Frederick A. Pottle
HERE were no cars waiting for us when we arrived at Lytle, but the lack of transportation did not strike us with such dismay as it had at Slocum. The weather was warm, and if worse came to worst, we could encamp in our pup tents where we were. One thing was reasonably sure---that we should not go back to Fort Oglethorpe. We dumped our packs on the wooded hillside which slopes up from the station at Lytle, ate dinner (our camp stoves were already set aboard baggage cars, and in operation), and sat down to wait. Just before two our train appeared in the distance. What a shout! Until that moment, we had not been able completely to convince ourselves that we were actually on the way to France. But those cars could mean only one thing, and that the realization of our most extravagant hopes. It took us only a few minutes to load ourselves aboard, and at two-thirty on the afternoon of May 1 we pulled out of Lytle station forever.
The train on which we found ourselves might, as far as appearances went, have been the very same as that on which we had come down from Slocum. But in everything else, how different! Then we were a mob of unorganized, distrustful, sick, and unshaved hoodlums, whose one burning desire was to escape from the army and go back home. Now we were a unit of healthy (and for the moment deliriously happy) soldiers, inured to hardship, able to arrange things for our own comfort even in the most unpromising situations, and looking eagerly forward to the adventure of service at the front. But if a transformation had been worked in us, the country itself had experienced a greater. We had slunk down to Fort Oglethorpe in the depths of a winter chill that reflected both our apathy and that of the people we saw on the way. We had paid little attention to the inhabitants of the towns through which we passed, and they had pretty much ignored us. But between January and May, the country had worked itself up to a tremendous pitch of war enthusiasm. From Chattanooga to Camp Merritt our trip was a triumphal procession. Red Cross women met us at the stations, showering us with gifts, whistles blew, and everyone shouted and waved flags. The intensity of enthusiasm steadily increased as we went north, until in Pennsylvania it passed all bounds. "Every whistle and bell within miles was playing tunes," says a letter, "people crowded the windows of houses and factories, everybody's hat was off, everybody was yelling himself hoarse; Red Cross ladies at every station with apples and cigarettes, pretty girls shaking hands with us through the car windows---I am still quite drunk with the excitement of it. The most touching sight was the intense patriotism old people displayed. Time and again, we would see an old, bent, gray-haired woman waving a great flag at us, or an old man swinging his hat and cheering like a boy. And I suppose they see a troop train almost every day. Still, ours was a wonderful train! Fifteen coaches of soldiers, with our field kitchens going at full blast, their stovepipes out the doors of the baggage cars, and us all leaning out the windows." The trip was one mad panorama of noise and excitement. I cannot find that anyone recorded any distinct impressions of the separate towns along the way. We were intoxicated with glory. It was, as far as purely pleasurable emotion was concerned, the peak of our war experience.
About three on the afternoon of May 3 we arrived at Cresskill station, and at once shouldered our packs for the brief march to Camp Merritt, near Tenafly, New Jersey, where we were to wait for our sailing orders. We were extremely fortunate in being sent there, for Camp Merritt was probably the most comfortable camp in the United States. The barracks were built in two stories, stained on the outside (which gave them an air of elegance quite unusual for the army), and were remarkably light and airy. The mess was excellent, though, as we had to share our mess hall with a field hospital, we had often to wait an uncomfortably long time for meals. But the thing which chiefly distinguished this camp was the extraordinary number of places of recreation, and the lavish way in which money had been spent to make things as cheerful and homelike as possible for the men in the last few days they were to spend in their native land. Besides the enormous structures of the Y.M.C.A. and Knights of Columbus, which extended to all men in uniform the social privileges familiar to us at Oglethorpe, the general public had provided at Merritt many other agencies of relaxation and amusement quite peculiar to the camp. As Merritt was the nearest encampment to New York City, it had naturally come to be regarded as New York's own, and a proper object of attention for all the benevolent institutions of the great metropolis. On the skirts of the camp was the Hostess House, a homelike place where men who could not get passes might meet their relatives. Within the camp was Merritt Hall, a vast low structure, finished attractively inside, and looking something like the lobby, grill, parlors, and writing rooms of a great hotel, with a library thrown in for good measure. One whole wing was in the charge of the American Library Association. Here there were tables for writing, great easy chairs and settees, plants, vases of flowers, a splendid fireplace, and, in low shelves about the walls, thousands of books, provided gratis for the soldier's use. He was allowed to take them out to read in camp, and might even carry away a reasonable number with him to France.
There was no military duty at Merritt except to be on hand for various inspections. Every article of our clothing and equipment was carefully examined, and anything that showed signs of wear replaced. In addition to our former equipment, the Government presented each of us with a neat new safety razor in a khaki kit, with a trench mirror. (Most of us, I fancy, are still using those razors.) Our steel helmets also arrived, impressing us with the fact that we were soon to be in places where ordinary headgear would hardly be sufficient, but for the present they were left boxed with the quartermaster's stores. Our records were all carefully gone over and checked, and everyone again given a physical examination.
These inspections took up only a fraction of the time. The greater part of the day we could use as we pleased. Those who lived near at hand got passes for twenty-four hours to go home. Others spent too brief moments of reunion with mothers, wives, or sweethearts at the Hostess House. The camp was full of relatives. However, very few of us were near enough home to see any of our people at all. In spite of its luxurious appointments, Merritt was a rather sad place. We lay soberly on our cots, pretending to be asleep, thinking deep thoughts, or tried to brave it out in Merritt Hall, where it seemed as though every soldier in the world except ourselves had his mother or sweetheart with him.
Very early on the morning of Thursday, May 9, we rolled our packs, and marched down to Cresskill station, where, after a brief wait, we took a train for Hoboken. All along the way to the station relatives and friends accompanied us, and remained with us until we finally pulled out. Our marching through Hoboken caused little excitement; these people were fed up with seeing soldiers. Suddenly we were at the docks, with great dazzle-painted ships lying on every side. An ocean liner always gives one a thrill, but, oh! the thrill of seeing at last the boat which was to take us to France after four months "spent training for the sight! " We entered the vast, echoing sheds, passed boat after boat, and finally stopped beside the smallest and least impressive vessel we had seen that morning, a vessel bearing an Italian name, the Caserta. We had secretly expected it. Things for some time had been going much too well. Our quarters, we found, were the very worst in this very bad ship, at the lowest level, far below the water line. All the luxury of staterooms had been abolished, except for the officers. The whole middle of the ship had been cleared out and filled with tiers of rough wooden bunks. Our dungeon naturally had no portholes, but received such light as it did get from the open hatch in the deck, far above. The impression one received as he looked up was something like that of being in a well, a shaft having been left open from the hatch, down through the various levels of bunks, to our quarters. At the bottom of the well, under the hatch, were built rough tables, while the bunks rose up in tiers on all four sides. It was pitch dark at all times in the tiers against the sides of the vessel, and there was none too much light anywhere. When it rained, or the sea was rough enough to break over the deck, the hatch had to be covered up with canvas, which allowed still less. Below decks it was stuffy and intolerably cramped, and when everyone was on deck it was equally cramped there. Our extravagant enthusiasm for the pleasures of ocean travel on an army transport was considerably damped, and matters were not improved by the execrable mess to which we were soon served. As dark came on, we went to bed early, for lights were not permitted, and it was difficult to grope your way down into the bowels of the ship and find your own bunk in the dark.
We lay in the dock without excitement of any kind until about four-thirty the next day (May 10), when we were told that the boat was about to sail, and that we must all go below, as it was the policy of the Government to conceal as far as possible the number of soldiers sailing in a convoy. It was six before we actually got under way. Just before the boat started, a sack of mail was brought aboard and distributed---a most fortunate diversion. We had expected at least to watch the Statue of Liberty recede as we sailed out of the harbor, but if we saw it, it was only through a porthole. We sat far down in the hold, watching the dazzle-painted masts above our hatchway as they rolled slightly against the sky, and read the last letters we should receive for weeks. When we were again allowed on deck we were well out of the harbor, and the United States showed only as a low gray line on the misty horizon. A drizzling rain had begun to fall with the coming of the dark. Our high spirits had almost completely ebbed. Going to France began to seem somewhat less glorious.
There would be little use in chronicling the separate days of our two weeks' trip, though I have before me a diary which does so, even entering faithfully not only the exact hours of eating meals but also of losing them. We were thirteen days on the way, and had had a great deal too much of ocean travel after three or four.
