "we're glad to
be on the move, as we've been _en repos_ since autumn in a small quiet
place south of Paris." "But it means trouble," he added proudly, "their
sending us up, for we are never used except in attacks, and were being
saved for the summer. Six hundred have been killed in my company since
the beginning, so I have seen something of this war. Now my regiment is
mixed up with two others, and altogether we make about four thousand
men."

As we talked, I realized that his was a different philosophy from that
of the ordinary _poilu_ that I had been carrying. Certainly he loved
France and was at war for her; but soldiering was his business and
fighting was his life. Nothing else counted. He had long since given up
any thought of coming out alive, so the ordinary limitations of life
and death did not affect him. He wanted to fight and last as long as
possible to leave a famous name in his regiment, and to add as many
_citations_ as possible to the three medals he had already gained. He
was the only man I ever met who was really eager to get back to the
trenches, and he said to me with a smile when I stopped to let him off,
"Thanks for the lift, _mon vieux_, but I hope you don't have to carry
me back."

[Illustration: LOADING THE AMBULANCE]

After that we rode north along the Meuse, through a beautiful
country where the snow-covered hills, with their sky-lines of carefully
pruned French trees, made me think of masterpieces of Japanese art. In
the many little villages there was much excitement and activity with
troops, artillery, and munitions being rushed through to the front, and
the consequent wild rumors of great attacks and victories. Curiously
enough, there were few who thought of defeat. They were all sure, even
when a retreat was reported, that the French were winning, and that
spirit of confidence had much to do with stopping the Germans.

At about six in the evening we reached our destination some forty
miles northeast of Bar-le-Duc. The little village where we stopped
had been a railroad centre until the day before, when the Germans
started bombarding it. Now the town was evacuated, and the smoking
station deserted. The place had ceased to exist, except for a hospital
which was established on the southern edge of the town in a lovely
old château, overlooking the Meuse. We were called up to the hospital
as soon as we arrived to take such wounded as could be moved to the
nearest available rail-head, which was ten miles away, on the main
road, and four miles south of Verdun. We started out in convoy, but
with the then conditions of traffic, it was impossible to stick
together, and it took some of us till five o'clock the next morning to
make the trip. That was the beginning of the attack for us, and the
work of "evacuating" the wounded to the railway stations went steadily
on until March 15. It was left to the driver to decide how many trips
it was physically possible for him to make in each twenty-four hours.
There were more wounded than could be carried, and no one could be
certain of keeping any kind of schedule with the roads as they then
were.

Sometimes we spent five or six hours waiting at a crossroad, while
columns of troops and their equipment filed steadily by. Sometimes
at night we could make a trip in two hours that had taken us ten in
daylight. Sometimes, too, we crawled slowly to a station only to find
it deserted, shells falling, and the hospital moved to some still more
distant point of the line. Situations and conditions changed from day
to day - almost from hour to hour. One day it was sunshine and spring,
with roads six inches deep in mud, no traffic, and nothing to remind
one of war, except the wounded in the car and the distant roar of the
guns, which sounded like a giant beating a carpet. The next day it was
winter again, with mud turned to ice, the roads blocked with troops,
and the Germans turning hell loose with their heavy guns.

In such a crisis as those first days around Verdun, ammunition and
fresh men are the all-essential things. The wounded are the _déchets_,
the "has-beens," and so must take second place. But the French are
too gallant and tender-hearted not to make sacrifices. I remember one
morning I was slapped off the road into a ditch with a broken axle,
while passing a solitary _camion_. The driver got down, came over, and
apologized for the accident, which was easily half my fault. Then we
unloaded four cases of "seventy-five" shells that he was carrying, and
put my three wounded in on the floor of his car. He set out slowly
and carefully up the ice-covered road, saying to me with a smile as
he left, "Don't let the Boches get my _marmites_ while I'm gone." For
some time I sat there alone on the road, watching the shells break on a
hill some miles away to the north, and wondering when I could get word
of my mishap back to the base. Then a staff car appeared down the road
making its way along slowly and with difficulty, because, being without
chains, it skidded humorously with engine racing and the chauffeur
trying vainly to steer. There was a captain of the _Service des Autos_
sitting on the front seat, and he was so immaculately clean and well
groomed that he seemed far away from work of any kind. But when the
car stopped completely about halfway up the little hill on which I was
broken down, he jumped out, took off his fur coat, and using it to give
the rear wheels a grip on the ice, he swung it under the car. As the
wheels passed over it, he picked it up and swung it under again. So the
car climbed the hill and slid down the other slope round the curve and
out of sight. It was just another incident that made me realize the
spirit and energy of the French Automobile Service. But the captain had
not solved any of my difficulties. He had been too busy to notice me
or wonder why an American ambulance was sprawled in a ditch with four
cases of shells alongside.

