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June


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

Sgt. 1st Class
William D. Conklin
JUNE-JULY


(Written at Girecourt, Yieurthe-et.-Moselle)

June 15, 1918

It bothers me whenever I think of the gaps between my outgoing letters. Perhaps I shall descend to using the little printed British post cards., on which you simply scratch off whatever does not apply to yourself at the moment. We have moved around a good deal, and of course that always means delay on mail, both ways. Since I last wrote we have come a week1s journey by hiking and train to a very different part of France. Before entraining we marched over forty miles, and we were on the train, which part of the time necessarily went very slow, for over two days,

Six of us were so lucky as to have a 3d Class compartment assigned to us, instead of the customary boxcar. This was infinitely more comfortable., and it gave us a chance to see some of the finest of country., especially a stretch along the Seine, at various places we stopped long enough for coffee to be passed out, and once long enough to permit a dash into the middle of a good-sized and attractive town, (This was Yelun. We returned to the train laden with big loaves of crusty bread, and with sardines, sweet chocolate and other commodities calculated to relieve the travel rations of hardtack., bully-beef,, and jam. We rigged up a stove on the floor of the car by piling up tins, and using candles as fuel we heated the "meat and vegetable ration" which when cold is almost inedible.

At night four slept on the two long opposite seats, while the two others, including myself, made our shelter-halves into hammocks and swung all night from the baggage racks. The next morning we were ready to wager that we had slept more comfortably than anyone else on the train. After detraining (at Thaon, Vosges, on the Moselle) came another hike, over a high plateau, with hills in the distance--a region characterized by clear mountain streams frequent patches of woodland, fine farms, and some of the most picturesque villages, I suppose, in France. Apparently the people have been enough isolated to remain very individual, Certainly the architecture is of its own kind. Everything is well kept up--and the people seem to be much more concerned about the appearance of their places, and generally of a higher type, than in the area we came from.

The last night before we arrived in what is for the time being our location., a temporary rest camp, we pitched our tents in a field. An old lady from the adjoining house came by and, perhaps attracted by the Red Cross brassards on our arms and by, the fact that there were only a few in our particular crowd, she showed us an apronful of eggs. That was all the invitation we needed. We proceeded to make arrangements with her daughter for supper, and breakfast also. Both these meals turned out to be all that we could have asked, To be sure the ladies laughed at requests for strawberries and cereal, but we decided that new-laid eggs, French fried potatoes, French toast, coffee and milk and our own marmalade, made up a feast fit for Louis XVI and his court,

We are now encamped in a handsome private park. There are fine great trees and a stream that we had waited for a week as we pushed the kilos under our feet, The water is deep enough for a good bath, though not for diving. There are also plenty of natural wash-boards--so what more could a soldier ask? Across from us is a rambling old chateau, belonging to a noble French family now adjourned to Paris. I had a chance to go through it this morning. It is full of handsome furniture, tapestries, and fittings.

A reaction sets in after one has been marching day after day, and temporarily one has to give up to it and sleep off the fatigue, In one period of thirty hours, including a night's sleep, we did twenty-two miles, which is considerable if one has not become inured to a pack--at any rate under a blazing sun, But I have never had to drop out yet, and some days I have enjoyed it thoroughly.

I wonder if these odds and ends I put into letters sound trivial, or are they expected? We are naturally interested ourselves in the details and small experiences of a new kind of life, As for the reason that "eats" get mentioned so frequently, it must be because a full soldier is generally a contented one. In general, I know it is worth the world to many of us who have always been rather cooped-up and city-civilized to live so much outdoors, with military discipline to counteract the tendency toward complete gypsyism. Now that we are in an essentially American area, everybody seems to be better satisfied, and with good reason.

As soon as the matter can be pushed through, I hope to have a copy of the "Stars and Stripes." the official paper of the American forces (and, I hear, a mighty good one), going home regularly. It will be a reminder at least, and I believe it should contain much news, etc., that will be of interest, I can subscribe for only one,, and only one-third of each organization can subscribe. Otherwise I would send several.

There is a plan, which I have heard about vaguely, to allow soldiers to send short cable messages home., say once a week, at very low rates, enough to give reassurance. We may be able to do this later., and if so I shall take advantage of every chance, unless you would be alarmed by the envelope.

