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September


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

Sgt. 1st Class
William D. Conklin

September


(Written at Chateau du Diable near Fismes on the Vesle)

September 11, 1918

Day be fore yesterday I went over to our Regimental ration dump (At Fismes) and found packages dated at Chelsea Terminal between August 3 and 13. Mail is often brought up with the rations-- distributed as rapidly as possible afterward. Yesterday I made the same trip again to visit the Quartermaster dump and arrange for new clothes for some of us who are not included on Battalion requisitions. The latest good news is that we shall all probably get entire new outfits as soon as the Division is relieved.

We have been having considerable of an experience in the line. That "we" means the Regiment- as a whole. Where I am stationed it has been tame enough. We thought for a while that enemy artillery would be after us (that is, our location), this particular spot having been given up by the Boches only after a hot defense. We are on a height that overlooks a wide --stretch of valley, but there is another hill between us and the present front line. Shells have been dropping in two towns, one on either side of us (Fismes- and Bazoches), but it is
understood that the enemy artillery is retreating. (They took up a strong position on the heights above the Aisne, when ousted from. the Vesle valley)

Occasionally one is treated to the surprise of high explosive shrapnel bursting overhead without warning, and at night others seem to hear shells near enough to worry them. But I sleep soundly. One night jerry came on an old-fashioned air raid such as we learned to know in the spring. He dropped one of his "pills" directly behind us, in some soft ground, and we felt the vibration. But this is of course small business compared to what has been going on a few miles ahead of us,

On one occasion all the personnel stationed at one of our Battalion aid posts left their dugout and went out in the face of heavy artillery fire to take care of the boys and got them down to a sheltered spot. As likely you have read the Boches have been forced out of their trenches into the open at last. This has its advantages, and perhaps some disadvantages. The villages around here are particularly desolate. They have been raked by long-distance fire from both sides, some of them having been taken., lost and retaken several times. (This was particularly true of Fismes. )

Since I last wrote we have moved again (as you may take for granted), first to a certain farm (Chartreuve Farm), where we had spent some time once before, Then, at sundown the next day, in the midst of a regular parade of troops and all sorts of supply trains, the advance of which had at last become safe, we started out to follow up the Battalions. (Through Chery-Chartreuve and Mont St. Martin to Ville Savoye.) We spent part of the night in a barn, and at four in the morning (it is still dark here at that hour) we proceeded along a narrow wood path, crossing a river on a new temporary bridge. One candle kept us from walking off into space; it was passed on down the line, as each of us reached the first plank of the bridge. Finally we established ourselves in a curious chateau, most of which is in ruins, it once had a large conservatory and various odd features, such as a butler's pantry housed in a glass enclosed balcony. It is said to have been the home of an eccentric gentleman who had Monte Carlo interests-- but this may be worth as little belief as most rumors. At all events we are thankful that he provided a basement excavated out of the hill, so that it is well protected on three sides. The fourth. Side, to be sure faces the enemy!

The Chateau du Diable was on the main road from Soissons to Rheims. about half a mile from Fismes. Two fantastic weathervanes, of gigantic size, which had been. shot down, inspired the name "Chateau of the Devil." A large bridge between us and the town, had beer, blown up. Our Engineers
replaced it by a wooden foot bridge.

Everywhere one sees evidences that the Boche intended to make himself very comfortable and at home. The other day I noticed two sewing machines in a wrecked Shanty. I suppose they had kept many a uniform ready for dress parade. The German graves invariably carry the sentiment, "Hier ruhe in Gott, etc." Devout these Huns are, even when they are concocting all sorts of deviltry. They need a particularly German God to look, out for them. (Doubtless they would have returned the compliment.)

After a very dry summer, but with nothing like the heat that you write of having at home, what appears to be a rainy season has at last struck us. The nights are always cool, and we are beginning to wonder what it will be like when December comes along.

You will be amused to hear of one of the expedients I was driven to. Soon after we arrived on this side we were ordered, as I may have written to pack all extra personal clothing and in fact everything 0f our own except toilet articles, and carry with us only the prescribed equipment. The rest was left behind in our blue barrack bags.