At best, travel in quarters so congested would have been uncomfortable. The Caserta, to make it worse , was small. She was an Italian liner, manned entirely by, a crew of Italian seamen; was dirty and insanitary, and furnished horrible food, of which some shall hereafter be specified. We had two meals a day, with a petit déjeuner after the European manner. At seven (none of my sources agree as to times on shipboard--- the reason was undoubtedly the bewildering changing of the time as we went east) coffee and hard bread were brought down into our dungeon. This was perhaps our most satisfactory meal. At nine-thirty came breakfast, served on the deck unless the sea were very rough. The mess lines, instead of being long straight queues, as on land, twisted in sinuous loops around and around the narrow deck space, one part of the line moving in quite the opposite direction from the other. At four-thirty came our last meal, identical in substance, and served in the same way. Mess tables were provided on a lower deck, which was reached by a flight of iron stairs.(6) Everything served to us was some kind of slop. For example, we might have lamb stew in our mess kit, stewed prunes in the cover, and coffee in our cups. To manage these three dishes without tilting and spilling is a nice feat on a level floor that stands still, because two of them must be balanced in one hand, and when once one gets them filled there is no opportunity to set them down to readjust one's hold. To manage them on a rolling deck is most difficult. But to walk with them securely down a rolling flight of iron steps on which one's hobnailed shoes slip like castors, is next to impossible. It was worth getting down into the mess hall early in order to see the involuntary acrobatics that always ensued. It would be only a moment after mess began before some unfortunate would lose his footing at the very top of the stairs and come rolling down the whole distance, his mess kit clattering after him, and showering the stairs with soup, prunes, and coffee. That made the footing even less secure for those who followed, so that the percentage of misfortune was steadily accelerated in direct proportion to the length of time which had elapsed since the meal began. Later, when the sea got rougher, we had all our food brought down to our quarters, which made it somewhat easier for us, but fearfully difficult for the mess detail. To spill a heavy boiler of scalding coffee or soup would not only deprive somebody of dinner, but might prove exceedingly painful for the persons who spilled it.
There was one dainty with which we were liberally served on the Caserta that we shall never forget, though many of the lesser atrocities have now faded from memory. That was rabbit stew. Our hatch was near the cook's galley, and much of the meat was dressed on the open deck just beside it. On May 14 an immense heap of rabbits was piled up on the deck, and there prepared for our dinner. The rabbits were unquestionably old. They looked old, and they smelled old. Someone who assisted in dressing them maintained that one of them was wrapped in an Australian newspaper of the year 1914, and insisted that they had been in storage at least four years. That, I suppose, was an exaggeration, but there can be no doubt that the rabbits were decidedly over ripe, even for game. The procedure of the Italian cooks confessed as much. It was extremely simple and direct. They stripped off the hide, and opened the belly. Then they sniffed of the carcass; if it smelled too bad, they threw it in one pile; if it smelled merely bad, they threw it in another. One pile was thrown overboard, the other we ate. All day those awful rabbits lay by our hatch, and the odor of both piles (which was "really about the same") floated down to us. We were not hungry anyhow, and many of us were actually seasick. There was no very ravenous onslaught on the rabbit stew when it appeared.
It may seem ridiculous, in chronicling a heroic adventure, to spend so much time talking about food. The fact is, that the slight feeling of nausea which the remembrance of such details evokes, symbolizes more adequately the two weeks on the Caserta than anything else could. It epitomizes the qualms of stomach, slight or severe, that were always with us, the insanitary toilets, the congestion, the stench. There were, of course, other troubles besides the food. One of the greatest was the shortage of water. Fresh water, brackish and warm, was provided only for drinking, and often the taps would be found to have run dry. For washing ourselves, our mess kits , and our clothes, we had only salt water. As we had not foreseen this, we had not provided ourselves with salt-water soap. Only those who have tried it have any conception of what salt water does to ordinary soap.
The greater part of our time was naturally spent on the deck. The officers had the staterooms and the promenade deck. We had the run of the front and stern of the vessel, and a narrow alleyway between. By day, every inch of floor space, hatches, and low spars, was covered with soldiers. A transport at a distance looked as though it were swarming with brown ants. The days were, in general, clear. We were one of a convoy of ten vessels, all dazzle-painted in strange cubist designs, the effect of which was not to render a ship invisible, but to make it difficult to determine exactly in which direction she was headed. Under the rail of the largest transport nestled a trim little destroyer, which we were some time in discovering to be paint. A sturdy cruiser, very low on the water, and smoking very blackly, sailed in the center of the group, and the transports were spread out around nearly to the horizon, like overgrown chickens about a hen. The submarines at this time were everywhere and made trouble for nearly every convoy. We were permitted no lights of any kind after dark, and were strictly forbidden to throw anything overboard in the daytime. Besides the cruiser, each vessel had the additional protection of at least one gun of its own, at which a gun crew spent hours at drill and target practice. When we reached the danger zone, we were issued life preservers, and were ordered to wear them day and night. We were also subjected to frequent boat (more correctly raft) drills. I cannot remember now whether we were much worried about the submarines or not. Perhaps, lying far down in the hold below the line of the water, which we heard rushing past the iron sides of the vessel as we lay in our bunks, we had some uncomfortable moments as, we wondered what would happen to us if the ship were torpedoed while we were all below. But no submarines ever molested us, though one of the transports in our convoy was sunk on the return trip. They must have sighted us, and probably followed us, but the cruiser (and destroyers which met us later) probably scared them off. At any rate, we saw nothing of them, though one day there was something like excitement over what looked like one. The report of the convoy commander in the Office of Naval Records dismisses the flurry with the following terse entry: "3.50 P.M., 20 May, FREDERICK fired five rounds at some object on her port beam, distant about one thousand yards. Shortly afterwards, signalled to the convoy, 'false alarm.' "
The weather, on the whole, was remarkably clear and sunny, and for the first half of the trip the sea was reasonably smooth. But on the sixteenth, when we were nearing the Azores, the sea became rougher, and from then on we ran in swells that rolled our small vessel unmercifully. A letter written on May 18 by a man who had never before crossed the ocean, will perhaps present the scene more vividly:
"I shall never enjoy an ocean voyage. In the first place, I was disappointed in the ocean. The narrowness of the horizon amazed me. The horizon is so much nearer than it is on the land. With all our ships together it actually looks crowded. I can't persuade myself that I am a thousand miles or more from shore. It seems to me that land is lurking just over the edge, and, to tell the truth, I don't feel in the least worried by the lack of it. I'll tell you what it is like: those scenes of heaving billows one sees cast on a movie screen---you feel as though it might be impressive if you could only see enough of it. And it's cold and rather terrible. Doré's sea pictures are right; dull, and hard, and gloomy. When the sun shines, it's a most ridiculous blue, not a crystalline transparent blue, but a vivid opaque indigo, with powdery white foam when a wave curls and breaks.
"Waves! The first five days or so, the sea was as calm as a lake and looked much like one. Then the wind blew steadily all one day, and ever since the boat has rolled and rolled in the most monotonous, even, maddening manner you can imagine. If it would only let up for just an hour so that I could get sound asleep! But it never does. My idea of ocean waves was far from correct. I supposed they were great sharp-cut mountains with curling crests and troughs like valleys. Maybe there are waves like that---my experience is far from extensive. But I haven't seen any. When you're on a crest , the sea doesn't look rough; just choppy, with nice little whitecaps scattered about in an indiscriminate manner. Then all of a sudden---whoosh! a great gently sloping bulge swells right up out of the level, and kicks you out of the water until one rail almost dips under. Then---whoosh! down the side you slip with a great foaming and gurgling, and the other rail almost dips under. The water around the boat looks like Army milk (one can of condensed milk to 3 3/4 quarts of water), and you can hardly see over the top of the wave. And then you see that the whole ocean is divided into these great shallow swells, about a dozen of them reaching clear to the horizon. They toss a big iron boat around ridiculously. And this, I suppose, isn't really a rough sea, but just normal."
On the night of the twenty-second, Evacuation Eight arranged an impromptu concert for all the enlisted men aboard ship, which went so well that the officers demanded its repetition on their deck. It was now clear that we were headed for a French port, and probably Brest. On the nineteenth, many small birds had come to meet us, assuring us that we were not far from some land. On the morning of the twenty-third (perhaps even the day before) several beautiful little submarine destroyers came out to convoy us in, wonderfully slender and swift little craft, that rolled so in the swells that the man in the crow's nest swung from the waves on one side in a great arc down to the waves on the other. We decided that life on a destroyer must be considerably worse than life on a transport. About ten, land came in sight. "What a noise!" says a diary, "if any submarine had been within twenty miles it would have heard us." An hour later we passed a lighthouse, and soon were steaming up the narrow estuary that leads into Brest harbor, the old German pirate Appam leading, and the Caserta at the end of the line.
The first sight of a foreign country after a long voyage at sea gives a thrill that is not merely that of seeing land again. One sees land, to use Cordelia's phrase, with washed eyes, as something new and inexpressibly lovely. And of all lands and cities, is any lovelier than Brittany or more picturesque than Brest? As we sailed up the estuary, no wider than a river between its tall banks of emerald green, we watched the graceful maneuvers of the little boats with colored sails that skimmed the water all about us, and wondered what lay behind those hills for us. Now we are at the dock (that strange dock where the tide rises and falls twenty feet or more), the buildings piling up in massive heaps toward the sky, in which a small round orange colored dirigible is droning and circling. France at last!
The whole company lay that night aboard the ship. The next day (May 24), at about 2.00 P.M., half the company marched out to Pontanezen barracks. The other half remained behind to help unload the vessel Let us stay behind with one of the latter group, because he has made a fairly full record of the appearance of a French port in war time.