I had been waiting there in the road about two hours when another
American came by and took back word of my accident and of the parts
necessary to set it right. Then about noon my friend came back in his
_camion_ to take up his cases of shells and report my wounded safe
at the railway station. We lunched together on the front seat of the
_camion_ on bread, tinned "monkey meat," and red wine, while he told
me stories about his life as a driver. He had been on his car then
for more than twenty days without leaving it for food or sleep. That
morning his "partner" had been wounded by a shell, so he had to drive
all that day alone. Usually the two men drive two hours, turn and turn
about; while one is driving, the other can eat, sleep, or read the day
before yesterday's newspaper. The French _camions_ are organized in
sections of twenty. Usually each section works in convoy, and has its
name and mark painted on its cars. I saw some with elephants or ships,
some with hearts or diamonds, clubs or spades, some with dice - in fact,
every imaginable symbol has been used to distinguish the thousands of
sections in the service. The driver told me there were more than ten
thousand trucks working between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc. There is great
rivalry between the men of the several sections in matters of speed and
load - especially between the sections of French and those of American
or Italian cars. The American product has the record for speed, which
is, however, offset by its frequent need of repair.

My friend told me about trips he had made up as far as the third-line
trenches, and how they were using "seventy-fives" like machine-guns in
dug-outs, where the shells were fired at "zero," so that they exploded
immediately after leaving the mouth of the gun. The French, he said,
would rather lose guns than men, and according to him, there were so
many guns placed in the "live" parts of the Sector that the wheels
touched, and so formed a continuous line.

As soon as we had finished lunch he left me, and I waited for another
two hours until the American staff car (in other surroundings I should
call it an ordinary Ford touring-car with a red cross or so added) came
along loaded with an extra "rear construction," and driven by the Chief
himself. It took us another four hours to remove my battered rear axle
and put in the new parts, but my car was back in service by midnight.

That was a typical instance of the kind of accident that was happening,
and there were about three "Ford casualties" every day. Thanks to the
simplicity of the mechanism of the Ford, and to the fact that, with the
necessary spare parts, the most serious indisposition can be remedied
in a few hours, our Section has been at the front for a year - ten
months in the Bois-le-Prêtre, and two months at Verdun - without being
sent back out of service for general repairs. In the Bois-le-Prêtre
we had carried the wounded from the dressing-stations to the first
hospital, while at Verdun we were on service from the hospital to
the rail-heads. In this latter work of _évacuation_ the trips were
much longer, thirty to ninety miles, so the strain on the cars was
correspondingly greater. As our cars, being small and fast, carried
only three wounded on stretchers or five seated, our relative
efficiency was low in comparison with the wear and tear of the
"running-gear" and the amount of oil and petrol used. But in the
period from February 22 to March 13, twenty days, with an average of
eighteen cars working, we carried 2046 wounded 18,915 miles. This
would be no record on good open roads, but with the conditions I have
already described I think it justified the existence of our volunteer
organization - if it needed justification. Certainly the French thought
so, but they are too generous to be good judges.

Except for our experiences on the road, there was little romance in
the daily routine. True, we were under shell fire, and had to sleep
in our cars or in a much-inhabited hay-loft, and eat in a little inn,
half farmhouse and half stable, where the food was none too good and
the cooking none too clean; but we all realized that the men in the
trenches would have made of such conditions a luxurious paradise,
so that kept us from thinking of it as anything more than a rather
strenuous "camping out."

