The Field Service "Sanitary Sections"
of the French Army Automobile Service

The Army Automobile Service had yet another task to accomplish, the hardest and most serious perhaps, but also the fairest and most noble: the transportation of the wounded. It assigned this task to its Sanitary Sections. [...] Their work was extremely trying; and if the existence of the Automobile driver at the front was always full of fatigue and totally exempt from comfort, it could be said that the ambulance drivers had the privilege, even more so than their comrades, of knowing the full rigor of life at the front; and that is why the personnel of these sections constituted a veritable elite whose merits, moreover, were acknowledged after each affair by an imposing number of citations.

The fact is that the ambulance drivers, who theoretically were only supposed to go as far as the advance posts of the Division Stretcher-bearer Corps, went all the way up to the aid stations to pick up their wounded, across terrain mined by the enemy, through intense rifle fire and waves of gas which they had to cross in the open. Add to this the darkness, the cries of the wounded for whom each bump in the road meant torture, the gas mask which made it so terribly difficult to drive! And the driver, despite all this, was aware more than anywhere else of the importance of the role he was playing: did he not constantly hold in his hands the lives of hundreds of wounded which he could save by his cool-headedness and alacrity?

Paul Heuzé, "L'automobile dans la guerre", Illustration, n° 3961, 1 Feb 1919, p. 127

Piatt Andrew's right-hand man, Stephen Galatti, describes how the American Ambulance's detached squads became pioneer American Sanitary Sections:

DURING the first eight months of the war the American Ambulance continually hoped to extend its work to an Ambulance Service actually connected with the armies in the field, but not until April, 1915, were these hopes definitely realized. The history, however, of these first eight months is important; its mistakes showed the way to success; its expectations brought gifts of cars, induced volunteers to come from America, and laid the basis upon which the present service is founded.

A gift of ten Ford ambulances, whose bodies were made out of packing-boxes, enabled the American Ambulance, at the very outset of the war, to take part in the transport service, and as more and more donations were made small squads were formed in an attempt to enlarge the work. These squads, each of five cars, were offered for service with the armies, but owing to their inadequate size were in every case attached by the Government to existing services well in the rear. So there were small squads at Saint-Pol, Amiens, Paris Plage, Abbeville, Merville, and Hesdin, attached to British or French Sections, and they were engaged in evacuating hospitals, work which clearly could be better done by the larger cars of Sanitary Sections already attached to these hospitals.

In April, 1915, through the efforts of A. Piatt Andrew, who had then become Inspector of the Field Service, the French authorities made a place for American Ambulance Sections at the front on trial. A squad of ten ambulances was sent to the Vosges, and this group attracted the attention of their commanding officers, who asked that it be increased by ten cars so as to form it into an independent Sanitary Section. As soon as this was done, the unit took its place in conjunction with a French Section in an important Sector on the front in Alsace.

With this initial success a new order of things began, and in the same month a second Section of twenty cars was formed and was stationed, again in conjunction with an existing French service, in the much-bombarded town of Pont-a-Mousson.

In the meantime, two squads of five ears each had been working at Dunkirk. These were now reenforced by ten more and the whole Section was then moved to the French front in Belgium, with the result that at the end of the month of April, 1915, the Field Service of the American Ambulance had really come into existence. It comprised three Sections of twenty ambulances, a staff car, and a supply car--- Section Sanitaire Américaine N° 1, as it was called, stationed at Dunkirk; Section Sanitaire Américaine N° 2, stationed in Lorraine; and Section Sanitaire Américaine N° 3, in the Vosges.

The story of the next year is one of real achievement, in which the three Sections emerged from the test with a record of having fulfilled the highest expectations of proving their utility to France. Section 1, having given an excellent account of itself in the long-range bombardments and air-raids at Dunkirk, was rewarded by being entrusted with important work in Belgium at Coxyde, Nieuport, Poperinghe, Elverdinghe, Crombec, and other postes de secours in that Sector of the French front.

Section 2 had to win recognition in a region already served by a French Sanitary Service and to which it was attached to do secondary work. The Section not only accomplished its own work, but made it possible for the French Section to be withdrawn, taking over the postes de secours on the line, and finally becoming independently responsible for an area renowned for its continual heavy fighting.

The record of Section 3 is slightly different. It first successfully took over the existing service, and then, pushing on, opened up to motor transport hitherto inaccessible mountain postes de secours.

With the three Sections thus established, it is interesting to note why they have been a recognized success so shortly after their possible usefulness was appreciated.

