Few notes here and there on my experiences in France with American Expeditionary Forces
— 1918 —
We received orders to move to our port of debarkation, and as the news spread around our barracks like wild fire it created wild excitement. Every one, even to the private soldier in the ranks seemed glad that at last, the orders for overseas service had been received and we were to experience all of those wonderful things we had read about for so long. The day was spent with wild scenes of packing and preparing for the move.
This is a day we will long remember, as it means the day of departure from the U.S. We left Camp Upton, NY, about 2 a.m. in the morning and boarded those almost two-by-four cars of the Long Island Railroad. Fortunately I was able to sleep most of the way down, and upon awaking found ourselves at the station in Long Island City. We unloaded men, baggage and all and reloaded on the ferry boat. The short sail up the harbor to Hoboken was uninteresting except as to the speculation of the ship we would sail on. We arrived at the pier and there saw the immense ship that was to be our home for the next ten or twelve days. It was a beauty the… [trails off into torn page].
…Agamemnon, a German ship taken over by our government. The men, officers were checked on individually, some being thrown out for physical disability at the port. The remainder of the day was spent loafing around the ship as it was forbidden to leave after being checked on. At noon the officers assembled for dinner and it was certainly a real feed. I drew a stateroom with Capt. Roberts and Capt. Sweitzer, with private bath and all conveniences. About 7 p.m. it was rumored around that we were about to sail and the excitement was keen. About 8 p.m. the old ship weighed anchor and pulled out in the bay. I was out on deck to take one last look at the lights of dear old Broadway. It’s hard to tell when we will get another look at them. Before we pulled out we were given parade drills, each man had his post and must be there when the alarm was given. Two danger zones were disclosed, one on this side of the Atlantic and one on the European side. All clothes and life belt must be worn while in the zones. I pulled into bed late that night and attempted to sleep with that bunch of silk floss about my body.
“About 8 p.m. the old ship weighed anchor and pulled out in the bay.”
Woke up this morning when the old bugle was blowing for reveille at about 5:50. Land nowhere in sight and the rest of our convoy to the left of us composed of four ships of about the same size as ours, the Mount Vernon, our sister ships and two others. Noticed particularly the absence of torpedo boats, nothing in sight but our own ships, and we on the outside, which was not altogether encouraging. The old sea has been calm as yet and the weather as clear as a bell. The first life boat drill scared the life* out of us, we thought it was the real thing. Still no chance of removing our life belts and clothes. Just to help ease our throbbing pulses we heard that two subs were in our immediate vicinity and that two ships had been sunk off New York last night as we came through. Found a little hole in the wall for an office today and expect to be exceptionally busy during the entire trip.
*It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether these strange idioms are a hallmark of the times, or Cap’s own unique parlance.
Another night of wonderful rest—??? Hope the danger zone is passed by night so that I can pull my clothes off. I wish my pencil could describe the interesting points of this ship in a fitting manner. The officers mess hall is on the 5th deck and is possibly the most attractive place to me—in-as-much as I have not experienced any sea sickness as yet. The 4th-3rd and 2nd deck are composed of officers staterooms with offices distributed here and there. The entire ship is like an immense hotel—but with a decidedly different atmosphere.
The enlisted [men?] bunk and eat in the hold of the ship and it certainly is interesting to see them at mess. I can just imagine how it grates the nerves of some of our millionaire [som’s?] to line up to get a mess kit full of New England humming birds or some stew slung at them. However the food is apparently well cooked and there is plenty of it. The sea remains calm and the weather beautiful.
Heard some mighty encouraging news today ??? Our ship is the old Kaiser Wilhelm and the Kaiser has offered a reward of 5000 marks to the sub commander that gets it*. We are out of the danger zone and can now take off our clothes. A funny thing happened, Lt. Jackson availed himself of the chance to take a cold shower, the Major caught him coming out with towels etc., asked him what he had been doing and when he told him “bathing,” he reminded him not too gently that it was strictly against orders to remove any clothes and consequently placed him under arrest—first time I ever heard of a man being arrested for taking a bath. Have been very busy with my work today.
*The Kaiser’s bounty would prove futile. The Agamemnon (SS Kaiser Wilhelm II) served as a transport ship until 1927, and was sold for scrapping in 1940.
Awoke with a start this morning and heard the old guns pounding away at something. Maybe I wasn’t out of that bunk in a hurry, got in to some of Capt. Sweitzer’s clothes and he in mine, grabbed our belts and away we went to our places, expecting to hear the signal to jump in the cold sea at any time. Found out they thought it was a sub but as the danger passed we crawled in again. Had some moving pictures today which they said were fine. I didn’t get to go as my work is crowding me fast.
About 5 a.m. Jackson busted into our room yelling “when do we go, when do we go.” The bugles were blowing and there was considerable confusion. The clocks had been changed one hour, he did not know this nor did he know where his parade was, certainly had us rattled for a minute as we believed the Boche* subs had sure got us. Some more firing of the big guns at supposed-to-be sub today. If it was one it is at the bottom now and our gunners are dead shots†. The Navy officers are a fine bunch of men and it is a pleasure to see them work.
*A mildly offensive slang used for Germans in WWI
†By mid-1918, the German U-boat campaign had been dramatically curtailed. Throughout the entire year, not a single convoy escorted by air patrol lost a ship, and U-boats were increasingly forced to operate at night or beyond aircraft range. That said, their reputation likely left many unsettled, to say the least.