"So many, many new things! " he writes, "I am quite intoxicated by them all. Can you realize that our convoy carried the largest number of human beings that ever crossed the Atlantic at once in the history of the world? And I understand that a larger has arrived since. I was one of a detail left behind to unload the ship. People don't realize the quantity of material which has to go across to maintain a soldier. I think the weight is estimated at five thousand pounds. The magnitude of the War never really came home to me until I saw what was in the hold of that vessel, under the place where we were quartered---and I supposed that we were in the very bottom of the ship! Soldiers' barracks-bags, tinned food, troop boxes, carts, forges, flour, oats, pig-iron, and tons of various miscellaneous equipment---it was all packed in as it happened to fit best. There must have been half a million dollars' worth of flour in our vessel alone. We stayed down in the hold and piled the stuff indiscriminately into a great square rope net, hooked the four corners to a big hook which dangled down on a cable, and then got out from under while a steam winch swung it up and out over the side to the dock. The method of unloading seemed to me much less efficient than that which had stowed the material away so carefully and securely. When the cable tightened, and the net drew tight, the wooden boxes inside would groan and crack, and occasionally one would fall back into the hold. One part of the cargo consisted of large wooden cartons of Camel cigarettes, which we piled in very carelessly, in hope that one would fall back and break open. One did fall, and the wooden box split wide open, but, alas! the cigarettes were soldered into a tin box inside. Occasionally the negroes managing the winch (whose chief desire seemed to be speed rather than care) would deposit the entire contents of the net into the water between the side of the boat and the dock. I remember seeing boxes containing delicate artillery instruments bobbing like corks in the water. Some of the flour was doused, too. I wonder what it will taste like when the men finally get it to eat? Another detachment of men received the material on the dock and piled it into big American trucks, which hauled it to the sorting yards, where it was sorted out and sent to the proper destination.
"Some German prisoners were loading coal at the dock, guarded by bristling little French soldiers, their bayoneted guns strapped on their backs. I wondered what the Germans thought as they saw these great ships pouring out this inexhaustible stream of men and materials day after day. Indeed, the stream is increasing. All day troops marched through the quiet streets of the old, old town, and when I came on deck at midnight, the line was still moving by, and the steam winches were just as busily swinging their freight over the side. The moonlight made a long path down the quiet water of the harbor, touching here a transport, there a broad flat freight scow, a tug, a motor launch, a beautiful little sail boat---all flying the Stars and Stripes in a port which has hardly seen that flag on a commercial vessel in half a century.
"Can you imagine the way the dock looks? Day and night hundreds of American negro soldiers work there in dusty blue denim overalls, loading flour on absurd little French box cars. In the middle of the night you can see them coming to work in fresh shifts, laughing and singing, boisterously taking the place of locomotives to push the cars about. German prisoners are dumping coal into cars from buckets swung on a steel crane made in Cleveland, Ohio. American soldiers are trucking boxes past a withered old Frenchman with broad brimmed hat and great straw-stuffed wooden sabots, who is mournfully shoveling gravel into an ancient two-wheeled cart drawn by a beautiful red stallion. On the summit of the bill is a château with a pointed tower, and near the water front, behind a massive wall, is a great gloomy pile, part of which, they say, dates back to the time of Julius Caesar.
"This morning (May 26), we marched some five kilometres to camp. As we started to ascend the winding ramps that lead up from the water front we were mobbed by swarms of children begging for 'ceegarettes' and 'Pennees.' They ranged from little urchins who could hardly toddle, up to boys of fourteen, handsome little beggars, and fairly well dressed, too, though, as it appeared to us, very quaintly. Up to the time they put on long trousers, the boys wear black aprons, which cover their breeches. I could hardly believe that they all smoked, and asked, as well as I could, why they wanted tobacco. A little fellow, who walked beside me for a mile, told me what I might have guessed. They all have fathers or big brothers at the front who cannot afford to buy tobacco (a French soldier's pay is about $1.50 a month), and these rumpled cigarettes are carefully stored up and sent to them. This boy had two brothers at war, one in Italy and one in Flanders. He himself would be fourteen, he said 'le mois prochain.'
"The country is beautiful as a dream, a Corot landscape everywhere. The vegetation is all very dark green and wonderfully luxuriant. The trees beside the fields have been cut off to prevent their shading the crops, but are allowed to cover themselves with green shoots so as to make quaint dwarf trees. The fields are small, and divided off by hedges of raspberry and other low bushes. There are many trees I never saw before, smothered with ivy and dense with foliage. The sky is as blue as crystal glass. We marched along sunken roads that the Romans must have built, past walled châteaux with long avenues of horse-chestnuts and immense iron gates, a keeper's lodge just inside. Occasionally we saw natives on the road, the women very dark, thin, and un-French looking, dressed invariably in black, with great starched white kerchiefs."
Pontanezen barracks, as everyone knows, later became a scandal. Conditions there in the autumn of 1918 were so bad that an investigation was ordered. But it would have been impossible to imagine a more delightful or interesting spot than Pontanezen in May of that same year. So far as I can remember, the only hardship we had to endure was to sleep on bare duckboards without mattresses. But the ground was perfectly dry, and we could sleep on that if we preferred. Our chronicler has also recorded his impressions of Pontanezen:
"We are in a camp built, they say, by Napoleon. I can't tell you how strange it looks to see the American flag floating over the gate (for the camp is entirely surrounded by a high stone wall), and a new Y.M.C.A. building nestling in between the old white stucco barracks. Back of the barracks we have pitched tents, and made a typical American encampment. [It was the lack of barracks when the rainy season set in later that made Pontanezen so bad.] There is a great smooth white square in the center---the old parade ground---where the boys are now playing soccer and 'one old cat.' We are shown all sorts of interesting horrors: where Napoleon shot his deserters, where the gallows stood, even where there was once a guillotine. I am skeptical, but I suppose there must have been a gallows. Perhaps the most remarkable thing in the whole place is the old laundry where we wash our clothes, which needed washing sadly after their regimen of salt water on the boat. It is built in the corner of the wall, and one goes down to it by a flight of stone steps. It is a square, with an open court in the middle. The tile roof slopes down to the court, and pours the rain water into cisterns. There are two great square stone tubs with sides two feet thick. Clear water runs in through a barrel (where one can rinse his clothes), and the dirty water escapes by a stone channel. Great patches of live-forever have grown in crevices in the corner of the wall, and their red blossoms make gaudy patches of color against the gray stories."
Pontanezen was merely a rest camp. Companies landing at Brest went there to stay only until their equipment was sorted out and reloaded, and orders arrived for their next move. There was nothing whatever to do there except "detail" and rest. The camp boasted one tiny French canteen where, after standing in line an hour, one might buy dates, Camembert cheese, and occasionally chocolate, though our ravenous appetite for candy exhausted in a few minutes the meager stock as fast as it arrived. Civilians, who re surfeited with sweets, can form no conception of the soldier's craving for candy. The only chocolate we were able to buy (the "Chocolat Menier" so lavishly advertised everywhere in France on signs and placards) was hard and coarse grained, but we treasured scraps of it more than gold.
Although Evacuation Four had preceded us from Oglethorpe, we overtook them at Pontanezen, and celebrated the reunion by playing a ball game with them, in which we won, seven to six. But the most vivid memory of our stay at Pontanezen barracks is that of two hikes which we were allowed to make under the conduct of some of our officers. The first hike was to a quaint little Breton town several kilometers north of the camp. I have not recorded its name, which is not of much importance, as there must be scores in the vicinity which could be described in the same words. It was a delight beyond words after the confinement and stench of the Caserta to swing along the road in the open country, drenched with the glorious clear sunshine, drinking the air sweet with the fragrance of the broom which clothed the shaggy pastures.(7) The little village was amazingly quaint. We bargained in very bad French (which did not seem to matter if it were supplemented with good money) for dried figs and fresh strawberries, and visited the ancient gray church with its shrine of Our Lady gay with wild flowers, and a new statue of Joan of Arc beside the altar. A bevy of Breton children, who came clattering in in wooden sabots, sat quietly listening to the priest, who was telling them of "la fontaine de Béthesde, où l'ange descendait du ciel et troublait les eaux." On that hike we also had our first sight of a "lavoir" or village laundry, a very primitive example, but typical of all we were to see later. The banks of a little stream which flowed through a green meadow had been sloped in an even incline down to the water. The women knelt on the bank, and thumped the wet clothes on the incline with heavy wooden paddles. The washed clothes lay bleaching on the hedges. Among the old French women were several American soldiers in their undershirts, thumping and scrubbing with loud laughter and exclamation.
Our other hike took us into Brest itself. The memory of our delight at its quaintness and of our shocked horror at the frankness of its public sanitary conveniences still lingers, but outside of that I cannot remember much except food. Some few did go to the old château and shuddered at the oubliette where the corpses of those who had died or been put to death in the vast prison were shot into the waters of the harbor, and we all paced the Place des Portes and the Cours d'Ajot. But our chief attention was not given to works of art. Fresh strawberries, done up in a twist of newspaper, could be purchased from innumerable women vendors on the streets, and the little cafés offered such delicacies as fresh eggs, which we never received in the army. France, we decided, though queer and very backward, was a remarkably fine place.
