“WHO the blazes are you? Shut the door!!” It was a cavalier greeting, but a glance around the bare dormitory, gloomy and forbidding in the cold chill of the February evening, afforded ample explanation: a “party” was in progress among the “old birds” who happened to be off duty — a losing fight against the vicissitudes of French war weather — and the icy draught from the entry apparently called for more than mere amenities. We bore up, then, Forbes, Dayton, and myself, and cheerfully joined the group around the feebly inadequate wood stove. Were we downhearted after our three-thousand-mile journey? No! a thousand times, no! But as for stomachs, ah! that was a different proposition! — and it was with joy that we welcomed Delaserre’s hail from below, and followed him out across the yard to a supper hastily thrown together by the inimitable Marcel. Apparently life at the front was not so serious after all.

From first to last, our journey had, to now, shown a France much less war-worn than we had been led to expect. Bordeaux had appeared busy and prosperous, a little subdued in tone, perhaps, and there were more uniforms than one usually sees in peace-time —and more black. But, on the whole, nothing particularly noticeable. Paris was much more changed; there the horizon-blue was everywhere, and ever appeared the mourning and half-mourning of the women. But the shops seemed gay and attractive, loaded with the best and latest of everything, and the streets were full of taxis — madly scurrying taxis — and motors of all kinds. And then, suddenly, one realized that the taxis were all driven by elderly men, that most of the other motors were of army gray, and that the red cross appeared on a large percentage of them.

And at night the streets were dark and forbidding —lights heavily hooded or not burning at all, no strong motor headlights allowed; blinds drawn; theatre marquise lights reduced to a faint blue glimmer; many of the theatres not open at all; restaurants fairly full, but quiet, and closing early. A very different Paris from the gay and brilliant city of peace-times; no longer a cosmopolitan Paris — there are few foreigners in evidence — but a sober Paris of the French. A changed Paris — but not war-worn, in spite of the closed museums and showplaces; in spite of the women conductors of tram and Métro; in spite of the wounded in all stages of convalescence; in spite of the poilu fresh from the front on leave, caked still with the mud of Somme, of Champagne, or of Vosges, helmet on head, stick in hand, just as he caught the permissionnaires’ train, hot-foot from the trenches.

A quiet Paris, a serious, kindly, determined Paris, that takes you in for what you are, not for what it can get out of you — a Paris that has awakened once more to the best of its old traditions, to its duties, to its latent powers — a Paris that one can love as never before.

And then, after getting the necessary papers from the Field Service office at Neuilly and from the Préfecture, etc., after a helter-skelter of outfitting, we found ourselves at last on the long, heavy express for Toul. On we rolled, through town and field and wood, along river and valley; smoothly and comfortably as in any pre-Armageddon journey, till at last we began to pass through the region of the miracle, the Battle of the Marne. But even here the hand of war lay lightly, the scars of trench and shell were healing, and another summer’s growth would soften them to romantic tones and outlines; villages once torn by gun-fire were already rebuilding, and had in no case suffered the withering blast that had since devastated the North; and the simple wooden crosses, dotted thickly along the line of the final victorious stand of France in arms, were quietly eloquent, not so much of suffering and of death as of the great accomplishment: “Here stood, here struck, the soul of France.”

And rolling on — more slowly now, for troop trains, ammunition trains, hospital and supply trains were thick as we approached the front — we passed out of the older battle area and through the untouched fields and villages around Châlons and Bar-le-Duc — switched back and away from and around the guns of Saint-Mihiel, and some three hours late, and in inky blackness, rumbled into Toul. Here was no one to meet us — the telegram announcing our coming arrived later — and for some time we could find no one who knew anything about la Section Sanitaire Américaine; but going ever higher in our canvass of authorities, we reached the Commissaire — the military officer in charge of the entire railway situation at Toul, who not only knew, but considerately supplied an orderly to show us the way to our quarters. And splashing through the mile or more of mud, to the tune now of the sullen pounding of the guns to the north, we reached the Caserne Fabrier, the big artillery barracks of Toul.

We had a chance to see them next morning — half a dozen great four-story dormitories of brick and concrete; simple, but not unattractive in architecture — long, bare, concrete-floored, plaster-walled rooms, with one washroom for each entry on the lower floor — the water running only at stated times during the day. Behind, and across the yard in front, the stable and gun-sheds of the now long-absent batteries, with battery-kitchens and refectories located more or less conveniently to the dormitories; on the far side, beside the gates, the pump-house and tank, and the ever-popular canteen; and in front, the great yard dotted with horse-chestnut trees — very gorgeous later on when in full bloom, and filled from end to end with serried ranks of army wagons, converted Paris busses, great camions or auto trucks, and the long line of our own little ambulances, trig and rakish amid their bigger and clumsier fellows.