(Written at Pexonne and Bertrichamps, Meurthe-et-Moselle)

June 29, 1918


It was a truly handsome bundle of mail that I got yesterday, after about two weeks wait. Another big batch came to us when we were having a breathing spell of four days in the midst of a change of station. My impression and hope is that I did send off a letter two weeks ago, but I am not sure, There was certainly no time avail-able before and has been none since. The six letters that came yesterday were postmarked between May 30th and June 8th. But this is how things happen in the army: before I could finish reading them came the order, "Get ready to leave at once." We have reached the point where we almost yawn when that sort of performance is required. It happens often. By the light of a candle or an oil lantern we can dismantle our infirmary and have everything nailed., locked, tied, and screwed down ready for transportation in two or three hours. But it takes concentration., especially if one expects a bombardment presently, with a possible gas attack.

We had our first real taste of high explosive and gas shells rather recently, but the "Medical" were provided with a good dug-out--a deep cellar under the building where our equipment had been dumped. In this cellar we slept every night for a week on fine box-spring beds that had been left by some other outfit, and had probably come originally from the fine houses that got pretty well smashed up in the early part of the war. We see very little of aeroplanes lately. (The town here referred to was Badonviller-.unlike Rambervillers, this name apparently does not end in "s.")

I hope I shall remember some of the incidents connected with each place we stop at, when it comes time to trace back our wanderings on the map. At the moment, I am sitting at a school-teacher's desk in a room lined with maps and blackboards, and on the-book-shelves I find "Gulliver's Travels" (in French) and other juvenile classics. Outside is one of the village street fountains that are so common, around the corner is a church possessing chimes and a curious bulbous tower, and near by is stationed an American Field Hospital and Ambulance organization, The streets are full of French and American soldiers. (This was Pexonne.)

(Interim here of a night's march)

By now we are sufficiently used to the hiking to travel as light as possible, but one's physical condition at the time makes all the difference in the world. Last night., for instance (this is now June 30)., 1 was glad enough of a chance to put ray blanket roll on a G.S. (General Supply) wagon. I know what it means to almost fall asleep while keeping on the go; in fact the regular rhythmic marching step has much the effect of a rocking cradle. Twice during ten-minute halts I had to jump up out of a nap., but that was because the day before had been rather strenuous, and we had slept on the boards of a floor the preceding night, upstairs in the schoolhouse,

One hike I don't expect ever to forget; that was nine or ten nights ago. We had been' on the outskirts of a large town for a day, and I had been roaming around like everybody else who could get off, visiting the Y.M.C.A. and shops and ferreting out an old castle and other curious places. About 9 P.M. we started, with the prospect of getting considerably closer to the front before morning. A heavy shower wet us thoroughly soon after we got beyond the town, and we marched along a dark road with communicating files between units, We followed a valley (the Meurthe, from Baccarat) for a few miles and then turned to our left through deep woods. For several miles more the road climbed steadily and it remained fairly good till we had passed the crest and dropped down suddenly into a village (Neuf -Maisons). Then we struck off into a poorer road that rapidly degenerated. The night had become so black that one could not see the man ahead of him--could only follow by hanging to his coat tails. Halting every few seconds, stumbling (and grumbling), we straggled along in as little semblance of a marching column as could be imagined. Yet each of us knew that to drop out would mean that he, and all those behind him, would be lost, temporarily at least. (There are no ambulances solicitously chugging in our wake any more,) As it was, we were pretty sure the whole outfit must be lost. We knew that the line was not far away and that we were taking this round about course to avoid a road that Jerry liked to shell, and also we expected a gas alarm at any minute. The Division we were relieving (this was the 42nd) had been gassed the night before.

Just when there seemed to be no trace of a road or path left, small lights suddenly appeared through the trees. They proved to be candles just lighted in some large board shacks, where the men Who had headed our column were getting ready to turn in. It was only a few minutes-till we had threaded a maze of duckboard walks and been assigned to our own particular shack in this rest camp in the woods (Camp-Ker-Arvor). We had done eleven or twelve miles in six hours. It was 3 A.M. then, and it was 1 P.M. the next day when I woke up!

