Richard Norton's
American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps

The American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps was organized in the fall of 1914 in London by Richard Norton, noted archeologist and son of the eminent Harvard professor, Charles Eliot Norton. With the help of two of his father's friends, authors Edith Wharton and Henry James, Norton associated his service with the British Red Cross and the St. John's Ambulance.

(Henry James) enlisted himself in the same way in the service of the particular American activity that arose in England during the early days of the war, before America's entry which he did not live to see. He accepted the chairmanship of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps in France. Richard Norton, the son of his old friend Charles Eliot Norton and a friend of Mrs. Wharton, had thrown himself into this work and James and Mrs Wharton were committed to help. James wrote a long letter to the American press on the nature of this endeavor. It was designed to be informative, as an appeal for funds. The Corps was one of the pioneer enterprises in the age of the motor.

Leon Edel, Henry James, New York 1972; p. 518

London, November 25, 1914
The idea of the admirable enterprise was suggested to Mr. Norton when, early in the course of the War, he saw at the American Hospital at Neuilly scores of cases of French and British wounded whose lives were lost or who must incur life-long disability and suffering, through the long delay of their removal from the field of battle.

Henry James, "The American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps in France: A Letter to the Editor of an American Journal", Within the Rim, Collins, London 1918, pp 63-4

After a week or two in London, Richard left for Paris, hoping to get a job as a "war correspondent"---but war correspondents, some well-known, were swarming there. The battle of the Marne was over---Joffre's victory, which grew in importance as the war progressed---and Richard saw the return of the Marne wounded to Paris. A terrible revelation! There were no adequate preparations then in the armies of the Allies for that flood-tide of suffering which had begun to flow in from the front. Hospital trains and hospitals, ambulance service, supplies for the wounded, etc., etc.---all these things were lacking. The desperate need was clear to everyone who saw those wounded.

One day---it was September then---came a cable from Richard to us in Ashfield: "I am going to organize an Ambulance Corps. See if you can raise funds." So we set to work---and in less than six weeks we raised, without any actual public appeal, $17,000. Meantime he had left Paris and gone to London to organize the intended Corps. Mr. Henry James and a number of old friends warmly took up the project. The volunteers were found easily----Americans and Englishmen joined, but later, when England needed all her men, the English who were in Richard's corps were transferred to other services in the British Army.

Sarah Norton, quoted in "Richard Norton, Class of 1892" in Harvard in the Great War , M.A. DeWolfe Howe (ed), Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, (in 5 volumes), 1922.

By early October, 10 of the Norton cars were serving in France, the driver shaving been recruited in American colleges. Later, like the Field Service, Norton's volunteers would be attached to French combat units on the front,as Sanitary Sections 6 and 7.

I can tell you better thus moreover than by any weaker art what huge satisfaction I had yesterday in an hour or two of Richard's company; he having generously found time to lunch with me during two or three days that he is snatching away from the Front, under urgency of business. I gathered from him that you hear from him with a certain frequency and perhaps some fulness---I know it's always his desire that you shall; but even so you perhaps scarce take in how "perfectly splendid" he is---though even if you in a manner do I want to put it on record to you, for myself, that I find him unmitigatedly magnificent. It's impossible for me to overstate my impression of his intelligent force, his energy and lucidity, his gallantry and resolution, or of the success the unswerving application of these things is making for him and for his enterprise. Not that I should speak as if he and that were different matters---he is the enterprise, and that, on its side, is his very self; and in fine it is a tremendous tonic---among a good many tonics that we have indeed, thank goodness !---to get the sense of his richly beneficent activity. He seemed extremely well and "fit," and suffered me to ply him with all the questions that one's constant longing here for a nearer view, combined with a kind of shrinking terror of it, given all the misery the greatest nearness seems to reveal, makes one restlessly keep up. What he has probably told you, with emphasis, by letter, is the generalisation most sadly forced upon him---the comparative supportability of the fact of the wounded and the sick beside the desolating view of the ravaged refugees. He can help the former much more than the latter, and the ability to do his special job with success is more or less sustaining and rewarding; but the sight of the wretched people with their villages and homes and resources utterly annihilated, and they simply staring at the blackness of their ruin, with the very clothes on their backs scarce left to them, is clearly something that would quite break the heart if one could afford to let it. If he isn't able to give you the detail of much of that tragedy, so much the better for you---save indeed for your thereby losing too some examples of how he succeeds in occasional mitigations quand même, thanks to the positive, the quite blest, ferocity of his passion not to fail of any service he can with the least conceivability render. He was most interesting, he was altogether admirable, as to his attitude in the matter of going outside of the strict job of carrying the military sick and wounded, and them only, as the ancient "Geneva Conventions" confine a Red Cross Ambulance to doing. There has been some perfunctory protest, not long since, on the part of some blank agent of that (Red Cross) body, in relation to his picking up stricken and helpless civilians and seeing them as far as possible on their way to some desperate refuge or relief; whereupon he had given this critic full in the face the whole philosophy of his proceedings and intentions, letting the personage know that when the Germans ruthlessly broke every Geneva Convention by attempting to shell him and his cars and his wounded whenever they could spy a chance, he was absolutely for doing in mercy and assistance what they do in their dire brutality, and might be depended upon to convey not only every suffering civilian but any armed and trudging soldiers whom a blest chance might offer him.

