Axidava

Under The Croix Rouge

I never expected to drive a motor ambulance, with badly wounded men, down the Champs Elysées. But I did. I have done many things since the war began that I never expected to do;—but somehow that magnificent Champs Elysées—and ambulances—and groans of wounded seemed a combination entirely outside my wildest imaginations.

This was a result of the eight days’ parole, after my release from the Cherche Midi; I was forbidden to write anything concerning my trip to the battle fields.

During those eight days I came to the conclusion that the popularity of journalism in France had reached its lowest ebb. In the ante-bellum days newspapermen were rather highly regarded in the French capital. They occasionally got almost in the savant class, and folks seemed rather glad to sit near their corners of the cafés and hearken to their words. I found that now, in popular estimation, they were several degrees below the ordinary criminal, and in fact not far above the level of the spy. Also the wording of my parole was galling. I could not even write private letters to my family, without first obtaining permission at headquarters of the Military Governor.

We had “run into an important turning movement of troops on that trip to the front” was the final official reason assigned for our particular predicament. We were dangerous; we might tell about that turning movement. Therefore the eight days’ parole.

Nevertheless, for eight days my activities for my newspaper were suspended, and even then the hope of getting to the front seemed more vague than ever. I thought over every plan that might produce copy, and finally I called on the Ambassador—which was the usual procedure when one had an idea of front-going character.

“I am weary of the reputation that has been bestowed upon me,” I told Mr. Herrick. “I am tired of being classified with the thugs and yeggmen. I am tired of being an outcast on the face of Paris. In other words, for the moment I desire to uplift myself from the low level of journalism. I desire to don the brassard of the Red Cross.”

“Yes,” said the Ambassador, “I don’t blame you.”

“All right,” I rejoined, “but as a journalist they won’t have me—unless you give me a bill of health. If you tell them I am not so bad as I look nor so black as I am painted, I stand a chance. I confess frankly that I am actuated by the low motives of my profession. I am first and last a newspaperman and I believe that a Red Cross ambulance may get me to the battle front. However, I am willing to do my share of the work, and if I go into the service with my cards face up and your guarantee—why—”

“Yes,” replied Mr. Herrick. “And that goes, provided you will not use the cable until you leave the service.”

I promised. The Ambassador kept his word. A week later, vaccinated and injected against disease of every character, clad in khaki, with the coveted badge of mercy sewed on the left sleeve, I was taken into the ranks of the Croix Rouge as an ambulance orderly. I remained for two months—first hauling wounded from great evacuation stations about Paris to hospitals within the walls. Most of our wounded went to the American Ambulance, when we broke all speed laws going through the Champs Elysées, en route to Neuilly. Later I was stationed at Amiens with the second French army, at that time under the command of General Castelnau. We slept on the floor in a freight station and we worked in the black ooze of the railway yards. The battle front was still many miles away.

One morning when the weather was bleakest (it was now December) and the black ooze the deepest, and the straw from where I had just risen was flattest and moldiest, I received word from Paris to get back quick—that at last the War Office would send correspondents to the front, and that the Foreign Office was preparing the list of neutrals who would go.

I resigned my ambulance job and took the next train. But I kept my brassard with the red cross upon it. I wanted it as a proof of those hard days and sometimes harder nights, when my profession was blotted from my mind—and copy didn’t matter—I wanted it because it was my badge when I was an ambulance orderly carrying wounded men, when I came to feel that I was contributing something after all, although a neutral, toward the great sacrifice of the country that sheltered me. I shall keep it always for many things that I saw and heard; but I cherish it most for my recollection of Trevelyan—the Rue Jeanne d’Arc and those from a locality called Quesnoy-sur-Somme.

Trevelyan

The orderly on the first bus was sitting at attention, with arms folded, waiting for orders. It was just dawn, but the interior of his bus was clean and ready. He always fixed it up at night, when the rest of us, dog tired, crept into the dank straw, saying we could get up extra early and do it.

So now we were up “extra early,” chauffeurs tinkered with engines, and orderlies fumigated interiors; and the First Orderly, sitting at the head of the column, where he heard things, and saw things, got acquainted with Trevelyan.

