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May


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

Sgt. 1st Class
William D. Conklin

May


(Written at Zutkerque, PaS de Calais "Flanders")

May 3, 1918

A great deal has happened, but I shall have to mind my P's and Q's and necessarily leave out a lot that would be of interest.

I have taken it for granted that the cards left- at the pier when we sailed were mailed from there as soon as word of our safe arrival had been cabled. It seemed best to wait until we were more certain of postal arrangements before writing. This letter goes directly through the Base Censor and should reach you more promptly for that reason. We are allowed one such letter a week--or envelope in which several letters may be enclosed.

We left camp with work well cleared up, but it took a tremendous push at the end to do so. During the voyage we ran a small hospital and had charge of sanitary conditions. This necessitated my being below decks a good deal., but I used to get in a constitutional once in a while, and the trip as a whole was an interesting experience,

After a journey in several stages, we have landed for a temporary stay at a place some twenty-five miles from the trenches. Our Surgeon's office and dispensary are in different quarters, but we manage very well. The officers are billeted in the village houses and the men in barns. The one we are fortunate to have is reasonably tight and perfectly clean. We have plenty of fresh straw as foundation for our blankets. I tried a burlap covered cot the first night, but was glad to descend to a humbler level before morning, for the sake of warmth. These quarters are a paradise compared to those assigned to us the first night in this area. Some of us look one look at that place and decided to pitch our "pup" tents outside , where we slept on a grassy lawn, under a clear sky, with the big guns booming in the distance.


Then came another billet, ideal in some ways, but our equipment could not well be housed there, so we moved down to the nearest village. We have a comfortable little stove in our office, fitting into a six-foot-wide fireplace. Tables and chairs there were none, to begin with., but we scouted around and rigged up desks out of odd window shutters, cupboard shelves., etc., and mine could pass as a piece of medieval Flemish handiwork. We did a lot of work in this little room before our typewriter was taken away to Regimental Headquarters. We borrowed it before leaving camp when suddenly deprived of the one furnished by the Medical Supply Depot. I don't see how we could have managed or the boat without something of the sort, We supposed that "paperwork" would be cut down on this side, but it looks now as if it would be increased. The Captain says it will have to go on as best it can, even in the trenches, In the matter of medical records and reports, as in many other things, we are becoming familiar with British methods.

I suppose you will all want to know how I have fared as regards food. At- present we have a good generous ration .--cereals, the best of meat, bread, butter, cheese., and plenty of jam, and Dundee marmalade. And we all have hearty appetites. On the boat I was much better fixed than most of the men, who were glad enough to get land rations again. Together with one other medical first sergeant., and the line top sergeants., I ate in the first-class mess, and feasted on the same food as the officers. The menu was everything one could ask for, the equal of a good hotel's cuisine in wartime.

We have Plenty of fun on the side. I persist in adventures with the French language, and mean to work up my vocabulary every chance I get. One or two fellows in the Detachment speak a Canadian-French lingo fluently and get along well with the inhabitants. I am not too proud to make blunders. There is a larger town about a mile and a half from here. (Audiuicq) It contains many oddly assorted shops, curious old winding streets, and some pretensions in the way of a church and a town hall. I have been down twice and explored. This is good fun in congenial company, even when the crowd ridicules your efforts to make the residents understand. The French themselves are without exception polite. You can murder the language and they will not raise an eyebrow.

Yesterday, with the pressure of work relieved, and pretty thoroughly in need of a good cleanup, several of us went down to the British baths half a mile from here, and had a regular Roman afternoon,- first a steam bath, then a warm shower, then a cold one, and a good rub-down, It was a luxurious sensation to be scrubbed once more. Afterward we walked on down to the town, and finished up, when it was too late to get back for mess, by investigating, the Salvation Army canteen, where we had superfine fried eggs, French Fried potatoes, bread and butter, and cocoa,--all for about 23 cents in our money.