On the last day of May we hiked back to Brest with full packs, and about 6.00 P.M. entrained aboard a string of those famous French box cars known generally as "sidedoor Pullmans" or "Hommes 40, Chevaux 8." Forty men can ride very comfortably in an American box car. Indeed, an American box car with a good layer of straw in the bottom and not too many men aboard makes, for a man who is roughly dressed and not too fastidious, quite as comfortable a means of long distance travel as a regulation Pullman. But a French box car is hardly half the size of one of ours, and is (to our way of thinking) ridiculously light and flimsy in construction. As nearly as I could determine by pacing, the distance between the front and rear trucks is about fourteen feet. There are no air brakes, the lack being supplied by shock absorbers at each end---large disks the size of dinner plates, which clash loudly together when the cars bump. But even granting that forty men are too generous an allowance for comfort in a car of this size, we might still have traveled with more comfort than we did. If one is to be comfortable, there must be nothing whatever in the car to prevent his stretching out at full length on the floor. (The regulation way is to lie crosswise of the car, head to foot.) These cars were equipped with a diabolical arrangement of heavy plank seats, which were very convenient during the day, but made it absolutely impossible to get any sleep at night. There was not a spot in the car where a man could stretch himself out flat. More than this, we had been strictly forbidden to throw any refuse out of the car. On this trip we were living on cold canned rations---corned beef, beans, and hard-tack, and at first, though the tracks on both sides were knee deep in rusted tin cans, we dutifully threw our empty tins on the floor and tried to sleep on them. A greasy corned beef can with a jagged top is not a pleasant thing to stick one's ear into.
It would be hard to imagine conditions of travel more uncomfortable. But I think we complained little, for the country through which we were passing was so beautiful and interesting that it occupied all our attention. From Brest, the most westerly point of France, we crossed nearly the entire breadth of the country at its widest part. A tourist company could not have planned a more interesting trip. The larger cities along our route included Rennes, Laval, Le Mans, Angers, Tours, Bourges, Nevers, and Dijon. We were not, unfortunately, well read in French history and geography, and none of us had provided himself with a Baedeker. The towns along the way were only towns, new and strange and wonderful. There is little by which to remember them separately. Diaries and letters speak of crops planted on the mountain sides, of beautiful trees and fields of clover and buttercups, of cattle and shaded roads and inviting streams. In each man's memory some few glimpses of the shifting kaleidoscope will have fixed themselves firmly: perhaps the buttresses of the cathedral of Le Mans in the distance as our train lies in the squalor of the yards; or the broad Loire at Tours shimmering in the sunset, and the strange cliff houses there, with their chimneys sticking up through the turf above; or a solitary purple foxglove growing wild on a hillside; or the bleak cheerlessness of the acres of track at Is-sur-Tille. How unlike what we had expected, this sitting in the door of a box car and dangling our legs out, as we watched the placid pastoral beauty of France, apparently untouched by war, unrolling itself so sweetly before us, as though we were mere tourists! And it was just in those days that the Germans were driving on unchecked in that last savage advance that brought them almost to the gates of Paris.
Our long journey was interrupted by frequent stops, when we had an opportunity to get hot coffee, or to stroll about beside the cars to ease our cramped limbs. American soldiers, condemned forever to the S.O.S., cheered us wistfully as we passed. The smaller villages and crossings seemed almost deserted, and for miles our train would seem to be the only evidence of life in a depopulated country. The natives waved and cheered, but faintly, as though in the spell of a great terror. At Dijon there was a large American Red Cross which gave us candy and cigarettes besides our coffee. That night we stopped in the gloomy yards of Is-sur-Tille, said then to be the largest railroad terminal in the world. The days were clear and bright, but the nights were cold, and that night unbearably so. Near at hand was a small Y.M.C.A. building, and before morning nearly the whole company was there, playing the piano and singing. It was well into the afternoon of June 3 before we finally got away from Is-sur-Tille.
So far, we had been well south of the actual zone of fighting. But, as we drew north toward Toul, we began to see on the darkening sky faint flashes like the northern lights or heat lightning, and to hear the faint mutter of distant thunder. When we were told that it was the flashing and roar of the guns at the front, we were thrilled but somewhat incredulous. How different modern warfare is from what one expects! The actual fighting takes place in only the narrowest fringe of the area occupied by an army. One may go by train almost to the very front, and live there for months with little more knowledge of what life in the trenches is like than he could obtain at home in New York City.
At nine-fifty on June 3 we arrived at our destination, Bazoilles-sur-Meuse, near Neufchâteau, a little town of no geographical importance whatever, but which had been chosen long before as a good strategical position for an American hospital center. We detrained, very tired and stiff, and slept cold on the bare floors of bar racks which we hunted out in the dark, making ourselves as comfortable as we could with our blankets and overcoats.(8) It will be necessary to pause here for a little to explain why we were sent to Bazoilles, and why, almost as soon as we got there, were sent back over the route we had just traveled.
When the American Army arrived in France, there was a good deal of disagreement as to the status on which it should operate. General Pershing naturally wished for the American armies to preserve their identity, and be assigned a sector of the front as their own particular project. The other Allied generals would have preferred to use the American troops as replacement battalions for the French and British lines, which were already holding the trenches. In the end, General Pershing prevailed, and chose, or was assigned, as the American sector, the line east of Verdun, a part of the front which was then quiet. Back of this area a vast and complicated service of supplies was being built up, including the necessary hospital centers. Bazoilles-sur-Meuse was one of the places where it was intended to concentrate the resources of several hospital organizations. For this purpose a considerable number of wooden barracks had been erected, and were awaiting companies to take them over. In the normal course of things, we should have encamped there, equipped our operating rooms and wards, and held ourselves in readiness for the moment when General Pershing thought the time had come to order a general advance. But these plans were roughly upset. In the spring of 1918, as everyone knows, the Germans launched a series of furious and successful drives against the French and British lines. The first thrust, beginning on March 21, was directed against the British, in the direction of Amiens, and all but succeeded in separating the French and British armies. In the crisis the Allies elected General Foch commander in chief, and General Pershing placed the American troops at his disposal without reservation. The plans for independent American operations were temporarily suspended. The second assault (April 9-26) was also against the British, farther to the north. These first two drives had taken place before we left Oglethorpe. I remember our arguing with some heat whether the War would be over if the Germans should break through to the south and take Paris. While we were resting at Pontanezen barracks, they made the attempt. On May 27 their third drive broke the French line, swept across the Aisne and the Vesle, and pressed on to the Marne, a gain of thirty miles in three days. The peak of the advance rested at Château-Thierry on the Marne, forty miles east and slightly north of Paris. General Foch asked Pershing for his best available troops. Pershing at once sent in the Third Division to hold the bridges at Château-Thierry and to prevent the Germans from penetrating farther south, and the Second to stop any German advance westward on Paris. Since June 1, while we had been jaunting across France, the Second had been suffering fearful casualties in the memorable battle of Belleau Woods. No American hospital service had been organized back of this part of the line, and the French, because of their great loss of hospitals and materials in the German advance, found themselves unable to care adequately even for their own wounded. An evacuation hospital was urgently needed back of Château-Thierry. Although we were far away in the Vosges, we were the only evacuation hospital in France then available. We had hardly reached Bazoilles-sur-Meuse before the order arrived for us to go back and set up our hospital somewhere northeast of Paris.
Of course, at the time we knew little of this. We understood we were to stay only a day or two at Bazoilles, but we had no very clear idea of where we were going or what we were to do. Meanwhile, we made the most of the day or two at Bazoilles. Our camp was not exciting. It consisted, as has been said, of a great area of portable wooden barracks, made of wooden flats nailed together, most of them still empty and deserted. Near at hand was the encampment of a labor battalion of Annamites (French Indo-Chinese). The village itself, on the cold, weedy Meuse, was dirty, romantic, and interesting. As no American soldier could be expected to pronounce its name, it had by general consent been rechristened with a racy English approximation, which is unfortunately unprintable. Base Hospital Eighteen, the famous Johns Hopkins unit, had long been established here, with its headquarters in the château of the great family of the place (which bore the Scotch name of Drummond and had, in fact, been founded by one of the brave gentlemen exiled for his attachment to the Stuarts), and many additional wooden barracks in service as wards. It was here that we got our first idea of what our work would be like, though the majority of the patients were convalescent gas victims, and we had been trained and equipped for surgery. It was here, moreover, that we heard from the patients our first stories of actual experience at the front. In the large hospital it was possible for nearly anyone to find either someone he knew, or someone who knew a friend of his. In the graveyard of the old village church (which I suppose was dedicated to St. Martin since it bore over the door a quaint relief of a man on horseback cutting off part of his cloak) we peered at the graves with their strange and pathetic decorations of metal wreaths and flowers, and were especially taken with the beautiful little tomb chapel where reposed the dead of the family of Drummond, Comtes de Melfort, "représentant en France la branche écossaise qui a suivé le roi Jacques II dans son exil, et qui est resté fidèle à la race royale des Stuarts." And there was another cemetery more interesting even than this. A letter describes it as follows:
"Next to the hospital is the pathetic little cemetery where the men who die in the hospital are buried. Each grave has a little green cross of wood with the man's identification tag nailed to it, and an American flag. The cemetery is new, and the graves still look raw and bare. A few French soldiers, some English, and two Russians sleep here, alongside the American boys who came four thousand miles to die in a foreign country. I suppose in the years to come these poor graves will be an object of love to the French people here, and that they will never lack loving hands to keep them green. As Shelley said of the cemetery at Rome where his own ashes were later to rest, 'It would make one almost in love with death to be buried in so sweet a place."' I copy these words with all their sentimentality, because of their present grim irony. The graves were not suffered long to remain, and it was in removing the bodies from this very cemetery at Bazoilles that the men of the Graves Registration Service came upon that horror of men who had been executed, the nooses still on their necks and black caps over their faces. It was apparently this shocking discovery, widely reported and flagrantly exaggerated, which caused the excitable Senator Watson to make his sensational charges of wholesale executions among the American troops. The senatorial investigation showed that, although there were only eleven military executions in the A.E.F., two of them occurred in Bazoilles.
