With the American Ambulance in France
By James R. McConnell
[The Outlook; September 15, 1915]
AN INTRODUCTION BY THEODORE ROOSEVELT
I very cordially call attention to this account of the work of one of the field sections of the American Ambulance in France, told out of his own experience by a young man, a graduate of the University of Virginia, who has been driving an ambulance at the front. The article came through Mr. A. Piatt Andrew, formerly Assistant Secretary of the United States Treasury and for two years treasurer of the American Red Cross. Mr. Andrew has taken an active part in the organization of the work. He writes that several American college graduates are engaged in the field section, and that they and others "have been working for mouths with a devotion and courage which have commanded glowing tributes of gratitude and admiration from many French officers." In a second letter Mr. Andrew states that the faithful Mignot (spoken of in this article) was killed when the Germans bombarded the headquarters of the field section. If any of The Outlook's readers wish to aid in the splendid work of the American Ambulance in France, as I earnestly hope they will, checks may be sent to Mr. Andrew in the care of the "American Ambulance Hospital in Paris," 14 Wall Street, New York City.
Every young man just leaving college---from Harvard, from Yale, from Princeton, from Michigan, Wisconsin, or California, from Virginia or Sewanee, in short, from every college in the country---ought to feel it incumbent on him at this time either to try to render some assistance to those who are battling for the right on behalf of Belgium, or else to try to fit himself to help his own country if in the future she is attacked as wantonly as Belgium has been attacked. The United States has played a most ignoble part for the last thirteen mouths. Our Government has declined to keep its plighted faith, has declined to take action for justice and right, as it was pledged to take action under the Hague Conventions. At the same time, it has refused to protect its own citizens; and it has refused even to prepare for its own defense. It has treated empty rhetoric and adroit phrase-making as a substitute for deeds, in spite of our solemn covenant to see that the neutrality of unoffending nations like Belgium was not violated; our solemn covenant to see that undefended towns there not bombarded, as they have been again and again bombarded in France, England, and Belgium, and hundreds of women and children killed; our solemn covenant to see that inhuman and cruel methods of warfare---such as the use of poisonous gas---were not used, we have, in a spirit of cold, selfish, and timid disregard of our obligations for others, refused even to protest against such wrong-doing, and, with abject indifference to right, the professional pacifists have spent their time merely in clamoring for a peace that should consecrate successful wrong. What is even more serious, we have wholly failed to act effectively when our own men, women, and children were murdered on the high seas by the order of the German Government. Moreover, we have declined to take any effective steps when our men have been murdered and our women raped in Mexico---and of all ineffective steps the last proposal to get Bolivia and Guatemala to do what we have not the manliness to do was the most ineffective.
But there have been a few individuals who, acting as individuals or in organizations, have to a limited extent by their private efforts made partially good our Governmental shortcomings. The body of men and women for whom Mr. Andrew speaks is one of these organizations. I earnestly hope that his appeal will be heeded and that everything possible will be done to continue to make the work effective.
A small field ambulance with a large red cross on each of its gray canvas sides slips quickly down the curving cobblestone street of a quaint old French frontier town, and turns onto the road leading to the postes de secours (dressing stations) behind the trenches, which are about two kilometers distant. The driver is uniformed in khaki, and is in striking contrast to the hundreds of blue-gray clad soldiers loitering on the streets. A group of little children cry out, "Américain," and, with beaming smiles, they execute a rigid though not a very correct salute as the car goes by. A soldier yells, "Good-morning, sir!" another "Hello, Charley!" and waves his hand, while others not gifted with such an extensive command of English content themselves with "Bonjour!' and "Camarade!" The little car spins on past companies of tired, dusty soldiers returning from the trenches, and toots to one side the fresher-looking sections that are going up for their turn. A sentinel stands out in the middle of the road and makes frantic motions with his hand to indicate that shrapnel is bursting over the road ahead. "I should worry," comes from the driver, and the car speeds serenely along the way.
It is an ambulance of the Section Sanitaire Américaine, "Y," the squad that has just been cité à l'ordre de l'armée (honorably mentioned in despatches).