Henry James. Letter to Grace Norton, dated January 1, 1915. In The Letters of Henry James (1920).


"The American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps" in M.A. deWolfe, ed. The Harvard Volunteers in Europe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916.

THOUGH the motor corps of the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris has received the service of a greater number of Harvard men than any other single agency of relief, there has been since the early months of the War an entirely separate organization, the American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps, which has owed its existence and conduct to a single Harvard man, Richard Norton, '92, and has made for itself and its director an enviable record. This corps began its work under the joint auspices of the British Red Cross and the St. John Ambulance. It was thus primarily an offering of American aid to the English cause. As the War proceeded, it became desirable, under the British Army regulations, to transfer the association of the corps to the American Red Cross, and to place its service at the disposal of the French Army. It is now, therefore, a militarized corps serving a definite division of one of the armies of France.

"Richard Norton, Class of 1892" in M.A. deWolfe, ed. The Harvard Volunteers in Europe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1916.

. . . It is not surprising that we receive letters from quantities of persons who are firmly convinced that their mere desire to help in our work is all that is needed to make them of use to us. Of course, and this is natural enough---in fact, could hardly be otherwise --- their ideas of the work of an ambulance corps are based on accounts of battles, as this is about all the newspapers put before them. The fact is, however, that what nowadays are considered battles occur only at long intervals, and most of the time the ambulances are performing an essential, but by no means thrilling, service among the field hospitals and along the line where, although the fighting never ceases, things are generally comparatively tranquil. Especially is this so in the winter months, during which both last year and this there has been no attempt at a great offensive, by either side, on the Western front. It isn't that the armies couldn't fight if they wanted to; the Russians show us well enough that they could. But for one reason and another, probably because the English have not been ready, they don't. So our work goes along quietly for the most part, and there is many a day when the men don't have enough to do to keep them from thinking of their discomforts. These are really nothing very bad, but still a volunteer from another land, one who is not fighting for his own people, has to have a strong sense of the ultimate value of the work he has chosen to do to enable him to forget them. That, I find, is the most serious trouble with any of the men who have been with me. When, as last September, there is heavy fighting, they are as keen as possible and take all the various risks and troubles in the most pleasant spirit. But when, as sometimes happens, the Corps is en repos they get restless and don't know what to do with themselves. For this reason, among others, I don't want you to send out volunteers who are too young. It is not that they lack courage, but that is a quality we are not often called upon to show. What this work chiefly demands is resource. Our men are not like the soldiers constantly under the eye of an officer, but are generally dependent on their own intelligence for the conduct of their work. Such driving as we do was never conceived of by motorists before this war. Borghesi's ride from Pekin to Paris was a summer day's excursion through a park compared to our job. Driving a car laden with men whose lives depend on reaching the hospital as soon as possible is a considerable responsibility. When, in addition, they have to be carried along roads, or more likely mere trails, that are being shelled or maybe swept with rifle fire, often at night, with no light, and through the unending crowd of moving troops, guns, ammunition and revictualling trains, the responsibility is considerably increased. A man must keep absolutely cool and his temper unruffled, and he must be able to size things up so as to do the best he can for his load of fading lives. Experience of life is what is needed to do this successfully, and that is just what a youth has not got. Of course, there are the rare exceptions, and we are lucky in having some of these, where imagination and instinct take the place of experience. But you cannot count on a youth having these, and I have no time to test them, one by one, to see if they will take the bit; so don't send me boys unless you are dead certain of their quality.

