The Field Service Experience in WWI:
Rites of Passage




 Initiation is so closely linked to the mode of being of human existence that a considerable number of modern man's acts and gestures continue to repeat initiatory scenarios. Very often the "struggle for life," the "ordeals" and "difficulties" that stand in the way of a vocation or a career, in some sort reiterate the ordeals of initiation; it is after the "blows" that are dealt him, the moral and even physical "suffering" and "torture" he undergoes, that a young man "proves" himself, knows his possibilities, grows conscious of his powers, and finally becomes himself, spiritually adult and creative.

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (English translation), New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1957, pp 208-209

 The hills of Verdun and the red sun setting back of the hills and the charred skeletons of trees and the river Meuse and the black shells spouting up in columns along the road to Bras and the thunder of the barrage and the wounded and the ride through red explosions and the violent metamorphose from boy into man.

From the diary of Harry Crosby [SSU 71], quoted by Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return, Viking Press, NY 1934, Compass Books ed 1956, p. 249.

The Field Service, as part of a larger whole, had two complementary sides: organizational and experiential, social and individual, collective and personal.

The "red cross" of altruism symbolized the common aims which, alongside many an individual motivation (such as a thirst for adventure!), guided the drivers through the inevitable confrontation of good feelings and hard facts:

An American ambulance driver is a fellow who comes to France to save Humanity. But by the time he has been on the western front for a couple of weeks, his efforts in this pursuit have been concentrated on one integral portion of the whole in the animated endeavor to save himself. From Peoria to Paris is a long, simmering journey in aspirations.
Lo, the poor ambulance driver! He exchanges his dreamy delusions for materialistic maxims, and when he returns, he is thoroughly demoralized --- and infinitely wiser!

Lansing Warren, "The American Ambulance Man", 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 III.

Our real instructors were the brancardiers, the stretcherbearers, men in their gray fifties who had been pulled out of the infantry and assigned to the tender but hazardous task of conveying the wounded in their pousse-pousses from the front line to the poste de secours. These men were old enough to be our fathers, they had seen more than they wanted of death, and yet they were endlessly patient in their teaching of us raw Americans, to whom a pile of stiffs under a tarpaulin in the shed behind the poste was still a curiosity to be stared at. The brancardiers taught us their card games and how to enjoy pinard at their popote. They taught us the humor and irony of the French newspapers; they taught us tenacity and, in their handling of the wounded, the meaning of mercy. And finally, in those perilous days of March 1918, when the Germans had broken through at St. Quentin, they showed us the anguish which is in every Frenchman's eyes when his country seems dreadfully in peril.

Edward Weeks. "What the French Taught Us," In Friendly Candor. Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1946.