American Red Cross aid for the French army in this war of wars centers in the American Ambulance Hospital, that amazing institution located in the extensive buildings of the Lycée Pasteur at Neuilly-sur-Seine, just beyond the gates of Paris. This war hospital, with its wonderful facilities and equipment; its staff of celebrated surgeons, doctors, and dentists; its corps of volunteer nurses and orderlies; its remarkable cures and far-reaching work, would furnish material for a series of articles, but here I am going to tell only of the life and work of one of its ambulance sections at the front.
In addition to the great sums of money that Americans have contributed to support the work of the hospital, many automobiles have been donated. For the station ambulance work in Paris various sorts are used; but for the most part cars in service at the front are uniformly of a certain very well-known make. They are exceptionally light and powerful. The chassis are fitted with an ambulance body that accommodates three stretchers or allows room for six sitting cases. The result is a very practical and comfortable little ambulance that is especially adapted to conditions at the front. The car can be run off the road to let artillery and other convoys pass, can cross fields, and run up steep and narrow by-paths to inconvenient postes de secours. Section "Y" is supplemented by two very large ambulances.
The drivers of these cars are all American volunteers; young men who, for the most part, come from prominent families in the States. All parts of the Union seem to be represented. The sections are composed of from fifteen to twenty-five cars each, and are under the direction of a section commander. While the cars are allotted to the sections by the American Ambulance Hospital, directed by its officers, and in part supported by the organization, they nevertheless become an integral part of the sanitary service of the French army, to which they are assigned as soon as they enter the war zone. The cars and conducteurs, as the drivers are called, are militarized, and all general orders come from the French medical officers. The French Government supplies the gasoline, oil, and tires, and the personnel of the sections are housed and fed by the army. They are given the same good and generous ration that the French soldier receives. Attached to each section is a French non-commissioned officer who attends to various details and acts as interpreter. Section "Y" is favored by the addition of an army chef, and the section commander's orderly has been put in the general service of all the members.
It is forbidden to give the location of any of the active units of the French army, and as this restriction holds good for Section "Y," which is at the very front, I cannot give any details that would indicate the point in the line where the section is stationed. I believe it is allowable to say that the town is very old and possesses a rare beauty. I have never seen a place that could boast of such a number of exquisite gardens or such a lovely encircling boulevard. The surrounding hilly country is charming and pregnant with the most romantic historical associations. Its reputation as a history-making region is certainly not suffering at the present.
The Americans are quartered in a large building that had not been occupied since the mobilization in August, 1914. There are countless rooms already furnished, and those on the first floor have been cleaned up so that now the section, which consists of twenty-four men, has "all the comforts of home." There is a large mess-hall, kitchen, writing-room, library, general office, dormitory, and a good, generous vaulted cellar of easy access. This last adjunct is important, for the town is one of the most frequently bombarded places in the line, and very often big shells that wreck a house at one shot make it advisable to take to the cave. The atelier of the armurier (armorer's workshop), with its collection of tools and fixtures, now serves as a perfect automobile repair shop. There is also running water, and at first we had both gas and electric lights; but shells have eventually put both systems out of commission. Naturally the telephone line gets clipped every few days, but that is essential, and so it is quickly repaired. Behind the headquarters is a gem of a garden containing several species of roses, and, as fortune would have it, new wicker chairs. At first it all seemed too good to be true. It did not seem possible that such an amazing combination of comforts could exist in the war zone, and still less so when one looked down the street and saw the German trenches in full view on the crest of a hill one thousand four hundred yards distant, where at night rifle flashes are seen. To Section "Y," that had hibernated and drudged along at Beauvais some thirty-five kilometers behind the line until April, it was a realization of hopes beyond belief. Of course, as far as the comforts are concerned, all may change. Any minute orders may arrive that will shift us, and then it may mean sleeping on straw, occupying barns or any available shelter; but while the present conditions obtain we beg to differ with Sherman!
A French motor ambulance section had been handling the wounded of the division to which our squad was attached, and we at first supplemented their work. To start with, French orderlies went out with the American drivers on calls to show them the working of the system, but after two or three days the Americans fell into the work as if it had been a life's practice, and, in spite of a lack of conversational ability, managed to evacuate the wounded without a hitch. The Americans did their work so well that they obtained the entire confidence of the authorities, and in a few weeks the French section was transferred to another post. It speaks very well for Section "Y" that all of the work of one of the most important points in the line was intrusted to it alone.