The seven American motor ambulances were drawn up with a detachment of the British Red Cross in a small village near B——, the railhead where the base hospital was located, way up near the Belgian frontier. The weather was cold. We had changed the brown paint on our busses to gray, making them less visible against the snow. Even the hoods and wheels were gray. All that could be seen at a distance were the two big red crosses blinking like a pair of eyes on the back canvas flaps. The American cars were light and fast and could scurry back out of shell range quicker than big lumbering ambulances—of which there was a plenty. Therefore we were in demand. The morning that the First Orderly met Trevelyan our squad commander was in conference with the fat major of the Royal Army Medical Corps concerning the strenuous business of the day.

Both the First Orderly and Trevelyan were Somebodys. It was apparent. It was their caste that attracted them to each other. The First Orderly was a prominent figure in the Paris American colony; he knew the best people on both sides of the Atlantic. Now he was an orderly on an ambulance because he wanted to see some of the war. He wanted to do something in the war. There were many like him—neutrals in the ranks of the Croix Rouge.

The detachment of the Royal Army Medical Corps to which Trevelyan belonged arrived late one night and were billeted in a barn. The American corps were in the school house, sleeping in straw on the wood floor. A small evacuation hospital was near where the wounded from the field hospitals were patched up a little before we took them for a long ambulance haul.

Trevelyan was only an orderly. The American corps found this “quaint,” as Trevelyan himself would have said. For the orderly of the medical corps corresponds to the “ranker” of the army. In this war, at a time when officers were the crying demand, the gentlemen rankers had almost disappeared. Among the American volunteers, being the squad commander was somewhat a matter of choice and of mechanical knowledge of our cars. We all stood on an equal footing. But Trevelyan was simply classed as a “Tommy,” so far as his medical officers were concerned.

So he showed a disposition to chum with us. He gravitated more particularly to the First Orderly, who reported to the chauffeur of the second bus that Trevelyan had a most comprehensive understanding of the war; that he had also a keen knowledge of medicine and surgery, with which the First Orderly had himself tinkered.

They discussed the value of the war in several branches of surgery. The chauffeur of the second bus heard Trevelyan expounding to the First Orderly on the precious knowledge derived by the great hospital surgeons in Paris and London from the great numbers of thigh fractures coming in—how amputations were becoming always fewer—the men walked again, though one leg might be shorter.

Trevelyan, in his well fitting khaki uniform, seemed from the same mold as hundreds of clean built Englishmen; lean face, blond hair. His accent was faultlessly upper class. The letter “g” did not occur as a terminating consonant in his conversation. The adjectives “rippin'” or “rotten” conveyed his sentiments one way or the other. His hand clasp was firm, his eye direct and blue. He was a chap you liked.

At our midday meal, which was served apart for the American contingent, the First Orderly asked the corps what they thought of Trevelyan. “I’ve lived three years in England,” said the chauffeur of the second bus, “and this fellow seems to have far less ‘side’ than most of his class.”

The First Orderly explained that this was because Trevelyan had become cosmopolitan—traveled a lot, spoke French and Spanish and understood Italian, whereas most Englishmen scorned to learn any “foreign” tongue.

“Why isn’t he in a regiment—he’s so superior!” wondered the chauffeur of the second bus. The First Orderly maintained stoutly that there was some good reason, perhaps family trouble, why his new friend was just a common orderly—like himself.

The entire column was then ordered out. They hauled wounded from the field hospitals to the evacuation camp until nightfall. After dusk they made several trips almost to the trenches. But there were fewer wounded than usual. The cold had lessened the infantry attacks, though the artillery constantly thundered, especially at nightfall.

New orders came in. They were:—Everything ready always for a possible quick advance into L——, which was then an advance post. An important redistribution of General French’s “contemptible little army” was hoped for. At coffee next morning our squad commander, after his customary talk with the fat major, admonished us to have little to say concerning our affairs—that talk was a useless adjunct to war.

That day again the First Orderly’s dinner conversation was of Trevelyan. Their conversation of that morning had gotten away from armies and surgeons and embraced art people, which were the First Orderly’s forte. People were his hobby but he knew a lot about art. This knowledge had developed in the form of landscape gardening at the country places of his millionaire friends. It appeared that he and Trevelyan had known the same families in different parts of the world.

“He knows the G’s,” he proclaimed, naming a prominent New York family. “He’s been to their villa at Lennox. He spoke of the way the grounds are laid out, before he knew I had been there. Talked about the box perspective for the Venus fountain, that I suggested myself.”

