Lacked Coffins at Brest. . . 2,000 Soldiers Brought Into the Flue Stricken District Died and Took Camp by Surprise. . . Bodies Reverently Buried by Negroes
Much has been said of the terrible conditions existing at Brest at the time when soldiers were soldiers were being rushed to the front to stem the tide of the German advance. In a letter, which we quote, from Chaplain W.B. Ayres of the navy, who served eight months at Brest, he denies many of these reports and graphically describes and explains the situation.
Chaplain Ayers, who has just returned from France, says Brest has proved a healthful camp in spite of the mud and almost continuous rains experienced during the winter months and told that there has been no initial epidemic there. Approximately 2,000 soldiers died there from influenza, but the chaplain says that “in practically all of these cases these men were brought ashore with the disease from transports.”
“In the midst of the influenza in the rear a great drive was on at the front, and the streams of the wounded began to flow in. In a very special sense Brest was the place where these two fronts met. We had a kind of a hell there, but it was only because death stalked everywhere and in so many cases we did not seem to have a fighting chance.
“Kerbaun, a new base hospital, was in the process of construction when the influenza reached us. It was not designed as a hospital for the sick and contagious diseases, but it had to be pressed into this service.
“At the first there was no chaplain at Kerbaun. Naturally I offered to help. The boys have been ministered to when dying, first by the chaplains of navy, Catholic and Protestant, whom we sent out there whenever they were called for.
“It is true that bodies were placed on trucks, the only available means of transportation, and at the time when the influenza raged most terribly there was not a coffin to be had in the whole district, nor the lumber to build them of. It finally became necessary for the army to face the prospect of burial without caskets. There was no other way. That very day about 500 bodies in the Brest district awaited burial, and a little over 100 caskets only. They had accumulated there while awaiting caskets. Each body was swathed in canvas or sheeting, completely covered.
“The army had purchased a field outside of Brest at Lombecelec, where perhaps 1,000 of our boys lie; 250 negroes were detailed to dig graves.
“When the graves were dug the negroes lifted the casket to their shoulders and marched to the individual graves. Tenderly they lowered them, and I have never seen such reverence. Then, with hats off, beside each grave, two negroes stood at attention while friends and fellow officers stood near, as the funeral services were conducted. I have never seen more reverently conducted funerals, and I have witnessed many.
“When night came the caskets were exhausted and by the light of a torch I stood at their graves as I looked down at their shrouded figures and asked God’s blessing upon their souls. Before the day came I had said prayers over approximately 300 thus, and I can vouch that every man had what blessing faith can bestow. Where Catholics and Protestants mingled at the same grave the priest and minister stood side by side and together invoked the divine blessing, a fitting testimony to the fine brotherhood that is possible.
“I have written a thousand letters to parents or wives whose boys died under these conditions, and I do not like to see war critics, whose missions and value I have not been quite able to determine, destroying what meager comfort our honest and sincere assurances can bring.”