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November


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

Sgt. 1st Class
William D. Conklin

NOVEMBER


(Written at La Forge Farm, between Haraucoort and Angecourt, Ardennes)

November 10, 1918

While I have a possible chance, I must let you know that I am all right, We have had a great experience in chasing the Boches across miles of French territory, They evacuated in such haste, ahead of the big push in which our Division was only one of many, that the Problem most of the time was how to keep up with the glorious procession, In a week we passed through upward of twenty towns, and, I estimate, must have covered about 60 kilos by road and probably 35 or 40 as the bird flies. Though the prospect often seemed poor. I was so lucky as to have a roof over my head every night (or at any rate part of every night). Occasionally there was even a good bunk or a mattress instead of the floor which if dry can be at times as welcome as a luxurious bed would be ordinarily.

For a couple of days our kitchen could not keep up with us, but we missed a meal only now and then, The rear-guard action of the enemy, all that he could put up after being forced off the heights (above the Aisne and the Aire), resulted in keeping us back on several occasions. Two or three times we came near entering a town, Colonel's car and all, before the place had been mopped up, Once at sundown, after dodging shells in a railway cut part of the afternoon, the Headquarters Detachment took to the ties, headed by our two Chaplains (James J. Halligan and Russell G. Nye). We started up the track and across lots toward a village (Oches) where our "P.C." was supposed to be established that night. After we had gone two or three kilos, a machine gun began popping a few yards away, and, not being intended as a combat party, we made a dignified but speedy return, without anybody's giving a command! Those who knew, or thought they did figured it out afterward that the gun was one of our own, but it made a sound like trouble, whomever it belonged to.

At the start of the second phase of the Argonne--Meuse offensive, on November 1st, our Regimental Headquarters was picturesquely established in a big quarry pit at Pylone, about midway between Lancon and Chatel--Cheherys on a cross road through the forest. We had come up to it the day before from Chene Tondu. The great bar-rage that initiated the drive went over our heads in the early morning. Being in reserve, we did not advance till the morning of the 2nd. Our route took us through the Bois de Cornay to Marcq and on to St, Juvin. Near this place we were allowed to build great bonfires at suppertime, because, it was said, the enemy had retreated so far that it would make no difference. We kept on that night to Verpel, arriving in the early morning. I had Captain W's (Wagner's) horse to ride. He and other officers were picked up by a Signal Corps truck, At Champigneulle we took the wrong turn and did not discover the mistake till we got, to Beffu. Between there and Verpel the road was under fire, and between Verpel and Thenorgues the shelling was so heavy that the column was stopped at Verpel and we did not advance till next noon. We found that the Germans had filled the large church with tiers of wire bunks, and took advantage of these.

The next night, after a very trying, rainy march through Thenorgues and Briquenay, was spent in the church at Germont. A double balcony on each side of the interior had been built in the barracks. The walls were decorated with bible texts in German. On the 4th we passed through Autruche, and after failing to get to Oches, spent the night at St. Pierremont. The night of the 5th saw us in La Berliere, having stayed part of a day in Oches. Next we passed through Stonne and La Besace, where the roofs were covered with white flags, and the night of the 6th we spent in Raucourt. On the 7th we reached Angecourt, and there we remained for three days. When the Armistice was signed we had come to a more satisfactory headquarters at La Forge Farm, about half a mile south of Angecourt.

There was hardly a day during our long hike when it didn't rain, more or less, and the mud became one of our worst obstacles. We ploughed or slopped through it, according to the local conditions, and waited indefinitely for a chance to scrape shoes and leggings. That chance came a few days ago when headquarters was established in a large house formerly occupied by German officers. For a Surgeon's office and infirmary combined we were assigned a big room, the most appreciated feature of which was a stove, It also had a look across a garden to the surrounding country, so that we were able to keep a close watch on incoming shells. We had to spend most of our time, however, getting caught up on reports; but when the order came to dive into the dugout there was nothing to do but dive.

