The First Months of the
American Ambulance in the Field

M.A. deWolfe, ed. The Harvard Volunteers in Europe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916.

ONE of the first agencies of American aid to the sufferers from the European War was the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris. Its flying ambulance corps of motor ambulances was in active service by the autumn of 1914. Harvard graduates---including R. H. Post, '91, J. S. Cochran, '00, Richard Lawrence, '02, C. T. Lovering, Jr., '02, O. D. Filley, '06, E. C. Cowdin, 2d, '09, and Lovering Hill, '10 ---were among the first volunteer drivers of these ambulances. Still another was Francis T. Colby, '05, commanding a section of the American Hospital Ambulance Corps, from whose letters to his family the following passages illustrate conditions in Belgium while the German invasion was still in its earlier stages.

Later in the War Colby was made a lieutenant in the Belgian Army, replaced the American volunteers in the motor service under his direction by soldiers, and maintained this service on an individual basis.


WE left Paris on December 7, loaded with every pound we could carry in relief gifts to the Belgian refugees, given by Mrs. H. P. Whitney. We carried two carloads of sweaters, one carload of underclothes, one carload of chocolate and socks, and one car loaded with all the fixings and necessaries for an operating room, given by Mr. Bacon. Altogether it was a splendid freight of American gifts, and I never felt like so real a Santa Claus before.
I have six cars all told.

One 20-horsepower Daintier, and supply car for this; food and spare tires.
One 30-horsepower Daimler ambulance, i. e., the big one you have a picture of, carrying six litters or ten sitting cases.
Four 15-horsepower Daimlers, taking four litters or six sitting cases.

We went to Beauvais the first night, and Samer, near Boulogne, the second, in heavy rain and with a good deal of tire trouble because of our heavy loads. We reached Dunkirk on Tuesday, the 9th, and gave our cargo to the Belgian authorities, who were very much pleased indeed. The operating room was, J believe, put to immediate use.

I tendered the services of myself and my ambulance detachment and was accepted and ordered to report to the première division of cavalry. This I at once did. The 1ère Division is made up of the very flower of the Belgian army, largely officered by noblemen. We have been received with the greatest courtesy, and have been assured that the ambulance detachment was a thing of which they were in the greatest need, and that it should have a large number of men who would otherwise have to be left on the field of battle. This, unfortunately, has often happened in the past.

For several days we have been carrying French wounded for a neighboring hospital, and find that our cars are in every way fitted for the work on these northern roads, which are worse than anything we have met before. It rains every day --- just like Southern Alaska --- and everywhere except the centre of the road, which is apt to be of cobble-stones, is a foot deep in mud. Of course you have got to get off the cobblestones when you meet artillery or big motor trucks, and it takes a good driver not to stall his car. . .

J. Paulding Brown, "The First Months of the American Ambulance" in George Rock, History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955, New York 1956

September 1914

The Battle of the Marne had begun.

Late in the evening of 7 September, orders came for the ambulances to bring in some wounded Senegalese left behind at Meaux after the fighting that morning. We arrived at midnight and found our wounded sprawled on the floor in a little school, tended by a single priest. Dr. Gros and Dr. DuBouchet set about patching them up for the journey. Finally we had 20 loaded on our 10 cars, the first of many thousands of soldiers to be carried by the American Ambulance and the American Field Service. We lined up in front of the Cathedral ready to leave as dawn broke. Then the Bishop of Meaux appeared on the steps and solemnly gave us his blessing, adding for each of us a couple of apples by way of breakfast. As we drove slowly out of Meaux, we saw on all sides the debris of battle: dead horses, everywhere;smashed field guns and caissons; burned farmhouses; and long columns of French infantry in their baggy red pants and heavy blue coats, all moving eastward. [...]

October 1914

All through September, and well into October, Paris remained on edge. The menace of the enemy's return continued. The French wanted to keep all military hospitals, including the Lycée Pasteur, empty for the time being. As a result the ambulances had nothing to do [...]

