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August


FIRST AID ON FOUR FRONTS IN
WORLD WAR I
308th Medical Detachment
Letters written by,

Sgt. 1st Class
William D. Conklin

AUGUST


(Written at Fere-en-Tardanois., Department of Aisne)

August 12, 1918



I realize that it is longer than usual since you have heard from me, but this letter must nevertheless be short. We have been making a big move, by hike, train, and lorry, and have bean passing through territory that has become historic lately (Chateau-Thierry and beyond). About thirty miles of, this hike I covered on horseback, with most of my pack on the horse instead of on me--a big relief. (This march was from Neuf-Maisons in the Baccarat Sector to Charmes on the Moselle, where we entrained.) The railroad journey was made in good time, about twenty hours; troop trains over here, made up of perhaps forty box and flat cars, do well if they go at the rate of a fast American freight. Ours was quite a sight. Five or six man dangled their legs out of each car doorway, and others stood behind them, all trying to make out from maps and compasses where we were probably going. An occasional flag, and of course our uniforms, showed our identity and brought us a fine welcome all along the line.

For a couple of days after detraining (at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre) we rested in billets in a near-by town (Jouy). They are likely to be our last billets for some time. I was quartered in a high-basement room that looked out on a very pretty private garden, at the end of which was a stream--which signifies to us just one thing, wash. We used to bring our meals back from the kitchen-wagon and eat them in state in the summerhouse, and in the evening a bottle of fine cider was brought out by the lycee professor who lived above us. (He had had to flee from Chateau-Thierry.) He and his wife were anxious to talk about the war and their own experiences. My own efforts to reciprocate were agonizing, but we managed to transmit our ideas successfully by one means or another,

Now, after a long day's ride in French lorries as improvised omnibuses, careening through the country without stopping even at noon, we have arrived where pup tents are the rule, where nothing is to be bought or sold, and where, the supplies not having caught up with us, we wait for all sorts of things, from ink to foods less elemental than hardtack, coffee, and "bully"--yet it is surprising how much one can eat of such stuff when really hungry.

A Paris editorial writer said the other day., at the end of an article, that there were two reasons in particular why we should now be hopeful (he didn't name them), and that there were other reasons which he was, not permitted to divulge. In the same way, I have to be discreet like the rest, and leave till later the most interesting parts of the story. At any rate, I can say that instead of being on our way to Egypt or Palestine or the Philippines, or any of the other spots for which we were destined by rumor, we have arrived in a most interesting region of France. This moving about makes getting mail to us difficult, The only letters I have had in several weeks were two or three that dated back to June 20th. But all of us live in hopes.

(Written at Sergy, Department of the Aisne)

August 30, 1918


I don't know what- to think of it that a letter was not received from me for five weeks, except that possibly some boat may have gone down, That is the only way, perhaps, to account for such a delay. Over here, I did not receive mail for four weeks, but that was due to our change of station, and I knew that eventually it would come in bunches. It had to be brought up over a shelled road; but when it got to us I had a dozen letters at once, then three, and a few days later three more, So I know everything is all right on the other side--up to July 30th. I appreciate all the time and care it takes to keep me so closely in touch with home.

Don't let rumors or purported news worry you in any way until verified by some reputable source of information. A friend of mine in South Carolina wrote he had read of my being "wounded in action." Perhaps the name was similar. It certainly was not mine,, or if so, by error. I think the New York Tines has the most reliable casualty lists, giving name and also name and address of person to be notified. Of course they can't say anything about organizations. This Regiment has been having a taste of real war lately, and I am afraid some rumor may already have alarmed you, without good cause.

Our Medical Detachment boys have been doing themselves proud. I believe that they and the Surgeons have the hearty regard of the Regiment for their work during the last two or three weeks. There is every reason to be proud of the Regiment as a whole. I urged the Captain to let me go up and relieve one of the sergeants in charge of an advanced dressing station but he thought that no one of them needed relief more than the others. I walked over to the nearest aid post several times, on one errand or another. (This was at Les Pre's Farm.) We ourselves worked under, difficulties. The town where we were stationed (Chery-Chartreuve) was a pet- object of enemy shellfire for the week we occupied it, partly because it was surrounded by our own artillery. There were often half a dozen gas alarms at night, usually not false, but hardly necessary. Gas does not spread far be-yond where a gas shell lands, but the signal is passed on from one post to another, far beyond the reach of the gas. We used to duck down into our cellar dugout two or three times in a night, and finally, to avoid being aroused, I moved down with my blankets. Our office was in the more exposed part of a building that was protected by a hill at the rear--or supposed to be. When things became too lively there was nothing to do but quit work while the choice remained, and hop for the dugout between two shells. Sometime I can tell you more details of our experiences. Those days relieved me of any possible reproach as the holder of a "bullet-proof" job, I consider this good luck. I don't want to feel as if I were on a daisy-picking expedition.

After a week it was decided best to move the Regimental Headquarters from this unhealthy town. The Boches helped to bring the matter to a head by registering a direct hit on the Headquarters one noon when I happened to be out to lunch. The shell passed through the Colonel's room, and wracked the intelligence office and the main Regimental office. A clerk sitting at his typewriter (where I had planned to do some work immediately after lunch) was fatally wounded, and a number of others were wounded or gassed. Previously to this, shells had dropped within a few yards of the building. One that landed in the road outside the Surgeon's office sent a shower of splinters in through the window. Another fell across the way in a narrow space between two cottages without touching either. One of these cottages was my billet. During the periodic "strafing" we could look across the valley and see the explosion of one shell after another aimed at our batteries. Boche airplanes came over several times a day, took all the observations they liked, dropping so low we could almost see the pilot, and then made off while a few half-hearted shots fired by (anti) aircraft guns. It needed allied planes to drive Jerry away, and there seemed to be none, either French or American. The desire of certain officers to have their bedding aired, and absurd attempts to beautify the grounds, naturally attracted attention to the Headquarters. Dozens of wires entered the building, and activity was evident. We paid the penalty.

