ST. LOUIS GLOBE-DEMOCRAT, APRIL 16, 1919
-THEeIGHTH ARTICLE IN THE SERIES-
Lieut. Darst Describes Heaven as Being Represented by Clean Bed
After Going Through Grime, Hunger and Hell on the Battlefield
"YOU'RE HAULING MEN, NOT FLOUR!" WOUNDED YELL
This is the eighth installment of the James E. Darst story of the Eighty-ninth Division. Mr. Darst, Formerly was night editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. He was Lieutenant in the Three Hundred and Forty-first Machine Gun battalion of the Eighty-ninth, was gassed and wounded, and has been returned to St. Louis as convalescent.
Copyright, 1919, by James E. Darst
When he reached the advance, or mobile, hospital, he was given first treatment, consisting of a new bandage and an injection of anti-tetanus serum. His case was diagnosed and if he could stand moving he was sent to the rear. The plan was always to keep cases moving back to a place where superior attention could be given. The mobile hospitals were usually tents, pitched at night close behind the infantry front lines.
From the mobile hospital, the soldier went to the field hospital, where many operations were performed. If his case were urgent, he would be operated on at once. If not urgent, he would wait his turn to go further to the rear. Workers of the relief organizations would give him chocolate and cigarettes and food. Usually he got a fresh dressing for his wound.
His next step was to an evacuation hospital, located usually fifteen to twenty miles behind the front. There he got his first glimpse of white sheets, a roof over his head and nurses - real, American nurses.
I wish I could describe the sensation a man gets when he comes back from grime and discomfort and hunger and hell to clean sheets and warmth and the ministrations of soft-voiced nurses.
The bumping trip back in the ambulance is not exactly a comfortable ride. You swerve sharply around corners, stop suddenly, dash ahead. The driver is proceeding without lights and you get the benefit of all the irregularities of the road.
AMBULANCE GUESTS YELL PROTESTS
THE inmates of the ambulance give vent to yells as each rough spot jars them and they remind the driver that he is "hauling men, not sacks of flour". Somewhere along the far end of the night the ambulance draws in beside a building that shows no lights. Shadowy forms emerge from the building and run to the ambulance. The doors are swung open and the figures carry the wounded within the building. In the dim light within you can discern rows of stretchers on the floor. In turn these are carried to rooms and the patient is rolled from the stretchers into a regular, a real bed.
Usually the stay in an evacuation hospital did not last more than a week and then the patient was given a place on a train destined for a town, containing a base hospital. These hospital trains were of the French and the American types. Little in the way of praise can be said for a French hospital train. They move and that's about all.On one trip we had a decrepit French soldier for the sole attendant in a car containing about fifty patients. His English was nil and as for us, we had found it hard enough to make our meaning clear in French even we had been in the best of spirits and willing to tackle anything. It was impossible now that we were too sick to think hard. That trip lasted thirty hours and was unspeakable. American hospital trains were all that could be desired in comfort and convenience. The beds were soft and roomy and the meals were excellent. Several doctors and nurses traveled along and saw to the needs of every one.
At the base hospitals patients were assigned to wards. Usually these were low, wooden buildings, grouped around a central administrative building. A base hospital had from twelve to twenty wards. In most cases from four to ten base hospitals were grouped near a single town.
Life in a base hospital was not half bad as soon as the patient got strength enough to sit up and take notice. The Red Cross had the work of providing entertainment for convalescent soldiers and usually provided a theater for movies and amateur theatricals and always a "hut" where a piano and reading matter could be found.
The French towns in the neighborhood afforded mild amusement. The French people were always kindly and considerate, but especially so with wounded Americans. The food in the base hospital was good on the average, and the medical attention naturally of the best, since the best American surgeons and physicians were engaged in overseas work.
This does not mean that everything was perfect. Perhaps the chief evil was the "salvaging" of the property of patients. A man who went to a hospital stood an even chance of losing his valuables. I do not say this from hearsay, nor have I in mind scattered circumstances, but I know it happened in dozens of cases. I know that on my first visit to the hospital I was robbed of money, German souvenirs and a cigarette case. The second time I lost my watch, the only thing of value I had on me, but which I thought would be fairly safe by reason of it being buried in my watch pocket. Almost every soldier who went thought an advance hospital told me of similar experiences.
Hospital orderlies seemed to have a passion to acquire pistols, and the patient who could manage to retain his sidearms was a wonder. This seemed particularly hard because the orderlies did not by any chance need a pistol and the men they relieved of them did need them. I have seen men come back from hospitals and go into action without sidearms because theirs had been taken at a hospital and they could not get another pistol on their way back to the front. A man was trained to get accustomed to one pistol and one rifle, to learn its eccentricities, and allow for them when he used the weapon. This knowledge did not do him much good when the weapon was "lifted" from him on his first trip to the rear.