It was at Bazoilles that we were first freed from surveillance since leaving Camp Merritt, with a result that could easily have been predicted. Several of the company had suffered from extreme drought ever since they joined the army, for it had really been extremely difficult and expensive for a man in uniform to procure liquor in the United States. I cannot remember that I ever saw a drunken soldier at Oglethorpe. In France, the natives were supposed not to sell liquor to anyone except between certain hours, and not to sell distilled liquor to Americans at any time. As a matter of fact, it was easy enough, provided you had the money, to obtain anything you wanted whenever you wanted it. Our dry friends started out valiantly to make up for lost time. One of them (whose immediate reaction to liquor was always fight) assaulted an inoffensive little Annamite, and drew blood. His countrymen came flocking in answer to his screams, and in a few minutes the whole Chinese encampment was in an uproar, shrieking, gesticulating, apparently vowing bloody Oriental revenge. They outnumbered us, and we suspected that, though they were non-combatants like ourselves, they all had murderous knives concealed about their persons. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Chinese, and neither of us spoke much French. I don't remember what was done to assuage their anger, but it finally passed off without violence. Sergeant Hennion, in a great pet, gave us a furious scolding at our next formation. The substance of what he said is summed up in a little poem by Sergeant O'Meara:
"I'll see Paris and you won't!
"I'll see Paris and you won't!"
On Thursday, June 6, we were routed out at three in the morning, had a light mess, and entrained again. Our hospital equipment was still aboard the cars. By ten-thirty we got off on a route that headed for Paris. From Bazoilles, we continued north to Toul, which was then (and remained long after) on the edge of the battle front. Many French soldiers were about, and told us with great concern of the drive on Paris. Planes were patrolling the sky, and that night we saw to the north, only a few miles distant, the flashes of shells and airplane bombs, and heard the dull concussion of their explosion. From Toul we passed through Commercy, Bar-le-Duc, and Vitry-le-Français. The main line to Paris would normally have taken us through Châlons, Château-Thierry, and Meaux. For a very good reason, this route was out of the question. That night we headed west and south, passing the lines at Coulommiers. On the afternoon of June 7 we arrived in the yards at Le Bourget, in the northern suburbs of Paris, and lay there several hours. This was the nearest the company as a whole ever came to the metropolis of France. From where we lay the Eiffel Tower was clearly visible above the sky line of the great city. Numberless planes were patrolling the sky, in expectation of the nightly air raid. We were too excited to sleep, and sat up to watch the German planes come over, but, for a wonder, none appeared that night. Some time about midnight we left the yards, and ran north on the line to Meaux, through Claye and Dammartin to St. Mard, a little station halfway between Paris and Château-Thierry. On the morning of Saturday, June 8, 1918, we marched out of St. Mard, down a long straight shaded road, turning off to the left after some three kilometers into the streets of an old town. . . . We clatter up the narrow ways, turn sharply to the right, and find on our right the village church, and, almost directly across, a great pile of venerable buildings, evidently some sort of a school. Over the grand old white gateway floats an American flag. Our column turns into the gate, marches along a cobbled drive with a great building on the right and a wall on the left, passes at the corner of the building a great festering heap of bloody bandages and the awful debris of the operating room, and comes out on a beautiful greensward upon which many more buildings face. At the end a smiling little lake, on which swans are swimming, reflects the luxuriant foliage of a park of ancient trees, among which strange quaint statues are interspersed. From the nearest building on the right a cathedral-like apse projects toward us, on the gable peak of which a sweetly serious Virgin holds out the swaddled figure of the Divine Child, his arms stretched out in the posture of the Cross. Beside us, old, old stone steps go down to a clear fountain which springs in a sparkling jet from the wall. Ambulances are driving in, feverishly unloading their freight of long brown litters heavy with prostrate forms. We are at the old Collège de Juilly, Seine-et-Marne, and the great battle of Belleau Woods is on.
Juilly. Belleau Woods and Château-Thierry.
NO quarters have as yet been prepared for us, and it is imperative that we waste no time hunting for any. We drop our packs on the beautiful green lawn, where a line of our great brown ward tents is later to stand, and sit down on the grass to snatch a hasty dinner. Within thirty minutes of our arrival we are all at work. Our officers, indeed, who preceded us to town, have been in the operating rooms some time, having taken only time enough to scrub up. We are told off into details, pretty much at random, and assigned for duty in the receiving ward, the operating rooms, the surgical wards, to dig graves and bury the dead; in short, to perform all the multifarious tasks of a large evacuation hospital jammed with wounded.
Let us follow some of these men as they get their first impressions of war surgery. The separate glimpses will be confused, but the very confusion will make the picture more adequate. Our first man is assigned to Ward D. Ward D, he finds, is a detached building in the corner of the lawn, facing the great building with the statue of the Virgin at its peak. He goes up the steps, crosses a narrow entry, and looks in. What a strange room---large and bare, with the further end elevated like a stage. It is a stage. The place was evidently the theater of the school. Now it is filled with cots; not only the floor, but even the stage, from which all the scenery has been stripped. The cots are lined up as thick as they will go, with only the narrowest alleys for walking between, and every cot has a wounded man on it. After all, the place looks a little more like a civilian hospital than he had expected. The beds are made up with sheets, covered, to be sure, with the inevitable army blankets, but the men have been completely undressed and clothed in various styles of Red Cross hospital shirts---short white gowns with loose sleeves, tying with strings at the back. It is in the only too obvious evidence of terrible wounds that one realizes that this is a war hospital. Here lies a fair-haired boy of eighteen or so, his eyes closed, his neck and shoulder exposed to show a great bulky wad of bandage over the stump of an arm amputated near the shoulder. Here is an older man, haggard, unshaven, and ugly, his knees drawn up over his distended stomach, a look of peculiar and characteristic agony on his face. He has a severe wound of the abdomen, and has not much longer to suffer. He struggles to repress the frequent coughing fits which tear him with pain. He is continually calling out something in a language that is not English. There are some French wounded here, but the card tied to the head of his cot shows that he is an American, an immigrant who enlisted before he had mastered the language of his adopted country. There is a black-haired youngster who has lost his leg above the knee. The majority of the others have suffered less severely, but there is not a man here who has not escaped death scores of times in the last week by the narrowest of margins. Some of them are babbling in delirium, some shouting and cursing as they fight their way out of the ether dream in which they are reenacting the horror of the trenches, some in their right minds, gaily talking and joking, but the most lie in a half-waking stupor, the inevitable reaction to days of hunger, fatigue, the nervous strain of incessant deadly peril, and, finally, the shock of severe wounds, ether, and surgical operations. They have been for days without food; they have lain for hours in shallow holes with shells bursting every moment within inches of them and inflicting sudden and awful death among their comrades; their ears have been deafened with noise which in itself would produce prostration; they have walked unprotected straight into the murderous hail of machine-gun bullets; they have fought hand-to-hand with bayonets, in duels where the only possible outcome was either victory or death. These are the wounded marines from Belleau Woods. One's first shock of surprise comes from finding them so young. Most of these wounded men are boys of the age of college freshmen or a little older, boys of magnificent physique, but preserving still in contour of limb and downy cheek the grace of boyhood. The beauty of their faces is only enhanced by suffering. They have not yet wasted away with weeks of torture. Their faces are smooth and round, though drained of all color, and their pallor makes their eyes stand out with extraordinary clearness. They are now touchingly brave, self-sacrificing, grateful. Weeks in hospital will sap their courage. They will become emaciated and fretful, calling out querulously, cringing at a touch. The hot room is pervaded with that indescribable but unforgettable atmosphere of an army hospital: fumes of ether, the heavy stench of gas gangrene and putrid infections , like the odor of decaying cabbage, and, strongest of all, the reek of chlorine from dressings wet with Dakin solution.
Some of this the new man has taken in as he stands in the door. He is not overcome with horror. He does not feel faint, even. Things are happening too fast for him to think of himself at all. He is moving in an existence apart from his own, like that of a dream. An army nurse, who was stooping over one of the patients, rises and comes to him. She is the first woman in uniform with whom he has ever had anything to do, and in the past months he has seen so little of women that her near proximity moves him strangely. He sees that she is ready to drop with fatigue. Her hair is escaping from under her cap, her face is gray and suffused with perspiration. She is so glad to see him that she nearly cries. During the last four days, this hospital has given surgical attention to nearly two thousand desperately wounded men. On June 2, it had only the personnel of a Red Cross base hospital of about 250 beds: two surgeons, twenty Red Cross nurses, a few civilian employees from the village, and, for transporting patients, half a dozen Annamite boys and a handful of French soldiers unfit for service at the front. The surgical force has been augmented by several hastily gathered teams, and day before yesterday these army nurses arrived. But the men available to lift and carry the wounded men (neither operating room is on the ground floor) were exhausted long ago, and there have been no proper replacements. Surgeons and nurses have been carrying litters in addition to their proper duties. For the last four days hardly anyone at Juilly has worked less than twenty hours a day.
