The American Ambulance's
Pioneer Transportation Service

Quite naturally, from the outbreak of the War in August until Paris itself was threatened in early September, the first concerns of Ambulance Committee were to see to the efficient transformation of an unfinished high school building into a working hospital.

Then, the call came. A convoy of ambulances drove out to nearby Meaux and brought back the Ambulance's first patients.

It was on the 6th of September 1914 that the first call for help came from the Marne battlefield. It was reported that hundreds of wounded lay uncared for at Meaux. A convoy of ambulances was dispatched with all speed by the hospital to Meaux. In a deserted Meaux, 350 wounded soldiers were waiting, cared for by a few elderly peasants and the archbishop, Msgr Marbot. Fifty wounded were brought back immediately to the hospital at Neuilly and thus it was that American Ambulance began work.

Paul-Louis Hervier, Les volontaires américains dans les rangs alliés, La Nouvelle Revue, Paris, 1917, p. 240.

The wounded at Meaux came from the African Rifles (Arabs or Blacks): Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Senegalese. The only French they knew was their service number. They were in a terrible state of shock, enduring unspeakable physical and psychological suffering: their bodies covered with blood and mutilated... After emergency first aid, the Ambulance drivers brought them back to Pasteur where surgical teams awaited. Many of course would not survive: they would die for France. The first to do so at the Ambulance. There would be many, many more.

Nicole Fouché, Le mouvement perpétuel, histoire de l'Hôpital américain de Paris 1906-1989, Toulouse: Erès, 1992.

With Hospital, nurses and doctors waiting, how were the wounded to be brought to Paris? Well---first by volunteer service and in private motors. We, my husband and I, were at the hospital when the first cars were sent out for wounded. This was early in September. We were too deeply moved for tears as our gallant compatriots went on their errand of mercy, driving the cars that they had used for travel, for pleasure, for the opera and when they went to dine in some pleasant company. Now the car and its owner went eagerly on a dangerous journey.

Mr. Charles Carroll has written for us a description of that first Ambulance drive and it is almost as thrilling to read it as it was to hear him tell it.

18 rue Vaneau,

September, 1914.

Dear Mrs. Watson:

You have asked me to write you a page of the history of the agonizing days that we spent in Paris in this memorable month of September. I can do nothing more interesting than to tell you of the visit of our American Ambulance to Meaux on the night of September 8th. When we received our call we were told that there were three or four hundred wounded at Meaux needing succor and treatment. Our long train of motors left the Lycée Pasteur to run rapidly through the half-lit streets of Paris, stopping only for a moment at the rue Châteaudun to pick up the soldier who was stationed there to meet us and give us the password in the war-stricken district through which we were to pass. Hurriedly passing through the gate of Pantin, where a word to the sentinels that we were going after wounded and a glance at our passports sufficed, away we went over rough and uneven roads filled with baggage trains and reserve troops camped out in the villages. The whole scene was alive with action and movement, bringing vividly to one's mind the realization of the titanic struggle for the possession of a great city that was going on almost at its gates. After three hours en route, stopped at frequent periods by the sentries we arrived at Meaux, where the horror of the silence around us, the paper notices tacked on every door, the untenanted streets and houses revealed the deserted city in the centre of the battlefield of two gigantic armies. Not a soul seemed abroad---not a light in any windows. At last we rang up a soldier at the préfecture who took us to the college where the Red Cross flag showed us where the mutilated of the day before had been lodged. After much knocking on our part a weary concierge let us into the Chamber of Horrors such as I never wish to see again. In every little room, with no lights to cheer them, on iron bedsteads and on benches with bloodstained bandages, lay two hundred soldiers from the battle of the day before. They were, some of them, Morocco and Algerian tirailleurs and the glimmering lights of our candles would catch the wild gleams of their anxious eyes and the wondering questioning glances as to whether we were friends or foes. The tables in the room were strewn pell mell with empty bottles of water and medicines. The odor, the smell of blood and infection were overpowering in that hot atmosphere. The scene was one of undying horrors that no one who saw it will ever forget. Our surgeons devoted themselves to finding the worst cases for us to take back in our cars but with so many wounded, there was little we could do to help and I was sent to Claye, the nearest telephone station, to try to have a train sent out on the Eastern railway to bring the wounded to our hospital in Paris.

With an engineer soldier given me by the Commander of the Squad who were repairing the bridge which had been blown up by the English on their retreat across the Marne, I started at 2 A. M. in a pitch black night, lighted on the horizon by burning farms and blazing villages that were being deserted and destroyed by the retreating German troops. Arriving at Claye and challenged abruptly by the sentry at the headquarters of the 6eme Corps, General Manoury, I was accosted by a Staff Officer, who, when he heard my mission, took me into headquarters to telephone to Paris for the train.

