Wednesday, October 29, 2014

George Rutherfurd: First Assignments in France

This is the fourth post in a series about my great-grandfather, George Roscoe Oliver Rutherfurd.

George Rutherfurd in France, 1918

After two months spent supervising quarantined soldiers at Camp Merritt, in New Jersey, George Rutherfurd rejoined the 411th Telegraph Battalion in France.  It was April of 1918.  The rest of his battalion had arrived in France a month earlier, landing at Brest and then, after a training period, continuing by train to the Loire Valley.  Company E set up their headquarters surrounding a large barn at St. Ettiene and Company D took over an old chateau at nearby Savenay.

Progress of the 411th across France, from Brest to Chateau-Thierry

Again, I will quote heavily from "Memories of the 411th Telegraph Battalion In the World War Here and 'Over There'" by C.H. Moore to describe the experience of the 411th in France.

During these first days in France we were fortunate in having time and opportunity to learn a great deal about our new friends - the French inhabitants.  Withal we found them a very hospitable, open-hearted, courteous, kindly people.  they were particularly gracious to us Americans and showed us every consideration.  Much has been written about the French and their peculiar customs, but it was the good fortune of our outfit to receive universally fine treatment during all of our stay in the A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Forces), and the writer believes that much of this was due from the fact that we made friendly contact with them in the very beginning.  More will be said about this angle of our experiences as our story progresses, but the writer is sure that each of us will always affectionately recall the kindliness, the gentleness, and the good natured spirit in which these simple home folks of the valley received us.  Bowed down with four years of the horrors and griefs of war, as they were, they had not lost faith and were embued with that spirit of service to their country, which eventually helped more than any other one thing to bring victory about. (p. 54-55)

The first military assignment given to the 411th was to build a wire from St. Nazaire to Nantes, a distance of thirty-nine miles.  This was the beginning of a system of communication which would enable the various military camps to pass messages to each other and would greatly improve the transfer of supplies and information.  While the 411th had brought some equipment with them, they found that they had to borrow shovels, saws and similar items from the French villagers to fully begin their work.  Battalion members got to work putting up telephone poles and stringing lines.  They drove through the countryside in motorcycles with sidecars, sometimes having to ask permission of residents to put up poles on their property.  By April, when George re-joined the battalion, this first line was being completed, and communication centralized in the headquarters at Tours.  The 411th moved on to their next assignment, which they were delighted to find would take them nearly to Paris.

As an officer, George's role was to decide where the lines of communication would be routed.  He did not do the actual work of putting up the poles.  He rode in the sidecar of a motorcycle, with a lower-ranking battalion member driving him, as they traversed French roads plotting out the location of telegraph lines.  My Grandma said that George was frequently ahead of the forward troops and stayed in local farmhouses at night. During this time he developed a life-long fondness for the long cooking soups that resided on the farmhouse stoves and were shared with him and his driver.

In late May of 1918, the 411th moved north, camping overnight at the famous cathedral city of Chartres, and then arriving at their new camp in Versailles, at Camp Satory.  As they waited for an official resumption of duties, the men took the opportunity to visit the palace at Versailles and take a trip into Paris, which appears to have thrilled them all.  However, C.H. Moore describes the battalion as restless to get to the front and feel closer to the war.  Being near Paris provided them a glimpse of the action, however.

At this time it was almost a nightly occurrence for the Hun bombing planes to make air raids over Paris and the surrounding suburbs.  A very elaborate system of signaling devices of all kinds had been installed for the purpose of advising the inhabitants as soon as the outlying observation posts detected the Germans coming over.

On this particular night of our first experience, the "alerte" was sounded about 11:30PM;  the sky was immediately lighted with a great many searchlights weaving their shafts of light back and forth across the heavens in search of the Hun planes.  The anti-aircraft guns opened fire and the sky was filled with bouquets of fire from the bursting shells.  (p. 76-77)

George and the other men of the 411th were tired from long days of work and long nights of air raids, but they'd been given a critical assignment.

The job which had been assigned to us in this locality was an extremely important one and had to be finished in the very shortest possible time.  It consisted in the building of a twenty-four wire lead from a junction with the British lines at a small place called Ham to La Belle Epine, just south of Paris, a distance of approximately thirty-three and one-third miles.

This job presented many difficulties in the way of strengthening the French lead, building through forests, over canals, cable work through a half-mile railroad tunnel, private right-of-ways over property owned by Royalty, transposition problems in connecting with a different system of the British and constant delays and annoyances in obtaining the necessary material which had to be hauled long distances by motor truck.  Everybody in the organization was working from daylight to dark, as orders had been received that the work absolutely had to be finished no later than June 30th. (p. 77-78)

Just as this work was completed, the 411th got the news they had been hoping for.  They were being sent closer to the front.  The Germans were trying to cross the Marne and begin an invasion of Paris, and the Army was engaged with them at Chateau-Thierry.  George and the 411th were being sent to nearby La Ferte to construct a line from there to Chateau-Thierry and support communications at the front.

To be continued...

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