Later, in the long evenings, we learned of the doings of the Section since its formation on the 20th of November preceding: of the famous dinner prior to its departure from Paris; of its leisurely progress through the winter-swept country, always expecting orders to the front — always disappointed; of the long stay at Vaucouleurs doing evacuation work among the hospitals of the adjoining towns, and incidentally learning much about the swimming powers of their cars —their “Fording abilities” — over the deeply flooded roads along the Meuse; of the short stay at Lay Saint-Rémy, where some slept in leaky, draught-swept barns, while others elected to live in half-sunk canal-boats, frozen in the ice close by; and of their ultimate and recent arrival at Toul and the beginning of front-line work.

And, of course, being new arrivals, we were regaled with harrowing and hair-raising tales of adventure and hair-breadth escapes — what is the use of being an old hand — or, as our “elders” in the Section called it, an “old bird” — otherwise?

The first few days we were sent out as orderlies to learn the ropes, and then the Chef de Section assigned us our cars and our work began.

S.S.U. 4


FIVE-THIRTY in the dormitory, of an April morning, and ho! for a fine young dawn: the sky, blue behind the occasional flying clouds, shows through the window at my left; the wind, fresh and cold after its all-night sweep across slumbering France, whistles softly through the opened transoms and rustles the cardboard substitutes for broken panes below.

Five-thirty and another day: Rantoul, on the bed next mine, opens his eyes and gazes reflectively at the ceiling; but failing to find there the inspiration sought, he reaches for a cigarette; a leisurely match-stroke, a contented puffing, and the blue clouds drift over me. Why is cigarette smoke—even that of good cigarettes—so particularly nasty to the other fellow when administered early in the morning to one not fully awake? I know not; but, hugely disgusted, I turn over and address myself to yet more slumber.

Six-thirty. Silent as a wraith, Toms slips from his bed and begins his toilet — still no sound save for the faint, musical note of the busy razor.

Silently still, Rantoul finishes his -nth cigarette and rises portentously to a new day’s duty.

Six forty-five. And as Toms turns on the Pathéphone, the quick-step strains of the “Sambre et Meuse” march, favorite of the army, flood the bare-walled room.

“Cut it out!” A sleepy moan from Allen at the other end. “As a matter of fact,” observes Perry philosophically, as he dutifully crawls from his coverings — “as a matter of fact, there is a lack of the true artistic effect. We should waken to soft and dulcet strains —‘Träumerei,’ for instance.”

“Why waken at all, at such an ungodly hour?” comes in Mac’s heavy drawl; “breakfast is n’t till seven-thirty. ”

“Or,” suggests Dayton, “why not hitch an alarm movement to Davis?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry” —mildly from Davis — “was I snoring again?”

This is too much for Schoonmaker. “Perish and die! Were you? Perish and die! — Take a look around your bed at the things we heaved at you! ”

“Don’t ask me,” murmurs Dayton apologetically. “The last thing I remember was Forbes saying, ‘Who’ll have a noggin of rum?’ ”

“See here, feller!” — an explosive from Rockwell. “Don’t ask us to believe that that was the last thing! — Who got the noggin?”

McCall takes up the tale. “Well, you see, it’s like this,” he begins in his leisurely murmur.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” interrupts Cogswell argumentatively — “you were asleep yourself, so I don’t see —” His shirt, just now passing over his head drowns the rest of the remark.

Rantoul comes to the rescue. “Well, that passed off pleasantly!” — and he slips the “Chant du Départ” into the machine.

“She sure functions beautifully,” sighs Doty regretfully. “It’s enough to raise the dead” — and he disentangles himself from a variegated mass of blankets.

“Not enough to raise this corpse,” returns Adamson. “Get up, Stanton!”

“Mais oui! Mais oui! Mais oui!”

“Hell!” from White, who is trying to slumber on peaceably between the two.

Rantoul, in front of the quite inadequate mirror, looks at his glistening chin. “Clean as mice!” he murmurs busily as he puts away his shaving-tools.

By now most of the sleepers have been routed out, and the dormitory empties slowly. Prickett suddenly comes to life. “Barge along out of the way!” he calls, making a sudden dive for his bathtub, and a busy splashing proclaims that breakfast-time is indeed come.