In addition to the actual carrying of wounded, there is a remarkable amount of detail office work; for every report, request, or order has to be made in triplicate, and it keeps the commander of the section, his assistant, and the maréchaux dés logis, supplemented by a corporal and telephonist, very busy running the business and executive end. Then, in addition to the proper despatching of the regular and special services, there are hundreds of delicate situations to handle; requests of the authorities, the satisfying of numerous officers, and the reception of the various dignitaries who come to visit the much-heralded American Section. It is only on account of the exceptional ability and capacity of our diplomatic commander, "Ned" Salisbury, of Chicago, that the section has been intrusted with such vital responsibilities and that it has been able to perform them with such success.
All the men in the section had been billeted at houses in a town eight kilometers below, where they slept when not on night duty; but when the French section was ordered away, a number of the men elected to move up to the advance point, and were given excellent quarters in the various vacated residences of the town. Why, instead of just rooms they had suites, and the commander has an apartment in the show place of the town. It is surrounded by extensive walled grounds which have been made into a ravishing garden of flowering shrubs and trees; little lily-covered, iris-bordered lakes, masses of roses, beds of poppies, and in one sylvan nook is a flower-covered fountain fashioned of great rough stones whose tinkling waters tumble in glittering cascades between riots of vivid-colored plants and dense walls of variegated verdure. To see our commander sitting in his Louis XV furnished rooms, which, by the way, have an excellent trench exposure, reminds me strongly of those paintings which depict generals of 1870 disporting themselves in the splendor of a commandeered château.
From all the foregoing it must not be imagined that Section "Y" has a sinecure, or that strolling around gardens is a habit. Far from it. The regular daily service is arduous enough in itself, for one is either on duty or on call all of the time; but there are times following an attack when the men rest neither night nor day, when one gets food only in snatches, and frequently days at a time will pass when one is on such continuous service that there is never a chance to undress. Then there is the other aspect, the ever-present threat of being killed or wounded that one is under at the front, for Section "Y" works and lives in a heavily shelled area. But we will not talk of that, for it is unwise to think of such a thing when facing it. There are times, however, when one is forcibly reminded, and when it takes a great amount of will power to remain calm and perform one's duty.
The mention of shell fire to one who has never experienced it brings to mind, in a vague sort of way, an association with danger, but that is all. To us who have seen its effects---the hideously mangled killed and wounded, the agonized expressions and streams of fast-flowing blood, the crumbling of solid houses into clouds of smoke and dust; to us who hear the terrible tearing, snarling, deep roar of great shells as they hurtle down the air-lanes towards us to detonate with a murderous, ear-splitting crash, flinging their jagged éclats for a half-mile in all directions, and sometimes killing French comrades near us; to us who live and work within hell range, not knowing when we too may be annihilated or maimed for life, it seems a very real and terrible menace, and for that reason to be banished from our thoughts.
In spite of the danger, the Americans render their service with fidelity at any and all times. A French captain once remarked that, no matter how much the town was being shelled, the little field ambulances could be seen slipping down the streets, past corners, or across the square on their way to and from postes de secours back of the trenches. I remember one day that was especially a test of the men. The town was being shelled, and it happened that at the same time there were many calls for cars. The Germans were paying particular attention to the immediate surroundings of the headquarters, and the shells were not falling by any time-table known to us. A call came in, and the "next man" was handed his orders. He waited until a shell burst and then made a run for it. Several cars had been out on calls and were due to return. There was no way of giving them a warning. We heard the purr of a motor, and almost immediately the sing of a shell very close to us. There was an instant of anxiety, an explosion, and then we were relieved to see the car draw up in line, the driver switch off his motor and run for our entrance. He held his order card in front of him as he ran. Just as he entered another shell hit near by. It reminded me strongly of a scene in a ten-twenty-thirty martial play. All the hero needed was some fuller's earth to pat off his shoulders when he came inside. There were several entrances of this sort during the afternoon, and one shell, landing just in front of us and nearly on top of a passing motor lorry, resulted in the addition of the French driver and his aid to our little wall-protected group. It was a day when the shelling seemed to be general, for shrapnel and small 77 shells were also bursting at intervals over and in a little town one passes through in order to avoid a more heavily bombarded outer route on the way to the postes de secours. It was magnificent descending the hill from the postes that afternoon. To the left French 75 shells were in rapid action; and one could see the explosion of the German shells just over the crest of the long ridge where the batteries were firing. It was a clear, sparkling day, and against the vivid green of the hills, across the winding river, the little white puffs of shrapnel exploding over the road below were in perfect relief, while from the red-tiled roofs of the town, nestling in the valley below, tall columns of black smoke spurted up where the large shells struck. Little groups of soldiers, the color of whose uniforms added greatly to the picture, were crowded against the low stone walls lining the road to observe the firing and one sensed the action and felt the real excitement of the sort of war one imagines instead of the uninteresting horror of the cave-dweller combats that are the rule in this great war.