It is certainly not summer weather here yet, and the sun doesn't come out every day, by any means, but from all we hear, conditions are much more comfortable than they were a few months ago. The houses that are in good condition (and some of those in the country are very carefully kept up) may be all right in cold weather. There are farm-houses near here that ought to be the setting for a play or an opera,

It seems sometimes as if we had been set down on the stage in the middle of the second act, with the audience all but visible. The typical group is a house, a barn, and smaller buildings around what is a combination of court-yard and barnyard. In the best of these places the plaster walls are carefully calcimined, the tile roofs are covered with freshly thatched straw, and the interiors are spick and span to the last degree. Adjoining is usually a small apple orchard, in bloom just now. The ground beneath the trees is covered with thick turf and the property screened from the road by high hedges. I don't know that all this detail will be of interest. The doll's village lay-cut, however, is in such contrast to what is going on within comparatively few miles and so different from what we shall probably be mixed up in before long, that I put it down while fresh in mind.

In future I hope to get off at least one letter a week, but you must remember that there will be a flood of mail going each way and this will mean delays and possible loss of letters. So don't expect to hear. from me regularly,, So far I have not had any letters from home, but am trying to wait patiently. Except for bulletins, rumors and an occasional four-page English paper, we know nothing about what has been going on, for the last month.


(Written at Sombrin, Pas de Calais)

May 16,1918


Yesterday came a magnificent batch of mail-- the first we have received since leaving the other side. Nine letters for me, most of them forwarded from camp, to be sure,, and dated at least a month ago, but every one welcome.

The "Somewhere in France" on my letters is by no means static, but of course I can only let you read between the lines in saying that within the last week we had about forty-eight hours notice to pack up all our equipment, lightening the load as much as possible. Then came a long slow railroad journey, with a long and rather exacting hike at the end of it, begun on detraining about 1 A.M. But here we are, satisfactorily billeted after one false start and provided with an infirmary. We are having the finest Spring weather much drier and clearer than in our former location, and it is altogether more cheerful.

Our experience of active warfare is so far pretty well confined to air raids--one of which was a corker, although technically "unsuccessful." A battle in the air is so thrilling when observed from below that one forgets to be much scared. For a long time we were without maps. Finally a big official British map of the region, fitted out with adjustable pins and thread, was put up at a crossroads and we used to stand there and listen to tales of Britishers who had known the real thing at places now famous. I have since secured two naps for myself.

I wish you all could see us togged out ready for a march, all our duds upon us, except numerous personal- belongings which we had to pack in our barrack bags and leave behind. Undoubtedly the infantry pack, with gun, entrenching tools, and ammunition, is considerably heavier than ours, and it looks as if it would be harder to carry. It resembles the Indian arrangement for carrying a papoose, all the weight pulling on shoulder straps. In contrast, we carry, besides the medical belt (fitted out with first, aid articles and having a hatchet, a canteen., and an extra pouch dangling from it., a bag that I understand is the old cavalry ration-bag. It has several compartments for rations, mass-tin, toilet articles, and anything under the sun that you can crowd into it. This is strapped over the shoulders and the belt attached to it. Then there is a blanket roll, flexible as to size and contents, which is made up in the shape of a horseshoe and slung diagonally across the shoulder. (or fastened flat to the ration-bag, as regulations may require). The advantage of carrying the roll separately is that it can be shifted about., and, during a rest, dropped off entirely. The metal helmet and gas mask and extra pair of shoes are arranged as cleverly as one can devise, for permanence, beauty., and comfort., Put this pack over an overcoat, and perhaps a sweater, which comes- in handy enough on a night train ride, and you feel like a great old war-horse, with sympathy for a medieval knight in armor.

After a little extra sleep, some good coffee, and a bath--we have hot showers directly across from our billets - we picked up in no time from what even the infantry, hardened as they are to marches (compared to us "pill-pushers) considered a pretty strenuous hike. You can be sure that I feel very well indeed, have plenty of good food to eat, and sleep like a log. I only hope that everything,- is going all right at home.


(Written at Sombrin, Pas do Calais)

May 28, 1918


I am embarking on what I hope may be a good bulky letter.