The corps “joshed” the First Orderly on that: asked him whether Trevelyan had yet confided the reason for his position in the ranks. The First Orderly was indifferent. He waved a knife loaded with potatoes—a knife is the chief army eating utensil. “He may be anything from an Honorable to a Duke,” he said, “but I don’t like to ask, for you know how Englishmen are about those things. I have found, though, that he did the Vatican and Medici collections only a year ago with some friends of mine, and I’m going to sound them about him sometime.”

There were sharp engagements that afternoon and the corps was kept busy. At nightfall, the booming of the artillery was louder—nearer, especially on the left, where the French heavy artillery had come up the day before to support the British line. The ambulance corps was ordered to prepare for night work. They snatched plates of soup and beans, and sat on the busses, waiting.

At eight o’clock a shell screamed over the line of cars, then another, and two more. “They’ve got the range on us,” the fat Major said. “We’ll have to clear out.” Eighteen shells passed overhead before the equipment and the few remaining wounded got away and struck the road to the main base at B——.

The American squad was billeted that night in the freight station—dropping asleep as they sank into the straw on the floor. At midnight an English colonel’s orderly entered and called the squad commander. They went out together; then the squad commander returned for the Orderly of the first bus. The chauffeur of the second bus waked when they returned after several hours, and heard them through the gloom groping their way to nests in the straw. They said nothing.

It was explained in the morning at coffee. “Trevelyan” had been shot at sunrise. He was a German spy.

The Rue Jeanne d’Arc

We were sitting in a café at the apéritif hour—an hour that survives the war. We were stationed in a city of good size in Northern France, a city famous for its cathedral and its cheese. Just now it was a haven for refugees, and an evacuation center for wounded. The Germans had been there, as the patronne of the café Lion d’Or narrated at length to every one who would listen; but now the battle lines were some distance away. If the wind came from the right direction when the noise of the city was hushed by military order at nightfall, the haunting boom-boo-o-m of heavy artillery could be faintly heard. No one who has heard that sound ever forgets it. Dynamite blasting sounds just about the same, but in the sound of artillery, when one knows that it is artillery, there seems the knell of doom.

The café was crowded at the apéritif hour. The fat face of the patronne was wreathed in smiles. Any one is mistaken who imagines that all Northern France is lost from human view in a dense rolling cloud of battle smoke. At any rate, in the Café d’Or one looked upon life unchanged. True, there were some new clients in the place of old ones. There were a half dozen soldiers in khaki, and we of the American ambulance column, dressed in the same cloth. In a corner sat a young lieutenant in the gorgeous blue of the Chasseurs d’Afrique, drinking vermouth with a grizzled captain of artillery. Other French uniforms dotted the place. The “honest bourgeois” were all there—the chief supports of the establishment in peace or war. They missed the evening apéritif during the twelve days of German occupation, but now all were in their accustomed places. For the places of oldtimers are sacred at the Lion d’Or.

Madame la patronne acted in place of her husband, who was now safely serving in the cooking department of the army, some kilometers from the firing line. Madame sat contentedly at the caisse superintending the activities of two youthful, inexperienced garçons. The old waiters, Jean and André, vanished into the “zone of military activity” on the first day of the war. After several post cards, Jean had not been heard from. André was killed at the battle of the Marne.

We had heard the garrulous tale of the German occupation many times. It was thrillingly revealed, both at the Restaurant de Commerce and the Hotel de Soleil. At the Lion d’Or it was Madame’s absorbing theme, when she was not haranguing the new waiters or counting change. Madame had remained throughout the trouble. “But yes, to be sure.” She was not the woman to flee and leave the Lion d’Or to the invaders. Her ample form was firmly ensconced behind the caisse when the first of the Uhlans entered. They were officers, and—wonder of wonders—they spoke French. The new waiters were hiding in the cellar, so Madame clambered from her chair with dignity, and placed glasses and drink before them. And then—would wonders never cease?—these Germans had actually paid—even overpaid, ma foi—for one of them flung a golden half louis on the counter, and stalked from the place refusing change. Of course at the Hotel de Ville, the invaders behaved differently. There the Mayor was called upon for one million francs—war indemnity. But that was a matter for the city and not for the individual. Madame still had that golden half louis and would show it if we cared to see. Gold was scarce and exceedingly precious. The sight of it was good.