NOT INTENDED AS KNOCKING
I don't intend this as "muck-raking" and I believe I have the proper contempt for the man who comes back from the army and spends his time knocking. But it is a fact that property did not get sufficient respect in our hospitals. I do not mean that this condition existed in every unit and I know the fault was greatest the front where confusion was most common. But it did exist.
Too great praise can not be given the doctors and nurses who served overseas. Operating teams at the front often worked for thirty hours without rest. When a drive was on and the hospitals were filled all the attendants slaved night and day. Not only do the nurses and doctors deserve credit, but the enlisted personnel, as well. Theirs was a disagreeable, a monotonous life, but they accepted their part with cheerfulness.
Along in October we began hearing rumors a second offensive along the Meuse, and every one began trying to get out of the hospital and back to the front. Finally I learned definitely that the Eighty-ninth had been taken from the St. Mihiel sector and sent into the Argonne.
PERMITTED TO LEAVE HOSPITAL
THE division began to move on October 8 and by October 20 had taken up positions in the Argonne from Bantheville to Landres et St. Georges, relieving the Thirty-second Division. October 26 I finally got an order permitting me to leave the hospital, which was located in Allerey, some sixty kilometers south of Dijon.
Train service out of Allerey was sketchy, and it was not until the afternoon of October 27 that an officer from the Ninetieth and I caught a "flyer" bound north. The train was the All-American, called the "Atta-Boy Special," And was manned entirely by an American crew and boasted an American Diner. The train was duethrough our station at 5 in the morning and arrived a 5 in the evening. That was no record for the "Atta-Boy", however. Sometimes it was twenty-four hours late and the train was dropped for one day.
A journey back to the front has thrills of its own. A man can forget the sound of an approaching shell in a month's time, but he cannot forget what the shell does when it finishes approaching.
War loses its shred of romance after the first intimate view of it. The man who has been over the top is entirely sure that he knows all the sensations and he doesn't expect to feel hugely interested. The novelty has worn off.
You received a new appreciation of the wonderful grit of the English and French when you had been through it. Imagine a man being wounded and patched up five and six times and at the end of the fifth or sixth time going back for more. A man knows his luck cannot last forever, and that perhaps the next time the bullet that grazed an organ will strike the vital spot. A man is constantly living in the shadow of death. The doughboy who fought and endured hardships isn't the man who is saying now he wishes the war had lasted until spring.
We started back to the lines travelling light. We didn't have gas mask, tin hat, or pistol, and had to pick up these articles at engineer depots on the way to the front.
Troops leaving hospitals for the front were sent to depots for assignment. Enlisted men went back in charge of an officer or officers and casual officers took themselves back. Each branch of the service had its depot, its regulating station as it was called, in a different town.
The first big divisional point was the town of Is-sur-Tyl, north of Dijon, and just out of the extreme zone of air activity, perhaps 150 miles from the front. Troops came in here at all hours of the day and night. They were unloaded in the railroad yards and marched to barracks.
RAILROAD YARDS WONDERFUL
These railroad yards were a wonderful spectacle at night. Thousands of cars filled the broad space and fussy little French engines hurried around the screams of their whistles making the night horrible. Long trains, filled to overflowing with doughboys, glided silently into the yards. Hurried orders brought the sleeping men to their feet. In the blackness they would line up and report. Then the men, who probably had ridden twenty-four hours without respite, would file into the Red Cross hut for a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
Giant searchlights sent their rays into the sky, tracing a regular pattern. Now the two shafts of light would meet and work together, now they would dart away, looking always for the hostile plane, striving to reveal its shape to the waiting anti-aircraft gunners below.
It was raw cold those nights in late October. The chill mist would gather around the silent rows of men. Excited French railroad employees ran through the yards brandishing lanterns. Long rows of flat cars would glide past, bearing grim big guns, shrouded in canvas. At times a German prisoner would gaze curiously at the lines of Americans.
At Is-sur-Tyl my companion from the Ninetieth Division, who was in a field signal battalion, was sent back of the lines to Tours, where the Signal Corps had its regulating station. I received orders directing me to proceed to St. Dizier, just back of the Meuse-Argonne sector. At the office I met a lieutenant of my battalion, Lieut. Glen Blair of Colorado. We started back to the front together.
The Eighty-ninth had gone over at St. Mihiel in the Third Corps, but now was in the Fifth Corps, with the Second Division, under command of Maj. Gen. Charles Summerall. Gen. Summerall had gained an enviable reputation as a leader.
