THE American Ambulance Field Service in France has, if I may use language similar to that of railway men, made over a million ambulance miles since the war began. In other words, it has transported more than two hundred and fifty thousand wounded men an average of four miles each. This takes no account of the innumerable trips made in various directions and for various purposes where no unfortunate passengers were carried.
By reason of such transportation from battlefield to hospital, no doubt an immense number of lives have been saved, for in the business of saving wounded soldiers time is above all things essential, and the automobile saves time and substitutes a comparatively comfortable means of transport for the slow-going, lumbering, springless carts of other wars.
I think the above will justify the faith of our American friends whose generosity has so greatly helped to make our Service effective.
At the very start, let me say that, while the American Ambulance Field Service has always enjoyed pleasant relations with the American Red Cross, and many of our men are members of that great organization, and all have the greatest interest in its work in America, we have preferred that our Service in France should not be officially affiliated with it. Our Service was organized for the purpose of helping France---a concrete expression of our sympathy with the French people, our belief in the justice of their cause, our hope in its ultimate triumph. For that reason we have preferred not to be affiliated with an organization which inevitably also has agencies in Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and Turkey---the enemies of France It is important to make clear the distinction between the two organizations, because not infrequently generous Americans who have wanted to help our Service have mistakenly sent money or recruits intended for us to the Red Cross.
Although much has been written on the subject, let me say just a word as to the origin of the American Ambulance Field Service in France.
When the war broke out, Robert Bacon, former Ambassador to France, and a number of other Americans organized a military hospital, in connection with an American civil hospital, a quasi-philanthropic institution which had existed for many years in Paris, to care for the French wounded. This hospital had only a limited number of beds. So in a few weeks it was decided to undertake something on a larger scale. Through the French Government the Lycée Pasteur, an extensive school building then in process of construction at Neuilly, in the outskirts of Paris, was secured. This building had numerous large, well-ventilated, well-lighted rooms, and was capable of being equipped with at least six hundred beds. Through the generosity of many Americans interested in France all essentials were supplied, and by the time the German army got to within twenty-five miles of Paris the hospital was ready for service and was known as the American Ambulance. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the American Government had presented a fully equipped field hospital, which bore the same name, to our sister Republic but the present institution was due entirely to the initiative and generosity of individual Americans.
When the flood of German invasion surged close to Paris, American volunteers quickly constructed ten ambulances, making their bodies from the packing-cases in which the cars had been brought from America. These roughly constructed ambulances were used to bring in the wounded from the vicinity of Meaux, the nearest region to Paris which the enemy attained. But after the Battle of the Marne the German tide ebbed back some fifty miles from the capital, and it was no longer possible to bring the wounded all the way back to the hospitals in automobiles.
The French Government began rapidly to organize sections of ambulances, each division of the army---approximately twenty thousand soldiers---being equipped with its own section of automobile ambulances. Hospitals near the front were also expeditiously organized. Obviously these could not be located within the zone of shell fire, but school-houses and other public buildings....
Killed in Lorraine on service with the American Ambulance
Killed near Verdun while on his way to rescue wounded with the American Ambulance
....sent to Salonika to work with the French Army of the Orient.(#note)
The personnel of this last-named section is typical of our service as a whole. It included eleven graduates or students of Harvard University, three each from Yale and Princeton, and one each from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia. In the service, as a whole, Harvard has shown more interest than any other college. We have had 114 Harvard graduates, about forty Yale men, a similar number from Princeton, and about a dozen each from the Universities of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, and Virginia, as well as representatives of about fifty other American universities. The Service has included doctors and lawyers, architects and painters---especially such as had been in France in their student days---brokers and business men, even a few clergymen, and several poets and writers of distinction, such as Henry Sydnor Harrison and Emery Pottle. They have varied in age as much as in profession. The youngest volunteer we have had is Julian Allen, of New York, who was only fifteen when he joined us. In applying, he stretched his age to seventeen, and, as he looked at least twenty, he was readily accepted. We have had, however, at least half a dozen who were over forty-five. In the matter of availability for service age does not seem to count; the young men are the most eager and the most active, but also they are the most restless in periods of slack work. The influence of the older men is particularly helpful in maintaining discipline at such periods.