The day -we arrived, the Town Major, notified the civilian population, who had been living under German rule for four years, that they must evacuate, since there were allied troops in the town. The Boches had allowed just 2 hours from the time they themselves evacuated, and promised to shell the town at the end of that time if the civilians had not left. When only a few hours of grace remained, the people began to collect their possessions. it was a curious lot of bundles, baskets, packages, and means of transportation, and an altogether pitiful procession that began to straggle back toward towns out of the danger zone. Nearly all the refugees were old men and old women, grandfathers and grandmothers. I saw a few young girls, but only one man under sixty, These people were trying to take with them everything that they possessed, with the exception of furniture. And they had no horses or mules or oxen just baby carriages (those were the lucky ones), wheelbarrows, and great wicker. carriers that they strapped to their backs. You would not believe how heavy some of the loads were.

It happened that quite a few of us had nothing that needed attention just then, and we did what we could to help. Half a dozen German prisoners were brought along and we transferred some big loads from the backs of old women to theirs. Sometimes we saw a wheelbarrow that was not quite full, and by offering to push it, got permission to add somebody else's pack. Two fellows carried a very aged and frail lady the whole distance to her friends in the next town.

Another woman, both of whose feet were malformed, hobbled along alone, at a snail's pace. Another was carrying as necessary to her future happiness half a dozen umbrellas, besides countless other things. Although leaving their homes and much that they valued, these refugees were remarkably self-contained and brave. The only hysteria I saw was at the start, when the order came through that they must go. Then it was the girls who were most excited. As it turned out, I don't think there was a single aged or infirm person that was not looked out for by the American soldiers, and relieved of a load that I think should have killed them. It shows how hardy these peasants are that they should even make the attempt.

One group that stood out from all the rest, and the only one containing a young man, comprised the husband and wife, a baby three days old, and another youngster too small to walk. The father, who looked anything but husky, had fastened a mattress to a large wheel-barrow. On this he had placed the mother and babe, and the small boy, and he was undertaking to push the whole outfit two kilometers over a rough road. They were taking with then, a small supply of food and some clothing. Four of us overtook this strange modern version of the flight into Egypt before the family had gone beyond the town. We "spelled" one another at the handles, two steadying the front of the barrow. At last we saw them all landed safely among friends. They insisted that we should take a can of their precious condensed milk as a souvenir of the incident.

Another interesting experience was that of the preceding night (the 6th). Just as it began to grow dark, which hereabouts, means five o'clock or earlier, we drew in to the edge of a good-sized town (Raucourt), only to be informed of a Divisional order that no troops should be quartered there during the night. They must get such shelter as they could in some shacks outside the town limits and be ready to move out at 6:30 the next morning. This prospect looked rather forlorn, so I insisted on going to the Headquarters and reporting to Capt. W (Wagner)--who very shortly received his promotion to Major. He had got stuck somewhere in the rear, together with the Regimental limousine; but the Adjutant kindly told us to fix ourselves up at Headquarters for the night. It turned out to be a very comfortable place, where we did not hit the hay or a board floor, but real mattresses.

First of all, we were interested in hunting up something to eat. Our rolling kitchens were miles back, and it looked as if we would go to bed hungry unless luck was with us. We heard that the Germans, who had been out of the town only a few hours, had set fire to a great bakery and storehouse. The fire had been brought under control, and a large quantity, hundreds of loaves, of rye broad had been rescued. Two Intelligence Department sergeants and I set out to hunt up the supply. We saw a light in the basement of a house and stopped to inquire the way. The people insisted that we should come in, and they then and there laid out a supper for us, including coffee and bread spread with apple butter and mincemeat, They were eager to show us the gratitude of people released from German bondage, and to tell us about their experiences.

The Boches had taken over their farms and then made the inhabitants work them for a franc and a half (30 cents) a day. This family proved to be one of many ready to give us a cordial welcome

They said that such supplies of good food as they had they owed to the Red Cross. I believe this experience impressed on us as nothing else could how worth while it is to help along the work of delivering these kindly folk from hard masters. After our unexpected Supper, we hunted up the great bakery, and helped to distribute bread to the whole regiment.

The news has just come to us that the German government has until tomorrow noon to decide whether they will comply with Marshal Foch's terms. If they do not give in now, they will find themselves being wiped off the face of the earth. Nothing can stop this advance.