The Fifth Corps was forming for what would be the last drive of the war. The Eighty-ninth had cleaned the Bantheville woods and the terrain in the neighborhood of Gesnes and Romagne. For this work, much of which was done by a battalion from St. Joseph and western Missouri, two citations were bestowed on the division. One was from the commander of the First American Army:
Army commander directs you to convey to the commanding general, officers and men of the Eighty-Ninth Division his appreciation of their persistent and successful efforts in clearing the Bantheville woods of the enemy.
GENERAL ADDS CONGRATULATION.
THE corps commander, Gen. Summerall, added:In transmitting the inclosed letter to you, your officers and enlisted men, the corps commander desires to add his commendation to that of the army commander and to congratulate you on the morale and spirit of your division as shown by its recent work.
Gen. Summerall had a reputation of not bestowing lavish praise, and words from him meant all they said. I might add that I personally know the Bantheville woods were as difficult ground as troops ever advanced against, well suited for defense, a jungle of matted vines and steep declivities.
Of course, Lieut. Blair and myself knew nothing of the exact plans of the attack as we went to rejoin our division. We only surmised there would be an attack. Each order we received as we proceeded to the front was sufficient only to cover one lap of the journey, and on arriving at destination we would get an order to cover the next step.
From Is-sur-Tyl, we went to Chaumont, arriving there the night of October 28. Chaumont was the seat of General Headquarters of the American Army. We were forced to spend the night in Chaumont. With the easy friendliness that life in the A. E. F. bred, we had picked up a lieutenant of the Thirty-second Division, who shared our room with us.
I was told a close friend of mine, Lieut. Lee N. Wall of St. Louis, formerly a St. Louis newspaper man, was in his division. When I parted from the lieutenant, I gave him a message to take to Lieut. Wall, and he promised to deliver it. Four months later, when I landed in New York, I learned that Lieut. Wall had been killed July 31 at the Sergy. This illustrates the uncertainty of life in the A. E. F. and the shortage of news concerning comrades you wanted to know about.
The trip from Chaumont to St. Dizier took all day of October 29. We arrived at St. Dizier at dusk and found that our train had pulled down several miles from the station to escape the likelihood of being bombed. We rushed to get a bite to eat and report at headquarters, and when we found the place where the train had been that was all we found; meaning the train had slipped away.
St. Dizier was an important rail center for the handling of troops and supplies to the Argonne front. Lights were not permitted, for the danger of airplane bombing was imminent. It was an unforgettable scene, that crowded, dirty French town, packed with American and French soldiers, jostling each other in the dark and narrow streets.
MOVIE SHOW BIG EVENT
BARRACKS were low wooden buildings nestling close to the railroad yards. Officers drew two blankets each from a dusky orderly and curled up in them to them on mattresses filled with straw. One lone movie show was the big event that evening, and several of us tackled it. The place was packed to the doors and windows with French and Americans of two races. The picture was highly interesting, interspersed with captions in French, but at about the point where the baron was about to pass away we decided that we would beat him to it if we stayed. The air was rich, to say the least.
Travelling out of St. Dizier toward the front was only done after dark, so we were obliged to wait twenty-four hours between trains. Our orders now directed us to proceed to Fifth Corps headquarters at Froidois.
The train we rode out of St. Dizier that night was eccentric, to say the least. Some time about 5:30 in the evening, when it was quite dark, the engine backed a string of some ten third-class French coaches into the yards. Every one found the train as best he could. Sometimes an American "M.P" (military police) would make his guess as to where the train was, and at other times a French switchman would deliver his statement and the recipient would do the guessing.
The train was due to pull out at 6 o'clock, but the word "due" never meant anything to a French train. Somewhere about 9 the ayes must have had it, and the train coughed desperately and started. The trip to Froidois was only about 40 miles, but the train set out with the intention of spending the night at it and it did.
Of course, the train was without heat or lights. Eight of us huddled in a compartment and strove for warmth. We fought for sleep, but the cold and the discomfort of the hard seats made it impossible. All we could do was stare gloomily at the darkness and wonder if the man next was lucky enough to be asleep, and if he were, he would waken if the feet were moved. Then everyone would give up the illusion and move about, and there would be a new deal of the feet, the man who had his "dogs" propped up on the seat in front being required to move them down to the floor.
Someone would stare out the window and imbibe the French landscape that was shuffling by- more dreary now and beginning to be marked with war.
AWAKE ON A SIDING
LATE in the night we must have slept, for dawn found us complacently perched on a siding, movement absolutely extinct. There was no crew on the train except the engineer, and, I presume, a fireman, so we had to take a straw vote and find someone that had been awake several hours. This person informed us that we had passed Froidois about an hour before. This sounded horrible until we remembered that this train didn't cover any vast distances in an hour, and that, in all probability, were only a few miles past our destination. Inquiry of some roving Frenchmen proved this to be true.
