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Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War; August 1914-September 1918

Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War; August 1914-September 1918

by Arlen J. Hansen, George Plimpton (Introduction), George Plimpton (Foreword by)

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Prior to America's entry into WWII, a small group of idealists and adventurers from Ivy League colleges and New England prep schools chose to help France in her time of need. Driving Tin Lizzies (Ford Model T's) brought with them from the U.S., these "gentlemen volunteers," barred from taking up arms, transported wounded soldiers to distant urban hospitals. In doing so, they altered the practice of medicine in modern warfare. They also would alter American fiction, since among them numbered future literary luminaries such as John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, e.e. cummings and Hemingway. Through his straightforward exploration of the volunteer corps, Hansen (Expatriate Paris, 1990), who died in 1993, sheds new light on U.S. isolationism. The volunteers, he demonstrates, cursed Woodrow Wilson's antiwar rhetoric and struggled to raise funds from an American citizenry that felt no connection to the conflict. The text comes most alive when the author lets his subjects speak for themselves, and at times his focus seems too wide-he devotes an entire chapter, for instance, to the volunteers' activities en repos ("on rest"). Still, those willing to pick through this offering will find illuminating insights into the American role in the Great War, as well as stirring examples of, as volunteer Hemingway put it, "grace under pressure." (May)
Library Journal
During World War I, from 1914 to 1918, young, nave American college boys flocked to France to volunteer as ambulance drivers. From Ivy League, East Coast, and Midwest campuses, these young men eagerly sought a life of adventure and glory, never realizing how the horror of war would change their lives. Funded by private charities and deep-pocket philanthropists, Model T. Fords and their "gentlemen volunteer" drivers were soon clattering through shellfire and mud to bring the wounded to medical aid and sanctuary. Hansen (Expatriate Paris, Little, Brown, 1990), who died in 1993, offers a detailed look into a little-known aspect of the Great War. His tale is well researched and told with compassion and clarity. He includes chapters on organization, vehicles, politics, and personalities, with anecdotes about many notable volunteer drivers such as Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and e.e cummings. For libraries and the general reader.-Col. William D. Bushnell, USMC (ret.), Brunswick, Me.
This history of the American ambulance drivers corps during World War I is also a companion research reference to some of the greatest writers, editors, and philosophers of the 20th century. Young men from all parts of the country made starry eyed commitments to serving in Europe, finding a brutal reality for which Harvard or Yale had not prepared them. Among the most famous were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, Edward Weeks, and Malcolm Cowley. Hansen (English, U. of the Pacific) has gathered together letters, writings, and research to provide the historical landscape responsible for some of the best war literature ever produced. Includes photographs. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
Hansen (who until his recent death taught English at the Univ. of the Pacific) compellingly tells the story of thousands of eager young Americans who volunteered to drive ambulances for the Allies in the Great War before the US army arrived in 1917.

Hansen relates little-known stories of wealthy Americans sympathetic to the Allies, like H. Herman Harjes (a banker for J.P. Morgan), Boston Brahmin Richard Norton, and A. Piatt Andrew, a former Harvard professor and assistant secretary of the treasury, who led the way in forming private ambulance companies that raised money, recruited volunteers, and purchased or received donations of automobiles to convert into ambulances. As the author relates, they dealt with stubborn French military and government bureaucrats, frustrating delays, and personality conflicts while organizing medical services for the wounded in rear combat areas. But the volunteers, mostly from Ivy League colleges and eastern prep schools (as well as the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos), proved themselves and their state-of-the-art vehicles to be more effective than French horse-drawn ambulances, and they saved countless lives. Hansen has included many personal accounts of devotion to humanitarian efforts and many encounters with horror and heroism by the gallant gentlemen who faced the enemy shells and bullets on the Western Front. In time, Hansen tells us, the volunteers' ranks were augmented by a diverse group that included cowboys, big-game hunters, a Portuguese revolutionist, a racing car driver, and several football players. Women also played a significant role as doctors and nurses. Over 3,500 Americans had served as drivers when the US army took control of ambulance details on the Western Front in October 1917.

A fitting tribute, told in effective matter-of-fact style, to mostly obscure volunteers who showed great bravery in a time of cataclysmic change and great tragedy.

