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The American Field Service
EQUIPMENT WAS HARD TO COME BY, RED TAPE WAS RAMPANT. BUT AMERICAN VOLUNTEERS IN FRANCE BUILT AN AMBULANCE CORPS THAT PERFORMED BRILLIANTLY IN THE EARLY YEARS OF WORLD WAR I
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
Before he could reasonably attempt to do something about this state of affairs, Andrew first had to prove his worth as a driver. “I spend most of my days kneeling in the mud in the freezing rain, practising the business of painter, carpenter, chauffeur and washer in turn,” he noted in his journal. “My section is made up of a fine lot of fellows; two or three were artists in peace time, one an architect in New York; some are students just out of college; some, like Regis Post, are millionaires, some paupers. There is even one ex-Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. We are like les cadets de Gascogne .” After two weeks of bureaucratic delay Andrew’s section was finally sent off to Dunkirk, where he was immediately put to work on the night shift, meeting trainfuls of wounded men and driving them to neighboring hospitals or to the docks, whence hospital ships took them to Boulogne or Brest.
“Five to eight trains arrive sometime during every twenty-four hours,” he wrote, and out of these trains hobble or are carried the grist of the war in our vicinity, from four to six hundred men daily—men with their eyes or heads or chins heavily bandaged, men with their arms or legs in slings, men shot through the shoulder or hips or stomach, men with frozen feet, men weakened by typhoid or pneumonia, men broken down and scarcely able to stand from months of exposure and anxiety in the trenches, men pale and yellow with sickness and unshaven for weeks. The French soldiers wear the long blue coats and red trousers made familiar to us in the pictures by Détaille and de Neuville of the soldiers of 1870, and with their untrimmed beards they seem very like the soldiers of our own Civil War. War has its picturesque sides, but it is a sad business. There are said to be more than six hundred thousand wounded today in the hospitals of France. All over the country, from the Channel to the Mediterranean, schools, colleges, churches, hotels, museums, town halls, and every available sort of building have been made over into hospitals. The doctors tell me that more than seventy thousand wounded and sick have passed through Dunkirk alone since the war began. There are twelve to fifteen thousand here now.
But meeting trainfuls of wounded, though incontestably useful, did not save many lives. The real challenge lay in timely transportation of freshly wounded men from the trenches to the dressing stations, usually located in or near towns close behind the lines. A severely wounded man’s chance for survival generally depended on the speed (and comfort) with which he could be conveyed from a first-aid shelter in the trenches to a station where immediate surgery or other emergency measures could be undertaken. For this reason ambulance work was inherently a transportation problem, not a medical matter. Horse-drawn ambulances in previous wars had traditionally been part and parcel of an army’s medical service, with treatment necessarily administered during the lengthy period the patient was rattling along en route. The French army had instantly grasped that the availability of motor vehicles, with their vastly greater speed and range, made it advisable to break with this tradition by subordinating their ambulance drivers to the transportation service. From the French point of view it was as unreasonable to expect doctors to organize and manage such a service as it was to require transportation experts to undertake surgical work in dressing stations. While this was also immediately obvious to Andrew, it was but dimly perceived, if at all, by those in charge of the service at the American Hospital in Neuilly. Each fighting division of the French army sorely needed a squad of ambulances, well serviced and manned by disciplined drivers, yet American volunteers eager to perform such a function were obliged to putter around in a haphazard collection of jalopies in the rear of the Allied armies.
Piatt Andrew had been driving his Model T ambulance at Dunkirk for nearly two months when Robert Bacon acted to end this impasse. Early in March Andrew was summoned back to Neuilly and offered the position of inspector general of the nascent ambulance service. This was a flossy title, but it carried little weight within the hospital hierarchy. While final authority resided with Bacon, he had to be highly circumspect in wielding it, and the chief surgeon at the hospital, Dr. Edmond Gros, regarded Andrew as little more than an annoyance. The members of the transportation committee, even less enchanted at Bacon’s intervention, were disinclined to surrender management prerogatives without stubborn resistance. “I am to go up and down the land,” Andrew observed, “inspecting and advising and making myself generally obnoxious to our several équipes .”
Instead Andrew headed straight for the headquarters of Marshal Joffre at Chantilly. He had two personal friends on the marshal’s staff, one of them the future premier of France, André Tardieu, who had been a guest lecturer in political economy at Harvard. The second was Gabriel Puaux, a young lieutenant whom Andrew had met while studying German at Jena in 1898 and who subsequently went on to a brilliant diplomatic career. These men had no difficulty introducing him to Captain (later General) Doumenc, who was serving as Joffre’s staff adviser on transportation problems. Skeptical at first, Doumenc recommended that Andrew send a section of ambulances to the French divisions fighting in the Vosges on a trial basis. The man to see, he added, was a Commandant de Montravel, in charge of all transportation for the French armies fighting in Alsace-Lorraine.