“With the American Ambulance in France”
World War I
By Grenville Temple Keogh
Published Red Cross Magazine, July 1917
I SPENT from Monday, June 26th, until Tuesday, July 11th, in the hospital at Paris.
Tuesday, July 11th.
This morning I left Paris at 11 o’clock on the train for Bar-le-Duc, which is about 30 kilometers from Verdun. I received word before I left that our section had been removed from Verdun and were en repos at a place called St. Deziare, about 30 kilometers behind Bar-le-Duc and therefore 60 kilometers away from Verdun.
When I arrived at Bar-le-Duc there was an ambulance from our section at the station to meet me. I went directly to St. Deziare and found all the section lying around with nothing to do. We expect to remain here for about one more week, doing nothing, and then go up into the Somme where the big offensive is taking place. This is of course not sure yet, and for all we know, we might be sent right back to Verdun again. However, after a good week’s rest we won’t mind much what they decide to do with us. We are all sleeping in an old barn. It would be comfortable enough if it wasn’t for the bugs, but it simply full of them, so we must make the best of it.
We were en repos at St. Deziare from Tuesday, July 11th to Sunday July 16th.
Monday, July 17th. This morning at 5:15 Rogers rushed into our quarters and routed us all out of bed. We were, of course, quite sure that we were to he sent to the Somme, so you can imagine our disappointment and disgust when we were told that we were being moved from our old division and were to leave immediately for Verdun again.
We all got up, and never before have I seen such a sore gang of fellows. Every one placed a different curse on the General’s head; but naturally this did us no good. At 6:15 we left, and arrived at Dugny at our old quarters in about five hours. We found Dugny just as we had left it. The Germans were still dropping 380’s into the town at regular intervals. One shell landed only forty yards away from our base and completely demolished five automobiles. We immediately moved our cars to the other side of town, where we thought they would be safer. Five of our cars went to Cabaret during the afternoon. I was one of the five. On the way we experienced the same old things. The French batteries roared in our ears all the way up, and the German shells kept breaking a great deal too close for comfort. At Cabaret, things were really ‘quite quiet. There were quite a number of shells that broke nearby in the fields, but the poste itself was not being bombarded to any extent. We all brought back a carload of blesse’s and were told that we would not be on duty during the night. We have started a new system now which I – think is very good indeed. Our section of 20 cars has been divided into two divisions of 10 ears each. In this way, unless the work becomes too heavy again, we hope to have each division on duty for 24 hours, at a stretch, and then en repos for 24 hours.
“We found Dugny just as we had left it. The Germans were still dropping 380’s into the town at regular intervals. One shell landed only forty yards from our base and completely demolished five automobiles.
Thursday, July 20th
This morning at 1:30 I left Dugny and went up to Cabaret, where I relieved, with Forbush, who went with me, the two cars which were there. At the time there was a very heavy French attack going on, so our run up was one of the noisiest that I ever made. All along the road the French batteries were firing tire de barrage, and roaring right in our ears. The roads were also very bad with breaking shells, because, naturally, the heavy fire of the French guns called forth much bombarding by the Germans, At Cabaret there were no wounded, and I just had to sit around until 8:30A.M., when I was relieved by two other cars from our section. During the first few hours of my wait, I lay down in the straw on the floor of the dugout and tried to get some sleep. This, however, was out of the question, owing to the terrific noise. At about 3 A. M. I got up and just hung around. The day was just beginning to break, and it was a wonderful sight to see the long trains of artillery passing along the brow of the hill directly behind Cabaret, coming in from their night’s shift. All around Cabaret were situated French ’75 batteries. I went down into the dugout connected with the nearest one of these, and watched it work. It was really a foolish thing to do for the batteries were being bombarded. However, I thought it too good a chance to miss, and I am now very glad that I did it. The lieutenant in charge of the battery gave me little plugs to put in my ears, and mica goggles to keep the powder out of my eyes. He also told me that each time that a gun was fired to rise upon my toes. This stops a great deal of the shock on your ear drums. At about 5 A. M. the sun was bright enough to enable me to take pictures. I got some good views of the guns in action. The lieutenant in command did everything he could to enable me to get the best possible positions and exposures. When I was there behind the guns there suddenly appeared, over the hill in front of us, about 200 Germans who had been taken prisoners during the night’s attack. When they were directly in front of our guns, and about 15 yards off, the lieutenant gave an order for a tire de barrage to be sent off. The gunners responded willingly and showed those Boches some action, the like of which they had never seen before. When the firing stopped, all the Frenchmen stood around and laughingly asked the Germans what they thought of the light artillery work.