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Arcade Publishing
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Chapter One

The Harjes Formation

In March of 1910, a group of Americans living in Paris opened a small, semiphilanthropic hospital just offŠthe Boulevard Victor Hugo in the suburb of Neuilly. When the war broke out in August of 1914, the American Hospital became a natural focal point for the concerned American colony. They donated money, equipment, and automobiles, and even offered their personal services, to help the war effort. Learning that the American Hospital intended to treat wounded soldiers by setting up tents in the hospital's gardens if necessary, French officials were directed by a Dr. Fevier, surgeon general of the French Army, to offer the Americans the unfinished Lycee Pasteur to use as its "ambulance," or military hospital. (Ambulance can be a misleading term. The Americans, like the English, use the word to denote a motorized vehicle designed to carry patients to hospitals. For the French, ambulance designates a military hospital. In this text, ambulance in lowercase refers to vehicles, and Military Hospital replaces Ambulance, though I am aware there are those who prefer American Ambulance of Paris to American Military Hospital because the latter suggests that the American military was involved, and this was most emphatically not the case.) The Lycee Pasteur, which had been requisitioned by the French government, was an elaborate arrangement of red-brick school buildings just beyond the Maillot gate in Neuilly, six blocks from the American Hospital.(1) After the war, the Lycee Pasteur reclaimed its buildings on the Boulevard d'Inkerman, and the Americans were reimbursed for some of their constructionexpenses. The ante-bellum American Hospital, which got a new building in 1926, still carries on its work today at its old location, just off the Boulevard Victor Hugo.

The French offer of Lycee Pasteur carried with it two conditions. First, the American Hospital Board had to agree to underwrite the completion of the buildings and grounds, at a cost of $400,000. Second, the Board had only twenty-four hours to accept. Neither of these stipulations daunted the Hospital Board's two principal powers: former Ambassador Robert Bacon, its president, and Anne Harriman Vanderbilt, the second wife of William K. Vanderbilt. Once introduced, the deal was done.(2) On August 14, 1914, the day after accepting the offer, Bacon appointed a Board of Governors for the American Ambulance of Paris. The roster of the Ambulance Board alone is sufficient to demonstrate that this board had the wherewithal, clout, and connections to get things done: Mrs. Henry P. Davison (her husband later directed the American Red Cross), Mrs., E. H. Harriman, Mrs. Myron T. Herrick (wife of the popular ambassador to France), Mrs. Whitelaw Reid, Airs. Montgomery Sears, Mrs. Bayard Van Rensselaer, and Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, among other names of equal luster.(3)

To help recruit the medical staff and oversee the completion of the lycee buildings (which needed mostly interior work: lighting, heating, and cabinetry), the Ambulance Board named an administrative Ambulance Committee.(4) Working together, these two groups soon had the American Military Hospital up and running—in the nick of time. According to a report later filed with the American Hospital Board, the first four wounded soldiers were received on September 6. As the French and British continued to drive the Germans back from the Marne in mid-September, the number of blesses rose steadily. Ninety-one were admitted to the Military Hospital on the 15th of September; 146 on the 16th; 209 the following day; and during the second half of September and the first half of October, the average number of patients per day reached 238.(5)

Yet all this medical service would not have been helpful without a means of getting the blesses to the hospital. Mrs. Vanderbilt and Harold White, manager of the Ford Motor Company's French assembly plant, had already addressed the matter of transporting the wounded.(6) With financial assistance from Mrs. Vanderbilt, White donated ten Ford chassis, which were outfitted as ambulances by a local carriage builder. A crude plank floor was extended from the gas tank out over the rear axle, an overarching canopy of canvas covered the rear compartment, and a single board was strapped across the top of the gas tank for the driver to sit on. That was all—no side doors, no roof over the cab, no windshield.

The first drivers signed on in no less improvised a manner. J. Paulding Brown, whose pleasure tour of Europe had been interrupted by the outbreak of the war, showed up at the Military Hospital one day in early September of 1914, and "15 minutes later was an ambulance driver.(7) Brown's first of a series of interesting trips into the environs of Paris" was made on September 7, and thereafter 'for several weeks we were busy along the Marne gathering in wounded and bringing them back to Paris."(8)

Once the Germans had been pushed above the Aisne in late September, the French holding stations were necessarily beyond the reach of the Military Hospital's Fords, and the usefulness of the ambulances temporarily waned. Sanitary trains now constituted the principal means of transporting the wounded from the front to La Chapelle, the renovated rail station at the northernmost edge of Paris. This former railway depot had been transformed into an official receiving station to which all Paris-bound hospital trains brought their wounded. Once a warehouse-like barn with a huge unloading platform, this cold and stark station was made over into a warm, pleasant, and efficient distribution center. On the platform facing the railroad tracks were four newly constructed barracks, each painted a different color. The wounded were taken from the railroad cars directly into one of these structures, where nurses gave them hot soup and bread, and dressed them in fresh bandages if necessary. Using cards coded according to the color of the barracks, clerks wrote down the names of the wounded, four per card, grouped according to type of injury. Then the cards were distributed to the drivers, whose ambulances were lined up in stalls. After selecting his or her stretcher-bearers from a common pool, the driver sent them to the barracks corresponding to the card's color, where they picked up the four blesses named on the card. Once the blesses were loaded into the ambulance, the driver took off for the appropriate hospital—say, the American Military Hospital if four blesses required facial surgery—or to the Val du Grace for special types of amputation. The only hitch was that no station, not even the wondrously efficient La Chapelle, could keep pace with the daily slaughter and the resultant backlog of trains. One night, Harold Howland noted, "There were two trains standing alongside the La Chapelle station and one inside, and eight more waiting in the yards outside the city to come in."(9)

