|The Writers of the Letters are:|
|E. H. PATTISON, Cornell.|
|J. L. ROTHWELL, Cornell.|
|H. BYRD, Washing/on.|
|E. I. TINKHAM, Cornell.|
|D. HINRICHS, Cornell.|
|A. SHERRY, Cornell.|
|R. E. MACKENZIE, Cornell.|
|I. HALL, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.|
|R. DURLAND, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.|
|R. A. BROWNING, Cornell.|
THIS is a volume of letters written by young Americans who as members of the American Field Service volunteered to drive the heavy transport trucks, or camions, of the French Army. Most of the letters are from the Cornell men who formed the larger part of the first section of drivers assigned to the transport work. The straightforward letters are self-explanatory, but it is in place to introduce them by a few words telling of the way the Service engaged in the transport of war materials.
The record of the American ambulances in France is well known. Friends of France, Ambulance No. 10, and the Diary of Section VIII have given to English-speaking readers the story of young American volunteers in France doing their duty to the cause they had voluntarily chosen and doing it so well as to win for them citation after citation in the French orders of the day, and the Croix de Guerre that often accompanied the citation. More than one hundred young American collegians wear this simple cross, which comes to no recreant. That these young men were representative of the Service is proved by the fact that French Generals vied among themselves to have the American ambulanciers attached to their divisions. It is a record of which the Service is proud and of which America may well be proud.
In May, 1917, the Paris authorities of the American Ambulance Field Service in France were requested by the French Government to take over as much as was feasible of the transport work of one of the French Armies. In the French forces there are 80,000 motor vehicles driven, as far as France can make it possible, by men whose age or physical condition unfits them for active service at the front. To release these men meant to replace them with American volunteers and to send back one by one to their farms or to Governmental offices veteran Frenchmen whose services were needed elsewhere than on the trucks. The request, highly honoring to the Service, came partly as the result of the great need of the French for additional camionneurs, or drivers of heavy trucks, and partly because a temporary shortage of ambulances threatened to leave in idleness some of the young American volunteers just arriving in Paris.
The Service gladly took on the new work and made a prompt appeal to the men on hand. Although they had come over to drive ambulances, most of them appreciated the new need and volunteered for the transport work. A training camp was at once established, and after a brief but adequate period of drill in handling the heavy vehicles on difficult roads, the first transport section set out for the front carrying the first American flag authorized to, be borne in this war. As it happened, most of the forty men in the section were from Cornell, and at the head was a Cornell man, Edward Tinkham, who had already won his Cross of War in ambulance work by " his untiring devotion under the violent fire of the enemy." Conformably to its new function the Service changed its name to The American Field Service and sent out a call for volunteers in this country.
Naturally a transfer of so much consequence could not be accomplished without some difficulties. On the part of the volunteers it involved a change of purpose not to be lightly undertaken. Men who had gone over animated by zeal to perform humane services felt that to drive munition trucks was a departure from their original purpose. Some solved the problem in a plain, soldierly spirit, saying that what France wanted was clearly the thing for them to do. Others held strongly to their original idea. Moreover, although prompt information of the new arrangements was sent to all officers recruiting for the Service, there was obvious difficulty in getting to all the oncoming volunteers an explicit understanding of the new situation. A further question arose in respect of those men whose expenses had been contributed in whole or in part during the campaign for the support of the ambulance service. Some of these men obtained from the contributors permission to transfer, some went on with the ambulance work, and some, accepting war conditions as the supreme law, transferred to the new branch, assuming that their action would be approved at home, as it almost invariably was.
On this side of the water a great deal of confusion arose through misunderstandings, slowly to be cleared up by incessant correspondence. In general there was difficulty in realizing that the Service had no control over the necessities of war, and that it was trying to meet an emergency practically. To have answered all the incoming questions fully and personally would have meant a practical abandonment of the work of the Service in its offices and a commandeering of all the office staffs for typewriting. Printed material was copiously used, however, and gradually the situation cleared up.
Meantime a new trouble appeared. Of late the very word ambulance had been a thing to conjure with. The desire to relieve the sufferings of the wounded had a splendid emotional quality, and now at the very time when ambulance delivery was being held up in France, American gifts for ambulances poured in. It was a hard, ungracious task to be compelled to decline or postpone the acceptance of the one thing that had been the very heart of the Service. It was a still harder task to persuade many of the generous donors that their gifts were urgently needed to develop the new branch of the Service. There is at first thought little spiritual appeal in a transport truck, little call for skill and initiative on the part of its driver. Yet the reverse is the case. The trucks are the backbone of the army and the driver pilots them over shell-swept roads with all the incident risks of motor troubles. Had motor car owners stopped to reflect upon what their feelings would be if instead of changing their tires or inspecting their spark plugs on a macadamized American road, they could see shells bursting near them on a devastated highway of France, they would never ask, as some did, the cool question about truck driving in France, "Is this the work for a patriotic American youth with red blood in his veins?"
It would not be fair, however, to give the impression that taking over the transport work nullified the Service's appeal for funds. The friends of the Service maintained their firm faith that instead of doing something alien to its original purpose the Service was only reaching out and making itself even more useful to France. Indeed, in some quarters a desire to contribute first arose with the knowledge that our transport men were bearing our flag as combatants and not using the protection of the Geneva Red Cross.
But still the fact remained, and remains, that the transport service makes far less an appeal to the heart than to the brain, and that the heart has to be touched before the purse strings loosen.
Yet this transport work of the army is an absolutely indispensable part of the force that makes for victory. The camions carry from the depots to the front supplies for trench-making, road-repairing, and bridge-building. They carry equipment for the divisions, and food for the men. They carry the troops themselves when reserves have to be rushed to a point of attack. And they carry the ammunition on which depends the barrage fire and the great offensives. "An army," said Napoleon, "travels on its belly." This vivid statement of the imperative value of the commissary needs now to be supplemented and enlarged ---even without the imperial imagery---to include the transportation of all that a modern army requires.
The camionneurs who carry on the transport work realize the responsibility of their task, and they meet its dangers as true soldiers. The job is a man's job, and calls for courage as well as skill. It calls for initiative in the emergencies which constantly occur. It is no humdrum task of driving heavy trucks in a slow procession along a quiet road. There is nothing humdrum in driving under artillery fire. It is, as the men at the steering-wheels know, an imperative duty and a high privilege, and there is no good quality a man possesses which does not find free play in the daily task.
The men in the transport branch of the Service have of course written many letters home, and some of these letters have been passed over by their recipients to the American headquarters. The letters were written without thought of publication, but it has seemed proper to make out of them a small volume whose general purpose is to make known the character and activities of the transport service. The letters speak for themselves,---frank, boyish recitals of daily routine and of occasional exciting experience. Between the lines of the letters may be clearly read a heartening thing,---the growth of high-spirited natures out of boyhood to a man's stature.
MARTIN W. SAMPSON