The 200 prisoners were then lined up behind Cabaret, where they were to wait for the military gendarmes to escort them to the detention camp. All the French poilus flocked around and cut the buttons off the prisoners clothes for souvenirs. They also took the helmets away from any who had them. I was very much surprised to see how young most of these Germans were. Many of them could not have been more than seventeen or eighteen years old. I got some very good pictures of them when they were all lined up. Finally, the gendarmes arrived and they were all marched off. I then went into Cabaret and had some hot coffee. By this time there were several wounded there; and as soon as the other two cars arrived I left and delivered my load at the base hospital in Dugny. During the rest of the morning I didn’t have any more calls to make.- But during the afternoon I made a tour of a number of the batteries around Tavannes and Cabaret and picked up several wounded.
Friday, July 21st
This morning I slept quite late and got up just in time for lunch. During the afternoon worked on my car. At 8 p. M. Our division again went on call, and Doe Armour and I immediately left for Cabaret, to relieve the two other cars of the other division and to stay until 2:30 to-morrow morning. On our run up, there was not very much firing being done by either side, and it was not until 11 P.M. that the action began. At this hour the Germans launched a very heavy attack on all the positions along the line in our sector. The attack lasted for an hour and was immediately followed by the French counter-attack, in which they regained all the ground that they had lost. This French attack, of course, made thing very uncomfortable for Doc and me, who had to stay in the dugout behind Cabaret. Cabaret itself simply rocked with the vibration and concussion of the huge guns which were firing all around it. The whole country, as far as we could see, was simply a mass of flashes from the French light and heavy artillery. This terrific noise was mingled with the crashing of the German shells, which kept continually breaking on the hill just behind Cabaret. Many times they broke so close that our dugout was sprinkled with belats and pieces of stone. At about midnight there were four men carried in from one of the nearby batteries in a horrible condition. A German gun had found the range of this certain battery, and before they could move it had killed most of the gun crew and wounded nearly all the rest. The doctor in Cabaret (a surgeon) dressed their wounds there. It looked just like the pictures you see in books of a doctor fixing up the wounded in a little dugout. This doctor did all the dressings on his knees because it is not possible to stand up owing to the lowness of the roof. He had on his helmet and his gas mask fastened at his side. During all the dressings the French batteries directly outside the door and all around the surrounding hills kept up a steady roar of tire de barrage. I left Cabaret at 12:30 with my first load and as soon as I had delivered them at the hospital, returned, because we were not to be relieved until 2 or 2:30 A. M. On the trip back and forth I had some quite narrow squeaks. Once a shell broke right in the road about 20 yards in front of me, and before I could stop I ran right into the shell hole, but didn’t break the car at all. However, it gave the blesses a terrible shaking up and they all roared to beat the band! A small piece of the same shell chipped one of my front spokes. At 2:15 A. M. the other two cars arrived and I went straight back to Dugny.
Sunday, July 22nd
This morning I slept until 11:30 and then rolled out in time for lunch. This afternoon our division was still off duty, so I worked on my car and got it in perfect order. After supper at about 8 o’clock, our division again went on duty, and I left right away for Fort Belrupt where we heard there were some blesses. The road up there was very quiet excepting for the French batteries in the woods behind the road, which kept firing a continual tire de barrage. When we got into the tunnel at the fort itself the Germans commenced shelling all the batteries, but very luckily for us refrained from firing on the fort. It was necessary for us to remain in the tunnel for some time, because it would have been absolutely impossible for anything to pass over the road without being hit. However, after about two hours the firing let up and we started off. I was afraid that the Germans might begin shelling again, so I got along as fast as the poor road would let me. On the way down through Belrupt village I saw a battery of armored motor cars, hid in the bushes beside the road and making the most terrible noise. It was the first one of these batteries that I had ever seen in action, and it was very interesting indeed. I arrived hack at the hospital in Dugny with my wounded at about 11:45 P. M. and immediately rolled into bed. I don’t know now at what time I will be called out, but it will very likely be at about 2 or 3 in the morning. These calls are the worst ones we have, because we have to run up to “Berlin” (that is what we call one of our postes, which is situated on the road to Etain). The reason that we call this poste Berlin is because it is only 200 yards away from the German trenches. It is a very dangerous run and also a very interesting one. From the poste (a little dugout) you can plainly see the men firing their rifles from the shell holes out on the firing line. From here we can first see the men wounded; then we can see the stretcher carriers pick them p and watch them carry them over the 200 yards to our little dugout. I have seen all this quite a number of times already, and therefore am not at all anxious to get one of these calls tonight.