There is no time now for chat. "Oh," says the nurse to our enlisted man, "will you please help me take care of a man who has just died?" He follows her to a cot well up the aisle on the right. The man who has just died bears no mark on his peaceful face. He looks as though he might be asleep. Under the direction of the nurse the new assistant takes off the shirt, which can be used again. The dead man has to be turned on his side to unfasten it; the flesh of his bare back is as warm as the hand which touches it. They wrap the long comely figure in the sheet, securing it with a strip or two of bandage. This man is so tall that the sheet will not -cover him, and they pull a pillowcase on over his feet. Another enlisted man has meanwhile come in, and the two get the body on a stretcher and carry it to the morgue. From the driveway they pass into a wide cobbled court with buildings on all four sides, under a quaint old clock tower on the opposite side, into a corridor, and at last into a small bare whitewashed room. There has been no time to bury the dead, and a dozen long rigid white bundles lie here on stretchers, placed side by side on the floor. It will take many applications of chloride of lime and whitewash to remove the traces of the odor of mortal decay which assails one's nostrils long before he reaches the door of this room.
Or perhaps our man was sent instead to Ward E, the great room beneath the chapel, which is on the second floor under the statue of the Virgin and Child. This was of old the "Salle des Bustes," as we should say a memorial hall---a long, beautiful room with waxed floor, around the walls of which are ranged upon pedestals the busts of famous men. There are fine stained-glass windows and memorial tablets, including, in the most conspicuous position at the end of the room, a great marble slab to the memory of the graduates of the Collège who fell in the Franco-Prussian War. In the little alcove on the right lies a solitary patient, a French aviator who was burned in the crash of his plane. His body is not much marked, but his face is so charred that none of the features are distinguishable, and his hands are burned to mere stumps. Thin strips of gauze wet with some antiseptic solution cover his face, but not so completely that one cannot see the horror of his condition. His sense of hearing is acute, and as anyone comes up to his bed he begins to murmur in a faint, hoarse whisper, the hole where his lips should be puffing up the edges of the gauze. He is asking in French for something. It sounds like "morphine." Is it morphine? "Non! non!" says the whisper passionately, "pas morphine! " We cannot make him out, and try to tell him that we will call one of the French nuns.
Ward G is at the farthest distance from the operating rooms, above a fine cloister, up a steep and narrow flight of stairs. It was the children's dormitory and their little iron cots are still there. In the center of the room is a sort of trough, with running water, where they washed their faces of a morning. None of the beds are long enough for a six-foot marine; you must push their heads through the high open head of the cot until their feet clear, and then stick their feet out through the foot. It would be a laughable sight, were it not so pathetic, those rows of blanket-wrapped feet sticking out into the aisle, some motionless, some vigorously wiggling and getting uncovered.
Other men have gone to work in the operating rooms. To get there they enter the first great building by the, gate, climb a broad stone stair, turn at a landing, and come out at the entrance of Ward B. Ward A is on the floor above. Beyond, on the corridor, are the X-ray rooms. Men in litters, undressed and wrapped in blankets, are lying on the floor waiting for their turns in the dark room. Ward B, which I suppose was formerly a recitation hall, is a long narrow room, divided down the center by a partition filled with arches. There is a double row of beds on each side of the partition, lined up with heads to the wall. Ward A is much the same kind of place. These are the best-equipped wards of all, and were probably the only ones in regular use from the time the Collège was overrun with French wounded in 1914 until Belleau Woods. Many of the beds are fitted with elaborate frameworks of wood ("Balkan frames") for the proper treatment of fractures. Men with broken thighs lie here for weeks---even months---flat on their backs, the broken limbs kept under constant tension by heavy weights. At the end of the ward is a little anteroom to the operating room. Evacuation Eight has not yet organized its receiving service so efficiently as it will later, when the men will come up to the operating room already undressed and with their wounds prepared for operation. The floor here is covered with litters on which lie the men just as they came from the ambulances, fully clothed with boots, puttees, breeches, shirt, and blouse, often with their steel helmets on their breasts and their gas masks beside them. Into one of the buttonholes of the blouse or shirt is tied a linen tag giving the man's name, his serial number and company, the treatment which he has thus far received, and from what medical unit. On their foreheads, standing out with startling distinctness on the white skin, are letters in iodine; always "T," and sometimes "M." These indicate the administration of morphine and antitetanic serum.
The first thing to do is to get their clothes off. Puttees come off first, then muddy shoes, tattered and bloody breeches, blouse, shirt, underwear. Much of it must be cut off to avoid bending wounded arms and legs. In spite of their pain the men make no outcry and do their best to help us. We put hospital shirts or pajamas on them, wrap them in blankets, and they are ready for the operating room. The stretcher bearers come out with a stretcher on which lies a wounded man just off the table, still deep under the ether, his face wet with perspiration, eyes closed, his breathing deep and heavy. Next! We pick up the stretcher nearest the door and carry it into the operating room.
There are three tables. Around two, busy and silent groups of white-gowned figures are bending over their work. The third is empty, and an attendant with a wet cloth is wiping off the blood which covers the lower portion in a shallow pool. We transfer our patient to the damp table, and at the same time get a mental picture of the room. It is not large, perhaps fifteen feet square, and very white and dazzling. The door is in one corner, and there are two high windows in the wall opposite. Against the wall on the left as you enter is a small oil cookstove, on which steams a highly polished copper tank for sterilizing the instruments. Against the wall facing you, between the windows, is a stout wooden table covered with a sheet, on which the sterilized instruments are laid out in shining rows, like silver in the drawers of a sideboard. Against the wall to the right are the lavatories where the surgeons scrub up. The three operating tables, white enamelled and covered with thin, oilcloth-covered mats, are lined up in the middle of the room, their heads toward the entrance, the feet toward the table with the sterilized instruments.
But we must get to work on our wounded man. The surgeons who have just finished with one man have stripped off their blood-stained gowns and gloves and are scrubbing their hands. Under their direction we fold back the blanket which covers the wounded man so as to expose the wound, let us say on the thigh. We fold another blanket to cover his feet and legs to the knee, and slip two stout straps around him, one just above the knees and one around the chest. The wound is still covered with the pack and bandages applied at the first-aid station or field hospital. We cut the bandage and expose it---a jagged aperture made by shrapnel, perhaps two inches long. With an ordinary razor we shave a considerable area around the wound. The surgeon has now finished scrubbing his hands. The nurse at the supply table opens for him a square parcel which contains a sterilized gown wrapped in a piece of muslin. He shakes it out gingerly by the neckband, careful not to touch the front. The attendant as gingerly ties the strings behind. The surgeon now rinses his hands with alcohol, and, when they have dried, pulls on a pair of rubber gloves, picking them up by their long, turned-back wrists, which, when the fingers are worked on, he turns up over the sleeves of his gown. His hands and the whole front of his body now present a perfectly sterilized surface, which nothing unsterilized has touched, and which must touch nothing unsterilized except the wound itself.
Meanwhile the anesthetist has been busy. She sits on a stool at the head of the table, at such a height that her elbows rest easily upon it on either side of the patient's head. Beside her is a little stand with her cans of ether, gauze, vaseline, a shallow basin shaped like a kidney, and clips for pulling forward the man's tongue if he should choke. The man has not cried out or in any way expressed his fear, but his eyes show that he is terrified by the array of glistening instruments, the solemn, white figures---worst of all, by the rapid play of scalpel and scissors which he can see by turning his head toward the tables on either side. His eyes in mute appeal seek those of the one familiar figure in the room, that of the enlisted man at his side. "Don't be frightened," I say, "the ether won't bother you at all, and it will all be over in a minute." (God forgive me, I have never taken ether in my life.) "Will you just take my hand, buddy," says the wounded man a trifle huskily, "I don't know much about this, and I'm afraid I may fight when the ether gets bad." "Sure!" I reply, "that's what I'm here for." The nurse smears a little vaseline around his eyes, and, holding the mask a few inches above his face, begins to pour the ether on it. "Breathe deep," she says, "and don't fight it." The mask comes lower, finally rests on his face, and a piece of gauze is wrapped around the edges to keep in the fumes. She pours on the ether faster. The man groans and struggles; he throws both his arms wide and tries to sit up. We have to tighten the straps and hold down his arms. Now he is limp, the moaning faint and dying away. The surgeon takes a long-handled clip which holds a swab, dips it in iodine, and paints a large area around the wound. One nurse stands all the time by the supply table, serving the surgeons at all three operating tables. She hands him four sterilized towels, which he lays around the wound, leaving exposed only a small rectangular patch of darkly stained skin with the wound in the center. How will he fasten his towels on? A little stand has been pushed up beside the foot of the table. The nurse covers it with a towel, and begins to lay out instruments on it. The surgeon picks up one that looks a little like a pair of manicure scissors, but, instead of cutting blades, it has two little sharp curved points that meet like a pair of pincers. With these he picks up the towels at the point where two of them overlap, and clips them together, pushing the points of the instrument down so that they meet in the skin underneath. The instrument has a catch which will hold it tightly shut until it is released. He puts on three more, one at each corner of the exposed patch. The uninitiated assistant gasps and flinches at this apparently cold-blooded process, and then derides his tenderness as he thinks how trivial these pinpricks, are in comparison with what is to come. The team is now ready: the chief, or operating, surgeon, his assistant (always a surgeon also, and an officer), and a nurse, who stands beside the little stand of instruments, ready to hand what is wanted. (This is in addition to the nurse at the large supply table of sterilized instruments.) These are all "scrubbed up," that is, provided with an elaborate surgical asepsis of sterilized gowns and gloves. The anesthetist and two enlisted men, who are not "scrubbed up," must look out for manipulating the patient, getting him on and off the table, bandaging, and bringing unsterilized equipment.
