Training at Camp De Souge

THE 306th Field Artillery


WE had experienced a rest camp; somewhere ahead lay a work camp. We looked forward to it with misgivings. It was a long walk from the railroad station at Bonneau. The heavy packs galled us. The dust was an evil omen.

Then as we made a turn in the road, a great arched gate in a frame of trees came into view. " Camp de Something " said somebody in a vain attempt to decipher the lettering that spanned the arch. " Camp de Souse! " shouted someone else with all the natural wonder and delight such a name would arouse. By that time we were near enough to read: "Camp de Souge," and that matter settled, gave our attention to the strange county-fair colony that clustered outside the gate.

Here stood a gaudy wagon that promised gaudy cinema entertainment when the gaudy engine worked; beside it were several push-cart venders of oranges, nuts, cherries, and dates. Opposite, stood a complete mercerie on wheels offering a thousand gim-cracks -of no value at exorbitant prices. But most interesting of all were the wine shacks, which bore the names " Le Petit Caporal, " doubtless in commemoration of Napoleon, and " Caf6 New York " certainly in preparation for us. Later, we were to discover the little stationery shop, with its diverting stock of " La Vie Parisiennes " and the tiny charcuterie with its aromatic sausage, suspiciously cheval and undeniably garlic.

Inside the gate, a new world. An endless line of brown barracks stretched on an endless yellow road through a drab and endless desert of sand. There were trees here and there, as there are oases in the Sahara. There was even a lake-surely the little pond in which so many of us bathed deserves that title if the Ourcq, the Vesle, and the Aisne may be called rivers. Yet Souge was a barren place, more barren than the barrenest stretch of No Man's Land in the Argonne.

Place was found for us in the dismal colony of dismal barracks and we settled down to the business of learning the art of war. It seemed that our artillery methods of old Upton were most excellent for fighting Mexicans but painfully inadequate against Germans. Officers and men were told to forget everything they knew and begin all over again. From Colonel Miller down to the lowliest greaseball, began weeks of school in which we were initiated into the mysteries of dvo's corrections of the moment, canevaux trenches, splices, tuning coils, panels, and the nomenclature of the piece, ~ la Francais and according to each man's special function as laid out in the tentative organization tables of the time.

Meanwhile, those who weren't bitterly regretting the innumerable occasions they bad cut math classes in a former incarnation, were taking advantage of such diversions as the camp afforded. Principal of these were those most picturesque Allies, the coolies. France had drawn them from her Asiatic colonies with the magnet of fabulous pay: in return all France seemed to demand was that we be amused. As Corporal Cabbie remarked, " They can get more rest out of a shovel than most of us can got out of a bed! " Never was there a more leisurely road gang. Never more sublime and complete defiance of the latest program communique from Beaunash with regard to "what the man will wear." Here lounged a bland heathen in pink pajama drawers, his bronze and glistening torso bare from the waist up, a yellow scarf at his neck, a prim suburban straw several sizes too small for him perched precariously on his head. There under a black umbrella, basked a more elderly, a more weazened specimen, attired in blue overalls, his crossed legs unevenly encased in ragged 'khaki wrap leggings, a red bandanna knotted at each corner serving as a hat. Everywhere were reclining and colorful Chinois; nowhere was there a sign of life save for an occasional Oriental who, desperate for "les cigaret Angleesh" and in hopes of a reward from an appreciative audience, would rise and wait a ludicrous chant in a high falsetto to the weird accompaniment of a violin made from a cigar box or gasoline can.

Yet, somehow, the road in Souge was a good one, kept in good repair. Perhaps the Chinois worked in the cool hours before dawn; more likely it was the handful of downcast Austrian prisoners de guerre, with the big P. G-'s painted on their tunics, who performed this marvel under the eye of the diminutive but entirely self-possessed little brown Algerian guard.

Then there were the passes-the little white tickets that permitted us to visit St. Medard, St. Jean d'Illac Martignas, Isaac and the precious blue ones that meant Bordeaux. How we ate in Bordeaux! How we stared! And, since this is history and the truth, how we drank! The good Bordelaise wondered at our capacity, but soon took our affluence for granted. Madame-Monsieur was always ii la guerre-would shrug her shoulders: Les bons gourmands soldats Americains and added that it was well that we were all millionaires. It was indeed.

And then, calamity. The horses arrived in camp. Here was a regiment almost entirely recruited from the City of Disappearing Horses. And here were something like twelve hundred horses. Consternation and curses in as many languages as you will hear in that same city of New York. For these horses were not your amiable milk wagon nags, nor the knowing cabby's plugs of an older day, but great, raw, burly, snorting, untamed monsters for the guns, and scraggly, mean, vicious mounts for the officers and special detail men.

Some of us in our innocence still believed in Black Beauty, the Noble Horse, and similar romantic fables. Lieutenant Ketcham gave one group a preliminary lecture. "When this war is over," said he, " and the Hun has been licked and you go back to civil life, there will be one thing you will miss more than anything else, one thing above all others that you will hate to leave behind, and that is your horse!" We didn't believe you then, Lieutenant, and Captain, we know better now. If there is a Camorra, a Black Hand, and an I. W. W. among horses, our horses belonged. They were desperate characters. Some of us who fed, watered, and manicured them at imminent peril of our lives, will never forget them. Nor the long plow through the hot sand from the stables to the watering troughs. Let them boast of our dangers and conquests on the Vesle and in the Argonne-the scene of our greatest dangers and most heroic deeds was the stable at Souge.

There was one other ordeal-the gas chamber and the gas masks. The We Fear the Worst Department at G. H. Q., desiring that all men should know what gas was like, had a huge concrete tank constructed with an attractive little gas-tight doorway. Then they filled the place with a mild but sufficiently nasty concentration of tear gas, bade us don our "respirator box," and invited us into the parlor. We suffered more from ten minutes of gas in that blue-gray hole of a tank than during our whole tour of the Front.

At length came word that we were to proceed to the artillery range for practice. As a child with a toy pistol longs for the Glorious Fourth we longed for the chance to pull the lanyards of our big howitzers and see a hundred pounds of super-steel travel from here to miles-away in a few seconds.

It was here on the range at Souge that the regiment received the training that made it a factor in the fighting A. E. F. The range was the scene of the finals in the great contest for promotion within the regiment. Here officers, gun crews, the telephone, radio, scout, and instrument details for the first time put their theoretical knowledge to the test of actual practice. We were told at Souge, that no regiment of artillery had done so well at the range before. And certainly if we did not set the world afire we made a brave and all but successful attempt the day the range was aflame. Hundreds of us fought and conquered that fierce brush fire with no better tools than picks, shovels, and rakes. The smoke filled the sky for miles, alarming the whole countryside-even as the roar of our guns had caused a temporary panic in Bordeaux, for these were days when the Boche was a very real terror and the end of the war ten years away, if you were logical and understood European affairs.

On July 4th we did our best to reassure Bordeaux. We paraded her streets in force. The bands blared, the caissons rolled along, quite as the song would have it, and our path was strewn with roses and invitations to partake of Bordeaux's best.

At length came orders to pack up and leave Souge, its sand, its flies, and its Bordeaux passes forever. We had come to Souge a regiment of rookies, masters of obsolete artillery methods, minus the very guns needful. We left Souge, a trained and powerful fighting force, well-organized, well-taught, well-equipped, ready to take our place in the line, the first regiment of heavies in the First National Army Division in the First American Army in France.

Sergeant, 306th F. A.
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