One great difficulty in the handling of our sections of volunteers has been to keep them contented in periods of repose. Each ambulance section, be it understood, is attached to a division of the army, and a division rarely remains in a sector or region of intense activity at the front for much more than a fortnight at a stretch. The strain is too great and the losses may be heavy. So every division is moved from time to time to a quieter section, often to some village back from the front, where its men can get rested, its losses be repaired, and its equipment restored. 'This process of rehabilitation may take three or four weeks, or even longer, during which the ambulance corps has little to do and its members tend to become restless.
During these periods of repose life at the front is by no means without interest. The soldiers arrange various forms of entertainment. It not infrequently happens that an impromptu theater with cleverly contrived scenery and footlights is set up in a barn, and the dramatic and musical talent in the army arrange performances with songs and dances and instrumental pieces, and often with dialogues and plays containing satirical comments on the Germans and on the political situation in France, with occasional allusions to America, as, for instance, to President Wilson's "belles-lettres" or to non-exploding shells, which are spoken of as "Wilsons." In fact, one sees entertainments in the rear during these periods of repose that would be well worth attending in Paris itself.
Frenchmen are either artists or artisans, and when they have leisure they turn their talents to good effect. They make the finger rings which have become so familiar, inkstands, paper-cutters, cigarette boxes, and even musical instruments, from pieces of shells and other materials which they find at hand. And not infrequently they organize in barns or sheds not far from the trenches a salon d'automne or a salon d'été to exhibit their paintings, sketches, water-colors, and objets d'art.
Our volunteers are in most cases not expert mechanics, but, as almost every American boy knows something about automobiles, and as the cars we use are of simple construction, it is possible to conduct a service with only one man for each car. We have, however, one paid mechanic---an American---in each section, whose business it is to diagnose the difficulties that arise in the handling of the cars and to show the men of the section how to correct these difficulties. The individual driver not only looks after the loading and unloading of the wounded whom he transports, but he oils, greases, and repairs his own car. The men become very much attached to their cars because of the labor they spend on them, and bestow upon them pet names---"Maude," "Susan," "Lottie," "Agnes," "Elsie," and the like.
It is very hard for any one living on this side of the world, where conditions are so prosperous and happy, to realize the nature of the work which our American volunteers have willingly assumed. They drive their cars to the point nearest to the trenches to which a wheeled vehicle can go---sometimes a shattered farm-house, sometimes the cellar of a ruined château, sometimes merely a hole dug deep in the ground. These are dressing stations, the places to which the stretcher-bearers bring the wounded from the trenches for preliminary treatment before removal to the nearest hospital. In many cases the dressing stations are intermittently under an arch of flying shells going in both directions, and they are sometimes subject to the fire of rifles and rapid-fire guns as well. Nevertheless our men have been extremely fortunate. Only two have been killed---Richard Hall, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, whose car was hit by a shell as he was driving up Hartmannsweilerkopf on Christmas Eve, 1915 ; and Edward Kelley, of Philadelphia, who was killed on his first trip to a dressing station in the vicinity of Dead Man's Hill, near Verdun, in September, 1916.