Monday, July 24th
All around Cabaret were situated French ’75 batteries. I went down into the dugout connected with one of these and watched them work. The lieutenant in charge gave me little plugs to put in my ears and mica goggles to keep the powder out of my eyes. He also told me that each time that a gun was fired to rise on my toes. This stops a great deal of the shock on your ear drums”
This morning at 2:30 a call came in for two cars at “Berlin.” Bill Seabrook and I were the two first on call, and were therefore the ones sent out. When we left Dugny we could easily tell, by the exceptionally heavy firing, that there was an attack going on. The road after we passed Belleray was as bright as day owing the great number of batteries firing direct over it and to the star-light shells with which the sky was thickly dotted. This did not make any difference to us, until after we passed the hill beyond Cabaret. In fact, it was really a great help. When we passed the top of the hill, however, we came into plain sight of the Germans, and this made it very dangerous. We also came into sight of the whole attack which happened to be taking place around Fleury. It was a magnificent sight to watch. The whole valley was filled with little puffs of flame from the German and French rifles. We had to run down to the Rue de Moulanville, which was only 300 yards away from the lines, and which was therefore very nearly in rifle range. Our blesses were all ready, waiting for us in a little dugout which was at the junction of the roads. I for one was very glad that they were ready, because this was my idea of where “nowhere to hang out.” We got our cars loaded and stated back. Bill Seabrook’s car, which was just in front of mine coming back was struck by a number of eclats. The woodwork on the back of his car was filled with holes, and one of the blesse’s who he was carrying was hit again. He himself was not touched. We arrived backt at Dugny at 5:45 A.M.
Tuesday, July 25th.
Slept until 11:30 this morning. I then got up and immediately after lunch went to “Tilleat,” a French battery, to pick up several men who were wounded during last night’s engagement. It was the quietest run I have made up near the lines since we returned to Dugny just a week ago.
After I had been in Dugny for several hours after returning from the call, an airplane battle took place directly over our quarters. There were four Boche planes, which had flown over the lines and which were undoubtedly flying around behind our lines for the purpose of taking pictures and learning the whereabouts of our heavy artillery. While these four machines were flying around, three French ones rose from the aero-grounds a short Aistance from here and opened up on them with their machine guns. The fight lasted for about an hour and a half before three of the Germans were chased off, and one brought to earth in a sheet of flame.
During the engagement the four planes manoeuvred all around, each trying to get “the position” on the other. Finally all three French planes suddenly swept down (they were above the Boches at the time) and opened up on the enemy with machine guns. One plane (German) crashed to the earth, his gas tank having heen punctured, and set fire to, and the other three immediately fled back toward their own lines. We ran over to the place where the hostile plane landed, and found nothing but a mass of smouldering, twisted aluminum. In the midst of the wreckage was the mangled body of the German pilot.
Wednesday, July 26th
This morning at 1:30 o’clock I left Dugny for Cabaret. when I arrived there, there was a terrible tire de barrage going on. The noise was absolutely deafening. All the hills around Cabaret were as light as day, owing to the flashes of all the guns. Their fire kept up steadily until nearly 3 o’clock, when it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. However, this was by no means the end of the noise. All this heavy firing enabled the Boches to locate the batteries, and when they once got the range the slaughter began. For an hour and a half they kept pouring enormous shells into all the hill-sides. We spent the whole time in an abri, and I never spent such an hour and a half in all my life. We did not know at what minute a shell would hit our dugout and smash it to pieces. However, none even as much as touched it, and when the bombardment ceased our work began.