(Written at La Faubourg, on the Mouse Opposite Mouzon)
November 17, 1918

What a grand finish it has been! It is hard to sense the significance of it, just as, for a long time, we could not realize how big the war really was. Of course, at once we wanted to know when we were going home. For the last week we have been alternately throwing up our caps in the prospect of leaving soon, and plumbing the depths of despair at counter rumors, These dark hints indicated that we might remain on indefinitely --to help clean up the front yards and the back yards and become part of an army of occupation. It seems to be pretty well assured now that this Division will not remain any longer than is absolutely necessary, as the President wants the National Army units returned to the United States. Since the 77th was the first such unit sent over, it is reasonable to expect that an effort will be made to get us back soon. But it would be foolish to raise hopes too high, counting on a reunion by Christmas time or anything of that sort. It might come to pass and then again it mightn't.

Perhaps it looks selfish for us to be so concerned about our own movements. We ought to be glad just to have the war over, and of course we are, I guess we really avoid thinking just how thankful we are that the Boche is really fini and that he realizes it. We were ready, if it was necessary, for a push on into German territory (actual Germany) and we had reached a point where shelling would be felt by many German civilian occupants of towns like Sedan. We heard that German women who had come to live in Sedan had made slaves, practically, of all the French women there. I always maintained that Fritz, if it came to a showdown such as the destruction of his own towns, would collapse.

A day after the Armistice went into effect, we started back, stopping for the night in a town (Oches) which we had passed through in the advance only a few days before. Then came an awful blow--another move the next day, but in the wrong direction. We marched partly east, but also undeniably north (to Beaumont). The following day, another hike, still in the wrong direction, accompanied by the rumor that we were to hike all the way to the Rhine, following up the German evacuation. But that is not the present prospect. In fact we wait every hour for orders to march, and we hope it will not be many weeks before we are crossing the Atlantic. It may be that I shall not be able to get mail through from now on, so don't be surprised if you don't hear. I expect there will be a warning whistle from some-where before we get in sight of Old Lady Liberty again.

I hope that the terrible epidemic is under control by now. I am afraid we have been so wrapped up in ourselves over here that we failed to realize what a time you have been having. It is a wonder some such plague has not struck us. The worst thing we have had to stand was prevalent digestive trouble.

I am having a hard time learning to eat sauerkraut. The Germans left barrels of it behind at this place, and the kitchens get the spoils and later we do. We are living in a group of shacks that used to be a German training camp. We have a mess hall that is reminiscent of Camp Upton.

It seems too good to be true that we don't have to put up the shutters any more at night, or avoid striking a match outdoors after dark; and we hope there will be no more hikes at unnatural hours, or tent-pitching on those very frosty nights. For a week there has been no noise more alarming than an explosion of dynamite. Just what this means after six months of bombs and shells I think you may guess.

At 11 o'clock on the 11th I happened to be on the main street of Haraucourt, A town crier was going from corner to corner, gathering a little knot of people each time, and reading off the same notice about the Armistice. The people seemed to take the news very calmly. Probably like us, they were rather skeptical of what looked like more rumors. Or else they had exhausted their stock of emotions. One night without shelling and we would all begin to believe this was something besides a trick. The refugees needed only one such night. In the morning they began to stream back, with all their goods, to Angecourt--the point of our farthest advance.

The name Angecourt, which I suppose, means "Angel Court," I shall always associate with a really diabolical experience. One afternoon two men from one of the companies brought in to us a fellow who, they said, had been acting "queer." They begged us to keep him overnight, and we agreed to let him sleep in the Infirmary. A, casual examination did not show anything wrong. We hunted up extra blankets and bedded him on the floor like the rest of us. In the middle of the night he got up and stumbled headlong over the row of us, and we woke up with a start, supposing that Jerry had come for us at last. We got a candle lit and persuaded our patient to quiet down. It was clear enough from the way he talked that he was out of his head. As soon as the room was dark again, he became uneasy., and we finally had to leave the light, although candles were precious,

We resolved to pack him off in haste in the morning, but as it turned out, we could not get an ambulance till nearly noon. In the meantime, the poor chap led us a lively chase. He had a way of vanishing like smoke when our backs were turned for a moment. Twice I had to hunt through the town for him, The first time I found him without cap or coat, though it was raining, with shoes untied and minus leggings. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he was installed in the ambulance, on the front seat where the driver could keep an eye on him. We didn't intend to have the Division Surgeon hear of a man from the Regiment who had been found wandering about, tagged by us for the hospital!

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