It is difficult to take any one day's work and describe it in the attempt to give an adequate picture of the routine of the American Section, for with us all days are so different. The background or framework, the schedule of runs, the points of calling, the ordinary duties, are more or less the same; but the action and experiences, which add the colors, are never alike. There are days at a stretch when the work might be called monotonous, were it not for the fact that there is a continual source of pleasure in feeling that one is being of service to France, and that one's time is being spent in relieving the suffering of her brave wounded soldiers.
Six-thirty is the time for bread and coffee, and the long table in the flag-decorated messroom begins to fill. Mignot, our comrade orderly, is rushing to and fro placing bowls in front of those arriving, and practicing on each the few English expressions he has picked up by association with us. Two men of the section enter who look very tired. They throw their caps or fatigue hats onto a side table and call for Mignot. They have been on all-night service at M-----, the hamlet where the most active postes de secours are located.
"Much doing last night?" asks one of the crowd at the table.
"Not much. Had only sixteen altogether."
"Yes; Fritz eased in a few shrapnel about five-thirty, but didn't hurt any one. You know the last house down on the right-hand side ? Well, they smeared that with a shell during the night."
"By the way," continues the man in from night service, addressing himself to one across the table, "Canot, the artilleryman, was looking for you. Says he's got a ring for you made out of a Boche fuse-cap, and wants to know if you want a Geneva or Lorraine cross engraved on it."
The men in the section leave the room one by one to take up their various duties. There are some whose duty it is to stay in reserve, and these go out to work on their cars. Others are on bureau service, and they remain within call of the telephone. Two leave for D———, a town eight kilometers below, where their job is to evacuate from the two hospitals where the wounded have been carried down the day and night before. This town, too, suffers an occasional bombardment, and wounded are left there no longer than necessary. They are taken to a sanitary train which runs to a little village a few kilometers below, which is just beyond the limit of shell fire.
Sometimes our cars are called upon to evacuate to X———, which is a good many kilometers distant. The splendid road runs through a most charming part of the country. Just now everything is in bloom, and the gentle undulating sweep of highly cultivated fields is delineated by plots of yellow mustard-plants, mellow brown tilled earth, and countless shades of refreshing green, while near the tree-bordered road one can see stretches of waving wheat dotted with the flaming red of poppies and the delicate blue of little field flowers. On those trips it does not seem possible that war is near; but on high, sharply outlined against the deep-blue sky, is a sausage-shaped observation balloon, and looking back through a little window in the car one sees the bandaged and prostrate figures of the wounded occupants.
There are only two cars on service at M——— during the usual run of days, for unless there is an attack comparatively few wounded are brought down from the trenches to their respective regimental postes de secours in the village.
