- 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
Meanwhile French military authorities had begun to work closely with Andrew. Together with Doumenc he was able to hammer out an agreement whereby American ambulance units would be attached to line divisions of the French army, and the signing of this agreement at Marshal Joffre’s headquarters in mid-1915 marked the first formal recognition of the ambulance service as a quasi-independent organization. This agreement also brought Andrew a pleasant surprise: When I went to the automobile bureau in Paris from which I get my passes, the captain in charge informed me he had received word from the Grand Quartier Général that an officer was to be attached to me. He apologized for not having a lieutenant available but said he would give me a Maréchal de Logis, more or less the equivalent of a sergeant. I was not sure by any means that I wanted to have a strange and possibly uncongenial person tied to me, but there was no way out, and presently a tall, distinguished-looking soldier, who might have been a Russian general from his appearance, presented himself in broken English as my future aide. I expressed appropriate polite satisfaction, and asked him his name. He murmured four or five syllables which I did not quite catch, and I offered him my card, the one embellished with several rows of titles as is supposedly necessary here in France, and he presented me his. It read simply “Le Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre.” So the Duke now travels with us as my aide.
Motoring through northern France with the duke was not without unexpected rewards, as Andrew recorded a short time later: As we were rolling along, M. de Clermont-Tonnerre casually remarked that if I were willing to run a few miles off our course he would be grateful, because he could see one of his houses that he had not visited since the mobilization, nearly a year ago. We could spend the night there, he added. So about dusk we rolled into a pretty French town called Ancy-le-Franc, and then through heavy iron gates into a park bordered by century-old trees, and suddenly came upon a tremendous thick-walled château of the time of Louis XIV . The silence of its court-yard and the faint rustling in the long allées that led away from it, down mysterious dream-like vistas, contrasted sharply with what we had been experiencing the day before. We went through one room after another, with fine old fireplaces and heavy-beamed ceilings … and through the flickering candlelight loomed the pictures on the walls of François Premier, and Diane de Poitiers, and the Duke’s ancestors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Clermonts, Tonnerres, Noailles, and other famous old names of pre-Republican France. The walls were fully ten feet thick. There was a lovely chapel with a balcony, and a room for the archives of the family, the walls of which were panelled with the crests of the different branches. That night I slept in a damask-hung bed in a vaulted room, and from its walls looked down on me portraits of men in armor and beautiful women who, three centuries ago, had walked and laughed and loved and suffered within these same walls. Before I blew out the candle I must admit I wondered which of the panels in the walls were entrances from unseen passages, and what I would do if the wall opened during the night and some wraith flitted across the room. In the morning as I opened my window I looked out on a decorative canal running down through a broad tree-bordered lawn to an artificial lake, and in its center was an island upon which, almost lost in verdure, was perched a picturesque little vine-covered love nest of Louis XV vintage, called “La Folie.” I thought of the proverb, “ Qui vit sans folie n’est pas si sage qu’il croit ” [He who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks].
And, it soon turned out, the duke had other houses at Glisolles and Achy, both conveniently near the front.
But this pleasant interlude did not last long. There was serious trouble at the American Hospital, where Dr. Gros and the members of the transportation committee were increasingly peeved at Andrew. As the months passed, Andrew’s service, which was recruiting volunteer drivers from colleges in all parts of the country, began to attract more attention than the hospital itself. With an inborn instinct for publicity Andrew arranged for newsreels of ambulance activities in the field to be shown at university clubs in major cities across America. By 1916 it was clear to him that he would have to sever the ties binding his service to the hospital. But to do so he needed the consent not only of Robert Bacon but also of the redoubtable Anne H. Vanderbilt. The second wife of William Kissam Vanderbilt, she was a leading figure in the American community in France and wielded considerable power within the hospital hierarchy. She was also very fond (overly so, in Mrs. Bacon’s opinion) of its president, Robert Bacon. Andrew described her in these words: Mrs. Vanderbilt has a man’s intelligence and force and a woman’s grace and charm, and what I particularly like, a fine individual perspective about the things in life that are worthwhile. She reminds me often of Mrs. Gardner, and above all in this, that she never thinks twice of her physical comfort when it might interfere with an interesting experience.