The most expedient means of distributing blesses from La Chapelle to the numerous hospitals was by automobile, but ambulance work was regarded by many as incidental, not integral, to a hospital's true and proper functions. In that trips into the field were no longer practical and, for Americans, were actually prohibited by military policy, the Ambulance Committee of the American Military Hospital hesitated before deciding officially to add a transportation department to its operations.(10) Some on the Committee felt that whatever ambulance service the American Military Hospital required could be handled by other motor corps operating in the city, including units from Spain, Canada (whose drivers were all women), and Scandinavia. In addition, they knew that eventually an ambulance service would probably be co-opted by the military, which would, understandably, take over the control and deployment of the vehicles. The Hospital seemed to have little to gain by setting up its own ambulance service. Most of the medical administrators felt that a hospital's job was to treat the wounded, not to fetch them.

Other factors worked against the inclusion of a transportation department in the American Military Hospital's operations. Given the magnitude of the Hospital's undertaking and its policy of treating the most challenging cases, particularly men in need of facial reconstruction,(11) an ambulance service would be a drain on the Hospital's finances and personnel. The American Military Hospital had become a highly respected and successful institution by concentrating its efforts on the medical aspects of its service. By the end of 1915, it had an impressive number of beds in operation—575, with another 50 ready for emergencies.(12) Although the hospital staff was serving largely without pay, the Board spared no expense on medical technology, which gave rise to the criticism that the Hospital was extravagant.(13) Still, despite the Hospital's emphasis on treatment rather than transportation, its ambulances had already proved their worth at the holding stations in Meaux, Lizy-sur-Ourcq, and Coulommiers during the Battle of the Marne. The cars were also of considerable use in distributing the wounded who continued to arrive at La Chapelle. So, by late February of 1915, the Military Hospital Board finally consented to form a Transportation Committee, which would oversee the formation and operation of an ambulance service. Not surprisingly, transportation matters were relegated to the bottom of the Hospital's budgetar-y and organizational priorities. New ambulances were occasionally purchased with money raised in the United States by William Hereford, a New York banker who was the chief fund-raiser for the entire American Hospital organization. Some contributors specified that their donations go toward buying ambulances, giving Hereford no choice but to spend the money on cars. Nevertheless, by December of 1916, when the hospital was spending over $1,000 per day to handle nearly 1,600 wounded, the number of ambulances working directly out of the Neuilly hospital had increased from the original ten to just thirty-five.(14)

The American Military Hospital was not unique in its attitude toward ambulance units. Until the early spring of 1915, few hospitals recognized the importance of independent ambulance services, particularly when it came to trench warfare. When armies marched, the armies' mobile hospitals could follow the troops and pick up the wounded at assembly points. In this war, however, not only was the French Army stationary, but its medical facilities were often based in converted civilian hospitals and other civic buildings, which were invariably a moderate distance from the front, far enough to be out of artillery range. The wounded had to be hauled back to these urban hospitals, but neither trains nor horse-drawn wagons provided an entirely satisfactory means of transporting them. The blasted, seasonally boggy terrain over which the blesses had to be carried would not sustain railroad beds, and the wagons moved so slowly that the wounded were exposed far too long to enemy fire. Cars, in short, were the answer. However, as was the case with the American Military Hospital in Paris, most civilian hospital boards and their administrative surgeons were not accustomed to supporting or managing an extensive ambulance service.

A typical case was Mrs. C. Mitchell Depew, who converted half of her Chateau d'Annel at Longueil, some nine miles north of Compiegne, into a splendid forty-bed hospital. The American Mrs. Depew was a long-time resident in France and a close friend of General Joffre, who helped her obtain the necessary medical licenses. Mrs. Depew and her staff opened the hospital on August 27, but when German troops poured across the region three days later, everyone, including members of her own family, had to leave. Returning a month later, they reopened their hospital and, according to Dr. Harvey Cushing, who visited the Chateau d'Annel the following March, "have been continuously busy [ever since]." Cushing, a Harvard surgeon who was inspecting various regional clinics on behalf of the American Hospital Board, counted "seven nurses for the 40 patients [and] an ambulance corps of four Ford cars."(15)