Down the single, long street of this town, which has been changed from a quiet country hamlet to a military cantonment, strolls a motley collection of seasoned soldiers. The majority are uniformed in the newly adopted light bluish-gray; some few still carry the familiar baggy red trousers, black anklets, and long, dark-blue coat with conspicuous brass buttons. The sapeurs and artillerymen wear dull green and yellow splotched dusters that make them almost invisible in the woods and impart the most striking war-working appearance to them. There is the cavalryman in his light-blue tunic with pinkish trimmings, and his campaign cloth-covered helmet, from the crest of which flows a horse-tail plume. Here and there are the smartly dressed officers with their variously colored uniforms designating their branch; but their gold galloons of rank do not show conspicuously on their sleeves now, and the braid on their caps is covered. Some wear the splotched duster which hides their identity entirely, and others are dressed in serviceable thin brown uniforms which bear hardly any insignia. In front of four or five of the low masonry houses a Red Cross flag is hung. These mark the postes de secours where the wounded are bandaged and given to the ambulances. An American car is backed up in front of one, and the khaki-clad driver is the center of interest for a group of soldiers. Some he knows well, and he is carrying on a cheerful conversation. It is surprising what a number of French soldiers speak English and there are hundreds who have lived in England and the States. Some are even American citizens who have returned to fight for la belle France, their mother country. I have met waiters from the Café Lafayette, chefs from Fifth Avenue hotels, men who worked in New York and Chicago banks, in commission houses, who own farms in the West, and some who had taken up their residence in American cities to live on their incomes. It seems very funny to be greeted with a "Hello there, old scout!" by French soldiers.
"Well, when did you come over?" asks the driver.
"In August. Been through the whole thing."
"Where were you in the States?"
"New York, and I am going back when it is over. Got to beat it now. So long. See you later."
A few companies of soldiers go leisurely past on their way up to the trenches, and nearly every man has something to say to the American driver. Five out of ten will point to the ambulance and cry out with questionable but certainly cheerful enough humor, "Save a place for me to-morrow!" or, "Be sure and give mea quick ride!" Others yell out greetings, or air their knowledge of English. "Hello, Chancy!" heads the list in that department, and "Engleesh spoken" runs a close second. Some of the newly arrived soldiers take us for English, and "Camarade anglais" is in vogue; but with old acquaintances "Camarade américain," cried in a very sincere tone and followed by a grip of the hand, has a very warm friendship about it. Yes, you make good friends that way. Working along together in this war brings men very close. You find some delightful chaps, and then...well, sometimes you realize you have not seen a certain one for a week or so, and you inquire after him from a man in his company. "Where is Bosker, or Busker———I don't know how you pronounce it. You know, tall fellow with corporal's galloons who was always talking about what a good time he was going to have when he got back to Paris."
"He got killed in the attack two nights ago," replies the man you have asked. And you wonder how it happened exactly, and what he looks like dead.
Some days it is very quiet up there at the postes de secours---even the artillery to the rear is not firing overhead; and at other times it is rather lively. Soldiers will be sauntering up and down the long street, collecting in groups, or puttering around at some task, when suddenly there is a short, sharp, whistling sound overhead and a loud detonation as the well-timed shrapnel explodes. The aggregation does a turning movement that for unison of motion could not be excelled, and packs against the houses on the lee side of the street. There are some who do not bother about such a comparatively small thing as shrapnel, and keep to their course or occupation. I have seen men continue to sweep the street, or keep going to where they were heading, in spite of the fact that shrapnel whistled in at frequent intervals. I have also seen some of these immovable individuals crumple up and be still.
One evening the firing was so heavy that every one had sought the protection of the walls, when down the street came a most gloriously happy soldier. He was taking on up the street carrying a bottle, and at every explosion he waved his free arm and a wild yell of delight issued from his beaming face. It appeared to entertain him hugely, as if a special fireworks exhibition had been arranged on his behalf. It always seems to be that way. A sober man would have been killed on the spot.
With shells it is a very different story than with shrapnel. One can avoid the latter by backing up against a house, but the shells are apt to push it over on you. When the deeper, heavier whistle of a shell is heard, it sounds a good deal like tearing a big sheet of cloth. Men do not brave it. They know its hideous effects, and take to the nearest cellar or doorway. The first one or two that come in, if well placed, often claim victims. A group of soldiers will be talking or playing cards in front of a house. There is a swish; the shell hits the hard road in front of them, and the jagged éclats rip into the little crowd, sometimes killing three or four of them. The soldiers who find themselves at a greater distance have time to throw themselves fiat on the ground, and it is seldom that the singing fragments do not pass well overhead.