During the first days of the attack, the roads were filled with
refugees from the town of Verdun and the country north of it. As soon
as the bombardment started, civilians were given five hours to leave,
and we saw them - old men, women, and children - struggling along
through the snow on their way south. It was but another of those sad
migrations that occur so often in the _zone des armées_. The journey
was made difficult and often dangerous for them by the columns of
skidding trucks, so the more timid took to the fields or the ditches
at the roadside. They were for the most part the _petits bourgeois_
who had kept their shops open until the last minute, to make the town
gay for the troops, who filed through the Promenade de la Digue in
an endless queue on their way to and from the trenches. Most of them
had saved nothing but the clothes on their backs, though I saw one
old woman courageously trundling a barrow overflowing with laces,
post-cards, bonbons (doubtless the famous _Dragées verdunoises_),
and other similar things which had been part of her stock-in-trade,
and with which she would establish a Verdun souvenir shop when she
found her new home. There were many peasant carts loaded with every
imaginable article of household goods from stoves to bird cages; but no
matter what else a cart might contain, there was always a mattress with
the members of the family, old and young, bouncing along on top. So
ubiquitous was this mattress that I asked about it, and was told that
the French peasant considers it the most important of his Lares, for it
is there his babies are born and his old people die - there, too, is the
family bank, the hiding-place for the _bas de laine_.

All the people, no matter what their class or station, were excited.
Some were resigned, some weeping, some quarrelling, but every face
reflected terror and suffering, for these derelicts had been suddenly
torn from the ruins of their old homes and their old lives after
passing through two days of the heaviest bombardment the world has ever
seen.

I did not wonder at their grief or terror when I had seen the town
from which they fled. Sometimes it is quiet, with no shells and no
excitement; at others it is a raging hell, a modern Pompeii in the
ruining. Often I passed through the town, hearing and seeing nothing
to suggest that any enemy artillery was within range. But one morning
I went up to take a doctor to a near-by hospital, and had just passed
under one of the lovely old twelfth-century gates, with its moat and
towers, when the Germans began their morning hate. I counted one
hundred and fifty shells, _arrivées_, in the first quarter of an hour.

After making my way up on the old fortifications in the northeastern
quarter, I had an excellent view of the whole city - a typical garrison
town of northern France spreading over its canals and river up to
the Citadel and Cathedral on the heights. Five and six shells were
shrieking overhead at the same time, and a corresponding number of
houses in the centre of the town going up in dust and débris, one after
another, almost as fast as I could count.

During this bedlam a military gendarme strolled up as unconcerned as
if he had been looking out for a stranger in the Champs Elysées. He
told me about a dug-out that was somewhere "around the corner," But we
both got so interested watching the shells and their effect that we
stayed where we were. The gendarme had been in the town long enough to
become an authority on bombardments, and he could tell me the different
shells and what they were hitting, from the colored smoke which rose
after each explosion and hung like a pall over the town in the windless
spring air. When the shells fell on the Cathedral - often there were
three breaking on and around it at the same time - there sprang up a
white cloud, while on the red tiles and zinc roofs they exploded in
brilliant pink-and-yellow puffs. The air was filled with the smell of
the burning celluloid and coal-tar products used in the manufacture of
the high explosive and incendiary shells. It was very impressive, and
even my friend the gendarme said, "_C'est chic, n'est-ce pas?_ It is
the heaviest rain we have had for several days." Then he pointed to
the left where a column of flame and smoke, heavier than that from the
shells, was rising, and said, "Watch them now, and you'll understand
their system, the _cochons_. That's a house set afire with their
incendiary shells, and now they will throw shrapnel around it to keep
our firemen from putting it out." And so they did, for I could see the
white puffs of the six-inch shrapnel shells breaking in and around
the column of black smoke, which grew denser all the time. Then two
German Taubes, taking advantage of the smoke, came over and dropped
bombs, for no other reason than to add terror to the confusion. But
the eighty firemen, a brave little band brought up from Paris with
their hose-carts and engine, refused to be confused or terrified. Under
the shells and smoke we could see the streams of water playing on the
burning house. "They are working from the cellars," said the gendarme.
It was fortunate there was no wind, for that house was doomed, and but
for the fact that all the buildings were stone, the fire would have
spread over all that quarter of the town despite the gallantry of the


1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryVariousFriends of France → online text (page 7 of 20)