- 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
The success of the service was attributable, of course, not only to Andrew’s intelligence and persistence but also to the quality of the men who served under him. A more brilliant and less docile group could scarcely be imagined. The subsequent literary achievements of American Field Service volunteers only hint at the wealth and diversity of talent within its ranks. Its roster included the novelists Charles Nordhoff and Julien Green, the editors Russell Davenport and Edward Weeks, the illustrators C. Leroy Baldridge and Samuel Chamberlain, the poet and critic Malcolm Cowley, and the playwright Sidney Howard.
Such a group also meant temperaments difficult to deal with, and perhaps the single best decision Andrew made as inspector general of the nascent service was the choice of Stephen Galatti as his deputy. A year after Andrew had plucked him from a section of drivers serving in Alsace during the fighting around the Hartmannsweilerkopf, Andrew noted: “Galatti is always a wonderful help, his judgment always good, his energy and devotion boundless.” And John Fisher wrote this tribute to Galatti for the A.F.S. Bulletin: When you walked into 21 Rue Raynouard in the spring of 1917 you saw incessant movement:—baggage, supplies, and troops of green young recruits in an endless procession. The office force, harried with overwork, paid little attention to you. If you got one of them into a corner and told him what you wanted, he passed the buck wearily to someone else. Finally, if you persisted in your quest, someone steered you to a door marked “Mr. Galatti.” You went in—he always managed to find time to see everyone—and noticed first the most disorderly desk in the world.… You could barely look over the top of it and see Galatti sitting on the other side. You stated your case and he listened to you. Very likely while you were talking he answered the phone and made illegible notes about unrelated subjects; but that didn’t matter. He heard you, understood you. Sometimes he told you that you couldn’t have what you wanted. That was final.… Sometimes, if he thought you were talking nonsense, he didn’t answer at all but just listened and listened until bye and bye you got tired and went away.… But generally, after you had rambled through your plea, he said something brief and decisive: “The best train is 8 A.M. Gare de l’Est”; or “Try 26 Avenue de Ternes”; or “Your cousin is in Section 8. He’ll be down on permission in a day or two”; or just “I’ll see about it.” And he always did see about it.… And such days he put in! Selecting the’ right men to fill vacancies, sending off reassuring telegrams to parents anxious about their offspring, locating missing livrets, ordering brass donor plates and seeing to it they got on the right ambulances, organizing new sections and if, as often happened, a wire from Bordeaux landed on his desk at 5 P.M. announcing that 50 men would be arriving unexpectedly at 7:30 P.M. , he would just hustle a little harder than usual and have enough cars at the station to carry them and their baggage, and supper and beds would be waiting for them. And if a convoy were leaving next morning at six he would be on hand to see them off.
These were the grandes heures of the American Field Service in its early days under Andrew. “Busy every instant of my waking hours,” he noted, “and there is nothing like hard work that succeeds, nothing like it under God’s sun.” For Andrew the ultimate reward came with the United States declaration of war on April 6, 1917, and perhaps historians have not adequately recognized the role played by his service in leading up to it. “The spring is backward this year,” Andrew wrote, and winter withdrew its grasp reluctantly, but today the sun shone bright through a clear blue sky, after weeks of rain and fitful snow, and it was beautiful to see the fresh flags fluttering in the breeze. What we have longed for during these two long years at last came true,—the stars and stripes and the tricolored flag of France waving together from hundreds of balconies. Driving down the Avenue de l’Opéra, I nearly ran over a man, my eyes were so dimmed by tears. At last! To the people of France it means much that a country which has so long and so patiently tried to be impartial has finally given its decision. These are great days. Better late than never. Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding fine.