- 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
Two factors finally persuaded Mrs. Vanderbilt and Bacon to give Andrew the independence he wanted. In the first place, the performance of the ambulance service during the first phase of the Battle of Verdun, between February and June, 1916, was beyond praise. Scraping together every car and driver he could obtain, Andrew threw five ambulance sections into this maelstrom. On and around the voie sacrée , by day and night, these men performed with heroic endurance. “Our sections,” Andrew wrote, are ranged all along the Verdun front, from Mort Homme to the Fort de Tavannes—the most serious work that any of our sections have ever done—work which only begins at dusk, and which ends at dawn, driving without lights of any kind over shell-pitted roads often cluttered with trucks, or horse-drawn artillery, or marching troops, avoiding here a wrecked machine, there a dead horse, the sky flashing incessantly as with heat lightning, the air vibrating with the roar of thousands of cannon, shells whistling by overhead and arriving in the neighboring fields, all the time signal rockets shooting into the sky and leaving now three red stars, now five green stars, or perhaps a trail of twenty stars sent up from the Observatory posts to tell the artillerymen further back how to direct their fire. The visits to the dressing stations—sometimes in farm houses half in ruins, sometimes in tunneled holts in the ground in the open fields—wounded soldiers, shot in the stomach, the head, the arms, the legs, sometimes whispering their experiences, sometimes inert and silent, I can’t describe them—but I can never forget. Verdun is written forever in the world’s history, but for the boys of our service it is written deep in their hearts. I think of a sunny morning in Dugny, about three miles from Verdun, an improvised tent in a dewy field with benches and a table—our boys coming in to breakfast telling gaily of the night’s work and excitements…—a few yards away a row of six dead soldiers lying on the grass carefully arranged, their overcoats over their faces—in a neighboring tent thirty or so other soldiers coughing and racking from an attack with gas. I think of a visit to the improvised hospital at Vadelaincourt. Outside rows and rows and rows of little wooden crosses—some 1800 of them marking the graves of those who have died in the hospital since it opened its doors four months ago. Inside rows and rows of cots with pale unshaven faces, tired eyes, bloody bandages—those who are too severely wounded to be carried further back from the lines. I think of Victor Chapman of the Lafayette Escadrille—smiling, modest, attractive, whom I saw only a few days before he went tumbling from the sky to his death in the German lines. He was a great friend of our boys of Section 2 and with them the night before he died. How like an old Roman his father, who cabled back “Today France is fighting for the rest of the world, and all who died in her cause are blest!” These are little personal threads in the great tapestry of Verdun which begins to unfurl thirty miles away in the clouds of dust that float above roads over which 12,000 motor trucks are moving to and from the city. It stretches to the hills on the horizon north and east and west of the city, where columns of smoke are continually rising from the hail of shells that fall day in and day out, night and day, along a front of at least twenty-five miles. It includes the blue sky with its dozens of “saucisses”—observation balloons—with little birdlike aeroplanes forever coming and going, often surrounded by puffs of white smoke from the land guns attacking them. It covers miles and miles of wooded hills crammed with soldiers’ huts, with artillery, with all the paraphernalia of war, and sheltered villages where thousands of horses are camped, as if hundreds of circuses were congregating there. But above all, it includes an unforgettable picture of the soldiers of France pouring in and out of every doorway and village street, trailing over every road. We stopped to snap a detachment passing through the town of Dugny the other day on the way to the front and one of them called out gaily, “That’s right—take a photograph of the dead.”
After this it was difficult for anyone to regard the service as a mere auxiliary to the hospital. Scouting around for suitable quarters for an independent service, Andrew then managed to persuade Baron Hottinguer and Comtesse de la Villestreux to offer him exclusive use of a glorious eighteenth-century house, surrounded by acres of park and garden, in the middle of Paris. Located in the heart of Passy, opposite the house where Balzac had written much of La Comédie Humaine , the estate at 21 Rue Raynouard was a five-acre Eden. The main building was augmented by an orangerie in which Rousseau had strolled while composing Le Devin du Village . And its park had changed little from the days when Benjamin Franklin had promenaded under its chestnut trees with his host, La Tour d’Auvergne. It was a far cry from the erstwhile tool shed back at Neuilly.
Faced with this enchanting prospect, Robert Bacon and Mrs. Vanderbilt gave in and granted Andrew permission to move the service to the new location. That was the end of its connection with the American Hospital. As if to underscore its independence, the word “ambulance,” which in French connoted the hospital itself, was removed from the title. Self-financed and firmly bound to the French army, it became the proud and ubiquitous American Field Service, a title it has retained to this day.