- Historic Sites
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
Motoring through the Marne Valley that spring of 1915 on his way to the Vosges and the crucial meeting with de Montravel, Andrew was deeply moved by what he saw: We drove on, over the battlefields of the Marne. Nothing I have seen during my three months here has so much touched me as the view of these fields. The farms have all been carefully ploughed. The women and children and old men have attended to that. But every few rods, scattered about the fields, small wooden crosses and little red, white and blue flags mark the spots where lie the bodies of the boys and men who gave their lives in those terrible days. We stopped several times and got out of the motor and uncovered our heads before graves where twenty, or thirty, or forty men had been buried together, and which farmers and passersby had covered with wreaths and flowers. On the top of many graves were placed some of the clothes and belongings of those who were buried,—here a hat, or a torn coat, or a pair of shoes, there a comb or brush, or sponge, or wallet, which might by some chance catch the eye of some wife or mother and help her to identify the whereabouts of a lost husband or son.
Arriving at French headquarters in Vittel, a watering place in the Vosges, Andrew lost no time putting his case to Commandant de Montravel. As this bluff native of Marseille later recalled the meeting: At first I thought he had come to find out what kind of work these units might do in the hinterlands, but I soon grasped that his visit had an entirely different purpose. On the evening of his arrival he confided to me his deepest desire, ardently shared by all his young colleagues—to serve at the front, to pick up the wounded from the front lines, like our own brancardiers , to look danger squarely in the face: in a word, to mingle with the soldiers of France and to share their fate!
But this was not an easy matter to arrange. De Montravel could not flatly contravene the strict injunction of his superiors against permitting foreigners to approach the front lines. But if a trial section of American volunteers could prove their worth, he agreed to do his best to persuade his superiors to relax these restrictions. This was all Andrew needed. Returning to Paris, he immediately formed an elite section of ten cars and thirteen men under the aegis of three fellow Harvardians, Lovering Hill, Richard Lawrence, and Dallas McGrew. Telling them that the future of the service now lay in their hands, he dispatched them to Vittel.
More than a half century later Dallas McGrew still vividly recalled those April days in the Vosges, when this tiny group of volunteer drivers astonished the French transport personnel with its discipline and élan. Conveying freshly wounded men from the front throughout the frosty nights and along slippery mountain roads without lights was only part of their accomplishment. For sheer military bravura McGrew remembered how they invariably had their little Ford ambulances punctiliously lined up and polished every morning at six o’clock, radiators and tanks filled, for inspection by a French officer. When this officer appeared, he invariably found the drivers standing at attention next to their cars, one foot placed on the crank protruding from the radiator. At a signal from the section chief the drivers would stamp heavily on the cranks and ten motors would spring to life simultaneously. The French had never seen anything like it. Ecstatic reports went back to Vittel and from there to Chantilly. And the American Field Service was in business.
Andrew’s next problems were equipment and money. The American automobile industry was highly fragmented in those days, and many manufacturers would have been pleased to equip ambulance sections with free samples of their products for advertising purposes. Tempting as it was to accept such offers, Andrew knew that interchangeability of spare parts was vital for his service—to accept a mixed bag of Hupmobiles, Whites, Pierce Arrows, and other makes would be fatal to this requirement. The optimum benefactor for the service was Henry Ford, whose interest Andrew tried repeatedly to enlist. But Ford, as Andrew put it, “had his own peculiar sense of philanthropy,” which left no room for donations to any organization functioning on a battlefield in any capacity whatsoever. Yet his Model T, magnificently durable, well sprung, and uniformly manufactured, was clearly more suitable than any other vehicle for ambulance work. Andrew was thus obliged to acquire Fords at retail prices and modify them into the standard ambulance that proved superior to any other in use on the battlefields of the war.