But Dr. Cushing was wrong in one matter. Mrs. Depew's hospital may have been in full operation when he visited it in March of 1915, but between the preceding September and the end of January it had been virtually without patients. Earlier, in November of 1914, two French generals (Berthier and Dziewonski) directed the medecin en chef at Montdidier to deliver his overflow of wounded to her hospital. However, because the Montdidier doctor had no ambulances to spare and because Mrs. Depew had not obtained the requisite laisses-passers (permits) or sufficient gasoline to run her own ambulance service, Mrs. Depew's hospital was without the means of bringing in any patients, Montdidier's overflow included.(16) Not until the end of January, by which time Mrs. Depew had obtained three ambulances, the appropriate passes, and a ration of gasoline, did the Longueil hospital have a legitimate ambulance service. Accordingly, when Cushing arrived in March, the hospital had ambulances (Cushing counted an additional one, making four in all) and a full component of forty

Largely owing to the French ban on foreign nationals in the field, the American volunteer ambulance services were slow to be accepted by French officials, but once the usefulness of the American cars and drivers was recognized, the demand grew instantly. The experience of Edward Dale Toland captures the pace and nature of the change in attitude toward American ambulance drivers. Toland, a 28-year-old Philadelphia gentleman, boarded the S.S. Laconia out of New York in late August of 1914, intending "simply to see the excitement and the French people in wartime."(17) Having spent the previous six years in the engineering and banking businesses, the Princeton alum (1908) was intrigued by 'the prospect of an indeterminate holiday." Instead, the unassuming and modest Toland got caught up in the rush of events and before he knew it was helping to form the very first American volunteer ambulance unit.

Having been in Paris the previous year, Toland was stunned by what he saw upon arrival on September 14. The entire length of Avenue de I'Opera revealed "not a soul on the sidewalks," and that evening the usually hectic Place de la Concorde was "as dark and still as a country churchyard, " Toland wrote in his diary.(18) In early September, United Press reporter William Shepherd had stood on Avenue de l'Opera and looked in its shops and down its side streets. "No human being is in sight," Shepherd observed in Confessions of a War Correspondent. "The prairies of Texas were never more silent." In contrast, Will Irwin's first chapter in The Latin at War depicts Paris as unfazed during this period, with its populace as contented and outgoing as ever. Irwin admitted that his sample was skewed, however: Naturally, I know the American colony in Paris better than the French . . . , [and] they are for the most par-t wealthy or well-to-do, and before the war they were an idle set.' The city was still reeling from the terrors of the first weeks of the war. During August, three million German troops had raced across the western front, carried by 550 trains a day rolling through Belgium, to bear down upon the French capital. The German advance was finally halted and turned back a few miles outside Paris in early September, just before Toland's arrival. By late September, the German western flank had been driven north of the Aisne, where both sides eventually dug in. Nevertheless, many Parisians remained convinced that the German threat was not over, and that made them wary and sometimes capable of ugly conduct that winter.

Toland spent his first day at the Cooper-Hewitt Hospital, a small operation near the Bois de Boulogne. Although splendidly equipped, the fifty-bed Cooper-Hewitt was. completely empty—not a single patient, despite the savage fighting that had taken place recently along the Marne, literally within earshot of Paris. "The French officials in Paris do not seem to want wounded men brought in here," Toland was told by a Mrs. F, who managed the hospital (Toland does not give her full name). Throughout the city, she said, "There are some six hundred beds now prepared with first-class equipment and staff all ready and waiting for them." The officials, she figured, "are afraid the possibility of a siege is not over, or else they are afraid that the moral effect on the French public will be bad."(19)

Mrs. F told Toland that the only way to get patients into these small private hospitals was to ignore the officials and operate one's own ambulance service, as she had done for her other hospital, the converted Majestic Hotel. The night before Toland's arrival, Mrs. F and her aides had driven a huge omnibus out to the army's holding station at Montereau, some sixty miles outside Paris, and brought back twelve blesses, who had been virtually abandoned there. What she had seen at the Montereau station was almost more than she could bear: hundreds of wounded men piled on filthy straw, all wounds septic "beyond description," no bandages or gauze or anesthetics, no surgeons, and maybe one nurse for every fifty men. Sadly, her "horrible old rattle-trap of an omnibus"(20) had room for only a small fraction of the men requiring emergency attention. Mrs. F's passionate account of this experience so impressed Toland that the former banker instantly blurted out an offer to help the Majestic's operations in any way he could. So much for the indeterminate holiday he had envisioned.

One day, while working at the Majestic as a volunteer orderly, Toland heard that a trainload of British wounded, slowly making its way to the coast, would stop briefly at Villeneuve St. Georges, six miles outside Paris, the following morning. "The thing that is most needed, " he wrote in his diary that night, echoing Mrs. F's sentiments, is to get the men off the field and to a place where they can have some sort of attention."(21) Despite the proscription against civilian travel beyond the gates of Paris, Toland, along with one of the Majestic's surgeons and a French nurse, decided to intercept the train when it stopped at Villeneuve St. Georges and bring the most seriously wounded back for immediate care.