Bear in mind, the work of most of our sections is carried on at night in total darkness, not even a lighted cigarette being permitted at some of the posts. As the cars draw near to the front the drivers cannot sound a horn lest they advise the enemy that automobiles are on the road. The enemy has the range of all the roads. To be sure, they might not shell an ambulance, but there is no way of knowing in the night that it isn't an ammunition wagon that's approaching. For weeks at a time our drivers operate their cars night after night without any lights on the darkest nights except such as come from illuminating rockets from the trenches, along roads heavily encumbered with moving artillery, motor trucks, marching troops, and all the traffic of war, often in the midst of heavy shell fire, and picking their way carefully to avoid here and there the black spots in the road which indicate holes made by shells. Sometimes they run their cars into these holes and have to wait until passing troops can lift them out and set them once more on their way. Often when the dawn comes they go to sleep on a bloody stretcher in the back of a dirty ambulance or ill a chilly tent in sleet or rain. It sometimes happens that they are compelled to work for forty-eight hours at a stretch with scarcely a moment's rest of any kind. They live like the soldiers, on the common army food---dried vegetables, canned meats, more or less the same day after day; they see nothing for months at a time of the outer world, and have nothing enter into their thoughts week after week but the most sordid side of the business of war.
No man can pass through such an experience unchanged. With our men it has been a strengthening, a refining, a democratizing, a spiritualizing process. Notwithstanding their suffering, they have taken out much more than they put in. One Harvard graduate---out of college twelve or fourteen years, living an idle, care-free life, playing bridge and doing the social functions---when asked his business in civil life, replied:
"I have never done much of anything, sir, up to the present. But I doubt when the war is over whether I shall ever be happy doing that again."
Another man of similar associations, after working in Alsace with the Chasseurs Alpins, remarked that he looked forward to the time when back in New York---after the war---he would be called on the telephone by the familiar voice of one of those Chasseurs. Said he: "I can't imagine anything that will give me more pleasure than to re-encounter that man in New York. His name is François. He is the second cook in the Knickerbocker Hotel, and the finest gentleman I ever knew!"
As I have said, notwithstanding all hardships and risks, our men have gained much more than they have given in this war. It is a privilege even in peace times to live in the gentle country of France, surrounded by all the wonderful architectural heritages of her past and in contact with her gifted, sensitive and highly intelligent people. One learns constantly new lessons in courtesy and in consideration for others, and one inevitably gains a better perspective about the things which make life worth while. To live in France to-day means all this and much more. To see a nation facing mortal danger with the courage. good humor, and tenacity the French people display, giving to their country willingly all that they have or can hope for, smiling in the midst of suffering and unmindful even of death, means for every American volunteer an inspiration to patriotism such as no other experience in life could ever offer.
Our two hundred volunteer drivers in the American Ambulance Field Service have served with a spirit of intense devotion, and tens of thousands of other Americans on this side of, the water have in manifold ways devoted all their energies for the past two years to the making of dressings and clothing and the providing of comforts for the soldiers and widows and orphans of France ; but, after all, what we have done is infinitesimally small compared with the needs and sacrifices of France, or compared with what France has done for us. When Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and the Revolution, which had lasted for seven years, was brought to its end, there were as many French soldiers in the army to which he surrendered as there were Americans, and, in addition, there was the great French fleet in the harbor which had driven the British fleet away. France spent for us, during the American Revolution no less than seven hundred million dollars, and yet at the end of the war she asked for not one sou or one inch of territory as recompense. We owe to France our existence as an independent nation, but, more than that, along with the rest of the world, we owe to France the inspiration which she has given in every field of art and thought.
On every French silver coin and on every French postage stamp is the figure of a graceful, slender woman walking toward the dawn, sowing with a swinging arm as she walks---a figure designed by Roty, the greatest of French engravers, to symbolize the rôle of France in the world. France has for centuries been the sower of the world's civilization. She has not always reaped where she sowed. She sowed, and England reaped. She sowed America, and England and the United States reaped; she sowed the Suez Canal, and England reaped; she sowed the Panama Canal, and America and the rest of the world have reaped. She sowed the automobile, aeroplane, and the submarine---the very instruments of war which to-day have been so effectively used against her. The Wright brothers received no recognition or encouragement in America when they discovered the mastery of the air. It was first of all in France that they received the encouragement and help which enabled them to go on with their experiments. In architecture and painting, in sculpture, in the drama, in mathematics---in virtually every field of thought---the world at large is indebted to France for inspiration and encouragement. Even in the present war France has gained for herself new laurels. She has committed no moral blunders, has laid herself open to no criticisms, has violated no treaties, has trespassed upon none of the established conventions of warfare ; so far as such a thing is possible she has conducted the hideous processes of war with gallantry as well as with indomitable valor. The whole world, including even her enemies, to-day does reverence to France and recognizes in her a combatant without fear and also without reproach.