One sweater was allowed so I had to choose from among my three; but I smuggled in a knitted helmet, which I wear almost every night. Our packs were supposed to be inspected for unauthorized articles, but they never were, and as for those barrack bags, nobody expects them ever to turn up, As a matter of fact, it would have been out of the question for us to have lugged around all the stuff we brought over with us. A good deal of it, like knitted goods and soap, we had been encouraged to put in. I had used soap flakes so successfully in camp that I put in several boxes. These broke open in transit and the contents sifted all through the bag; then the whole business got wet-- probably fell into the harbor when the ship unloaded-and you can perhaps imagine the condition my duds were in when I unpacked.

But as to my expedient-one day I saw a fellow hang a big brown muffler on the branch of a tree. He had got tired of carrying it on many a hot hike, and decided winter was too far away to bother about; and consequently he was offering it to the first comer. I laid hands on it , and at my leisure devised two handsome sleeves, which I sewed on to my sweater. thereby quite literally extending its usefulness. I had discovered that if one's arms were cold, one might as well be cold all over.

Written at Chateau du Diabe, near Fismes, on the Vesle)

This letter seems to be missing. It was written September 16, just- as we were about to leave the Vesle for the Argonne.

I described a visit made to our Battalion in support, near Blanzy-les-Fismes, a few miles from Chateau du Diable. That afternoon we walked through Perles, which had been entirely destroyed, and had chance to realize the difficulties encountered by our men in driving the enemy back over comparatively open ground, where, however, numberless natural pits gave the Boches a chance to use machine guns and hand grenades. Besides, their artillery had a clear sweep.

Battalion headquarters and the aid post dugout were on a high plateau looking down into Blanzy, and we watched the town being heavily shelled. Here was located the dressing station of the Ambulance Company then evacuating for us, Before our return we visited it to carry a message from the Regimental Surgeon. Most of the rest of the town had been ruined, but the dressing station, although aboveground, had not been touched.

During the afternoon we saw an exciting air battle between several Allied and several German planes, directly overhead, The Boches were driven away, but one French plane had to come down. The aviator, though wounded, made a very pretty landing. Several big observation balloons (French, I suppose) were usually up over the Vesle valley near Fismes, and we saw some very daring exploits of enemy planes directed against them. It was impossible to help admiring the nerve of some of the German aviators. We saw one swoop down to within a few yards of the balloon, set it afire, and dart away before either the aircraft guns or our planes could got him. The balloon observer, in this case, had to come to earth by parachute.

Our Division had just reached the edge of the Aisne, and was fronted by the Germans entrenched on the Chemin des Dames, when we were relieved by an Italian Division. In leaving the area, we passed through Fismes, thereby offering Jerry our whole Brigade as a present, if he had only been equal to the occasion. As it was, he landed a shell in the center of the town, while the traffic was tangled, and our friends the 307th Infantry Medical Detachment were the victims. That bright moonlight night we marched to Vezilly. This was 19 kilometers for those of us from near Fismes, and a good deal farther for the men coming out of the line. Besides, they were exhausted and half-starved from their experience in the advance. If there is one thing harder than any other it is to be "relieved" and have to make a long march in leaving an area,

While the Regimental Headquarters was in the Chaateau du Diable, I made another trip besides that described. Borrowing the Surgeon's horse, I crossed the Vesle valley, passed through Ville Savoye and Mont St. Martin and reached Chery-Chartreuve, where I got, at the Y. M. C.A. as much chocolate and tobacco as the saddle bags would hold. The following day these were sent up to be distributed among our Detachment men, at several aid posts. 'The only exciting feature of the excursion was that I had not yet learned to ride well, and of course I knew that the horse knew that I wasn't used to the saddle. But he was an amiable beast, patient as Job.


Written at Le Rond-Chanp., a Camp near Vienne-le- Chateau, in the Argonne)

September 26., 1918

I don't know just when I shall be able to post this letter, and that may make it out of data soon, but I shall try to get an ambulance to take it. I sent off a card about a week ago by the same means, We have been very much on the move, so much so that the post office has hard work to keep up with us. When I have a chance. I intend to figure out the number of places where we have at least bivouacked for a night--or remained longer. Out of nine nights in succession, since I last wrote, we hiked on five, on another took a lorry ride of over 100 miles, and on three we slept straight through.

That lorry ride was an experience not to be forgotten. You might not think, from the fact that it took us sixteen hours., that we made much speed, but every little while we were held up by an obstruction of one kind or another. We hardly stopped for more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time during the trip, and had to get along on dry rations altogether, When we did strike a clear stretch we went bouncing along over a roadbed that had boon ruined by heavy traffic.