The hallway of the little village chateau that was Army headquarters for the night, was filled with weary officers sleeping on chairs, on benches, in corners, dead with fatigue after the battle of the preceding days---snatching a moment's repose before the terrible efforts that must come on the morrow. In one corner of the room, over a sleeping dragoon officer were two standards---captured from the Germans the afternoon before, the one stained with the life blood of the bearer from whom it had been taken. Should I live a thousand years I can never forget the emotion with which I gazed on this scene. The brightly lighted hall, the sleeping men and the banners of the enemy as trophies of their valor.

The train was, after a long wait, secured for the poor wounded at Meaux and with a word of warning as to the nervousness of sentries in the early morning, from the Staff Officer, I went back through the dawn to find our cars loaded with their human freight---ready to start for Paris. In their midst, in the cruel, cold morning light stood the noble figure of Bishop Marbeau of Meaux, his face lit up with joy and emotion at the thought that the poor wounded that he had housed with such difficulty were to be taken where they could have proper care. This splendid Prelate had carried the burden of his municipality for four days during the German occupation when all the civil authorities were gone. He had, personally, with the few inhabitants that were left brought in and lodged the wounded of the sanguinary battle that preceded the German retreat and he stood by our car in his purple vestments, a noble example of all that is great and good in manhood and devotion to duty.

At nine o'clock after being acclaimed by the populace of La Villette and the suburban districts we brought our precious load of suffering humanity to the great hospital where tender hands lifted them from their stretchers and placed them in cool, clean wards where hope and courage would be reborn in their stricken hearts."


Jeannette Grace Watson. "Our Sentry Go." Chicago, 1924.

At the same time, the unplanned-for importance of the automobile was dramatized in General Galliéni's audacious use of Parisian taxis to transport some of his troops to deal an unexpected blow to the German Army!

The motor-ambulance was destined to save many lives----and this first foray of vehicles from the American Ambulance inspired a number of people to organize teams of volunteer ambulance drivers. Here, thanks to the terms of the Geneva Convention, was an opportunity for young men to participate in the War---as neutrals. And no medical training was necessary!

Herman Harjes, one of the founders of the American Hospital and a member of the Ambulance Committee, was the first to create a corps of volunteer drivers----the Harjes Formation---under the auspices of the American Red Cross, of which he was the official representative in France.

Richard Norton, an American archeologist visiting the Ambulance at this time, returned to his residence in London where he organized what would become the American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps---under the auspices of the British Red Cross.

Robert Bacon, former American Ambassador to France, upon becoming the president of the Ambulance Committee----the institution's director, in practical terms---was a strong partisan of an organized ambulance corps under the auspices of the Ambulance itself. But while the Harjes and the Norton corps were already in the field in October of 1914, the Transportation Committee divided its efforts between a local service----mainly ferrying the incoming wounded between the reception station at the Gare de la Chapelle and Paris's hospitals---and a number of detached units, beginning with those serving an outpost of the Ambulance in the town of Juilly, some twenty miles to the east of Paris. The detached units, however, would eventually take on a life of their own, thanks to Robert Bacon and his protégé, A. Piatt Andrew,----and be known as the "Field Service."

The Ambulance's Paris transportation service would continue throughout the war. It did not evolve into a separate organization and blossom into a "great adventure", as the detached field units were to do. It remained unglorified taxi work, a mere cog in the wheels of the vast machinery of saving lives---- the basic business of hospitals, military or otherwise.

Saturday, April 24 [1915]

This afternoon, in response to a call to the Ambulance for all of its many cars, Boothby and I went in one of them to La Chapelle, which is the present single distributing station-gare régulatrice for all the wounded forwarded to Paris.

Red Cross ambulances of every pattern, and from a great many hospitals, were being picked up from all sides as we neared our destination---a rather unusual sight here at midday, for the authorities do not like to have the recent wounded carted through the streets by day even though it be in closed cars. As a matter of fact the larger number of our admissions occur in the late hours or at night.

A large, high building, once a freight shed, I presume, possibly 250 feet long, has been transformed for the present purpose. The train runs in on a single track behind a curtained-off side of the building---curtained off by a huge heavy black canvas which opens at one place through which the wounded successively come----first the petits blessés on foot, then the men in chairs, then the grands blessés on stretchers.

The impressive thing about it is that it is all so quiet. People talk in low voices; there is no hurry, no shouting, no gesticulating, no giving of directions---nothing Latin about it whatsoever. And the line of wounded---tired, grimy, muddy, stolid, uncomplaining, bloody. It would make you weep. Through the opening in the curtain, beyond which one of the cars of the train could be seen, they slowly emerged one by one---cast a dull look around saw where they were to go---and then doggedly went, one after the other, each hanging on to his little bundle of possessions. Many of them were Moroccans, though for the most part they were downright French types. Those with legs to walk on had heads or bodies or arms in bandages or slings, in the hurried applying of which, day before yesterday, uniforms and sleeves had been ruthlessly slit open. Not a murmur, not a grunt---limping, shuffling, hobbling ---in all kinds of bedraggled uniforms, the new gray-blue as well as the old dark blue with red trousers---home troops and African Zouaves, and occasionally a Marine, for they too have been in the trenches of late.