Towards the end of October two officers of the British Royal Army Medical Corps appeared at the American Hospital looking for ambulances. The battles of the Marne and the Aisne had passed into history. Paris was saved and the fighting rolled away to the north and east. The remnants of the British Army had left their positions on the Aisne and made the long march to the Belgian frontier. They were even then moving into positions around Ypres for the last desperate battle before trench warfare immobilized the front from Switzerland to the North Sea. Motor ambulances were desperately needed by the British. Our 10 cars stood idle at the Lycée Pasteur. But soon they moved.

November-December 1914

On 2 November, a section of 5 ambulances left Paris for the British front and a few days later was followed by an old Mercedes ambulance and a Ford touring car for the Section Chief. All were assembled at Merville in the Pas-de-Calais. We were promptly attached to the Indian Army Corps, which had just arrived from the Far East and was at that time holding a portion of the line around Béthune, opposite Lille. [...]

Following the terrific fighting at Ypres in early November 1914, the British front quieted down.The artillery on both sides kept up a desultory fire, but except for an occasional raid there was little activity until the disastrous British attack in February at Neuve Eglise, south of Ypres. Section One settled itself in Merville. We were billeted in the garret of a large house located in a lumber yard at the edge of the town where canal boats were built. We slept on the floor, washed at an outdoor pump, and messed at the local pub, appropriately called the "Canon d'Or." The townspeople went about their work never dreaming that three years later Merville would be practically obliterated by shell fire and its ruins deluged in gas. [...]

Several of the Merville veterans drifted away. New arrivals had come in from America, including A. Piatt Andrew. Little did we realize when we first met this debonair and forceful man that it was he who would buildup the American Ambulance into the great American Field Service. [...]

January-February 1915

By the third week in January our cars were repaired, the new men assimilated, and we were ready to go north again. Ten ambulances, a staff car, and a supply car with a complement of 19 men set out for Dunkerque on 18 January, expecting to go to the French Army in the sand-dune country along the Belgian coast. We slept the first night in our cars, parked in the square at St. Omer, and reached Dunkerque the next day. Here we met with an unpleasant surprise,for the French ordered the Section to set up business in Dunkerque.

We found ourselves attached to the French Army, designated the Detachment of the Army of Belgium, holding the line from the Channel to Ypres except for a few miles of flooded country where the battered remnant of the Belgian Army was entrenched around Pervyse. Night and day we carried French wounded from the hospital trains to the twenty or more military hospitals set up in Dunkerque. We were started on the road which was to take Section One through the bombardment of Dunkerque and the German gas attack in April,when at Elverdinghe the Section distinguished itself and Balbiani won the Croix de Guerre.

An important event occurred on Washington's Birthday-22 February, 1915.The Section celebrated with a dinner at its favorite "estaminet."As we were sitting down, a long black car drove up and out stepped Mr. Robert L.. Bacon, former American Ambassador to France and at that time a sort of inspector general for activities connected with the care of wounded British and French soldiers. Mr. Bacon had known Piatt Andrew in Washington and he saw at once that Doc's talents were not being used. When he left that night for Paris, Andrew went with him to begin the work of developing the American Ambulance into the American Field Service.

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A driver with the Hector-Monroe ambulance corps in the north of France:

Spence Burton, The Letters of Caspar Henry Burton, Jr.. Edited by his brother, SPENCE BURTON, S.S.J.E.

"While he was in New York, Mr. Robert Bacon offered him the position of a driver in the first American Flying Ambulance Corps. He longed to accept. "

More about the American Ambulance's first "field ambulance cars":

Draft of official report on American Ambulance's detached motors, from the Samuel B. Watson Collection at the Hoover Institute.

"The first unit of ten cars with one car for carrying repair parts and a pilot car was offered to the Red Cross Service of the British Army and commenced its work in November 1914. "