Thanks to the nurse's personal charm and her quick tongue, the group got past the various sentries and reached the Villeneuve St. Georges station well ahead of the British hospital train. However, no amount of time could have prepared them for the train's gruesome cargo. Some twenty small boxcars were crammed with maimed and bleeding men lying on wisps of straw loosely scattered over the floor boards. Far too many needed immediate attention for the Majestic's omnibus-ambulance to carry, so the irrepressible nurse went to work again, this time on the Villeneuve St. Georges station master, and enchanted him completely. He found them an empty railroad car with enough space for twenty-two couches, and ordered it attached to a train about to depart for Paris. Despite the impeding efforts of the civilian and military authorities, Toland and the others were able to bring dozens of severely wounded men to the Majestic that night.

There are several explanations for the abundance of horrific scenes of brutalized men at the holding stations. The new warfare technology accounted for a large percentage of the numerous conspicuous casualties. Fragmentation shells such as the so-called Daisy Cutter exploded on impact and were designed to maim and cripple rather than kill outright. Thus, in this war, siege artillery became antipersonnel weaponry. Shrapnel produced three times as many casualties as bullets. The newly designed pineapple ridges on hand grenades maximized the number of jagged bits of hot metal that burst randomly about, maximizing the ability of grenades to rip up human flesh. The machine gun, especially the Germans' Maxim, gave the solitary soldier a disproportionately large capacity for carnage with a single sweep of his gun.(22) Perhaps nothing was more efficient as a disabling weapon than gas: at first the suffocants, greenish-yellow chlorine and colorless phosgene; later, mustard gas, which produced progressive conjunctivitis or painfully crippling blisters.(23) Men died slowly from all of this new weaponry—or, perhaps worse, didn't die at all, surviving with permanent disability or mutilation, a living reminder of the Great War's horrors.

There were nontechnological reasons as well for the boxcars overflowing with wounded, and the huge numbers of mutiles de guerre. During the first months of the war, the French military authorities tended to accept a notion attributed to Lieutenant Colonel Louzeau de Grandmaison, chief of training on the General Staff. ardor wins wars. Never mind weapon power or troop numbers, this view argued, an army that displays an unconquerable spirit will be victorious and, thus, French military strategy called for I'attaque a outrance, all-out attack.(24) As one historian put it: "The 1913 [French] manuals contained no prescription for retreat."(25) consequently, the number of casualties rose as French ardor rose, and the ardor soared the closer the Germans got to Paris.

Ironically, advances in treatment and medical knowledge may also have contributed to the suffering during the First World War. In 1901, the Austrian-born pathologist Karl Landsteiner, working in the United States, discovered the secret of blood types (A, O, B, AB), which made transfusions more practical. Many wounded who would previously have been regarded as untreatable were now being shipped back to urban hospitals for transfusions in the hope that their limbs, or lives, could be saved. Moreover, the recently developed practice of debridement, which prevented gangrene by immediately removing damaged tissue from wounds, kept still others alive long enough to endure the boxcar rides. In earlier wars, many of the raving, suffering men that Toland and Mrs. F encountered would have been silently abandoned or buried at the battlefront, out of public view.

To get these wounded men to urban hospitals, some type of transportation service was necessary, but ambulances were difficult to come by, at least for Mrs. F. It was a simple matter of greed, she concluded. "There are a good many motors which could be put at the disposal of hospitals," she stated bitterly, "but it is quite hard to get hold of them. " People who owned motorcars, she said, were acting in the "most cowardly and selfish way.' Although Mrs. F had extracted promises from several owners, she invariably discovered, when she went to pick up the cars, that neither the machines nor their owners were in town. The cars had been taken to the country and safely ensconced, presumably, on the grounds of family estates.(26)

Toland was shocked by the hypocrisy of car owners who reneged on their promises, but he was even more disturbed by the behavior of some hotel owners. Certain hotels made an ostentatious show of having been converted into hospitals, although these same hotel-cum-hospitals showed little real concern about actually treating patients. For instance, the glamorous Ritz Hotel generously reserved sixty-four beds for hospital use. It purchased some state-of-the-art medical equipment and hired two dozen nurses. Yet, the Ritz's management accepted no patients, protesting that it could not admit any blesses without authority from the officials of the Bureau de Sante (Department of Health). Literally speaking, that was true. However, Toland countered, "we told them they would never get any patients if they waited for authority from [the Health Department]."(27)

The advantages of such tactics were immediately apparent, assuming the hotel's management did not foolishly set aside so many beds that it undercut business. The idea was to hire a few nurses (but no expensive surgeons), giving the operation a veneer of sincerity, and perhaps even to invest in some medical equipment. It was imperative to announce the conversion by flying Red Cross flags conspicuously. A hotel could continue its normal routine without actually bothering about hospital work—until, of course, the licenses were issued by the bureaucracy. There was little need to worry—the labyrinthine Parisian bureaucracy worked it a snail's pace in the best of times. The point of such deviousness was to make sure German artillery spotters or troops, in the event that Paris was taken, might believe the hotel was a hospital. Best of all, the hotel's management did not have to put up with any bleeding blesses or imperious surgeons making things unpleasant for the hotel's clientele.

