A hundred years after the Battle of Verdun – one of the bloodiest battles of World War I – little is known about the young Americans who volunteered as ambulance drivers to save French lives on the front line before the US joined the war in 1917.
“Some twenty huge – at least, they seemed huge to us – shells fell around us. This was the heaviest shellfire I have yet been under, and I was glad to have something to do to keep my mind off of it. Two men about one hundred yards away were decapitated and there were a number of dead horses about.” American William Yorke Stevenson wrote about his experience on the front line at the brutal battle between the French and the Germans at Verdun in 1916.*
Even though the United States would not join the Allied forces until a year later in 1917, there were already a number of Americans in France helping with the war effort. The American Hospital at Neuilly, a suburb on the western outskirts of Paris, began treating wounded on the front line in September 1914 – just months after the outbreak of the war. Around the same time, a few hundred young volunteers, the majority of whom came from the prestigious US Ivy League university system, set off for Europe.
“Probably some altruistically wanted to do what they could to ‘save civilisation from the barbarians’, and many had old family ties to England and France. But for many the motivation was excitement and adventure,” explained Ross Collins, a professor at North Dakota State University and World War I specialist.
In pictures: American ambulance drivers at the Battle of Verdun
American ambulance drivers evacuate the wounded in Ippécourt, southwest of Verdun, in September 1916. © Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (BDIC) archives
Ambulance drivers inspect the damage to their vehicle after an accident in Nixéville-Blercourt, southwest of Verdun, on September 11, 1916. © BDIC archives
An ambulance drives past a large bell used to sound the alarm in the event of a gas attack on the Tranchée de Calonne, a road linking Verdun to the village of Hattonchâtel, in September 1916. © BDIC archives
Ambulance drivers wait to be called to the front at a base camp in Sommedieue, a town about 15 kilometres south of Verdun, in September 1916. © BDIC archives
An ambulance driver poses with a small dog in a tent at Vavincourt, a town around 50 kilometres southwest of Verdun. A crate of whiskey can be seen in the corner. © BDIC archives
American ambulance drivers under French army command
Three American ambulance organisations were created in France during the first year of the war: the Harjes Formation, the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps and the American Field Service (AFS), which was founded in 1915 and would ultimately play the most important role.
“Initially, the French military did not allow volunteers from neutral countries to fight at the front for fear of spies – with the exception of the French Foreign Legion’s volunteers. They relented by early 1915 to allow ambulanciers (ambulance drivers) near the front,” said Collins. “The AFS was under French army command until the United States joined the war in April 1917... According to official regulations, a French officer was attached to each unit and an American representative ‘assistant’ relayed his commands.”
As a result, American ambulance drivers were subjected to the same rules and discipline as French soldiers. They were given the same pay and rations too.
At the end of February 1916, AFS volunteers were called to treat the many wounded at the Battle of Verdun – one of the largest and bloodiest battles of World War I. During the 10 months of fighting that ensued between the French and Germans, they cared for an estimated 60 men using specially equipped Model-T Ford ambulances. These young Americans were witnesses to the carnage taking place on French soil.
“At the station, men who had died in the ambulances were dumped hurriedly in a plot of grass by the side of the roadway and covered with a blanket. Never was there seen such a bedlam!” Henry Sheahan, a 28-year-old Harvard alumnus, wrote about the wounded at Verdun**.
Even though they weren’t in the trenches with the French infantry soldiers, many American ambulance drivers were killed by enemy fire. Overall, World War I claimed the lives of 127 of the nearly 2,500 AFS volunteers who rescued French soldiers by evacuating more than 400,000 men.
In pictures: American ambulance drivers at the Battle of Verdun
AFS founder A. Piatt Andrew (pictured right wearing a helmet), standing with a group of French officers at the AFS headquarters in Ippécourt, southwest of Verdun, in August 1916. © Photo courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. For more information, please visit www.afs.org.
Ambulance drivers in the town of Verdun in 1916. © Photo courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. For more information, please visit www.afs.org.
An American ambulance in Verdun. © Photo courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. For more information, please visit www.afs.org.
An AFS ambulance on the Tranchée de Calonne, a road linking Verdun to the village of Hattonchâtel. © Photo courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. For more information, please visit www.afs.org.
An AFS ambulance. “Maximum load three people lying down or four sitting,” can be seen written in French on the side of the vehicle. © Photo courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. For more information, please visit www.afs.org.
‘Saving thousands of lives’
The role American ambulance drivers played had a lasting impact on the US use of emergency services during wartime, according to Nyssa Runyan, who made a study of the subject at Washington State University.
“Although its efficacy was doubted initially, the American Field Service proved the effectiveness of motorised ambulances by the end of the war. The model set up by the AFS was used by the American Army for many years, as were their modified Ford ambulances,” she said.
“[While] the exact figures are not known, the AFS was credited with saving thousands of lives, and many of its drivers were honoured with French decorations for their service to France and her people,” Runyan added.
Their contribution to the war has inspired a number of tributes. American writer Ernest Hemingway, himself an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I, eternalised the role in his 1929 novel, “A Farewell to Arms”. But perhaps the most beautiful homage of all was by former US president Theodore Roosevelt:
“The most important thing a nation can safeguard is its amour propre (soul or self-respect), and these young men have helped our country save its soul. There is not an American worthy of the name who has not incurred a deep debt of gratitude to these young men for what they have done,” he said, calling on the public to support them.
Roosevelt’s wish was fulfilled. A hundred years later, the AFS still exists. Far from the theatre of war, the organisation now works to promote “intercultural learning experiences” through its exchange programmes in over 50 countries.
*Excerpt from William Yorke Stevenson’s 1917 memoir, “At the Front in a Flivver”
**Excerpt from Henry Sheahan’s 1916 memoir, “A Volunteer Poilu”
For more on this subject, you can read 'Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War; August 1914-September 1918'
Date created : 2016-02-18