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Letter from William Conklin-308th Medical Detachment


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

Sgt. 1st Class
William D. Conklin

OCTOBER


(Written at Abri du Crochet- Argonne Forest, in a Former German
Headquarters Called the "Waldhaus Martha")

October 18, 1918


What we had waited for, for many a week--the relief of the Division--has apparently been accomplished at last. At, all events another division (the 78th) did come in and take our place. Just now we are some kilos from the front and not expecting to be sent back right away. If we had been allowed to take a rest when we wanted, it, the work for which this Division is best known would have been done by some other. The Regiment has been doing itself proud. This is apparently known in New York, for Chaplain H (Halligan) had a cable telling about a big celebration that had been held by the (308)th Infantry Association. We still belong to New York by origin, although our replacement troops have come largely from the west and the southwest, some even from California. Of the sixteen who came up together from Georgia (Camp Greenleaf. Fort Oglethorpe) to form the nucleus of our outfit, only two of the Battalion sergeants and myself remain. (The Historical Sketches preceding those Letters say "seventeen.") To be sure, some of the others were transferred before we left camp. Only one officer who came over with us is still with the Detachment, and we hope we shall never lose him, for he is a prince. (Lieut., later Capt., A. D. Morgan.)

I remember the last time I wrote I was in an ex-German dugout. Now here I am in another and here have been several in between. I will try to tell the story from the morning of the 8th in sequence so far as possible.

The lieutenant and I left the concrete dugout and made our way up to the Regimental Aid Post. Here we found that the whole Detachment (or all those available) had been divided into teams and had gone up and across a nearby valley in order to take care of a battalion which had been trapped there for six days, The Boches had worked in all around them, and it was only after a number of attempts that they were rescued from a desperate situation. But they wouldn't surrender, although the only food they had had lately was what little could be dropped from airplanes, The only messengers able to get through were carrier pigeons,

Practically all the survivors had to be sent off to the hospital. Those who were not wounded were so weak from exhaustion that they needed a good long rest. Fortunately a road was found that permitted ambulances to come up within a few yards of the stretcher cases. By packing the cars to the limit, with the less serious cases clinging to the running boards, we got this big evacuating job done by 2:00 in the afternoon. You never saw such a patient crowd. There they sat along the side of the road, wrapped in blankets, each of them looking like a cross between a specter and a hobo, waiting their turn without a Murmur.

We made our way back afterward along a narrow gauge track that the Boches in retreating had tried their hardest to put out of commission. They had left quite a long stretch, however, and along this we pushed a diminutive flat car. On it was enthroned the most chipper stretcher case I ever saw. He was a young fellow, hardly more than a boy, who had been wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans. In their haste they had left him behind. We picked him up and found he had a probable leg fracture and other wounds. He said the Boches had been quite decent to him. Another chap we met had escaped being made a prisoner by playing dead every time a Fritz was near.

Some of our detachment men had been assigned to duty with companies that were caught in the "pocket" and we found the Infantry officers and men enthusiastic over their work. After two of them had been wounded, the others had to keep o the go night and day, scrambling around through the woods in answer to calls for first aid. Our men who have been out with the companies have borne the brunt of things. They have great stories to tell, but they are uniformly modest about their own exploits.

The chief hero of the episode I have related, the battalion commander, had been a Captain for more than a year (since we arrived in camp). For ten days he had been wearing the gold leaves of a major, and the morning the "pocket" was opened, his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel came through in record time from G. H. Q. A very unassuming and kindly man and, I have heard it said, one of the best tacticians in the Division

I spent one night at what was once a large German hospital camp. A railway track runs up to what was probably the receiving station, before one of our shells obliterated it. From here men could be carried farther to the rear, or back again to the front. The main building is on the side of a hill, arranged like a flight of great steps. A long outside stairway connects the rooms on different levels. Concrete and steel construction, the roof carrying a six-foot thickness of the former material, protects it as well as any building could be protected. The rooms opened our eyes to the luxury enjoyed by the German high command. That used by Captain W (Wagner) as an office, and in which I slept one night, the Brigadier general moved into the next day. There were curtains at the windows, a decorative frieze around the wall, framed pictures, fancy electroliers, writing table, bookcase, etc.

If anything, the next place we moved to outdid the other. It resembled a rustic hunting lodge, and apparently had been a Swabian staff headquarters. (It was called "Schwaben Haus") Opposite the fireplace in the dining hall was a large round table anchored in an alcove. I suppose this, and the typically German beer-garden terrace outside, had seen many a royal conference. Two of as found a little white washed room, containing the two comforts of a stove and an electric light, and we made ourselves very cozy. As usual, it was too good to last. The next day we moved, and that night found us in a patch of scrubby woodland (not far from Lancon). Coming to a halt late, we put down. stretchers, and didn't even bother to pitch our shelter tents, The next move brought us to a farm (Malassise Farm; popularly known as "Molasses Farm" ) on the bank of a famous river (the Aisne), Here were the headquarters of several units, including the Ambulance Company which was evacuating for us. We found room, in one of the many buildings. It hadn't much in the way of walls but it did have a fairly whole roof. We screened off one corner with blankets and shelter halves to provide a place where we could light a candle. Until we did this, we used to turn in at about 6:30 for lack of anything better to do. Hare we remained while one of our battalions went up into the line.