For all that Americans have done to help France the French people are appreciative far beyond our merits. The various hospitals maintained by Americans, and the large quantities of supplies for these hospitals and the volunteer surgeons, nurses, ambulance drivers, and legionaries sent over from America, inspire in the French people a deep and appreciative response. The little ambulances seen here and there along the front seem to make their soldiers feel that all America is with them, and every American boy who gives his life for the service of France, as two of our American ambulance boys and at least three of the American aviators have done, is to them the equivalent of a whole American army division serving with them.
Last June a squadron of German aeroplanes flew over Bar-le-Duc, dropping bombs over the city, killing sixty-odd and wounding one hundred and fifty, mostly civilians. From the moment that the first bomb was dropped from the sky and the people in general rushed to their cellars our little American cars began cruising about the city, picking up the victims here and there, but running at the same time the risk of themselves being blown to pieces. They were the only ambulances in the city at that time, and about a week later an official was sent from Bar-le-Duc to our headquarters in Paris to express the appreciation of the people of Bar-le-Duc for the services rendered. "There is not a man, woman, or child in Bar-le-Duc," he said, "who will not always feel more friendly toward America for what your American volunteers did for them in that hour of their great trial."
Every one of the sections of the American Ambulance Field Service has received the Croix de Guerre, and fifty-four individual members of the Service have been decorated with that medal, while two have received the Médaille de Militaire, the highest reward for valor which the French army can confer.
When, at the end of September, 1916, one of our ambulance sections was suddenly detached from an army division in Lorraine in order to join the French Army of the Orient in the Balkans, the general in command of the division with which this section had served expressed himself as follows:
"At the moment when an unexpected order of departure deprives the 129th Division of American Sanitary Section No. 3 the general of the division desires to express to all its members his deepest thanks.
"Since the 25th April, 1916, the section has followed the division to the various points on the front where it has been in action-at Lay St. Christophe, in the dangerous sector of Thiaumont, at Verdun, and at Bois-le-Prêtre. -
"The American volunteers have everywhere shown an unforgetable example of devotion.
"They carry away with them the gratitude of our wounded, the admiration of all those who have seen them at work, and the regrets caused by their departure.
"They leave behind them an example which it will be sufficient to recall when in another Verdun their successors will be called upon to show the courage and self-abnegation so necessary in the accomplishment of their mission."
A week later the general in command of a division in the vicinity of Dead Man's Hill, near Verdun, with which another of our sections had been serving, wrote as follows:
"I wish to express to you my congratulations for the unwearied activity, the devotion, and the fearless contempt of danger shown by the drivers of American Sanitary Section No. 2 under your command since their arrival at the division, and particularly in the course of the days and nights from the 18th to the 20th September.
"The American drivers have shown themselves worthy sons of the great and generous nation for the emancipation of which our ancestors shed their blood."
These are characteristic examples, of which many more might be cited, of the feeling of the French army toward the American Ambulance Field Service. I will quote only one more tribute from a letter just received from an officer upon the staff of General Joffre:
"The work of the American Ambulance Field Service is the most beautiful flower of the magnificent wreath offered by the great America to her valiant little Latin sister.
"Those who, like you and your friends, are consecrating themselves entirely to our cause, up to and including even the sacrifice, deserve more than our gratitude. It is impossible for the future to separate them from our own."
NOTE: Quite independently of the eight sections of the American Ambulance Field Service, it should be said that there are also two independent sections of ambulances in which Americans have served, the Anglo-American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps, conducted by Mr. Richard Norton, and a section controlled by the bankers Morgan Harjes.