It is quite remarkable that none of the Americans have as yet been hurt at X———, for the evacuation of the wounded goes on regardless of the shelling. Often the escapes have been very close. Just yesterday ten big shells came in, killed six men and wounded forty others, and yet our two cars on duty there escaped without being hit. One day, following an attack, the firing was rather frequent. Nearly all of the ambulances were lined up in the village waiting for the wounded to be brought down. Our commander was talking to one of his drivers when a shell exploded on the other side of a wall behind him. He walked down the street to give instructions to another man. A shell hit the roof of a house there and covered the two with débris. He started to return, and as he passed a certain house a shell went right into it. They seemed to be following him. It frequently happens that an ambulance will be running down the street and a shell hit a house just behind or in front of its course. Now and then one's breath will stop when a car is enveloped in the clouds of dust and débris coming from a shell-hit house, and start again when from the haze the driver emerges dirty but smiling. Of course, the cars have been hit. A shell tore off the front top of one ten inches from the driver's head, but as yet no member of the American Section has been hurt.
A kilometre up the climbing, winding road is a lone poste de secours in the woods just off the highway. The approach and the place itself are often shelled. There have been times when the drivers were under a seriously heavy fire on night duty; times when trees have been shattered and fallen across the road and huge craters made in the soft earth of the adjacent fields. A kilometre beyond is still another point of call, and from there one can look directly into one of the most fought-over sections of ground in the long line from the sea to Belfort. It is a bit of land that before the war was covered with a magnificent forest. Now it is a wilderness whose desolation is beyond description. It is a section of murdered nature. The black, shattered things sticking up out of a sea of mounds were at one time great trees. There are no branches on the split trunks now. No green can be seen anywhere. Where the trenches ran there are but series of indentations, jumbles of splintered trench timbers, broken guns, rusty fragments of shells, strips of uniforms and caps, shoes with a putrid, maggot-eaten mass inside. It does not seem possible that life could ever have been there. It looks as if it had always been dead. What testimony to human habitation remains is but mute and buried wreckage.
This last poste de secours is in the very line of fire, but then there are bomb-proofs near by and one can find shelter. One must be careful running up to this poste, for new and very deep holes are continually being blown in the road and there is danger of wrecking the cars.
Section "Y" has performed its duties so well that the work of an adjacent division has been given to it, and in a few days now the little cars will roll past the last-mentioned poste de secours over to the exposed plain beyond and into the zone of its newly acquired activities.
The American cars literally infest the roads in the day. They buzz along on calls to the postes, return from evacuations, and keep so busy trying to accelerate the work that a casual observer might imagine that a whole division had been annihilated overnight. A car with three stretcher-cases in the back, a slightly wounded soldier sitting on the seat next to the driver, and a load of knapsacks piled between the hood and the fenders, starts down from the poste de secours, spins on through a village full of resting troops, and turns on to the highway leading to the evacuation hospitals at the town eight kilometres below. At first the holes in the walls and houses along the way, and the craters in the fields where the marmites had struck, made one continually conscious of the possibility of a shell. Now one does not think about it, save to note the new holes, observe that the older ones have been cemented up, and to hope that an éclat won't hit you at those exceedingly rare times when a shell bursts ahead or behind. The closest call so far on that stretch of road was when a 210 hit eleven feet to the side of one of our cars, but failed to explode. Of course there is a chance that even at that distance the éclat might take a peculiar course and miss one; but the chances are that if that shell had gone off one of our men would have been minus several necessary portions of his anatomy.
The work at night is quite eerie, and on moonless nights quite difficult. No lights are allowed, and the inky black way ahead seems packed with a discordant jumble of sounds as the never-ending artillery and ravitaillement trains rattle along. One creeps past convoy after convoy, past sentinels who cry, "Halte là!" and then whisper an apologetic "Passez:" when they make out the ambulance; and it is only in the dazzling light of the illuminating rockets that shoot into the air and sink slowly over the trenches that one can see to proceed with any speed.
It is at night, too, that our hardest work comes, for that is usually the time when attacks and counterattacks are made and great numbers of men are wounded. Sometimes all twenty of the Section cars will be in service. It is then that one sees the most frightfully wounded: the men with legs and arms shot away, mangled faces, and hideous body wounds.
It is a time when men die in the ambulances before they reach the hospitals, and I believe nearly every driver in the Section has had at least one distressing experience of that sort.