When the Division was relieved, we started back, meeting on the way the division ordered to take our place. This always reminds me of Brer Fox descending into the well in one bucket, while Brer Rabbit ascends to light and a cheerful world in the other. The resemblance
Would be stronger if it were not such an ordeal to leave the forward area and got out of somebody elses way,

The division that relieved us, the 78th, did not arrive as soon as expected, but we had our orders to move out. The consequence was that Grandpre, an important objective, which had been taken by the 77th, was reentered by the Germans, and several days later our Regiment, on call in reserve, was ordered to the front in the middle of the night, to support the 78th in its effort to retake the town. Before our men got there the town had been occupied by the 78th and the long hike back was undertaken at once. Pushing through a relief as quickly as possible always entails temporary hardship, I suppose we marched eight or ten miles, mostly in a drizzling rain and in mud up to our ankles. The mud, fortunately while disagreeable, is thin, almost fluid, resembling concrete in the making, and does not make as much trouble as it might. I had put my roll on the Headquarters G.S. wagon, at Captain VP s (Wagner' s) suggestion, so I had only my haversack and belt to carry. With me were five new men who had just core from the States, and were carrying packs that had never been reduced to the minimum that a quick move necessitates. I expected that by the time these packs were soaked through, several of the owners would have given up the effort, but not one of them did. They were game and stuck it out, and were none the worse the next morning. One of them who had never learned to roll a pack properly lost one of a pair of brand new shoes, so the other was left in the ditch! "Exigencies of the Service" will cover this disappearance on the next Quartermaster requisition.

About nine that evening we stopped to bivouac, No shelter was visible, and most of us had just enough energy left to get our tents up and turn in. Others, who lacked the halves to make a whole, built fires and dozed around them through the night. It was hardest on the boys who had just come from some very active work at the front. But I suppose it couldn't be helped. Arrangements usually come from Corps or some other high source and the commander of a battalion, a regiment or even a brigade may have no control over the situation. It did make us disgusted, though, when next morning we found plenty of comfortable shacks in the neighborhood, almost within a stone's throw.

Capt. W (Wagner), Capt. H (Hewey), our chief dental surgeon, a Couple of assistants, and I have now come down to the Regimental Headquarters. It is established on a hillside, with a deep valley below, and woods all around. The foliage here is very heavy and in its autumn coloring reminds me of tree-covered hills in New York or Massachusetts. Such a contrast as it is to the barren wreck of a forest where our drive started--not a leaf on thousands of trees, only jaunt trunks and shattered limbs, and below a tough, almost impenetrable, undergrowth ten feet high and imbedded in mud.

The boys are pretty well cheered up tonight, Several big tents were pitched at a point convenient for the whole regiment, and therein were installed shower baths and all sorts of clothing supplies. We were glad to have a complete new issue, instead of having our duds put through the steam sterilizer (in plain language, the delouser). I don't know that we were in as ragged a condition as once before when I remember seeing a good many men who were more out of their clothes than in them. One of my friends (William Lindorff) was a pretty sad sight the day he was notified that a commission as second Lieutenant in the Artillery had at last come through for him, and he was ordered to Saumur for further training. Fortunately, before descending en route on Paris, he was able to buy a uniform from one of our officers. You can perhaps imagine the difficulties of keeping a division outfitted when it dashes from one front to another.

Here it is within a day of six months since we first found ourselves arriving at "an English port" (Liverpool). Within forty-eight hours we were in France. (A night trip to Dover, few hours there, and we crossed to Calais.) That means that we are due for our first little gold service stripe, a "v" worn on the left arm. In this Division it is rumored that because we have been in the forward areas 120 days without a rest, we shall wear inside the "v" a small silver star. That will make one look quite like an understudy for a brigadier general, (This was only a rumor!)

I should like the "Stars and Stripes" issue of October 11th saved, for reasons that may be clear from reading that issue and this letter.

I am sending the addressed poster for a Christmas package more as a joke than seriously, for I don't know what "you all" could collaborate on sending that I need or that would fit the prescribed- size box. Since this morning, when an American commissary set up a big tent and sold me a shaving brush and a tooth brush. I feel well supplied with necessaries. I had previously salvaged two razors, one straight and one safety. All my handkerchiefs, except the one in my pocket, were deftly carried away early one morning, during the excitement incident to an advance. Perhaps a few khaki colored handkerchiefs and a Prophylactic toothbrush would be as welcome as anything. My wants are few, and if this migration of ours really lands us in or near some civilized spot they will be fewer, if wishes were horses or Huyler's. I'd say make it some of the latter, but under the circumstances they would be about equally transmittable,

Practically all we know regarding peace possibilities is rumor, we surely have Fritz on the run, and I believe the German army knows what is the inevitable end. But the idea of unconditional surrender is a bitter pill for their national pride to swallow. It does not seem possible that they would face another winter. This time they would have no prospect of being allowed to settle down beside a stove to enjoy the long winter evenings reading, with a Mazda, lamp adjusted at the correct angle; not to forget a warm shower before retiring.

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