So begins our day, with much of cheer and pleasantry, brought to a focus, naturally, at meal-time. Here, in the cement-floored réfectoire, whose plaster walls are adorned with masterpieces by members of batteries quartered here in peace-time — a picture of the big Toul Butte, Mont Saint-Michel, and a spirited rendering of France urging her batteries to action — here those not on detached duty meet at meal-time, together with Lieutenant de Turckheim, Delaunoy (the Maréchal des Logis) and Delaserre, the Lieutenant’s secretary. And here are circulated the latest news from our front, the most recent canards — usually sufficiently astounding — and here are recounted the latest escapes and escapades of our own fellows. But of the last-named there is little, for it is with a serious purpose of service that the ambulanciers have come to France, and we long since agreed that nothing should be tolerated that would in any way interfere with the efficiency of that service. Close shaves and accidents were to be expected in the line of duty, but it would not look well if at some time a wounded soldier could not be brought in because the ambulancier himself had been killed or wounded while strolling where he had no business to be. And so we “played the game” pretty straight, and as a result were trusted and treated as a recognized part of the Army.

From breakfast we went to the cars, cleaning, adjusting, greasing, and replenishing in readiness for work. The squad on call “pulled out” on its day’s rounds, the relief squads left for the front postes, and the rest, as their duties allowed, returned to the dormitory to read, write, or chat; or, getting special permits, went shopping in Toul, winding up usually, for chocolate and “goodies,” at one of the many pâtisseries of the town. And oh! the luxury of a hot bath after the four days’ duty at the front-line postes! And on Sundays there were movies—the latest New York serial thrillers, and Charlie Chaplin, known here as “Charlot,” and very popular —but too crowded for comfort and we did n’t haunt them much.

Rather, we preferred, as occasion served, to go for long companionable walks over the Toul hills, along the inviting broad canals, across country, stopping for a glass of beer at convenient little inns and canal cafés.

And in the evening we gathered, sometimes in the bureau, more often in the dormitory, reading, writing, playing cards or chess, some around the central lamp, others on their beds, each with his small pigeon, or gasoline lamp, throwing its feeble, uncertain flicker on his work. It was not till well into April that the dormitory became comfortable; all brick, cement, and plaster, it did not keep out the cold, and our only source of heat was a small cylindrical wood stove in one end of the long room. And a limited supply of wood, intensely green and almost impossible. to light, did not go far to make the quarters pleasant.

But we made up in vivacity, perhaps, what we lacked in the good things of civilization; long chats and arguments, stories, songs — Stanton had a guitar, Toms a flute, and I a mandolin, not to mention the ever-present Pathéphone — helped to make the time pass pleasantly; and finally there came that ever-to-be-remembered night, the six-months “anniversary” of the formation of the Section, when “an unexpected guest — a lady ” was announced to the festal and startled gathering. And to the unsuspecting throng entered a radiant being, in dark, neatly fitting jacket, and fine-checked skirt –dainty and complete from the chic little toque and creamy veil to the glistening, well-shaped little shoes — “Jiggleoh” — Lieutenant Harry Adamson, of the Massachusetts Militia, in the best bib and tucker of Madame Roux, our good bath-lady. There was nearly a scandal the next morning, when, dressing him again for his photograph, we took him into the canteen. A Captain, gorgeous in blue and stripes, started over to investigate, but fortunately — or unfortunately — “smelt a rat” in time, and directed his course other whither.

Such was our life in Toul — much of it pretty real and serious, much of it routine — with interludes of pleasant doings, and always with good comradeship on all sides. Now there was a trainload of Verdun blessés to be evacuated, and for several hours the entire Section would work at full pressure; then would come a period of comparative inactivity, brightened in one case by the memorable visit of Sarah Bernhardt to Toul, where she gave to the Army those truly wonderful renderings, “The Cathedral” and “A Prayer for Our Enemies” — a literal and tremendous giving of herself to France. We shall always feel privileged to have heard her there.

But always the great battle raged before Verdun, and when the wind was right we could hear the diabolical, incessant rumbling and muttering of the bombardment -like the noise of a great, distant mill, grinding —grinding — grinding —

And so it was with a feeling of relief that we at last heard that we were to go en repos; to be sure, we regretted in some measure the pleasant life of Toul, but had not Dame Rumor whispered that, after a short respite, we were to play our part in the world’s greatest battle — what was probably to be the turning-point of the war — Verdun?

S.S.U. 4


WE had gone on our first permission — Forbes, Dayton, and myself — when the Section finally left Toul for its few days’ repos. A very wise provision, that of the French army which allows the soldiers six days at home (according to conditions of troop supply and the exigencies of combat), after not less than three months at the front. True, it is not universally possible, and it is not by any means every man who profits; and occasionally, as in the early days of the great attack on Verdun, all leave is suppressed — by division, by corps, or by entire army as the case may be; but, by and large, permissions are the rule and not the exception.