Toland sensed a change in the Majestic's attitude right after the Germans had settled in along the Aisne and the threat of a further assault on Paris had virtually disappeared. "Our relations with the management of this hotel," Toland said, "are decidedly unpleasant." The cause was obvious: "I am quite sure that the only reason the hotel was given as a hospital was as a sort of insurance proposition." In other words, Toland writes, "Now that there is no chance of the Germans getting in here [Paris], I think they [the Majestic's management] would jolly well like to kick us all out."(28)

When the French and German armies took up defensive positions during the relatively peaceful winter of 1914-1915, the small private hospitals in Paris became undersubscribed, if not superfluous. Civilian-managed mobile field hospitals were rumored to be in the offing. These field hospitals, it was held, would include both medical and automobile units, and would be set up just behind the trenches, within driving distance of the army's holding stations. Having heard about these field units, Toland noted that "It has been my wish to do this sort of work, and I feel I could be of far more use out there than in a [Paris] hospital."(29) He arranged a meeting with Robert Bacon, the President of the American Hospital Board, to talk it over. A man of considerable influence, Bacon had been President Theodore Roosevelt's third (1909) Secretary of State and President Taft's Ambassador to France. Toland's session with Bacon on September 25 turned out to be most frustrating. "There isn't any chance of getting to the front," Bacon had explained to him. "The English and French armies won't have any outsiders messing about their work."(30) Bacon was alluding to the French policy banning all nonmilitary personnel, including those from neutral or nonaligned countries, from traveling into battle zones.(31)

On October 1, Bacon introduced Toland to Dr. Edmund Gros, one of the chief medical officers at the American Military Hospital in Neuilly, who proposed that Toland come to work for them. As President of the American Hospital Board, Bacon added that the American Military Hospital "would offer me [Toland] more opportunities than the "Majestic Hotel Hospital." The hospital in Neuilly was a much larger operation, Bacon pointed out, with a capacity of six hundred patients. Moreover, it was about to establish a small ambulance unit for transporting blesses to and from the hospital. Driving an ambulance for the Military Hospital, Toland felt, was "more like the work I have been wishing to do."(32)

Bacon mentioned a second, even more appealing, possibility to Toland. H. Herman Harjes, the 39-year-old Senior Partner of the Morgan-Harjes Bank in Paris, was planning to organize a mobile field unit under the sponsorship of the French military hospital, the Val de Grace. Harjes, Bacon said, intended his field service to work in cooperation with both French medical and military officials (thus avoiding the ban against allowing neutrals in a war zone) in the Compiegne-montdidier sector, where the battle lines had not yet completely stabilized. If Toland so wished, Bacon would try to get him into Harjes' unit. "It is exactly what I want," Toland wrote in his diary that evening.(33)

The next morning (October 2, 1914), Mrs. Herman Hades, an active member of the Ambulance Board, as well as the prime force behind her husband's field service, made Toland an offer: Would he be willing to go to the front with the Morgan-Harjes Ambulance Mobile de Premiers Secours to set up a field hospital, complete with its own ambulances? Toland replied without hesitation that he would, and so for the next week he helped set up the Morgan-Harjes field hospital and ambulance service.

At 6:00 A.M. on Saturday, October 9, two chauffeur-driven Packards left Paris in search of a location for Harjes' field hospital. They wanted to choose a spot as close to the front as possible, enabling them to have prompt access to the wounded.(34) In this initial scouting party were Mr. and Mrs. Harjes, their chief surgeon (an American), a head nurse, a French corporal ("who is to represent the army and keep military records, etc."), and Edward Toland. Other personnel and equipment were soon added to this nucleus, including two operating surgeons, a few paramedics, and at least three more Packards.(35) Four Ford ambulances, donated by J. P. Morgan, were said to be on the way from New York.

In the village of Ricquebourg, halfway between Compiegne and Montdidier, the scouting party found a beautiful and spacious chateau, which seemed suitable, though it needed some repair and modernization (for example, running water) before it could function as a hospital. The chateau was also within three hundred yards of a French battery that invited the attention of enemy fire. Nevertheless, the Harjes group was assured, should the German infantry break through, that they would have plenty of time to evacuate. The group settled in and work began the next day.(36) For the first time, an American volunteer unit was setting up a hospital and ambulance service in the field, relatively close to the battle lines.