In the first place, an admirable type of car was selected. Our light Ford ambulances, stationed as they were in Belgium, in Lorraine, and in Alsace, faced three separate transportation problems. At Dunkirk they found the mud no obstacle; at Pont-à-Mousson they outgeneralled the Ravitaillement convoys; in the Vosges they replaced the mule. They were driven, too, by college men or men of the college type, who joined the service to be of use and who brought to the work youth and intelligence, initiative and courage. There have been to date in the Field Service 89 men from Harvard, 26 from Yale, 23 from Princeton, 8 from the University of Pennsylvania, 7 from Dartmouth, 6 from Columbia, 4 from the University of Michigan, 4 from the University of Virginia, 18 American Rhodes scholars from Oxford, and representatives of more than thirty other colleges and universities. Twenty-eight men have already been cited and awarded the croix de guerre.

In November, 1915, at the request of General Headquarters, a fourth Section, made possible through the continued aid of generous friends in America, took its place in the field. In December, 1915, Section 1 was moved to the Aisne. In January, 1916, Section 3 was transferred to the Lorraine front, in February Section 2 was summoned to the vicinity of Verdun at the moment of the great battle, and in March definite arrangements for a fifth Section were completed.

So April, 1916, finds the three old Sections still on duty at the front, the fourth already making its reputation there, and a fifth being fitted out. Confidence has been gained; we have learned our parts. The problem of the future is, first, to maintain efficiency, and at the same time to be ready to put more cars and more men in the field. Our vision is to play a larger role in behalf of France, and with the continued cooperation of the donors of ambulances and the same spirit of sacrifice on the part of the men in the field, it should be realized.

Stephen Galatti, "The Organization of the Service" in Friends of France, The Field Service of the American Ambulance described by its members. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916, pp. 1-5

As of September 1, 1914, the French Army Automobile Service had 25 Sanitary Sections, all of them French. This number rose to 120 sections by January 1, 1916, including the first four AFS sections. By the end of April 1917,there were 193 (AFS grew to 33 sections by November 1) and 206 at the end of the war. After November 1, 1917, the United States Army Ambulance Service raised 81 sections.


The Birth of the Field Service as seen in A. Piatt Andrew's Letters Home from France in the First Half of 1915.

Copy of Official Document, from the Directors of the French 8th Army Sanitary Sections, to A. Piatt Andrew, dated March 4, 1915, giving instructions for foreign sanitary sections attached to its service.

Original French version.
English translation.

"Agreement with the French GQG" in History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France," 1914-1917, Told by its Members. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1920. Volume I:

A. Mignon, Le service de santé pendant la guerre 1914-1918, Paris: Masson; vol. IV, p. 375.

"EARLY in April, 1915, the French General Headquarters paid us the gratifying tribute of accepting our offer and our assurances, and authorized the incorporation in the French Army of such volunteer sections as we might be able to provide. These sections were to be constituted, as to personnel, material, and equipment, upon exactly the same model as the regular French Army ambulance sections (except that the men and cars were to be furnished by us), and they were to function in exactly the same way. "

Paul Heuzé. La voie sacrée--le Service automobile à Verdun, (Février-Août 1916). Paris: La Renaissance du Livre, n.d.

Il circulait, dans la région, plus de 9.000 voitures automobiles . Si, en effet, les cinquante et un groupes dont nous avons parlé ne représentaient guère que 3.500 camions environ, il faut y ajouter : près de 2.000 voitures de tourisme, plus de 800 sanitaires (48 sections), environ 200 R. V. F. (27 sections), puis toutes sortes de voitures des services des armées : camionnettes des courriers, du génie, de l'artillerie, de l'aviation, de l'aéronautique, du camouflage, auto-canons, auto-projecteurs, camions de la télégraphie, de la radiotélégraphie, de la géodésie, de la photographie, etc., qu'il fallait bien laisser circuler au milieu de tous les autres!

Pierre-Alexis Muenier. L'Angoisse de Verdun. Notes d'un Conducteur d'Auto Sanitaire. Paris: Hachette, 1918.

Nous passons auprès d'une auto démolie que je n'avais pas aperçue encore dans la nuit, et nous nous enfonçons dans le village abandonné. Des murs crevés et des murs branlants, des masses de pierres et de tuiles réduites en poussière où calcinées. Des chaises écroulées, des tables, du linge éparpillé parmi des chevrons noircis. Et, sur toutes ces choses, saupoudrant la neige comme les ruines, de la suie noire est partout répandue. De la suie et du sang .... Car il n'y a pas une seule forme vivante, il y a des cadavres. Deux, cinq, huit, dix chevaux isolés ou en tas, masses brunes ou grises, les pattes raidies et tendues comme des barres de fer. Et, à côté des chevaux, il y a des hommes, hélas! des hommes en kaki, les uns prostrés le visage contre la neige, durcis dans la position où les a laissés leur dernière convulsion, les autres sur le dos, face au ciel. Beaucoup d'autres ont dû être emmenés déjà, d'autres encore ont dû se traîner pour mourir à l'abri d'un mur, à en juger par les équipements épars et par les flaques de sang répandues un peu partout, mêlées à cette horrible suie. C'est bien plus horrible encore que je ne l'imaginais.