Today is Sunday—no one would ever know it, and in fact I didn’t realize it until I heard our chaplain trying to get a song out of the men. Great weather and a wonderful sea, just like a millpond. No evidence of sea sickness as yet—and heaven help everyone on board if it gets rough and the men down in the hold start to get the effects of the rough sea. Our gas masks will come in handy, I guess. Some dinner today made me think of home, chicken and all the fixings.
In the danger zone again. The nightmares begin as it’s impossible to sleep. Great speculation as to our destination. Nobody knows for sure, it may be France, England or Italy. Was getting a shave today, the barber had just completed one half my face when the guns opened up and a general alarm was sounded. I was away from there lather and all and to my place on the deck. It sounded like the real thing this time and the excitement was keen, continued firing at a supposed sub but later the danger was over and I returned to have the other side of my face shaved. We are beginning to look for torpedo boat destroyers, up to now the four ships have been entirely alone but now we are in the European sub game. Fairly rough today but not much seasickness.
“We are beginning to look for torpedo boat destroyers.”
Awoke this morning and went on deck and much to my relief, as well as everyone else, found Destroyers on all sides of us, it is wonderful to watch them work. They are here, there, and everywhere and fast as lightning. Heard today that France was our destination and that with good luck we would be in tomorrow—three rousing cheers. It certainly has been a wonderful trip, with plenty of excitement but will be mighty glad to see the old land again. Have been working hard on entire trip with reports etc. necessary upon our debarkation.
Great news—they tell us we will be in sight of land about nine o’clock and that we will be in port by eleven. Those wonderful old hills of western France did look good and as we pulled into that beautiful old harbor of Brest it seemed the most peaceful place in the world. We anchored in the harbor at about eleven a.m. and immediately the barges were started unloading our valuable cargo of men and supplies. This was accomplished about 3 p.m., after which we marched to Pontanexiam [?] Barracks, about 4 kilom from Brest, to what is called a Rest Camp. That first night in France was sure a nightmare to me, the office had no tents, the men were in their pop tents, I slept on a board just outside the Colonel’s tent and at the head of Col. Ryan whose snores were louder than the roar of the ocean we had just left. It was the fourth night we had slept with our clothes on—but I was dog-tired and hit it off fine.
Nothing much happened today, we have been busy getting our little camp in shape. I have been struck with the country. It is peculiarly cut up into little fields, each separated from the other by hedges. They tell me that is typical of this part of France. The natures are amusing, I wish I could remember a little French. Tonight we got hold of an old Frenchman and started a little French lesson. Expect a good night’s rest tonight as my bedding roll has arrived.
Took a trip to Brest today, a remarkable old city. Before the war its population was about 40,000, now there are close to 100,000 *. The U.S. seem to have taken over everything, and everything is alive with the usual American activity. Been trying to get some important work out.
*Today the population of Brest is around 140,000.
This evening Capt. Sweitzer, Capt. Ross, Capt. Roberts and myself took a long walk to a town close by, Lambezellec. We had dinner here with some wine, the first for years it seems. Our waitress, a little French miss, was very attractive. As usual I made several [braks ?] trying to speak French. I can’t get my tongue around these French words.
Received orders today to move out at three o’clock. We are to go immediately into the advanced zone, our destination is—nobody ever knows. We marched down to the station and there were our trains. If one was seen like it back in the States it would create wild excitement. The men crawled into the eight chevaux and forty [hommes?]. Our men are larger than the French on the average, so thirty-five Americans will fill one of these dinky cars, but we had to pile in forty just the same. There were six of our officers piled into one compartment but what was the difference, we all knew we were in old France and were anxious to do our part. We pulled out about 3:30 p.m.
When we started we had no idea where we were going but as we traveled on we learned that our destination was Bourbonne les Bains or vicinity. Just pulled into the town this morning and what a trip it has been, almost 36 hours on that old train with nothing to eat but Bully beef and hard bread. Once on the trip some women came alongside the train with wine, and the way she sold it was a caution. We made about three stops at French Red Cross stations where we had hot coffee. Our route took us thru the cities of Rennes, Tours, Nevers, and Dijon. What wonderful scenery we had the opportunity of witnessing, hills, fertile fields, old cities and just outside of Tours the houses or caves in the hillside. I am told it all is the most beautiful part of France. At Dijon we were served coffee and sandwiches by the American Red Cross. In the hut was a real American girl and a beauty too, from South Bend, Ind. I believe. Sure did seem good to talk English with a real girl again. The bully beef didn’t agree with me and I was fearfully sick for a few hours. Distance travelled about 300 miles I should judge and imagine 3 days—same railroad system.
“We learned that our destination was Bourbonne les Bains.”
Marched from Bourbonne les Bains to Serqueux yesterday morning, distance about 4 kilom. Serqueux is to be our headquarters during training period. The troops have all been billeted in the barns, out houses, etc., and the officers in the spare rooms of the villagers*. I slept on the floor of an old building where Regimental HQ will be, last night. Capt. Sweitzer and I scouted around town looking for a billet today, found one at last, a big room with two fancy French beds in it, those typical four-posters with red satin hangings and a coronet on the canopy. Am expecting wonderful sleep tonight.
*Merci, French peasants.
First I must put down about those beds. When I first got into it I sank down about three feet, and I know I was bent up almost double, it is certainly uncomfortable but only about 5 ft. 10 in. long and as I measured the last time about 6.1 I’m afraid the hair will all be worn off the top of my head, and heaven knows I can’t spare any. These people seem to be better fixed than most of them in the town, their house is clean and they are doing all possible for our comfort. I just learned the name (Madame Camille Vareunes). Have been mighty busy getting things settled at the office.