Two of Toland's favorite surgeons from the Majestic Hotel Hospital, Drs. Joll and DeQuelen, came out on October 11 to help the Harjes crew get started. Their operational model, naturally, was the Majestic, where the ambulance service (that is, the omnibus that Toland and Mrs. F occasionally drove) was secondary to the medical service. Drivers were members of the general hospital staff rather than an independent ambulance corps. Accordingly, when Clarence Mitchell joined the Harjes unit, he and the others who drove its ambulances regarded themselves as employees of a hospital, and therefore undertook whatever hospital chores needed to be done. "I have been working in the wards a good deal," Mitchell wrote his parents in December of 1914, "and this morning I put in chopping Wood."(37) Ambulance driving was simply one of the tasks he was assigned as an employee of the field hospital.

Given the extensive renovation required, and the proximity of the French battery, the setup at the Ricquebourg chateau didn't work out, so on October 26 the Harjes unit relocated to Compiegne. Less than a week later, Harjes drove out from Paris with instructions for his group to move again, this time to a chateau outside Montdidier belonging to French Minister of Finance Monsieur Klotz. Significantly, the instructions to move had originated at the 4th Corps of the French Second Army, which was expecting a large battle and a concomitant number of wounded.(38) In other words, the Harjes group was complying with, or at least responding to, a French Army request.

The following day, November 2, the medecin en chef of the Montdidier district and the chief surgeon of the largest hospital at Montdidier arrived, apparently uninvited and unannounced, to inspect Harjes' medical facilities. After giving their approval, the officials, suggested that some of the Montdidier patients might be transferred to Harjes' hospital. On the morning the transfer was to begin, a fierce battle broke out near the small town of Roye, and all available vehicles were pressed into emergency duty. By order of the Montdidier medecin en chef, every ambulance, including the five Harjes Packards, was sent to one of the rear-line holding stations in the region around Roye. Each of the Packards, which were big cars—the one Toland was driving was a six-cylinder Packard 30—had room for six stretchers, and ended up transporting 250 couches (stretcher cases; those blesses or wounded men, able to sit up were called assis), most of whom were taken to Montdidier hospitals. Rolling all day and through most of the night, the Harjes ambulances played a far more prominent role than had the hospital to which they were assigned. Indeed, it was the biggest day the Harjes Ambulance Mobile de Premiers Secours had had so far.(39)

A few days later, French officials ordered the Harjes Packards back into the field, again without consulting the Harjes hospital. About three in the afternoon," Toland wrote in his diary, "the Medecin Chef sent for all of our cars again. . . . I was detailed to car No. 9. When we got to the [holding] station they had fifty men to take to Breteuil, twenty-two kilometers west of US."(40) French military and medical officials had found Harjes' ambulances efficient and convenient—an eminently valuable autonomous service on which they could call regardless of the hospital to which it was formally attached. Gradually, Harjes' ambulance corps began to split off from the hospital unit and function independently. The Morgan-Harjes operation was evolving into two discrete groups: the medical staff, whose job it was to maintain a functional hospital, and the ambulance drivers, whose services were increasingly being called upon by second-line French officials.

As the separation between the medical and ambulance personnel formalized, the differences between the type of volunteer each attracted became more distinct. Signing up for hospital duty was quite unlike offering to drive an ambulance. Hospitals were hectic and crowded, yet guided by strict rules, and staffed with other overworked angels of mercy; ambulance driving was usually carried out alone. In an ambulance, you were alone, heading blindly down a bomb-cratered, unmarked dirt road to god-knows-where in a rattletrap of a car. Each job appealed to individuals with fundamentally different motives, attitudes toward the war, skills, expectations, and degrees of recklessness. The two sorts of work reinforced personality traits. If the volunteer ambulance driver and the volunteer hospital worker weren't that different when they arrived, the demands and pressures of their disparate jobs soon made them so.

The Morgan-Harjes unit was growing increasingly interested in and attractive to men who were more familiar with automobiles than with hospital work. When Clarence Mitchell decided to sail for France after the war broke out, he thought the type of assistance he could offer would be medical, not mechanical. He hadn't calculated exactly what he would do when he got to Paris, but he figured he would probably help out at the American Military Hospital in Neuilly. Upon his arrival in Paris on October 17, Mitchell presented a letter of introduction to an official at the Morgan-Harjes Bank. The official, who knew relatively little about the Neuilly hospital, said that Harjes had a unit "just behind the firing line and needs another man who understands automobiles, and I [Mitchell] can probably have the job."(41)