The Y.M.C.A. maintained a canteen in the center of this town until one day a shell dropped on a crowd of men Waiting to get into the building. Another shell smashed our Band instruments--and some of the personnel. A regiment of Engineers moved from one location to another several times, but a hoodoo seemed to follow them. Of course the Germans knew this town as well as they knew their alphabet. The chief road through Chery-Chartreuve was parallel to the front. Being exposed, was under constant observation it was the most available highway for supply trains, artillery, ambulances, and infantry, and more than one outfit came to grief in that neighborhood.

Down this road, at sundown on the day our Headquarters were wrecked, we scuttled as inconspicuously as possible to Chartreuve Farm. This had been considered a restful place, but the night after our arrival was a warm one. Most of us ended it bunched up in a Signal Corps dugout. If there is one branch of the service where the strain is heavier than in any other, it seems to me it is the Signal Corps. I doubt if there is any other job in the whole category of human occupations that requires so much patience as that of operator at a telephone switchboard at the front. Commanding officers frantically trying to get in touch with one another, everything depending; and the most heart-breaking failures to put the message through, Weeping and cursing and gnashing of teeth going on, and the code system complicating the whole matter. Yet I never saw an operator get rattled or ruffled or insolent. Their courtesy and persistence and self- control were amazing. Several times in a night, perhaps, something would "happen" to a wire; then one of the men would start out alone unconcernedly to repair it, as likely as not having to be carried back. They were a sporting crowd.

It was hardly a mile from Chery-Chartreuve to Chartreuve Farm, but the distance was only too long for some of the Headquarters bunch. A shell landed a few yards from the long-suffering mule who was responsible for all the Regimental records. It was too much foil him. He bolted and out of the cart tumbled a field desk which broke open and Scattered papers to the four winds. There was no stopping the mule or the Detachment just then, but later two or three men went back and retrieved what they could. At the Farm, some of us explored upper floors, where there were cots and other comforts, but fortunately we decided to stay nearer the earth. The fellow who was next to me on the ground floor, till I went below, stuck it out- there. The next morning he found a shell splinter beside him. We traced its course down through the roof and two floors. He said he had felt something "tap" him in the night, but didn't pay any attention to it.

The chief architectural feature of this farm was a ruined chateau. Some of the great mirrors and other decorations showed how handsome it had been. There were all the evidences of a once lordly estate-a dancing pavilion, gardens, conservatory, garage, and stables. Somewhat removed was a large tenant house, or manager's residence, facing a great courtyard surrounded on three sides by barns and store-houses. As the bugler was likely to sound "under cover" at any moment., on sighting an airplane, we were supposed never to cross this yard, but always to keep close to the walls, and make the circuit.

In the comfortable manager's house, still intact and well furnished, not only our Regiment but an Artillery outfit as well had a " P.C. "--Post of Command. It was intensely interesting to hear the artillery officers direct the -firing by telephone. One day I was told that the first American gas shells were just going over; that there had been much hesitation about using them, but that it had been decided finally that the only way to fight German gas shells was by retaliating in kind. A little box of a room was assigned the Surgeon for an office. There I sat trying to make out reports while squadrons of Boche flies raided the place. Great big vicious monsters. Between them and the plague of wasps we couldn't even eat a meal in peace; they disputed every mouthful.

Our discomforts seemed trivial when we compared them with conditions existing in Mont St. Martin and Ville Savoye, only a few miles away. Near the latter village, in a big cave facing an exposed road, an aid post had been established., because wounded men had collected in it as a refuge, The medical officers and men in the cave were prisoners for several days, but., with the cooperation of the Ambulance Company, which had several cars wrecked in the effort, they evacuated a number of cases successfully. Several Infantry officers, standing at the mouth of this cave, were killed, among them Captain Belvidere Brooks. After the road had become impassable --it was pockmarked with shell holes--men were carried by litter to Mont St. Martin. In this area the Regiment had its worst experience with gas. A blazing sun beat down on ground untouched by rain for weeks, and horses lay unburied where they had fallen. Altogether it was an unlovely region.

Just now we hear no war like sounds, except at night a barrage of our own guns in the distance. But we are on ground that will always be historic, in a town that they say was taken and lost by the Americans seven or eight times and finally won for good (Sergy), where the fields are full of the biggest shell holes we have seen, and the buildings, especially the church--topped by a fine central tower--are battered from many a bombardment. This church is one of those in which the altar has miraculously escaped injury.

There is an old man who wanders about here, who was caught, together with his family, perhaps not knowing where to take refuge. It is said that his wife and eight of his children died from exposure, and that the only surviving, son is at the front and has been wounded several times. That is what it means to have war brought into a peaceful country. Yet the people begin to drift back even when their homes are in ruins. There are a few women already returned, usually busy at the central "scrubbery," or whatever it may be called--
" Lavoir," they have it in French.

Most of us have taken to the small stream. near by and have accomplished the first scrubbing possible in about a month. There is also a crude shower bath hidden away in a side street, in a shed. Although the water is cold, it is worth its weight in francs. That would be cheap, at present, for we have hard work to spend any money at all. The Y.M.C.A. men are not afraid of shellfire, and their supplies are often brought up under difficulties, but there is absolutely no place here where one can leave a franc on the counter. The Red Cross made us a present of some sweet chocolate the other day, however, and we get our share of the striped red-white-and-blue boxes provided by the various tobacco funds.
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