Each lorry was equipped with two long seats, facing each other. They were narrow and seemed to slope toward the aisle, so we had to hold on constantly to keep from being shaken off. Realizing the difficulty of sleep, we sang songs for several hours--all those we could remember. After that several of us, tired out from the preceding night's march, tumbled down among the packs and slept. It was a queer jumble of anatomy and baggage. We were lucky to have only fourteen aboard instead of the prescribed twenty-one, and they were a good crowd,

Intelligence Department men, with three of us from the " Medical"
This ride was from Vezilly, up the Marne valley, through Chalons and Vitry-le--Francois, where we turned sharply left halting finally at Epense, some miles south of Ste, Menehould, just below the Argonne.)

Then for a day and a half and a night and a half, two of our Battalion outfits and we of Headquarters had a very jolly reunion. Of course a long trip such as I have mentioned means a very definite change of location, it may Surprise you, unless you have been able to keep track of my longer journeys, to find that we have been on three different fronts since our original area. Don't suppose, when I speak of a night hike that it means an entire night given up to it. We might pull in at 1:00 or 2:00 or earlier, or else start out before sunrise. Our last long hike, before we "embussed" was one of nineteen kilos, or about twelve miles. This was made rather strenuous by the fact that most of the men were just leaving the line (they had at least 25 kilos to march), and then, too, in order to get well clear of the danger zone as fast as possible, we had to plug along at a fast pace for two hours without a halt.

We got mail, and plenty of it, a couple of days ago, after our transport, which had been carrying it for a week, finally caught up when our American supplementary organizations, such as the Y.M.C.A., are left in the rear, we sometimes have the good luck to strike the French Y.M. (Foyers du' Soldat), as at the roomy and attractive shack where I got this paper (Foyers letterhead). This place had seen French, Italian, and American troops, It was part of a well organized camp in the forest (Camp Croix Gentin), where we found an unusually good infirmary, luxuriously provided with bunks., mattresses, and two electric lights. We could almost imagine ourselves on Broadway,

At present I find myself" writing in a dugout that boasts the best substitute for a plate glass window, one of oiled cloth that lets in plenty of light and yet is opaque and unbreakable. There are shutters to let down at night. The dugout is quite a model of its kind. It backs into a hillside is of stout steel and timber construction, and is protected above by a "four-foot thickness of rocks on the roof. On the central panel of the triple window is a Red Cross and "Posto di Medicazione," besides the name of the Italian regiment originally stationed here. All around us are eaves and dugouts, tier above tier,

All the talk is of hopes that the Boche will have a "ki" prefixed to him before long. If only he could be driven into the earth before winter--or not that exactly, for what vie want most of all is to keep him out of his trenches, in the open. As far as we can tell from newspapers that occasionally drift our way, the Allies in various parts of the world are making magnificent gains. Now comes news of General Allenby's latest conquests in Palestine. I believe it will be only a matter of time till the concerted, drives under Foch's direction will overwhelm the Kaiser or his advisers or bring the German people to a realization of what will happen eventually.
It has been interesting lately to see a good deal of the French colonial troops --black men from the West Indies and from North Africa, the latter resplendent in red fez, They are said to be great fighters.

If my letters are of any Interest, it is because there are such big possibilities in the subject matter. I only regret that I can't write up our experiences as they deserve. A letter is apt to be slip shod, and often it is written under difficulties and with hopes of getting it I nailed before an. order comes to "roll packs." Some of you have spoken of reading letters from Chaplain H (Halligan). He is a man we all think everything of--the best type of young Catholic priest. He is a great worker and very kind hearted and he risks his own safety almost constantly, He has a fund of good humor that never in the least harms his clerical dignity. As for my health at this writing--the mess corporal cries, "How do you do it?" when I show up for a third helping of dinner, even dinner reduced to its lowest terms of Chicago Bully, alias Corned Willy. After all, this maligned food, if sufficiently camouflaged, can be made delicious. And then as to sleep, I can sleep on the ground or anything above it,

This letter was written the day the great Argonne drive started. The Infantry went over the top early in the morning, after the barrage along the whole front had ceased. Regimental Headquarters was advanced on the 28th to La Harazee,

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