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WWI: Remembering the US volunteers who saved French lives at Verdun

© BDIC archives | An American ambulance evacuates the wounded in the French town Récourt-le-Creux, south of Verdun, on July 15, 1916

Text by Stéphanie TROUILLARD

Latest update : 2016-02-21

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.

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.

‘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.

A plaque commemorating the American Field Service in the 16th arrondissement (district) of Paris, where the organisation’s headquarters were located.

*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


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