The procession wound directly by us, for the American Ambulance drivers are privileged to go into this part of the shed, owing to their known willingness to lend a hand. They were sitting in a quiet group, evidently moved, though many of them had been through the Marne days when cattle trains would come in with the wounded on straw, without food or water for two or more days, stinking and gangrenous. Things of course are very different now, and here at La Chapelle Dr. Quenu, of Hôpital Cochin reputation, has finally got a perfect system arranged to replace the utter confusion of those early weeks.

It has been only two days since these fellows were hit, and many of them, regarded as sitting cases, have stuck it out, believing they could walk off the train. But not all could. One poor boy, who collapsed before us, they put on a stretcher and took to the emergency booth. Others had to be helped as they walked on between the two rows of booths to the farther end of the building, where were two large squares of benches arranged in a double row about an iron brazier in which a warm charcoal fire was glowing; for it was a cold, raw, and drizzly afternoon. There was a separate place for the slightly wounded officers, of whom there were some six or eight.

The wounded all have their tags dangling from a button somewhere a tag from the poste de secours, another from the ambulance de première ligne, and possibly one or two more indicating where they had stopped for a dressing; and in addition, on the train, to save trouble, each has been chalked somewhere on his coat with a big B (blessé) or an M (malade), so that they can be sorted readily.

It was soon whispered about that this lot had come from Ypres and that they had all suffered greatly from some German gaz asphyxiant; but I hardly believed the tale, or thought I had misunderstood, until this evening's communiqué bears it out. Many of them were coughing; but then, as I 've said, most of the wounded still come in with a bronchitis. We have heard rumors for some days of a movement of German troops in the direction of Ypres, and this attack is apparently the result.

By the time the wounded were all congregated, many Red Cross nurses were serving them hot soup and other things, ending up with the inevitable cigarette. The men were quiet, immovable, sitting where and how they first slumped down on their benches. No conversation---just a stunned acceptance of the kindly efforts to comfort them.

Meanwhile Quenu and his assistants were going about listing the men and distributing them as they saw fit among the hospitals in accordance with the empty beds at the disposal of each. Our drivers had handed in the number their cars could take and the number of patients the Ambulance Hospital could receive---possibly fifty, I 'm not quite sure---and we finally went away with our due proportion of the 250 that the train had brought in.

Harvey Cushing, From a Surgeon's Journal, Boston: Little Brown, 1936

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  More on the development of the
American Ambulance automobile units

The beginning of the American Ambulance's Transportation Service.

Abbé Félix Klein, Diary of a French Army Chaplain, Chicago: McClurg, 1915.

"The American Ambulance at Neuilly, to which [I] was called, was privileged, as soon as opened, that is to say from the beginning of September, to go forth to gather in the wounded from the very Front. Moreover the Front at that time was only too near us; we went forth to it in the morning and came back from it at evening."

"Ten o'clock at night. All our ambulances have just started for Meaux, where we heard at about nine o'clock that there were hundreds of unaided wounded. We sent doctors, nurses, dressings, in the ambulance-wagons, while our wealthy Americans carried provisions in their private motors. Meaux itself, evacuated last week and the centre of the present battle, must be totally without resources."

Samuel N. Watson. Those Paris Years. 1936. Book II, Chapter 12.

Our Service of Motor Ambulances which was attached to the Hospital kept on growing in size and in importance, until it outgrew its original intent and became The Field Service of the American Ambulance. Where so many men were so devoted and so efficient, it is possible only to make especial mention of a few who were the leaders in that work. Our former Ambassador Mr. Robert Bacon, first in every move to help France, was chief official sponsor for the Service; and to Mr. and Mrs. Bacon the Field Service owed a large share of its possibilities of usefulness. Colonel A. Piatt Andrew organised and directed this Field Service with the French Armies, which ultimately consisted of forty-four Ambulance and Transport Sections; and the devotion of the men in the Service to Colonel Andrew knew no bounds. Among the drivers whom we knew best were Lovering Hill, Charlie Baird, Frank Gailor, and Robert Redfield. The Story of the Field Service is all in print, and the copy which I have bears Lovering Hill's signature written in it on the day before he started for Salonica in command of an Ambulance Section. In the Section with him went Charlie Baird: they were under Orders "For the West Coast." This book bears also the signature of Elizabeth D. Hall; she was the mother of Richard Hall who was killed while on his Ambulance on Christmas Eve of 1915; she had come to France and had taken work in our American Ambulance at Neuilly.