Letters from Oregon Boys in France
Compiled by Mrs. Frank Wilmot 1918
Rouse Simmons, son of Mr. and Mrs. C. B. Simmons, of 495 Heights Terrace, who has spent the past winter months on the Italian-Austrian front and who is now an officer in the 32nd Brigade of the French Artillery, serving in the Rheimes sector, writes the following letter:
Somewhere in Italy
Jan. 16, 1918.
At last I am really at the front and the seemingly endless waiting is ending. I am writing this by a candle in an old deserted farmer's hut and, although I'm pretty tired tonight, I've got such a lot to tell you about, that I suppose I'll sacrifice a little sleep to do it.
Two days ago I was permanently assigned to Ambulance No. 3 and yesterday the orderly brought orders for the first six cars to come up here for immediate work. We were to relieve a small British detachment of six cars which had been here for a month. Accordingly we packed up, leaving the rest of the section still on "repos" at Dolo, and arrived here last night. We are fixed up fairly well, having good meals at our main evacuating hospital [a distributing first-aid station] and living here where we have one smokey peasant fireplace for heat. Of course we are out of range of any ordinary shell-fire back here. We can tell that the war is still going, though, when the windows keep rattling all night from the shell explosions in the distance.
This is no blood and thunder letter but I just want you to know that I've seen more of the first-named article today than I've ever seen before in my life. Work started off with a rush this morning at eight o'clock, and we were all called out in the fog and slush for our first ambulance work. There is no use in my detailing each trip for you. All I need to say is that I have been working steadily all day right up until starting this letter, and it's 10 p.m. now. I had a few rather interesting experiences, although they may seem rather gruesome to you. I'll take the change and be truthful about it.
This is my first experience with wounded, but even after only one day's experience I'm already getting used to it. It's easy to follow the example of all the soldiers. They handle "blesses" just the same as if they were pieces of cord-wood.
In the first place our waiting room and also dining room is right next to the dressing room, which is always filled with first-aid cases. And this doesn't give an exactly cheerful atmosphere to the place. The wounded are continually being brought in and carried out, and as most of them have been lying in the trenches from ten to forty-eight hours, they are usually in the advanced stages and are not "nice to look at." Gas gangrene, which blackens the flesh and puffs out the skin, included with a raving delirium, are just a few of the details. No one around the hospital seems to mind it a bit, but if I should meet anyone that wanted to see the so-called "horrors of war" at first hand, I'd simply show him the waiting room of a first-aid hospital. Here you can get everything at a glance. Today our six cars handled sixty-one cases, among them being two Austrians with three-day old wounds. One of the Austrians was a Jap! No one could explain it, but there he was as plain as day! The only explanation is that he was merely a naturalized Austrian or Hungarian. The other Austrian, who looked like he was due to "cash in" any time, was just a boy. He couldn't have been more than sixteen years old at the most.
Just about dark when I was beginning to think that work was through for the day, I was called to take three Acouches" [lying-down or stretcher cases] to a receiving hospital about twenty kilometers away. So the Ford and I, along with the three couches who were all raving in Italian cuss words at the top of their voices, went out in utter blackness, down-pouring rain and a foot of slush.
It was a nice little party, believe me! It almost gave me the "willies" I can tell you, to go along a deserted, dark road with these "blesses" raving away. But that wasn't the worst! When we got to the hospital, a priest came down to inspect the men. When he saw I had three, he said he was sorry but there was only room for two more. I groaned, thinking that I would have about forty kms. more to go before dinner, but just at that minute the situation was saved - a stretcher came by with an absolutely fresh corpse on it. They hadn't even covered the poor fellow up and, at first sight, it surely gave me a shock. But the priest beamed all over and turned to me with a look of relief. There's the place for the extra man," he said, so I got away at last!
Contrary to the usual names given to ambulances, according to various A.F.S. books I have read, my car is far from having any of the ordinary romantic titles. It is nothing but an obstinate, balky, wheezing, little, old Ford, with a regular consumptive cough. A.R.C. No. 3, No. 83 in the group, and according to the nameplate, it was donated by the "New York Clearing House" [you canít get anything less romantic than that] "for the use of the allies."
The day before we came to the front I got permission from the chief to go to Venice and spent the day there in "doing the town." I went through St. Markís, the Doges Palace, rode in a gondola all over the place, and as far as I know, I didnít miss anything of interest. Saw the Bridge of Sighs, Rialto, Grand Canal, Campanille, etc., etc., and had a good time in the bargain. Of course lots of things were closed to visitors on account of the war, but that was to be expected. For instance, all the valuable, historic and interesting things in St. Markís have either been taken away or absolutely surrounded by sandbag and masonry protection against air bombs. The German [Gothas] raided the town while I was there but did no damage at all. I was in a bookstore getting a magazine when the siren warned us that the Boches were coming. We all rushed out on the big open square, after helping the shopkeeper put up his iron shutters. About ten Italian Capronis were in the air by that time and they scared the German planes away without hardly a struggle. Three bombs were dropped, but they all exploded in the water and no harm was done.
By the way, when I went through St. Markís the guide steered me out of there right straight into a "glass" factory. Of course you know about the famous hand-made Venetian glassware and Mosaic work. I went through the factory and saw the whole process and it impressed me very much. Absolutely everything was done by hand and the results were marvelous. Later on in the afternoon I went back and bought two little vases which are being sent to you. The salesman guaranteed safe delivery so I took a chance.
Am too tired to write more tonight.
Your affectionate son, Rouse.