The American Field Service has probably the longest continuous existence of any of the relief organizations which came into being with the first World War.
It had its beginnings at the outbreak of that war, when a number of young Americans, living in France, manned hastily improvised ambulances and helped bring in the wounded from the first Battle of the Marne.
From this spontaneous beginning there had developed, by April of 1915, the American Field Service, created and directed by the late A. Piatt Andrew. To this Service were attracted some twenty-five hundred American volunteers from nearly every state in the Union, and from more than a hundred American colleges or universities.
They carried wounded from practically every important battle along the French front: in 1915, from the plains of Flanders during the battles of Ypres and the Yser, from the hills of northern Lorraine during the violent engagements in the Bois le Pretre, and in the mountains and valleys of reconquered Alsace during the battles of Fecht and Hartmannsweilerkopf. In 1916, during the battle of Verdun, they were everywhere in that sector from the Woevre to the Argonne, and in the autumn of that year two of their sections were sent to the Balkans where they worked during the following year with the French troops in the mountainous regions of northern Greece, Serbia, and Albania. The year 1917 found American Field Service sections carrying wounded from every great engagement from the April battle in Champagne to the October battle on the Chemin des Dames.
The thirty-one ambulance sections served with sixty-six French divisions, and carried from the front line trenches to the first dressing stations more than half a million wounded.
The French Army awarded nineteen decorations to the American Field Service Sections, and conferred the Croix de Guerre, the Medaille Militaire or the Legion d'Honneur upon two hundred and fifty of their members.
The record of those years is told in the three volume "History of the American Field Service in France," to be found in many of the public and college libraries throughout the country.
AMERICAN FIELD SERVICE FELLOWSHIPS
At the close of the last war, a court order was obtained, permitting the American Field Service to use its remaining funds as an endowment for fellowships to enable American students to do graduate work in French universities, and an occasional French student to do graduate work in an American university.
From the inauguration of these American Field Service Fellowships for French Universities, Inc., to the present time, the privilege of such fellowships has been granted to 165 students.
There have naturally been no fellowships for study in France for the past two years. A young French student, however, who had been granted a fellowship for 1939, was mobilized and returned to France, got back to this country in the late summer of 1940. He is now studying, under an American Field Service Fellowship, at the Harvard Business School.
Likewise at the close of the war, these veteran ambulanciers formed an association which has been kept alive through the years. When the outbreak of the present war seemed imminent, this American Field Service Association, with a large membership throughout the country, and with an eager desire once more to help, laid its plans for the revival of its volunteer ambulance service to France.
Before the end of September, 1939, the American Field Service had received its registration number from the Department of State.
It was soon evident that this war was not to follow the pattern of the last. During the long months before the invasion of the Low Countries, the opportunity was afforded to lay a firm foundation, based on the experience of the past, but with adjustment to the new pattern.
Section One left Paris in the gray dawn of a day in May, and moved north, to experience within the brief period of a few weeks a baptism of fire never before undergone by a volunteer ambulance section. Within two days of arrival at its post, four of its drivers, on two ambulances, had been swallowed up in the blazing inferno of Amiens, not to be heard from for weeks thereafter.
Meanwhile, the section carried on, amid bombing, machine-gunning, roads clogged with refugees,---the heartbreak of retreat.
Eventually the section turned up intact in the south of France, with a record of more than 12,000 carried in its ambulances,---not only wounded soldiers, but refugees, men, women, and children. In the words of one of its members: "Only a record remaining,---but a good one, and a proud memory!"
COOPERATION WITH AMERICAN RED CROSS
After the armistice, the ambulances were driven back to Paris, where they were loaned to the American Red Cross, and throughout the summer and early fall were used to carry food and medical supplies to French prison camps. A number of American Field Service volunteers participated in this work.
Subsequently, the work of the American Red Cross having come to a close, the ambulances were turned over to the Secours National, to continue in the work of French relief.
AID TO GREAT BRITAIN
At the time of the fall of France, Section Two was in Paris, preparing to leave for the front; Section Three was on its way. Volunteers were applying in increasing numbers, and donations were coming in at an accelerating rate. Had France held out, the American Field Service would have had eight to ten sections on the front by autumn.
The problem now became one of diverting all this interest to the greatest immediate need. This meant aid to England, which was next to bear the brunt of attack. Accordingly, with the consent of the donors, the American Field Service turned over to British use the ambulances given too late to serve in France.
KENYA Fourteen of these ambulance chassis, on the docks in New York, were shipped to Kenya Colony, for service with the British East Africa Force. Mr. William B. Leeds, of New York, accompanied this unit to Kenya, to supervise the construction of the bodies at the General Motors plant in Nairobi, and the putting of the cars into service. All costs were covered jointly by the original donors and Mr. Leeds.
Known as the Leeds Unit of the American Field Service, these ambulances have been in service since the first of the year, with native drivers.
AMERICAN AMBULANCE. GREAT BRITAIN
The majority of the ambulances, including ten which had been shipped to France but turned up in England, were put into service with the American Ambulance, Great Britain. Subsequently additional contributions were solicited and received, so that by the late summer of 1941, there had been given to the American Ambulance, Great Britain, through the American Field Service, a total of 115 units, or 149 vehicles,---ambulances, surgical units, and mobile first aid posts.
The American Field Service also supplied some maintenance funds for these cars, although the greater part of the maintenance has been and is being supplied by the British War Relief Society.
The American Ambulance, Great Britain, created at the time of the armistice in France by Americans resident in London, is directed by Americans, under the authority of the British Ministry of Health.
Its drivers are English women. Their record is magnificent.
When the war turned toward heroic Greece, the American Field Service was appointed by the Greek War Relief Association to supply ambulances for the saving of Greek lives.
Generous donations were quickly received, and twenty-five ambulances quickly built at the General Motors plant in Bombay. Dispatched to Greece in two shipments, they were not heard from for some time. Eventually word came through that the first shipment of thirteen had reached their destination safely; the second shipment of twelve had turned up at Suez.
FREE FRENCH MIDDLE EAST
There was no opportunity to send American volunteers either to Greece or to England, but the American Field Service received a request to supply drivers for the Hadfield-Spears Field Hospital, an English service for the Free French in the Middle East.
A unit of seventeen men left on this mission in the closing days of 1940. Their service in Syria, as with our men in France, was brief but intense.
A few of these volunteers, upon the completion of this work, transferred to ambulance driving with the Free French. The American Field Service turned over for their use the twelve ambulances, originally intended for Greece, which had been unloaded at Suez, and six additional ambulances from Bombay. Another three ambulances are to be supplied, to complete the section, and volunteers are to be sent over to supplement those now working with the Free French. A second section has been urgently requested.
Through the generosity of an anonymous donor, the American Field Service is also supplying to the Free French, an airplane ambulance for use where the wounded have to be carried long distances, over difficult terrain.
BRITISH MIDDLE EAST ARMIES
On its record, the American Field Service has been entrusted with the furnishing of a complete volunteer ambulance service to British Armies in the important Middle East theatre of war.
It hopes and intends to organize a service which will merit this confidence by a record of British lives saved, and live up to its traditions as the pioneer volunteer ambulance service.
The first unit of some 150 Volunteers is leaving in November, 1941.