"Richard Norton, Class of 1892" in "Richard Norton, Class of 1892" in Harvard in the Great War , M.A. DeWolfe Howe (ed), Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, (in 5 volumes), 1922.

THROUGH the volunteer ambulance service which came to be known as the"Norton-Harjes" service, the name of Richard Norton acquired an extraordinarily significant personal identification with the war. There is, moreover, no name on the Harvard Roll of Honor more closely identified, through inheritance and association, with Harvard itself. The first Norton of his ilk to appear in the Quinquennial Catalogue was a seventeenth-century graduate, John Norton, of the Class of 1671. In the first half of the nineteenth century his grandfather, Andrews Norton, of the Class of 1804, and in the second half his father, Charles Eliot Norton, of the Class of 1846, were correspondingly notable figures in the community of Harvard scholars and teachers. He was the youngest of his father's six children. His mother, Susan Ridley (Sedgwick) Norton, died at the time of his birth at Dresden,Germany, February 9, 1872. When called upon for some biographical items about himself after the United States entered the war, Richard Norton wrote,in parenthesis after "Dresden" as the place of his birth, the words "Ye Gods!" The irony of this circumstance of his first encounter with the world must often have impressed him.

Arlen Hanson, Gentlemen Volunteers, New York: Arcade, 1996.

"Norton knew no pause, for the very next day, October 18, 1914, three of Norton's men --Loney, Starr, and Gideon --- left for the Channel. On the 19th, "Kemp in his Rolls-Royce, Oakman & Robinson in the Cadillac, Berry in a Ford ambulance & I [Norton] in a Ford touring [car] left London," bound for Folkestone. After spending most of the 20th crossing the Channel on a steamer, they arrived in Boulogne that evening, and so on October 21, one month to the day after committing himself to his war-relief project, Richard Norton had his American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps, some fifteen cars in all, at work in the fields of the war."

Edwin Morse, "Richard Norton's Motor-Ambulance Corps", in The Vanguard of American Volunteers, New York: Scribners, 1919.

"The foremost figure among the scores of American university men who, in 1914, 1915, and 1916, gave their services to the ambulance corps in France, Belgium, and the Near East, was Richard Norton."

Virginia Spencer Car, Dos Passos, A Life, New York: Doubleday, 1984.

"Wartime Paris was new to Dos Passos. The City of Lights was dark and quiet when the ambulance men detrained at the little station on the Quai d'Orsay. He felt as though he was walking into the pages of a mystery novel when he stepped through black felt blackout curtains to enter the hotel assigned to the Norton-Harjes men. Early the next morning they reported to headquarters at 7 rue François Premier for swearing-in ceremonies led by H. Herman Harjes, the French banker who had donated thousands of dollars and many ambulances to provide French war relief. The millionaire banker had agreed to pool his efforts with Richard Norton, who launched the American Ambulance Corps in 1914 with two cars and four drivers. By the time Dos Passos enlisted with the Norton-Harjes, the service had grown to thirteen sections comprised of six hundred American volunteer drivers and three hundred ambulances."

Edward Coyle, Ambulancing at the French Front New York: Britton, 1918.

"After making my decision to go I did as everyone else had to do---saw Eliot Norton, a New York lawyer who contributed his time in passing upon the qualifications of the men desiring to enter this branch of service in connection with the Red Cross. He seemed glad to have me go; therefore, I soon found myself busily engaged in purchasing supplies and equipment generally. "