We had accumulated gas masks and tin hats, although no pistols, and loaded with accoutrements we started to hike back to Froidois. We had not eaten since early the last afternoon, and the thought of breakfast somehow began to intrude, and from a mere intruder in our thoughts, reached the status of a ruler.
We had determined to abandon such musings when we came into sight of the blessed homely form of a doughboy, lounging at a crossroads. Now, the etiquette of the front permitted any stranded "casual" to get a meal anywhere he found himself. He had the right to drop in at meal time and announce that he was far from his outfit and "chow" and desired above all things to eat. A place always would be made for him.
We asked this doughboy if he had had breakfast and when he had committed himself we insisted we must know where. He pointed to the wisp of smoke coming from a kitchen over the crest of a gentle slope and we found ourselves going that way. The mess sergeant played the genial part of "mine host" to perfection and waved us to a place. Then an angel, disguised as K.P. (kitchen police which is a fairly effectual disguise), brought us a heaping plate of hot cakes and shoved closer a pitcher of syrup. Relays of officers belonging to the company came in and ate with us and then shook hands and left. We believed-rightly enough- that a person never knows when he will get his next meal at the front. The philosophy of the doughboy was to eat all he could when he could, for it might be a long time before he saw food again.
We proved ourselves true philosophers. We shook hands with the mess sergeant and made our way over the hills to Froidois. We found Fifth Corps headquarters in a stone building and turned in our orders directing us there and got new orders. The new orders directed us to proceed to Dombasle, to Eighty-ninth Division headquarters.
WITHIN SOUND OF GUNS
WE WERE now within sound of the guns and the war was coming back to us again. Dombasle was just behind Verdun and in about the center of the positions held by the two divisions of the Fifth Corps at that time.
The Eighty-ninth had cleaned Bantheville woods and was now in positions about three kilometers north of the village of Romagne. Divisional headquarters had been moved to Gesnes and battalion headquarters of the Three Hundred and Forty-first was in Romagne. These places had shortly been taken from the Germans and they knew the locations of all dugouts and crossroads. On October 30 they dropped a 210 millimeter shell in Gesnes and killed 30 men in a mess line.
When we asked for transportation in Froidois they told us to range around town and pick up a truck. We finally found a truck that was bulging with dusky members of a labor battalion going up to repair roads. We wedged ourselves in and the truck lumbered up toward Dombasle.
Dombasle was shattered from German shellfire and littered with fallen brick and plaster. We found that the Eighty-ninth divisional headquarters had been moved to Gesnes. It was now noon and a company of engineers invited us to dinner. Of course we rather put the inviting up to them.
We had to travel the road from Dombasle through Esnes and Malancourt to Montfaucon, and then take a fork to the left that led to Gesnes and Romagne. We "scouted" for transportation and ran into a genial artillery corporal from Oregon who offered to let us ride up with him. Besides us, his truck was to carry dozens of 155 millimeter shell. He told us we probably would have to wait two hours before he could make a start and before that time was up we rounded up an Englishman driving a Ford. Because time was precious and also because a truck load of shell didn't seem too inviting as a vehicle we took the Ford.
We started on the road to Montfaucon about 2 in the afternoon of October 31. The day was clear and cool and the sun bright. The driver was a man of parts and well acquainted with the ground we were seeing. He pointed out the old battleground of Verdun where the crown prince hurled his hundreds of thousands at the French lines; where the French, grim-lipped, died by their war cry, "They shall not pass!" and where the hundreds of thousands melted away into the bloody chaff under the direct and withering fire of the famous 75s and St. Etiennes.
DOUGHBOYS IN FIGHT NOT ONES WHO WISH WAR HAD CONTINUED
"A journey to the front has thrills of its own. A man can forget the sound of an approaching shell in a month's time, but he cannot forget what the shell does when it finishes approaching.
"War loses its shred of romance after the first intimate view of it. The man who has been over the top is entirely sure that he knows all the sensations and he doesn't expect to feel hugely interested. The novelty has worn off.
"You received a new appreciation of the wonderful grit of the English and French, when you had been through it. Imagine a man being wounded and patched up five and six times, and at the end of the fifth or sixth time going back for more. A man knows his lick cannot last forever, and that perhaps the next time the bullet that grazed an organ will strike a vital spot. A man is constantly living in the shadow of death. The doughboy who fought and endured hardships isn't the man who is saying now he wishes the war had lasted until spring."
(The next installment of Darst's story of the Eighty-ninth Division will be printed in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat tomorrow.)
More Stories by James E. Darst