Now the Germans were gone—forced out, grace à Dieu, so the good citizens no longer lived in the cellars. They were again in their places at the Lion d’Or, sipping vermouth and offering gratitude to the military régime that had the decency to allow cafés open until eight o’clock. Outside the night was cold and a fine drizzle beat against the windows. Several newcomers shivered and remarked that it must be terrible in the trenches. But the electric lights, the clinking glasses on the marble tables, the rattling coins, soon brought them into the general line of speculation on how long it would take to drive the Germans from France.

For a hundred years the cafés have been the Forum of France. The Lion d’Or had for that entire period been the scene of fierce verbal encounters between members of more political and religious faiths than exist in any other nation of the world. Every Frenchman, no matter how humble in position or purse has decided opinions about something. But now the voices in the Lion d’Or arose only in appellations concerning les Boches. There was unanimity of opinion on the absorbing subject of the war.

The members of the American ambulance column sat at a table near the door. Our khaki always brought looks of friendly interest. Almost every one took us to be English, and even those who learned the truth were equally pleased. We finished the apéritif and consulted about dinner. We were off duty—we might either return for the army mess or buy our own meal at the restaurant. We paid the garçon and decided upon the restaurant a few doors away. Several of the men were struggling into their rubber coats. I told them that I would follow shortly. I had just caught a sentence from across the room that thrilled me. It held a note of mystery—or tragedy. It brought life out of the commonplace normality of apéritif hour at the Lion d’Or.

The speakers were two Frenchmen of middle age—fat and bearded. They were dressed in ordinary black, but wore it with a ceremonial rather than conventional manner. The atmosphere of the city did not seem upon them. They might rather be the butcher and the grocer of a small town. One of the pair had sat alone for some time before the second arrived. I had noticed him. He seemed to have no acquaintances in the place—which was unusual. He drank two cognacs in rapid succession—which was still more unusual. One drink always satisfies a Frenchman at apéritif hour—and it is very seldom cognac.

When the second man entered the other started from his seat and held out both hands eagerly. “So you got out safe!” were the words I heard; but our crowd was hurrying toward the door, and I lost the actual greeting. I ordered another vermouth and waited.

The two men were seated opposite each other. The first man nervously motioned to the waiter and the newcomer gave his order. It was plain that they were both excited, but the table adjoining was unoccupied, so they attracted no attention. The noisy waiter, banging bottles on the table, drowned out the next few sentences. Then I heard the second man: “So I got out first, but you managed to get here yesterday—a day in advance.”

The other replied: “I was lucky enough to get a horse. They were shelling the market place when I left.”

The second man gulped his drink and plucked nervously at the other’s sleeve. “My wife is at the hotel,” he almost mumbled the words, “I must tell her—you said the market place. But how about the Rue Jeanne d’Arc?—her sister lived there. She remained.”

“How about the Rue Jeanne d’Arc?” the other repeated. He clucked his tongue sympathetically. “That was all destroyed in the morning.”

The second man drew a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the sweat from his forehead.

Those from Quesnoy-sur-Somme

They were climbing out of the cattle cars into the mud of the freight yards. They numbered about fifty,—the old, the halt, the blind and the children. We were whizzing past on a motor ambulance with two desperately wounded men inside, headed for a hospital a half mile away. The Medical Major said that unless we hurried the men would probably be dead when we arrived. So we could not lessen speed as those from Quesnoy-sur-Somme descended painfully from the cattle cars. Instead, we sounded the siren for them to get out of our way. The mud from our wheels splattered them. But it was not mud—not regular mud. It was black unhealthy ooze, generated after a month of rain in the aged layers of train soot. It was full of fever germs. Typhoid was on the rampage.

As we passed the sentinels at the gates of the yards we were forced to halt in a jam of ammunition and food wagons. To the army that survives is given the first thought. The wounded in the ambulance could wait. We took right of way only over civilians—including refugees.

We asked a sentinel concerning those descending from the cattle cars, “là bas.” He said they came from a place called Quesnoy-sur-Somme. It was not a city he told us, nor a town—not even a village. Just a straggling hamlet along the river bank—a place called Quesnoy-sur-Somme.