The surgeon takes a scalpel (a little knife with a rigid blade, no larger than a penknife), which he holds like a pen, and with firm, even pressure draws an incision on each side of the wound and considerably longer. The skin springs apart, showing the yellowish fatty layer beneath, and exposing the red of the muscle. This wound was made by a fragment of high explosive shell, which is still deeply embedded in the flesh. It has been located by the X-ray surgeon, who has made two marks with silver nitrate on the thigh, one on the top and one on the side. The foreign body lies at the point where perpendicular bisectors from those marks would intersect. The surgeon goes after it with scalpel and scissors, excising all the damaged tissue with what looks like reckless abandon. As he cuts into the muscle the blood spurts up like juice in a berry pie. The assistant mops it up with a gauze sponge, discovers the point where the blood vessel is severed, and the surgeon clips it with a haemostat, another variety of pincers with handles like manicure scissors. This is for small blood vessels; larger ones must be tied off at once. By the end of the operation the wound is full of these dangling haemostats. The surgeon probes with his finger between the muscle bundles for the shrapnel, and finally dislodges it, a jagged chunk of metal an inch square each way, with a great wad of cloth from the man's breeches clinging to it. He goes on, painstakingly removing every particle of clotted blood and tissue that has been damaged by the missile or resulting infection. Now, with the help of his assistant, he ties off the blood vessels still held by haemostats. During all this, the enlisted assistants at his direction have been turning the patient on the table, elevating or flexing the leg, or with a flashlight throwing light into some peculiarly inaccessible part of the wound. The operation is finished. What was a small jagged wound is now a gaping hole six inches long, two or three wide at the top, and perhaps four deep, perhaps extending through the entire thigh. The nurse places on the stand a bundle of little red rubber tubes, open at one end, the closed end punched full of holes. The surgeon pushes these into the wound, leaving the open ends out, inserting the closed ends into every crevice. He fills the cavity with gauze plentifully soaked with a solution smelling of chlorine, lays gauze strips soaked with yellow vaseline along the edges of the wound, and places a large absorbent pad over the orifice. His work is done. We bind on the pad with yards of bandage, roll the inert body onto a stretcher, and hurry it away to a ward. As he scrubs for the next case, the surgeon dictates to one of us a description of the case and the surgical treatment he has given it. All this may have taken half an hour; possibly an hour or more. We go on with the work, in twelve-hour shifts, night and day, as long as the supply of wounded holds out.
Remember that few of these enlisted men have ever been in an operating room before in their lives, and that as few of these surgeons have had actual previous experience in the technique of war surgery. Yet in that first afternoon they are called upon to perform the most dreadful as well as the most delicate operations. One could not plead inexperience as an excuse for delay. Amputations high in the thigh or upper arm, operations of the chest where the ribs must be sprung apart with retractors, and looking in with incredulous amazement we see the heart throbbing bare; wounds of the head and brain, wounds of the abdomen ---in one day we performed more major operations than some civilian operating rooms see in six months. We work on without pause, undressing men, carrying them in, carrying them out, carrying them to the X-ray, carrying them to the wards. It is amazing how we form friendships in those few moments before the man goes onto the table. Late this evening, when we have gone off duty after twelve hours of such work, we shall stumble around to the wards to see how some of these boys are now, to wash their hands and faces, to sit quietly and talk with them. But we cannot sit long, for there is so much to be done in a ward, and wounded men naturally do not understand that you are not the regular ward orderly.
There are many, many other departments in this great organization. There is the division of trucking, all day on the road between Paris and Juilly bringing in surgical supplies, food, quartermaster's stores. An orderly is always bumping back and forth in a motorcycle with dispatches. In the great square flagged court (the "Cours d'Honneur") a tent has been erected to serve as receiving ward and personnel offices. The ambulances drive in unceasingly through the archway and unload their wounded before the tent. There are four litters in each ambulance, two above and two below, suspended from hooks. The ambulances are muddy, and frequently splashed with holes from the fragments. of shells that have burst just beside them. The drivers are weary, but they hurry to unload their freight and hurry off again---a long, brown, almost unbroken line of ambulances filling the road from Château-Thierry to Juilly. The attendants in the receiving ward inspect the tag which comes tied to each wounded man, make other necessary records, check his few pathetic valuables and put them in a cotton-wool bag, and then send him to the operating room. Later, when things are better organized, the greater part of the work of preparing the patient for the table will be done here.
Every night we evacuate. Another long, brown, unbroken line of ambulances pulls out of the hospital, not empty, but filled with our wounded men who have undergone operation, bound for Paris. After operation, the wounded are sorted out according to the severity of their injuries, and the ward to which they are assigned indicates whether they may be immediately evacuated or not. For a large evacuation every man in the hospital not actually on night duty is expected to turn out and lend a hand, often extending the twelve hours of work he has already done by five or six more of carrying and lifting litters. Some wards are practically depleted at each evacuation. The ambulances pull up before the wards, the nurse indicates which men are to go, the orderlies and litter men transfer them gently to litters, lift and stow them away in the ambulances, call out a word of farewell, and they are off from Evacuation Eight forever.
One large detail has been at work all day on the grimmest task of all, that of digging graves and burying the dead. I shall describe the cemetery later, as it appeared after we had been at Juilly nearly two weeks. But today the grave detail finds the cemetery already well established. They dig the graves laboriously out of the stiff soil of a glorious field of wheat full of scarlet poppies, under a blazing sun; regulation graves, three feet wide, six feet and a half long, and six feet deep, and hastily lay in them the bodies of the dead. Later we had a burial party every afternoon about five. There would be five or six bodies, for which we then provided the luxury of unpainted wooden boxes. We piled them into a high two-wheeled French cart, drawn by a great patient work horse, and spread out an American flag over the ends of the boxes. The little procession started from the Cours d'Honneur, at the head the little crucifer from the parish church, then our Y.M.C.A. chaplain in plain khaki uniform, walking side by side with the village curé in his biretta, cassock, surplice, and stole. Behind trudged a French urchin, bearing the pail of holy water, a cotta over his breeches, but with an American trench cap on his head. Then came the lumbering cart driven by its stolid French owner, and, walking beside it, the men of the burial detail. At the cemetery we unloaded the coffins and lowered them, down into the graves, jumping impatiently on the tops of the boxes if they happened to stick in the narrow space, and then stood uncovered, leaning on our spades, as the curé in his clear sonorous voice read the grand Latin of the Roman burial service over Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile, and our chaplain followed with the familiar English words. One sprinkled with holy water, the other cast in a handful of earth. The bugler, facing the west and the golden lightning of the sunken sun, blew the long tender notes of taps, while far overhead an unseen lark poured forth its shrill delight.
Fig. 1. MOHAMMEDAN SECTION OF THE FRENCH CEMETERY AT MAUJOUY
Not all our men were in Juilly during those first days. Immediately on our arrival several groups were detached for service with other units. I have no complete list of these details. A large group of nurses had been sent to La Ferté before our arrival, and remained there until the middle of July. Some of our men went to the Red Cross hospital at Neuilly, twin to Juilly, and a larger detachment was sent to Luzancy. A noncommissioned officer who went in charge of this last detail, has preserved a record which I shall quote practically entire.
"June 10. Orders came at five for 25 men to go to Field Hosp. 16, leaving next day for the front. I went in charge, along with Hines and the 25 men. Took trucks at about 7.30 and arrived in Meaux about 8.30, reporting to F.H. 16. The city of Meaux was the objective of the Bosche, and between anti-aircraft guns, airplane bombs, and German shells landing around, it was a very peaceful night.(9)
"June 12. Moved up front about 15 kil. to town of Luzancy. Evac. 8 men had no gas masks but had to risk it just the same. Luzancy is right on the Marne, about 5 or 6 kil. behind Belleau Woods. Quiet all day.
Fig. 2. A BURIAL AT PETIT MAUJOUY
"June 13. During day all was quiet, and I slept, being on night duty. At night few patients, but an awful barrage. The hospital was set between the heavy artillery and the front lines, so that the shells went overhead all night. No sleeping.
"June 14. Day about as usual, with a few gas cases coming in. At night an air raid, and the anti-aircraft guns on the Marne sure did raise some noise. Terrific barrage all night. Germans hammering Americans hard.
"June 15. Hard fighting all day, and Belleau Woods captured by Americans at night. Germans put over a box barrage entirely around the wood, hemming our boys in. Then they shot gas over, and it sure was a success for them. The night was muggy and rainy, which helped the gas to do its awful work.
"June 16. Early this forenoon soldiers came in in great numbers, and by noon the courtyard was full of blinded men, crying, moaning, and begging for help. The worst sight I ever saw. All day they kept coming in, and all night we tried to evacuate. I was on duty all night the 15th, all day the 16th, and am evacuating all night as well. Carried litters, gave dope, baths, and everything all day.
