The American Field Service

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“Who knows?” Piatt Andrew wrote Isabella Stewart Gardner from shipboard on Christmas night of 1914, “we may spend the winter carting the groceries from Paris to Neuilly.” He had volunteered to drive an ambulance for the American Hospital in France, but beyond that his prospects were utterly uncertain. Yet within months he was to organize and direct an ambulance service that would serve virtually the entire French army until after America’s entry into World War I .

 

“Who knows?” Piatt Andrew wrote Isabella Stewart Gardner from shipboard on Christmas night of 1914, “we may spend the winter carting the groceries from Paris to Neuilly.” He had volunteered to drive an ambulance for the American Hospital in France, but beyond that his prospects were utterly uncertain. Yet within months he was to organize and direct an ambulance service that would serve virtually the entire French army until after America’s entry into World War I .

 

While the Battle of the Marne ground to a stalemate that fall, Piatt Andrew was embroiled in his first congressional campaign, seeking to unseat a fellow Republican (and nephew of “Mrs. Jack”), Augustus Peabody Gardner, as representative for Essex County in Massachusetts. Although he enlivened his vote-getting activities by resorting to a hydroplane (a sensation in those days) to tour the North Shore from Swampscott to Newburyport, he took a severe drubbing at the hands of the “Gardner machine” in the primary election on September ai, 1914. And so the forty-one-year-old bachelor, ex-Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, ex-director of the United States Mint, and ex-professor of economics at Harvard, was free to close his house in Gloucester and so off to war.

“I am relying on you,” Andrew wrote Robert Bacon, “to find me work with the American Hospital in Paris.” Bacon, who had served Pierpont Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Tait in a succession of key positions, was president of the hospital. Luckily, he owed Andrew a favor for having employed his son, Robert Low Bacon, as personal assistant in the Treasury Department during the Taft administration. But there was no vacancy in the management hierarchy of the hospital, and the best Bacon could suggest was a job in its motor pool as a volunteer driver.

Upon the outbreak of hostilities in August the multifarious American colony in France immediately rallied around the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, a little suburb northwest of Paris. Even before Von Muck’s troops reached the Marne, its two prime movers, Robert Bacon and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, had persuaded the French government to provide the larger facilities needed for the care of wounded soldiers. Soon the American Hospital found itself installed in a huge, brand-new redbrick school building, also in Neuilly, originally designed as the Lycée Pasteur. One wing of this six-hundred-bed medical establishment, however, was reserved for its transportation activities and included a few small offices, a tool shed, and a garage. A motley collection of vehicles donated by American tourists and expatriates for ambulance work stood in the courtyard. From time to time, whenever a group of volunteer drivers could be collected, these cars were dispatched on forays toward the fighting front, somewhat like an itinerant circus. This had not proved a very auspicious method of managing the service. By the close of 1914, in fact, the French army had summarily notified hospital officials that their disorganized amateur drivers would henceforth be unwelcome in the vicinity of the front lines. The British Expeditionary Force, it is true, had agreed to accept a few squads of ambulances on the narrow sector it held at the Channel, but solely to undertake the transportation of wounded men behind the lines from rail stations to base hospitals scattered throughout the countryside. By the time Andrew reported for work at Neuilly early in January, 1915, two such squads were in service in the Pas de Calais, and another was in the process of formation to be subsequently disnatched to Dunkirk.

 

Inevitably the doctors running the American Hospital regarded ambulance work as ancillary to their main purpose. The American ambassador, William Sharp, the consul general, Frank Mason, and other leading members of the American community in Paris sensed that the work could be of immense significance, but there was no agreement as to how it should be organized. Its management had been placed in the hands of a transportation committee of the hospital, chaired by an expatriate engineer named Laurence Benet. He had appointed an executive secretary, who in turn delegated most of the operating decisions to an amateur military historian, appropriately named A. W. Kipling. This gentleman adopted the title “Captain of Automobiles.” All three were ensconced in large groundfloor offices in the main building of the Lycée Pasteur and rarely soiled their hands with axle grease.