Two weeks later, after hurriedly practicing his driving and passing the requisite test, Mitchell was assigned to the Harjes unit. Despite anxious projections by the 4th Corps of the French Second Army (which had instructed Harjes to move his unit to Monsieur Klotz's chateau outside Montdidier), the sector was still rather quiet when Mitchell arrived, so he spent his first days making trips to and from the local train station. The action picked up "Mitchell called it a "rush" on November 5, and the drivers of the Harjes Packards, including Mitchell and Toland, were instr-ucted to proceed beyond the train station and pick up wounded men from the Warsy and Dancourt assembly points a few miles behind the trenches. Mitchell soon felt as if the Harjes ambulances had become part of the French Army. "This job beats working in the American [Military] Hospital four ways at once," he wrote his parents on November 11, 1914. "The field work is exciting and very good exercise. . . ."(42) Mitchell and the other Harjes drivers were now largely spared the drudgery of hospital duty and made available for emergency calls from French officials. Although not yet allowed to travel to the postes de secours at the very front, neither were Harjes' drivers confined to doing tiresome jitney work, shuttling back and forth between city hospitals and train stations.

In the winter of 1914-1915, the demand for ambulance drivers and their cars spread throughout France, even in Paris, where only a few months earlier the American Ambulance Board had displayed only a minimal commitment to its transportation service. The attitude of the Board had changed. "I had a note from the American [Military] Hospital, " Mitchell observed in December, "offering me a driving job, and one from F[rancis] C[olby] asking me to join his ambulance corps."(43) By February of 1915, the British Army started allowing British Red Cross groups, such as the Friends' Ambulance unit, to work the British Expeditionary Force's advanced dressing stations, a change in policy that incurred Mitchell's envy and admiration. "The English Red Cross men are nervy beyond belief," he wrote, "and the casualties among them are very high, even among the ambulance drivers who run up in daylight to the second line of trenches."(44)

The conversion of local hospitals and civic institutions near the battle zones into military hospitals was virtually completed by the early spring of 1915. Anyone setting up a hospital or clinic finally realized that they needed their own ambulance corps to bring into them. Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, who completely refurbished a sixteenth-century seminary in the small village of Juilly (population 400) into a second American Military Hospital provides an example. Hospital B, as Mrs. Whitney's clinic was called, opened February 1, 1915, but it had no operational ambulance service.(45) Consequently, when Mitchell visited Hospital B a week later, he found "electric lights, steam heat, scientific sewerage, bath tubs, [and] two hundred and fifty beds—but no patients."(46) This problem was rectified when Mrs. Whitney and the American Hospital Board in Paris arranged for a corps of ambulances to serve her hospital.

Given the disproportionate abundance of medical facilities in the Montdidier sector, as compared with the paucity of ambulance service, Harjes dropped the hospital branch from his operations in mid-February. "Our hospital is closed," Mitchell wrote on February 19, 1915, "but our ambulance service is to be kept going."(47) Indeed, Harjes' unit now included volunteers whose full-time job it was to drive its ambulance fleet, which consisted of two six-cylinder Packards, a 35-horsepower Renault, and, when operational, three wornout 1907 Panhards (as well as a 1907 Renault light truck).(48) Although later augmented by other vehicles and some new drivers, this group was all that remained of the original Morgan-Harjes Ambulance Mobile de Premiers Secours that Harjes and his wife had organized in late September of 1914. With the medical component dropped, the operation became strictly an ambulance service, known officially as the Harjes Formation.

From February to June, the Harjes Formation was attached to a regional evacuation hospital and assigned vital, if routine, duty. The hours between 8:00 A.M. and 9:00 P.M. were divided into three shifts, during which at least one ambulance was on duty. The Formation's on-duty drivers transported blesses who came in on the regularly scheduled sanitary trains, helped distribute the sick and wounded brought in from the front by French Army convoys, and delivered urgent cases that arrived randomly and unannounced from the front throughout the day. The off-duty Harjes ambulances were kept on alert. It was strictly jitney work.

Like the Harjes Formation, the ambulance corps headed by Richard Norton and A. Piatt Andrew were also attached to rear-line bases during late 1914 and early 1915. In these first months, Norton's unit was attached to the British Red Cross headquarters in Boulogne, and Andrew initially was overseeing the cars and drivers dispatched by the American Military Hospital in Neuilly. Both units were deployed in regions controlled by the British Expeditionary Force, north of the Harjes Formation, and they were all also pretty much limited to jitney duty, although their collective hearts ached for work more demanding and consequential.

The tedium of the American volunteers' life ended in the summer of 1915. The Harjes, Norton, and Andrew volunteer units grew dramatically, and their services became essential to the French Army. As their respective affiliations with regional base hospitals were dropped, the American units all became first-line ambulance services attached to specific divisions of the French Armies. Soon, Americans seemed to be everywhere up and down the French front, as Andrew observed. "In 1915," he said, "the little American ambulances could be seen scurrying over the flat plains of Flanders, on the wooded hills of northern Lorraine, and in the mountains and valleys of reconquered Alsace."(49)

Our Lady of Babylon

By John Rechy


Copyright © 1996 John Rechy. All rights reserved.

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