We were allowed eight days, and, as may be guessed, struck Paris in the mood to enjoy to the full the good things afforded by even its chastened war life. No one who has not campaigned can truly appreciate the luxury of a real bathroom, of gleaming table-linen and glistening glass and silver, of juicy steak, delicate liqueur, and good tobacco! Paris, quiet and darkened, was a very whirlwind of gayety after the long days and nights at the front, and it was before that aspect had gone that we separated, Forbes and Dayton for the warmer climate of Nice, while I headed for Normandy and Mont Saint-Michel.

France in spring was very lovely, but nothing to compare with the more mature, richer beauty of France in autumn, as I saw it on my second leave in September when I visited Brittany. On each occasion the train rolled easily and smoothly — despite the heavy drain on railway labor and the increasingly thick war-supplies traffic — through smiling fields and shady woodlands, along waterways teeming with life — war life — dodged around hills and ducked into tunnels — and sped through village and town with the calm disregard of the usual peace-time express.

But there was a difference, noticeable in May, striking in September, and ever more marked as we neared the coast; closer to Paris, the passage of a train was but an incident — in the far places, an event — and ever there was a wide-eyed gathering to watch the train pull in. Would husband, son, or brother come, after all? Or — never — ?

It is with a tightening about the throat that we watch the glad group around the blue-clad figures –and those others, standing off by themselves, silent, drooping a little, perhaps, growing smaller and dimmer as the train pulls us away.

And wherever we went, in city and town and village, women and boys and old men were carrying on the affairs of the community — simply, uncomplainingly, adequately. This was particularly marked in the sardine-fishing fleet of Concarneau with which I spent one full and happy day — boys and old men — old, old men, some of them (to quote from my diary) “grizzled and seasoned and weather-beaten, honest and generous and hearty; well on the shady side, but no signs of discouragement at growing weakness or the fact that they were doing work which ordinarily would be done by younger and stronger men, while they enjoyed a fully-earned easing-off ! — Having bid my convives ‘Au ‘voir,’ I could n’t help feeling the fresher and better for having known them.”

It has been a great privilege to work and live with the real Frenchman —not him of the Parisian boulevards, but the quiet, steady-going fellow who is the backbone of the nation — honest and sympathetic, generous and self-sacrificing.

We rejoined the Section at Roville-devant-Bayon, whither it had come, some days earlier, direct from Toul. The journey had apparently been made without incident, save the passing of a long convoy of T.P. (Transport Personnel) camions, the said passage, under a misapprehension, developing into a wild race, with crowds of blue-clad, dust-covered poilus cheering from every rocking, thundering car as the little Fords crept up and past.

Roville, apparently, was a charming place — when it did n’t rain; but of course it did, most of the time. Still, there were a couple of days of pleasant walks, swims in the “sparkling Moselle,” and pretty runs for the casual sick-cases of the Division. Quarters were in a shed attached to a little inn, the cars parked alongside. Here they were overhauled and painted in readiness for the hard work we knew was to come; and on June 4 we started on the first leg of the journey which we all hoped would bring us to the “big doings,” for the struggle around Verdun was even more intense than ever.

It was a clear, cool day, a joy to be alive, and every minute of that all-day pilgrimage was golden. Through fields of green, jewelled with the white stars of daisies and the scarlet of poppies, through cosy little towns, beaming warmly in the sun — white wall and red-tile roof — under woods that arched tenderly over us, up hill and down, we spun merrily, halting finally for lunch on the tree-lined bank of the canal outside Bar-le-Duc. And then on again, but soberly and sedately now, for we were once more in the area of heavy troop and ravitaillement traffic, arriving finally at our billet, Charmontois-le-Roi. And here, alas, our good fortune deserted us, and for five days we lived in a world of rain and mud — sleeping in our cars, but the rest of the time much bedraggled. But on the 10th we bade the town, pleasant enough under ordinary circumstances, a glad farewell, and rolled to Triaucourt, where we spent one more night in the cars, drawn up along the street.

The 11th was typical of the days for weeks to come — blowing a gale from the southwest — the torn clouds racing overhead like lost souls; now a driving rain, then a sudden cessation, followed by an equally sudden and violent storm of hail —then bright blue sky, in ten minutes hardly a cloud in sight — and after another ten not a patch of blue sky left. Through such a day we chugged a slow and laborious passage, past battalions, regiments, supply trains, guns, what-not — mile upon mile the roads were literally covered with troops of all branches, orderly and earnest; far up ahead, and at last we knew our work. At Ippécourt, so long to be our headquarters, we turned into a narrow little street, and parking our cars against the house fronts, gathered eagerly to hear our instructions.

S.S.U. 4

of the
American Field Service in France




  1. This chapter of WW I is well documented by someone who was there. Good post Vicki.

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