Now, with our little experience of the trenches behind us, we are inclined to feel like veterans, although the "Medical," being non-combatant, doesn't get the worst of it. I have seen what a front-line trench looks like a few hours after a barrage and a raid and cannot honestly be sorry that we are not likely to be exposed to that sort of mix-up. I would rather run the chances of ambulance work than to endure the trench existence, And yet it is fine to see what a spirit is shown, for the most part, in the Infantry, among these drafted men. Most of the first sergeants and a few other non-coms and privates were in the army before last September, but not many.

The first sentence in the above paragraph would have been worded very differently, later; but it will have to stand. Recalling the Badonviller raid. Captain Miles wrote in his History: "The one figure which most strikingly dominated the whole strange scene was that of Captain Condon, Hatless, his sleeves rolled up, and his arms red to the elbows, he worked feverishly to save the life of every man in whom any life was left." (See also 77th Division Citations.) Well, here we have come "back," for at least a week, I suppose, to a village (Bertrichaas) which we touched on our march into the line. We shall have a chance to get rested and washed, and caught up on our letters, It is a fine place for the purpose. There are plenty of clean barns for billets, so closely connected with the houses that the residents can walk out of their second-floor rooms into the hay- mow. There is also plenty of water. It comes rushing down from the hills and flows constantly into big troughs where the townsfolk take what they want and waste the rest. At a big town down the valley (Baccarat) we can got real hot-water baths at the end of a two-mile walk. We are also promised a new issue of clothing.

The scenery of the region is as pretty as one could ask for. It reminds me a good deal of the Highlands of the Hudson. The civilians (mostly women, of course) have been coming from church this morning, looking surprisingly well dressed. There are a number of children, all togged out in their best. It is odd to hear the French speak of them as "pickanins" --that represents their pronunciation of the word,

Lately we have had no hot weather at all, and we had forgotten how uncomfortable it could be till a little extra warmth brought swarms of big vicious flies; this in the trenches.

I am much obliged for all the offers of things to be sent, but I don't know what to ask for, unless perhaps an occasional magazine that I would feel free to read and leave behind for others, The ships coming over have to be saved for necessary supplies, and as a matter of fact whenever as now we get nearer the shops and the "Y.M." we can use a little of the money that usually hangs heavy in our pockets--for such luxuries as chocolate, crackers, oranges, eggs, etc.

(Written at- Neuf-Maisons.,Meurthe-et-Moselle)

July 25, 1918


Everything has been going well, and quietly, since my last letter. We have a new Regimental Surgeon who in many ways is a good deal like Captain B (Brant) whom I had back in camp. Captain W (Wagner) is a very likeable man, knows exactly what needs to be done, and has a fine executive grasp. We are getting things down to a good system, which has really been impossible before, for various reasons. Set up, as we are now in an office separate from the Battalion infirmaries, we can work to much better advantage.

You need have no fears about my being overworked. As soon as the chance comes to ease up I shall do so. I picked up a paper -covered volume of Howells several weeks ago. Some of these days I shall make a start at it.

The excitement of this evening has been the opening of a new Salvation Army place in town--very attractively decorated with flags, etc., and boasting an orchestra. A canteen, where fresh home-made cookies and doughnuts are sold, draws a crowd ten deep. Two Salvation Army girls, very trim in their olive-drab semi-military suits., help to run the place., which is evidently going to vie with the Y.M.C.A. in popularity.

These two girls, we learned later, saw some very active service with the Division that relieved us, accompanying it from the area. They were sisters and Mt. Holyoke graduates.

We had one real entertainment several days ago. Elsie Janis, who has done more than her part to cheer up American soldiers all through France, came our way for about half an hour one noon. She told some good, fresh, funny stories, sang us some new songs, and did some very lively dancing on an outdoor stage. Altogether she provided the biggest chunk of good fun that we have had since we got to this side.

I thought when I got ready to compile a list of articles not to be had (so far as we could see) in France, and not weighing more than a total of seven pounds, I should head it with a box of real American candy. But this afternoon a good friend of mine in the commissary called me into his sanctum. He had set aside for me (they were not yet on sale) a tin can of McAlpin's Chocolates, direct from the McAlpin Hotel kitchens in New York. So the list of what I want and can't get here may grow smaller and smaller if I give it time. Of course what we all crave most are the homely, homemade, home-grown things that all the paper money in France couldn't buy (except for the S.A. offerings mentioned). But were not pining away by any means, so don't let these remarks worry you.
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