The past tense was the correct usage of the verb. The place was that; but now—now it is just a black path of desolation beside a lifeless river. The artillery had thundered across the banks for a month. The fish floated backs down on the water.

When the ammunition and food wagons gave us room enough, we again raced through the streets and delivered our wounded at the hospital—alive. Then we returned to the freight yards for more. Several ambulance columns had worked through the night from the field hospitals to the freight yards. There the men were sorted and the less desperate cases entrained.

We plowed our way carefully through the ooze of the yards, for ahead of us walked those from Quesnoy-sur-Somme on their way to the gare. They walked slowly—painfully, except the children, who danced beside our running board and laughed at the funny red crosses painted on the canvas sides of the ambulance. It was raining—as usual. The sky was the coldest gray in the universe, and the earth and dingy buildings, darker in tone, were still more dismal. But one tiny child had a fat slab of bread covered thickly with red jam. She raised her sticky pink face to ours and laughed gloriously. She waved her pudgy fist holding the bread and jam, and shouted, “Vive la France!”

We were now just crawling through the mire. The refugees surrounded us on all sides. The mother seized the waving little arm, and dragged the child away. The woman did not look at us. She just plodded along, eyes fixed on the mud that closed over her shoes at every step. She was bareheaded and the rain glistened in great drops upon her hair. The child hung back. The mother merely tightened her grip, doggedly patient. She was past either curiosity or reproof.

Our car ran so slowly that accidentally we killed the engine. I got out to crank her up and meantime the forlorn mass surged by. Two soldiers herded them over the slippery tracks to a shed beside the gare where straggled some rough benches. We lined our car up behind the other ambulances. Then we went to look at the refugees.

They had dropped onto the benches, except the children. The littlest ones tugged fretfully at their mothers’ skirts. The others ran gleefully about, fascinated by the novelty of things. It was a holiday. Several Red Cross women were feeding the crowd, passing about with big hampers of bread and pots of coffee. Each person received also a tin of dried meat; and a cheese was served to every four. We helped carry the hampers.

Most of the refugees did not even look at us; they did not raise their eyes from the mud. They reached out their hands and took what we gave them. Then they held the food in their laps, listless; or staring out across the yards into the wet dusk.

One or two of them talked. They had been hustled out at sunrise. The French army thought they had occupied that dangerous place long enough. There was no longer hope for any living thing remaining. So they came away—bringing nothing with them, herded along the line by soldiers. Where they were going they did not know. It did not matter where. “C’est la guerre! It is terrible—yes.” They shrugged their shoulders. It is war!

One old man, nearly blind and very lame, sat forlornly at one end of the line. He pulled at an empty pipe. We gave him some tobacco—some fresh English tobacco. He knew that it was not French when he rolled it in his hand. So we explained the brand. We explained patiently, for he was very deaf. He was delighted. He had heard of English tobacco, but had never had any. He stuffed the pipe eagerly and lit it. He leaned back against the cold stone wall and puffed in ecstasy. Ah! this English tobacco was good. He was fortunate.

We glanced back along the line. As we looked several of the women shrank against the wall. One covered her eyes. Two French ambulances passed, carrying a wounded Zouave on a stretcher. A yard engine went shrieking across their path and the ambulanciers halted. The huddled figure under the blankets groaned horribly. Then the procession proceeded to our first ambulance. The men were on the seat, ready for the race against time to the hospital.

After a few minutes the soldiers who had herded the refugees into the shed came again to herd them out—back to the cattle cars. I asked one of the soldiers where they were going. He waved his hand vaguely toward the south. “Là bas,” he muttered. He didn’t know exactly. They were going somewhere—that was all. There was no place for them here. This station was for wounded. And would they ever return? He shrugged his shoulders.

I looked at the forlorn procession sloshing across the yards. The rain beat harder. It was almost dark; the yard lamps threw dismal, sickish gleams across the tracks. The old man with the tobacco brought up the rear, helped along by an old woman hobbling on a stick.

We heard the voice of the Medical Major bawling for “les ambulances Américaines.” We looked behind into the gloom of the gare; a procession emerged—stretchers with huddled forms under blankets. As far down the yards as we could see—just on the edge of the night, those from Quesnoy-sur-Somme were climbing slowly into the cattle cars.

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