So many have come from the other side, and they are appreciated as I never appreciated letters before; but it has been impossible lately to sit down and write individual answers, though I had hoped to do it. Here it is the time when everybody is supposed to be off the streets except the guards (9:30 P.M. ) and one last man comes in to have his arm bandaged, My roommate is in the infirmary is taking care of him. Our shelter-halves are up at the two windows to shut out (or in) the light of our candles, because even a small light will serve as a target for an enemy airplane.

The raids occasionally shorten a night's sleep, but that is a small matter. It is strange how variously they affect different people, To me, there is a kind of fascination in looking up into the sky and, even on the clearest nights, seeing nothing, but hearing the motor grow louder and louder until it seems to be directly overhead. Opinions differ as to whether it is safer to go outside or stay in during a raid, My instinct takes me outside of walls that might tumble. On many a night, though., we sleep undisturbed; sometimes I find that a fairly distant bombardment which has kept a good many awake has only colored my dreams.

My best help in the office, our stenographer has had to go to the hospital with a persistent bronchitis. Consequently I have been having a pretty lively time with the usual round of reports, etc. The lack of a typewriter mean-- that one becomes an indefatigable (and indelible) pencil pusher. I did get the loan of a machine at Battalion Headquarters for a few hours to make out my May pay roll, but only the sergeant major could silence the angry buzz of clerks who all wanted to use it at the same time.

I could tell you a great marry things that we have not, that we seem to get along fairly well without, although some of the boys naturally become rather restless at times. There are no Y.M.C.A.'s here-abouts or supplies of reading matter--except the one-day-old Paris or London paper, the latter costing five cents sometimes for two pages. But it is not convenient to tote a library on one's back, and I don't have any time for lying around. I do get out for a walk occasionally, and on practice hikes. We have reached the point where we can pack up our office, dispensary, and personal equipment within a couple of hours if necessary --and know where everything is, too.

To transport our medical chests and for errands to near-by towns where some of the units of the regiment are stationed, we have a high two-wheeled cart, drawn by a mule who has his own ideas about being attached (so to speak) to the Medical Department. On various occasions he has tried to sit, kneel, and spin on his hind legs with a view to a freer life. The driver (a Supply Company man) brought around a slip the other day, when starting out to carry a load of stretchers, and requested that the time of start and return be noted down and signed for. He remarked bitterly that the Transport officer, his "boss," must think he would otherwise start on a joy ride!

The Britishers in this area have had hard work to decipher us. The more polite have taken it for granted that our list-to-starboard caps indicated that we belonged to the American Aviation Corps, but some Of the very un-Anglo-Saxon types have led others to inquire whether we were Portuguese troops!

For an hour each day (half morning and half afternoon) we are required to go about our affairs wearing gas masks, for practice. One man went off his horse and another off his bicycle today while operating under artificial air-supply, but those were the only casualties, At first-the natives were afraid a gas attack was anticipated. Now we get only hoots. Speaking of "hoots." which is peculiarly Scotch, I find that the wearing of bare knees is not, confined to the Highlanders. The British "shorts" that the hot weather brings out are like running trunks, reaching to just above the knee. Spiral puttees or long stockings cover the lower leg. How juvenile we should feel in such a rig.' However, feelings about appearance got hardened once one has decorated himself with a "tin Lizzie," The unregenerate name for a steel helmet, and has met the criticisms of comrades-in-arms. One must have a particular architectural build to carry off such a basilica dome of a bonnet. I seem to be saying a lot about what we wear. We ourselves are becoming well used to the same clothes, since with the prospect of sudden alarums and excursions, and for the sake of warmth, we stay considerably dressed up at night,

At each new landing-place, so far, I have found it easy, and very cheap, to get washing done. That is the only expense that does not mount high, if one bothers about purchases at all. I bought a rubber wash basin in a near-by town for three dollars, and was Happy to get it at that. Chocolate is one thing that we often do empty out our loose change for, provided we can find any that is edible.

Of course it is reasonable to expect to pay well in this region. I hear the guard advising two lieutenants next door to snuff their candles, and I expect he will catch a glimmer in here soon--so good-night.
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