"June 17. 500 cases evacuated during the night, and every one almost all in. A few were evacuated on the trucks this A.M. Hellish barrage all day and night, but Americans holding everywhere, and gaining in some places. Almost all Marines coming in, 5th and 6th Regiments.
Fig. 3. DIGGING GRAVES AT JUILLY
Had my first sleep this A.M., but was called to evacuate at noon. Seven hours sleep since the 15th. Had all night to sleep on the 17th, and morning of the 18th was sent back with rest of boys to Evac. 8.
"June 18. Arrived back at noon, only to find hospital full of gassed men from F.H. 16, and all getting worse daily. Some horrible sights."
Indeed, those dreadful mustard-gas cases were probably the most painful we had to witness in all our service. As a matter of fact, the majority were in much less serious plight than the wounded men. Mustard gas (it has nothing to do with mustard) is a heavy liquid, which, though fairly volatile, will remain for some time clinging to grass and undergrowth, and will burn any flesh with which it comes in contact. It is especially adapted for use by a retreating army. By soaking down with mustard gas the area through which the pursuing American troops had to advance, the Germans made sure that a large number of the advancing force would be incapacitated. The soldier's clothing soon becomes impregnated with the stuff as he brushes through the undergrowth, and the burns develop through the help of moisture. Those parts of the body subject to excessive perspiration are especially affected. The burns are extremely painful, but in general not fatal unless the gas has been inhaled, or (as with other surface burns) a third or more of the total skin area has been affected. A bad feature of mustard gas, however, is that it almost invariably produces temporary, but complete, blindness. Nothing demoralizes a man so much as the fear of losing his sight, and telling him that he will see again in a day or two generally fails to reassure him. The gas cases began to arrive at Juilly as early as June 12. Since most of them were immediately evacuable, we made temporary wards for them in the great cloisters which ran around two sides of the court in front of Wards F and G---the children's dormitories. By the sixteenth there were nearly seven hundred gassed men there, just out of the glare of the sunny court, lying fully dressed on blanket-covered cots, some of them badly gassed in the lungs and fighting horribly for breath, which could be a little prolonged by giving them oxygen; nearly all blinded, many delirious, all crying, moaning, tossing about. For most of the patients there was nothing to do but renew frequently the wet dressings which relieved somewhat the smart of the burns, and to try to restore their lost morale. For those who had been gassed worst, nothing effectual could be done. They were spared much by being in general delirious, but it required the constant attention of several orderlies to keep some of them in bed. Later on, the hospital service was so organized that the gas cases were handled by special gas hospitals. After we left Juilly we almost never received gas victims unless they were also wounded.
After the first day, a regular routine got itself established. Quarters had been found for us in a large dwelling house which stood behind a high wall a few hundred yards down the street from the gate of the Collège. It had once evidently been a fine residence, with a porter's lodge attached. All the furniture had been removed and the floor space filled with improvised cots, rough cribs of wood with chicken wire tacked across for a spring, and filled with straw to serve as a mattress. French soldiers had been quartered here before, and had left us a legacy of cooties with which we continued to be intimately acquainted until after the armistice. The house could not accommodate all our number, and a large English ward tent was pitched on the lawn to care for the overflow. Our latrine was an open pit in the shrubbery back of our quarters, dreadfully hard to find on a dark night, when no lights were allowed for fear of air raids. Our officers were quartered in two other houses, one just beside the hospital, the other half a mile or so distant. Our cooks set up their kitchens under a tent fly on the lawn, and served all our meals there. During the fine weather, which lasted upward of a month after we settled in Juilly, it was decidedly pleasant, after six hours in operating room or ward, to sit cross-legged on the lawn and eat one's meals picnic fashion, in spite of the hordes of yellow wasps which descended upon us like the plagues of Egypt. Even if it did rain, we could always take our food into the house and sit on our bunks as we ate it. The food for the patients was prepared at the hospital itself, in the sisters' great kitchen. What lovable women those Soeurs de St. Louis were! So gentle, so kind hearted, and devoted! I think in all the time we were at Juilly none of us ever saw one of them anything but smiling and gentle. American soldiers had no more business to be hanging around their busy kitchen than small boys have to be dawdling in the pantry. But we were treated there exactly as very complacent mothers would have treated especially engaging children, and we never departed without a smile and something to eat.
We were divided into two shifts, changing at 8.00 A.M. and 8.00 P.M. As long as the patients continued to arrive in considerable numbers there were practically no military formations. The bugle roused us in the morning; we got up, washed, stood in line for breakfast, ate it sitting cross-legged on the ground, and at eight reported for duty quite as in a civilian hospital. The ward orderlies, I believe, ate with the patients in the wards.
By June 16, our supply of wounded ran short, for Evacuation Seven and Mobile Hospital No. 1 were now established at Coulommiers, a spot much more convenient to the zone of fighting than Juilly. The lull in admissions made little difference in the wards, but it gave those of us who worked in the operating room our first opportunity to look about and see what kind of place we were in. On June 19 one of the enlisted assistants in operating room B wrote home his first long letter since reaching Juilly. Part of it will serve to summarize and unify what I have just been recounting.
"I wish you might have seen what I saw last night, as I saw it. For the last few days we have received no wounded. We had scrubbed the operating room, polished the instruments, and, as there was still no work for us to do, we took a few hours off. I started to walk out to a little town near by [Thieux]. A little way from the Collège I came to the village cemetery. French cemeteries are interesting because they are so completely different from ours. The graves usually have a wooden cross at the head instead of a stone, with a wooden railing all the way around. The people hang these with artificial flowers made of beadwork. Here was one row of graves whose crosses read 'Soeurs de St. Louis.' Then several rather pretentious tombs, 'Famille So-and-So,' with their doors of iron grill work, and inside an altar (like a little chapel), memorial tablets, and the inevitable beadwork flowers. Then, row behind row of green wooden crosses, all alike, all surmounted by faded and tattered tricolors---the honored 'Morts pour la Patrie.' Here and there stood the turban-topped head and foot boards of a Mohammedan colonial, his grave turned at a different angle from the others, so that he might look toward far-away Mecca. Rank behind rank, about seventy I think, they filled the whole space to the wall. Some had beadwork flowers, some (the poor 'inconnus') only bunches of simple garden posies, and on some, still new and raw, the scarlet poppies had rambled. Down the center ran a narrow open avenue, at the end of which, against the wall, with the ranks of soldiers' graves on either side, stood a large iron crucifix. The work was so realistic that the tortured figure seemed to writhe, struggling to repress a groan of mortal agony. And it came to me all at once that it was something more than a conventional piece of religious mummery. The crucifix, and the rows of crosses, and the faded tricolors were all symbols of the same eternal cruelty of man. The figure did writhe, and would, so long as men continue to make war.
"I went out the gate of the cemetery, and turned the corner. The wheat had once grown up to the foot of the wall, but now a few swaths had been cut, and there, in a double row in its shadow, were scores of narrow mounded graves. No flowers here, no crosses yet; nothing but a little piece of shingle at the head of each. Six graves stood empty. An old Frenchman was digging away in the sixth, throwing the dirt out into the edge of the wheat. 'Whose graves are these?' I asked, for, though it sounds stupid, I had not yet realized. 'De vos américains,' he replied. 'Combien?' 'Quatre-vingt-cinq.' Eighty-five! I walked down the row, stooping to read the names penciled on the shingles. Many were familiar to me. I had seen these boys lying on stretchers before operation, had undressed them, talked with them, given them cigarettes, stood by them as they lay on the table, carried them to the wards----dead now, and buried in France, thousands of miles from home. Here was a lad from West Virginia; I remembered him for his clear gray eyes and handsome features. His name, he said, was Craze, but 'the fellows mostly called him Crazy.' Dead and buried.
"Another old Frenchman and two women came around the corner to see the graves of the Americans. One of the women cried a little. 'Ils étaient si beaux!' She had lost her own son in the war. 'C'est bien triste,' I answered, and I could say no more---Oh, if the people at home could see what I see here! I think we of the Medical Department have the saddest and yet the proudest service of the whole Army."
I suppose the author of the letter shows somewhat too much eagerness to vindicate his own branch of the service. The fact is that we were a little on the defensive. In the peace-time army the Medical Corps is looked upon with considerable condescension, not to say contempt, by the combatant troops. I do not remember ever meeting that attitude from any of our wounded men. They were extraordinarily grateful for everything we did for them, even though it was only our daily duty, and used voluntarily and with wonder to speak of the devotion of the hospital force. But we ourselves, in those heroic days, felt as a reproach our clean clothes, our dry beds, our sufficient food. "Somehow you feel," says another section of the letter I have just quoted, "as though it wasn't right for you to be in a countryside of peace and beauty, while up there men live in the roar of those guns that only mutter here. Seeing men smashed and broken every day doesn't lessen our desire to be in it; it makes us wish all the more to be there. As I look at those wounded boys, and witness their sufferings, I feel that in decency I ought somehow to lose a hand or a leg."
I shall pause here to insert a chapter of miscellaneous information which I think most readers will not find amiss. But if anyone is impatient to proceed with the narrative, he can turn at once to Chapter VII, and, if he wishes, come back to this later.
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