The slogan of the defenders af Verdun, who resisted the Germans with such success in one of the longest, most stubborn, and most sanguinary combats the world has ever known. It was at the siege of Verdun that Section 8 of the American Ambulance saw continual service under fire from February to September, 1916
Wounded kept pouring into Cabaret from all sides. They, of course, had had no dressings, and therefore the ones who were badly wounded were in a terrible way. Many of these poor fellows had their arms and legs completely shot off. As quickly as they were dressed, we carried them down to Dugny and then returned to Cabaret again for another load. We kept running back and forth steadily until 8 o’clock when we were relieved by Armour and Sortwell. As soon as I arrived at Dugny I tumbled into bed and slept steadily until 2 P. M. During the afternoon I made no calls, but directly after supper a call came, which I answered. I went to Belrupt village and there picked up two soldiers who were to show me the way to the battery, where I was to get my wounded. From Belrupt we went out through a little cowpath leading through the woods. When we came up among the batteries, thing immediately began to happen. All these huge guns were roaring, and this terrific din was mingled with the crashing of the arrivals which were landing all around. Finally we arrived at our battery. It was situated upon top of a cliff, and we had to stop our car down in the gully below. Just as I stopped, there was a very loud crash very close to my car. I thought that it was one of the French guns, but the soldier who was sitting beside me knew better. With one leap, he was out of the car and lying flat on his face under the car. Before I knew what was going on, there was a heavy shower of “eclats” which fell all around me. One large piece of shell casing crashed down through the seat, right where the soldier had been sitting not more than two inches from my leg. I got my wounded loaded and started back for Dugny. I arrived there without further incident at about 9:30 that evening.
Our division is not on call to-night or to-morrow, so I can get a full night’s sleep to-night. By the way, I picked up the piece of the shell which struck my car, to keep as a souvenir.
Friday, July 28th
This morning at 1:30 I left Dugny to go to the Rue de Moulanville. The run up there was really quite quiet, excepting for the continual roar of the French batteries. However, just as we arrived at Moulanville the Germans started an attack. The first warning of this that we got was the flaring up of the red rockets, a signal for an attack. when we saw these we knew that it would be impossible for us to return until after it was over. We therefore ducked down into the nearest dugout and stayed there until it was over, which was nearly an hour later. The whole ground kept vibrating from the continual breaking of the big shells. We knew that we were safe in our dugout unless a shell landed right on top of it; but we were not at all sure that one wouldn’t, because they were breaking all around. My car was standing right out in the open road, and I was expecting to see it wrezked any minute. Luckily, it wasn’t touched by any big pieces, although the woodwork was pierced in several places by small pieces. I found several pieces of shell in my car.
After the Germans finished attacking we left with our load. Before we had gone more than 500 yards the French began their counter-attack. Although we were in no danger from this, I was very nervous because the noise was nearly unbearable. My head was simply splitting, and the blesses in the back of my car were yelling to go as fast as I could. I was certainly glad when I arrived at Dugny again. The blesses shook us both by the hands when we left them, and told us that we had just made a run which no French ambulance would have made, and they said that they sincerely hoped we would stay connected with their division. This, of course, made us feel very well, and felt that we had really helped out, because unless an ambulance went up to this poste there would be no way of getting the wounded down and they would probably have to stay there for days before their wounds were rightly attend to.
Monday, July 31st
There is something in the air, and we are all very worried as to what is going to be done with our section. All day long troops have been simply pouring back from the Verdun front, and others have been passing toward the front to relieve them. The troops going up are all Colonials, darkies, Arabs, Africans, and some of the Foreign Legion. These troops are used solely for the purpose of attacking. They are all equipped with long trench knives, in addition to their regular guns and bayonets. All this seems to indicate that there is going to be a big attack on this front. In addition to all these movements of troops, the General and all his staff, along with the base hospital and all its orderlies and doctors, are leaving Dugny for somewhere else on the front. They are all being replaced by some other division. General Joifre himself was around here with all his staff. All these things are very unusual. The soldiers around here are also worried. They know very well that something is wrong; but what it is, they seem to have no idea.