Early one morning there was an urgent call for a single wounded. The man's comrades gathered around the little car to bid their friend good-bye. He was terribly wounded and going fast. "See," said one of them to the man on the stretcher, "you are going in an American car. You will have a good trip, old fellow, and get well soon. Good-bye and good luck!" They forced a certain cheerfulness, but their voices were low and dry, for they saw death creeping into the face of their comrade. The driver took his seat and was starting when he was asked to wait. "Something for him, " they said. When the car arrived at the hospital, the man was dead. He was cold and must have died at the start of the trip. The driver regretted the delay in leaving. Why had they asked him to wait? Then he saw that the ambulance was covered with sprigs of lilac and little yellow field flowers. The men knew the car would serve as a hearse.
Once an American ambulance was really pressed into service as a hearse in a very touching funeral. A young lieutenant, the son of a prominent and influential official, had been killed in a gallant action. The family had been granted permission to enter the lines and attend the funeral. The young officer, who but a few days before his death had won his commission, was held in the deepest affection by his company, and they arranged that, as something very special, he should have a hearse. A car from Section "3" was offered, and went to the church in the hamlet back of the trenches. The soldiers literally covered the ambulance with flowers and branches, and then stood waiting with the great wreaths they had brought in their hands. The little group emerged from the partly wrecked church, and the flag-covered coffin was slid into the car. The cortège, headed by a white-robed priest and two censer boys, wound slowly down the tortuous path that the troops follow on their way to the trenches.
The mother was supported by the father, a venerable soldier of 1870, who limped haltingly on his wooden leg. Back of the two came the lieutenant's sister, a beautiful girl just entering her twenties. The captain of the company was at her side, then followed other officers, and the silent, trench-worn soldiers behind. The funeral halted on the hillside near a grave dug beneath the branches of a budding apple tree. The coffin was pulled from the ambulance and lowered into the grave. And the mother knelt at the side, sobbing. The old father, who struggled to suppress his emotion, began a little oration. His voice trembled, and when at intervals he tried to say, "Vive la France!" it broke and great tears ran down his face. The soldiers, too, were crying, and the American's eyes were damp. Behind, a battery of 75's was firing ---for on no account must the grim details of the war be halted---and at every deafening shot and swish of the shell tearing overhead the girl shivered, huddled close to the captain, and looked in a frightened way at the soldiers around her. In her small, thin shoes and black wavy dress she seemed strangely out of place in those military surroundings.
The Americans have a faculty of adapting themselves to any service they may be called upon to perform, and many times they undertake on their own initiative various missions that are not in exact accord with their military duties. They very often transport dead civilians after a bombardment. Though nearly every one takes to the caves when a bombardment starts, the first shells that come in frequently kill a number of people who have not had time to get to shelter. In the past few weeks nearly all the civilians have left the dangerous town, and it is seldom now that soldiers and the residents----men, women, and children---are found mixed up in pitiful dead groups.
During one bombardment, some time ago, however, a considerable number of women and children were killed. A couple of the American ambulances were on the spot immediately after, and the men were silently going about their sad work. The little children who cry out to us as we pass were gathered around holding to their mothers' trembling hands. They said, "Américain," when they saw the khaki uniforms, but their tone was hushed and sad instead of loud and joyous, and had a surprised note, as if they had not expected to see the Americans at such a task.
In one place a large crowd of people had gathered around an ambulance in front of a baker's shop. In the upper part of the building was a great irregular hole that included a portion of the roof, and inside the freshly exposed stone rims the interior of a room with shattered furniture could be seen. Below the huge rent on the gray face of the building was the fan-shaped design made by the shell's éclats. On the sidewalk were the bodies of two women and a soldier. A vivid red pool had formed around them and was flowing into the gutter. For some reason the gray dust covering the motionless black dresses of the women seemed to make the picture very much more terrible. The face of one of the women had been torn away, but her hair and one eye, which had a look of wild fear glazed in it, remained. As the stretcher the woman had been placed on was carried to the car a yellow comb fell out of her bloody hair and dropped on the white-shod foot of a young girl standing near. The child pulled up her skirts with a disgusted look and kicked the comb off into the street. It took the Americans a long time to learn the value of prudence. At first during the bombardments they would rush to the street as soon as a shell landed and look to see what damage had been done. Then, when some éclats had sizzed uncomfortably close to their persons, they became a little more discreet and waited a while before venturing out. Ten days ago, during a bombardment with the large 210 shells, a few of the Americans were gathered at the entrance to the courtyard of our headquarters to observe the shells hitting in town. It was all very well until quite unexpectedly one hit the eaves of the building at a point about thirty yards from the group and carried away with its explosion about twenty feet of that part of the structure. Fortunately, the éclat took a high course, but great building stones crashed down and blocked the roadway. The Americans were unharmed save for a thick coating of mortar dust, but that experience has discounted the popularity of orchestra seats during an exhibition in which shells larger than 77's appear.
