The Cross and Flag: World War I Experiences – By George Ridout

Chapter 6

The Story of a Little French Village

It was the little village of Montribourg not far from Chaumonth, the headquarters of the American Army in France. Troops of the Third Battalion, Thirty-eighth Regiment, Third Division, arrived there from Brest in April. The village was in a pretty valley along the whole length of which ran a splendid stream of water. When we arrived there spring was just setting in and adorning the landscape with pretty colors, flowers were just peeping out of their places, birds were beginning to sing, the meadows were turning into a beautiful green and all around nature was doing her utmost to make things pleasant and pretty for the American soldier visitors. The villagers were not many; some were very old. There were no young men, they were away to the war. Of children there were only about a score or more, but a better lot of children could not be found in France. It did not take the soldiers and officers long to get fixed. I myself had my hut and headquarters and “sleeping apartments” in a big stone barn. I slept overhead on the threshing floor until the mice got too busy at night, and I found my bed elsewhere in one of the homes.

Soon the villagers and the Americans got to know each other and the most pleasant relations prevailed — the French never attempted to take advantage of the Americans in prices, etc., and the Americans, from the officers down, never showed anything but the utmost courtesy to the men, women and children of the village. I became known in that village by the troops as “Holy Joe,” and by the children and the villagers as “Uncle (Uncle) George.” The nickname “Holy Joe,” was started by some “regulars” of the old army who had a certain chaplain to whom they gave that appellation. The boys generally took hold of it and as they found it sometimes’ difficult to remember my name they found “Holy Joe” quite handy.

I became “Uncle George” to the children because I grew so fond of them and played with them so much and always remembered them when apples or oranges or any other kind of goodies came down to my hut. One little girl by name Louise, five years of age and an orphan — her father was killed in the war — and I became fast friends. I grew very fond, of that little child. She was very shy and at first would not come near a soldier, but eventually I won her and she would come to me and we would take walks in the flower-bedecked fields, and those two months I was in that little village little Louise helped me greatly to overcome homesickness. That little child seemed to feed my hungry heart. At night when at her mother’s knee she would say her rosary (she was a Catholic, as all the villagers were) she would always remember to pray for “Uncle George.”

The period we spent in this little French village was a period of training and preparation. Every day the soldiers would go out to the drill grounds. Their days were busy ones. They rose at 6 a. m. and had mess. Then at 8 they marched out to the fields above the village where they drilled and practiced all the varying arts and maneuvers of war as it pertained to the Infantry. The officers were a fine set of men — some from the East, some from the West, some from the South. Captain Nixon, the commanding officer, was a fine soldier. He was in the fight at Belleau Woods and was carried out blinded for life. Lieutenant Cramer, from Kansas City, was a bright young fellow. He was killed going into Fismes with a message. Lieutenant Johnson, from the South, came from a splendid home. His mother used to write him a letter every day. He was killed in the Argonne.

I was enabled in this village camp to carry out my own program of activities and made Sunday a day of worship as far as I could. We had two preaching services and Sunday school in the afternoon. Then once a week on Wednesday evenings, I held a service.

Very often the French people would come to our services. They liked to hear the Americans sing, though they could not understand the meaning. There was a French Catholic church in the village, but it could not maintain a priest so the people who wanted to go to mass went to the neighboring village Company. Among those who always attended our religious services were some Catholics and Jews. I had a few Jewish soldiers in that outfit who were among the finest fellows I have met in the Army, and they were devout and thought of and prayed to God.

As Decoration Day approached we began to make preparations for a celebration. Captain McMillan was going to have the companies assemble in the morning and we were going to remember America even though we were in France, but to the surprise of everybody, orders came in from headquarters to move. Now up to this time I had not been near the front, but our Division Secretary, Mr. Danforth, told me one day that all Secretaries who were acceptable to officers and men, and who did good service would move with the troops when they went front. I was now equipped with my helmet and gas mask and other accessories and was ready to go along. My trunk and belongings which I could do without were to be left behind with other excess baggage — all that I was permitted to take was my bed roll and what things I could carry along in that.

The day we marched out of that little village was a memorable one in more senses than one. The village people hated to see us go; they said “au revoir” to us with tears in their eyes, and the children cried too. Lieut. Pitts was telling of one good soul who had mothered quite a few of the boys, that she told him how sorry she was they were going. Oh, he said, other troops will be here after we go. “O, no,” she said, “we don’t want them, there will never be any like yours.

My little Louise clung to my neck and kissed me through her tears. We said “au revoir” and departed and went out from that little village where peace and quiet and contentment reigned, to be ushered upon another scene within a few days where the air was filled with booming guns, where war in reality was being waged, where there was hurry and confusion and congestion, and the voices of Captains giving orders, the whirling of the heavy wheels carrying supplies and guns and ammunition to the front, and the smoke of burning towns and villages, and the flight of their people with what they could carry away on their backs, in go-carts, in dog-carts, voitures, etc.

We had intended the last Sunday we were in our little village to have communion. The Chaplain and myself had planned a good program as we thought. The Sunday before I was preaching at night to the boys of two Companies on “Moses’ Choice,” and I was led to press the subject of personal decision for Christ preparatory to our Communion Service. When I called for those who would, four young fellows at once responded. The next day, after drill hours I met one of them and asked him how he had gotten on during the day, and he said, “Fine. I got through today without any swearing.” Alas, for our Communion Service and our plans for the same! The next Sunday we were traveling and no chance for anything like religious services.