The reason that we are completely at a loss as to what we are going to do is because we have received absolutely no further orders. Last evening we were relieved from ecir work by another section, and are now doing nothing. If we stick with this division we will undoubtedly leave here to-morrow or the next day. However, there is also some hitch in this idea, because the General and his staff are always the last to leave a place and they have already received their orders, whereas we have received none. We are all certainly praying that they will come quick, because if they don’t it simply means that we will stay here and get mixed up in this attack. If this happens we are looking for a terrible amount of work, because an attack is always sure to bring a large number of blesses.
Monday, August 7th
This morning at 1:30 I was pulled out of bed to go to Cabaret. When I left Dugny the firing was very heavy. When I had passed through the woods just outside of Verdun, the shells began landing all around the road. The French batteries were roaring, and the place was certainly noisy. Just before I got to Cabaret, I was held up by a block of convoy wagons. I jumped out of the car and ran ahead to see what the trouble was. When I arrived at the cause of the hold-up a sight met my eyes which I will not forget for some time. Lying right in the middle of the road was a wagon all smashed to pieces, and beside it four men, simply torn to pieces. One had his head just hanging by a shred, while another had his two legs blown off, just below his waist. The other two were just scattered all over the road. I helped with the job of cleaning away the wreckage and carrying what was left of the bodies into our poste de secours. I then went back and got my ear, and went on poste. The bombardment of the roads kept up all the rest of the night. However, I made nine trips back and forth. This kept me going until 11 A. M.
It is now almost sure that we are to leave here the day after to-morrow for a poste in the Les Eparges district.
Tuesday, August 8th
To-day I had my first real experience with mitrailleuse fire. This morning at about 11 o’clock a call came in for one car up to an advanced poste, to which we had never been before. Fred Forbush was on call, but Mason said that he wanted two men on the car just for safety’s sake, so I went along with him. The poste was situated fully 150 yards in front of Fort Tavannes, and was closer to the lines than any to which we have ever been sent. Until we got up to Tavannes, things went along all right, but as soon as we passed the fort and started down the hill in front, things immediately livened up. The whole side of the hill was covered with puffs of white smoke, caused by the breaking of German shells. We got down to our poste and picked up our wounded. Just as we were going to start, all the men around us began yelling at us to hurry out of the car and get into the dugout. We didn’t have any idea of what was happening until we got into the dugout and heard the mitrailleuse rapid-fire guns, spattering. We could follow the course of their curtain fire from the door of the dugout. It extended for very nearly a mile. From where we were, we could see it coming closer and closer until it passed right over our dugout, and for about 500 yards beyond. It looked as if a slight puff of wind was stirring the trees. The steady rain of bullets shook the trees and completely wiped out all the small bushes. Of course, these small bullets couldn’t penetrate our dugouts, but when we came out after it was all over we found that one of our front tires had been punctured. We fixed it right there, and then came back to Dugny, without having anything more happen. When we were passing Cabaret, on the way down, we were stopped by the doctor, who made us take another blesse who was in a very serious condition. We took him on, but when we arrived at Dugny the poor fellow was dead. It was just as well, however, because he had one arm and one leg shot off and his face was more than half gone.
To-night at supper our lieutenant told us that it would only be a matter of a few days before we leave here for Les Eparges. While there we are going to be situated in a little town named Somme Dieu. He also told us that the work there is a great deal easier than it is here. We will have only one poste de secours to cover. All this work will have to be done at night, because it is quite close to the lines. During the day we will have to evacuate from Somme Dien back. It will, of course, be night and day driving, but from what I hear there are only very few blesses each night, so about two cars a night ought to be able to take care of the work, and these two drivers will be able to sleep all the following day, while the other eighteen cars will take care of the evacuating. Our lieutenant does not seem to think that we will be kept there long, because he says there is no need of such a large ambulance section in such a quiet place. He has already spoken to the officers in command of our division, telling them that we would like to go to the Somme, if possible. They said that if the division goes there we will very likely go with them; but they said that they wanted our section with their division, so we would follow them wherever we went.
NOTE: in January, 1917, Mr. Keogh returned to France to rejoin the American Ambulance and received the Croix de Guerre for exceptional bravery instead of the Medaille Militarie, as stated in the first instalment which appeared in the June issue of the Magazine–The Editors of The Red Cross Magazine.