One of the men was twenty-five yards from a 210 high-explosive projectile when it carved a great crater in the ground and killed two French Red Cross men near him, and he, for one, has no overpowering desire, after that murderous, crushing, breath-taking explosion, for any intimate personal research work into the effects of other large-calibre shells.
Even now the members of Section 3 have much to learn. They still persist in remaining in their chairs in the exposed garden when aeroplanes are being fired at directly overhead, when balls of shrapnel have repeatedly dropped into the flower-beds, and when one man was narrowly missed by a long, razor-edged fragment of a shrapnel shell. And this has not even the excuse of a desire to observe---for the novelty of these performances has long since passed ---and one hardly ever glances upward. They won't even move for a German Taube, though it might at any minute drop a bomb or two. As a matter of fact, however, explosives dropped from German machines are comparatively harmless.
When a certain great stone structure on the water's edge is being shelled, the men off duty adjourn to the shore for the entertainment. They know the various schedules the shells run on, and time their arrival. The German guns firing them are so far off that the report cannot be heard. There is a deep, bass, tearing roar, closely followed by another, for they come in pairs; then two huge columns of water hurtle into the air for a hundred feet, accompanied by two heavy detonations. The bleacher-occupying Americans--- they have installed a bench to sit on---then jump up and scurry for a wall that affords protection against the éclats that sing back from the shells. In a second there is a rush for the hot chunks of metal, while the natives emerge from their shelters to collect the fish that have been killed by the terrific concussion---and fish à la bombardement is served to us the next day!
For some reason or other the German prisoners--- and the Lord knows there are enough of them these days---still remain a subject of humorous interest to the Americans, while the Boches, as the Germans are called, stare at us in wild-eyed amazement, flavored with considerable venom, thinking us British and wondering how we got so far down the line.
No matter how long the war lasts, I do not believe that the members of Section 3 will lose any of their native ways, attitudes, or tastes. They will remain just as American as ever. Why, they still fight for a can of American tobacco or a box of cigarettes that comes from the States, when such a rare and appreciated article does turn up, and papers and magazines from home are sure to go the rounds, finding themselves at length in the hands of English-reading soldiers in the trenches. I never could understand the intense grip that the game of baseball seems to possess, but it holds to some members of the Section with a cruel pertinacity. One very dark night, a few days ago, two of us were waiting at an advanced poste de secours. The rifle and artillery fire was constant, illuminating rockets shot into the air, and now and then one could distinguish the heavy dull roar of a mine or torpille detonating in the trenches. War in all its engrossing detail was very close. Suddenly my friend turned to me and, with a sigh, remarked, "Gee! I wish I knew how the Red Sox were making out!"
Well, there may be more interesting things in the future to write of the Americans serving at the front, and, again, their work may become dull. But it makes no difference to the Section. The men will do what is asked and gladly, for there is no work more worth while than helping in some way, no matter what, this noblest of all causes. One does not look for thanks---there is a reward enough in the satisfaction the work gives; but the French do not let it stop at that. The men from the trenches are surprised that we have voluntarily undertaken such a hazardous occupation, and express their appreciation and gratitude with almost embarrassing frequency. "You render a great service," say the officers, and those of highest rank call to render thanks in the name of France. It is good to feel that one's endeavors are appreciated, and encouraging to hear the words of praise; but when, at the end of an evacuation, one draws a stretcher from the car, and the poor wounded man lying upon it, who has never allowed a groan to escape during a ride that must have been painful, with an effort holds out his hand, grasps yours, and, forcing a smile, murmurs, "Merci"— that is what urges you to hurry back for other wounded, to be glad that there is a risk to one's self in helping them, and to feel grateful that you have the opportunity to serve the brave French people in their sublime struggle.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald