George Rock
History of the American Field Service
1920-1955

 

J. Paulding Brown
INTRODUCTION
1914 to 1940

1. THE FIRST MONTHS OF THE AMERICAN AMBULANCE
(September 1914 to May 1915)

When Germany declared war on France in the first week of August 1914, the American colony in Paris set about the organization of a military hospital, as an earlier generation had done in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. A group of influential Americans took over the new building of the Lycée Pasteur, then nearing completion in Neuilly. By the end of August the American Hospital was ready, and a small staff, headed by two distinguished surgeons, Dr. Edmund L. Gros and Dr. Charles DuBouchet, had been organized.

Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt donated the motor transport, and Mr. Harold White, the manager of the Ford Motor Company's assembly plant in near-by Levallois-Perret, arranged for 10 Model-T chassis. With the help of a local carriage-builder, the few men remaining at the plant constructed simple bodies---a board floor with room for two stretchers and a canvas top supported by ribs. A plank on the gasoline tank served as a seat for the driver, and over his head was the open sky. By the first week in September, 10 of these home-made vehicles stood in the courtyard of the Lycée Pasteur, bearing on either side a large red cross and the legend "American Ambulance."

A half-dozen of the Ford men---English, American, and French volunteered as drivers and were soon joined by others. The writer, whose travels had been abruptly ended by the outbreak of war, wandered into the Lycée Pasteur on 7 September and 15 minutes later was an ambulance driver. It was all quite simple at that time: no enlistment, nothing to sign, no physical examination, no uniform. You merely climbed up on an ambulance, and it was yours.

The French government had packed up and departed in haste for Bordeaux. During this first week in September, people had poured out of the city. Paris was empty and silent, awaiting the arrival of the Germans for the second time in 43 years. The French Army had been steadily retreating until, nearest Paris, it lay along the River Marne. Enemy patrols had penetrated to Chantilly, only 15 miles away, and a German cavalry officer had ridden his horse up the steps of the Château. Near-by Senlis had been burned. A bloody fire-fight had taken place at Meaux. The Battle of the Marne had begun.

Late in the evening of 7 September, orders came for the ambulances to bring in some wounded Senegalese left behind at Meaux after the fighting that morning. We arrived at midnight and found our wounded sprawled on the floor in a little school, tended by a single priest. Dr. Gros and Dr. DuBouchet set about patching them up for the journey. Finally we had 20 loaded on our 10 cars, the first of many thousands of wounded soldiers to be carried by the American Ambulance and the American Field Service. We lined up in front of the Cathedral ready to leave as dawn broke. Then the Bishop of Meaux appeared on the steps and solemnly gave us his blessing, adding for each of us a couple of apples by way of breakfast. As we drove slowly out of Meaux, we saw on all sides the debris of battle: dead horses, everywhere; smashed field guns and caissons; burned farmhouses; and long columns of French infantry in their baggy red pants and heavy blue coats, all moving eastward.

Two days later we made a daylight trip to Senlis to bring back some wounded German prisoners. On the way out we met a long line of ancient taxicabs, hundreds of them it seemed, chugging slowly back to Paris in a cloud of dust. This was a strange sight on a bright September morning. Later we learned that we had seen the return of General Gallieni's taxicab army in which the resourceful commandant of the Paris garrison had transported a full division, 8 men with equipment packed into each cab, to strike the weak point in von Kluck's right wing.

All through September, and well into October, Paris remained on edge. The menace of the enemy's return continued. The French wished to keep all military hospitals, including the Lycée Pasteur, empty for the time being. As a result the ambulances had nothing to do. We did, however, get a minimum of driving instruction, bought uniforms at our own expense, and after wavering runs around the Place de la Concorde were issued military driving permits. These documents dramatically announced they were "Bon pour conduire une voiture à pétrole partout en France pour ramener des blessés sur le champs de bataille."

During this dull period we made another night trip. This time we went to Mairy-sur-Marne, where the Paris railroad crossed the river on a high trestle. The British had blown out the central span, but some one had forgotten and in the night a long train of freight cars filled with French wounded had plunged into the river. Almost everyone had been trapped in the cars and drowned. The last two cars on the train, filled with German prisoners, remained on the tracks. We gathered up the survivors and carried them back to Neuilly.

From time to time we went to the freight yards at Villeneuve and Aubervilliers, east of Paris, and brought in British wounded. Many of them were in horrible shape, as these were the days before antitoxin injections, and gas gangrene had developed in their wounds.

Towards the end of October two officers of the British Royal Army Medical Corps appeared at the American Hospital looking for ambulances. The battles of the Marne and the Aisne had passed into history. Paris was saved and the fighting rolled away to the north and east. The remnants of the British Army had left their positions on the Aisne and made the long march to the Belgian frontier. They were even then moving into position around Ypres for the last desperate battle before trench warfare immobilized the front from Switzerland to the North Sea. Motor ambulances were desperately needed by the British. Our 10 cars stood idle at the Lycée Pasteur. But soon they moved.

On 2 November, a section of 5 ambulances left Paris for the British front and a few days later was followed by an old Mercedes ambulance and a Ford touring car for the Section Chief. All were assembled at Merville in the Pas-de-Calais. We were promptly attached to the Indian Army Corps, which had just arrived from the Far East and was at that time holding a portion of the line around Béthune, opposite Lille.

 

The men who drove the cars of Section One of the American Ambulance on this first tour of duty deserve to be mentioned. Many of them are now dead, and others have disappeared. The names of some have never even been placed in the records, and very few are known to the ambulance men who came after them.

In command of the Section One was Robert Maclay, from New York. He was a rugged, powerful man, considerably older than most of us, an excellent disciplinarian and an admirable "chef de section." He was killed a few years after the War in a motor accident.

Roger M.L. Balbiani was a gay and charming Parisian, one of the "jeunesse dorée" of 1914. He reminded me of the hero of Ibañez's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, riding each morning in the Bois, taking a leisurely luncheon, spending a couple of hours in his office, and then setting forth for a "thé dansant" in the Champs Elysées. But he was a bold and competent ambulancier. Later he became Chief of Section One and was the first chief to receive the Croix de Guerre for gallantry during the bombardment of Elverdinghe, Belgium, in April 1915, when the Section came down from Dunkerque at the time of the first German gas attack. He transferred to the French Air Force. Two years later he was detached as an instructor at an American flying school. A few months later his plane crashed in flames.

Henry J. Reilly, a West Point graduate and recently retired as a captain of cavalry, was our only professional soldier. He had been military attaché at the United States Embassy in Japan and was convinced that the Japanese one day would attack without warning, a prophecy to which no one paid the least attention. He later became Chief of Section Two. Subsequently, he had a distinguished military career as colonel of the famous artillery regiment known as "Reilly's Bucks," in the Rainbow Division. He finished the war a brigadier general.

Frederick B. Bate, one of the Ford Company men, had been an art student in Paris for a couple of years before the war. He later transferred to the staff. During World War II his clear voice could be beard broadcasting from London, where he was manager of the National Broadcasting Company. He lives in Waterford, Virginia.

The writer of this memoir remained with Section One until 23 May 1915 and then returned to America. In the War he served as a captain of infantry. Later on he graduated from the Harvard Law School and now lives in Washington, D.C.

The others of this first group of drivers were John Rochefort, Pollard, Ingram and Ernest Steinertz (a Londoner with a classic cockney accent), all from the Ford plant in Paris, and a man named Pegram. This last had got himself up in a beautifully tailored tunic and breeches and except for the red tabs looked like a British staff officer. He was continually being saluted by the Tommies, much to Maclay's annoyance. In a few weeks he drifted away to Paris and we never saw him again.

One of the Ford men who was with us in September and October was Kenneth Fowler. He was a gay young Englishman full of fun and frolic. He held a reserve commission as a sub-lieutenant of artillery but had not been called up and was afraid the war would end before he got in it. He was mistaken. Returning to England in November he went to France as an officer in the Royal Field Artillery and on his first day at the front was killed in action.

 

A second draft of drivers and 5 more ambulances came out to Section One in December. They included Alwyn Ball, Charles Reed, John Oakman., Norman Read, Grant (known as "The General"), and R. E. Locker. Ball and Charles Reed have since died. Ball was a captain of infantry in the war and Norman Read joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915. He was terribly injured in a crash but recovered and served in the American Army. He now has a ranch in Texas. The records on the others are missing.

Following the terrific fighting at Ypres in early November 1914, the British front quieted down. The artillery on both sides kept up a desultory fire, but except for an occasional raid there was little activity until the disastrous British attack in February at Neuve Eglise, south of Ypres.

Section One settled itself in Merville. We were billeted in the garret of a large house located in a lumber yard at the edge of the town where canal boats were built. We slept on the floor, washed at an outdoor pump, and messed at the local pub, appropriately called the "Canon d'Or." The townspeople went about their work never dreaming that three years later Merville would be practically obliterated by shell fire and its ruins deluged in gas.

The ambulances established a regular routine, going up to the dressing stations and carrying the wounded back to the field hospitals and to the railhead. There were many cases of trench feet in this period, as the troops were not yet equipped or trained for warfare in flooded trenches and seas of mud.

Early in December the Section moved to La Gorgue, a mile or so nearer the front. Again we found ourselves billeted in the garret of a large house. Here we were comfortable enough except for the fact that some one had shot the roof full of holes, so that on a rainy night there was considerable hasty moving of blankets. This area was held by the Brigade of Guards and we had occasional glimpses of the Prince of Wales, a slim, pink-faced subaltern in the Grenadiers.

We continued the dull routine from the dressing stations at Sailly, Béthune, Houdin and Château Gore, where the Indians were, and back to the railhead. Two of our people, Read and Grant, enlivened things by sneaking off one night to the front lines and spending the next day in the trenches. It was reported that Read, who had done considerable big-game hunting in Alaska, squatted on the parapet and engaged in range practice, firing at shovels held up by the enemy. All this in full sight of the Germans. A day or so later, as we drove by a company of Guards on the road to La Gorgue, Read was recognized and roundly cheered.

On 18 December the Section set off for Paris in a blinding rain. We stopped for lunch at St. Omer, then HQ of the British Expeditionary Forces. We invaded the best restaurant, marked "Officers Only." Balbiani, ever gay and original, soon had acquired the bartender's jacket and proceeded to dispense cocktails of his own explosive quality. Fortified with the best lunch in many weeks, the Section took to the road, planning to drive all night and reach Paris in the morning. The rain came down and night closed in as we tore along in close column. There was only one car with its tail light working, so that was put at the end of the column. We soon came to grief. Maclay and Locker in the staff car crashed into a farm wagon and several ambulances piled up on each other. Further travel was abandoned and the Section limped into Douellens for the night. We were billeted ceremoniously by the mayor, and we made him the guest of honor at a lively dinner that evening. It was late on 20 December when the Section drove into the courtyard of the American Hospital at Neuilly.

Several of the Merville veterans drifted away. New arrivals had come in from America, including A. Piatt Andrew. Little did we realize when we first met this debonair and forceful man that it was he who would build up the American Ambulance into the great American Field Service. Another new man was Joshua G. B. Campbell. For several months he had been engaged in the grisly business of putting dead men into coffins at the British military hospital in Paris in the Hotel Bristol. He worked in the cellar 12 hours a day and, even though he maintained a bar and entertained occasional callers, it was grim work. He was glad to come with us into the open air. He won the Croix de Guerre at Eclusier and since 1918 has lived in Paris.

In addition to the remaining Merville veterans, Maclay, Bate, Brown, Norman Read, Balbiani, Ball, Locker, Oakman, and Rochefort, Section One was manned by 11 others, including Andrew and Campbell. Their names should be recorded: Lawrence Rumsey from Buffalo and Chouteau Johnson from St. Louis, both of whom later served as pilots in the Lafayette Escadrille; Eugene Reynall, from Philadelphia; Sigurd Hansen, Paris; Gardner Richardson, New York; Francis H. Appleton; and Fleming.

By the third week in January our cars were repaired, the new men assimilated, and we were ready to go north again. Ten ambulances, a staff car and a supply car with a complement of 19 men set out for Dunkerque on 18 January, expecting to go to the French Army in the sand-dune country along the Belgian coast. We slept the first night in our cars, parked in the square at St. Omer, and reached Dunkerque the next day. Here we met with an unpleasant surprise, for the French ordered the Section to set up business in Dunkerque.

We found ourselves attached to the French Army, designated the Detachment of the Army of Belgium, holding the line from the Channel to Ypres except for a few miles of flooded country where the battered remnant of the Belgian Army was entrenched around Pervyse. Night and day we carried French wounded from the hospital trains to the twenty or more military hospitals set up in Dunkerque. We were started on the road which was to take Section One through the bombardment of Dunkerque and the German gas attack in April, when at Elverdinghe the Section distinguished itself and Balbiani won the Croix de Guerre.

An important event occurred on Washington's Birthday---22 February 1918. The Section celebrated with a dinner at its favorite "estaminet." As we were sitting down, a long black car drove up and out stepped Mr Robert L. Bacon, former American Ambassador to France and at that time a sort of inspector general for activities connected with the care of wounded British and French soldiers. Mr. Bacon had known Piatt Andrew in Washington and he saw at once that Doc's talents were not being used. When he left that night for Paris, Andrew went with him to begin the work of developing the American Ambulance into the American Field Service.

We were billeted at first in a girls' school and then given a little house overlooking the broad beach at Malo-les-Bains from which 25 years later the heroic evacuation of the British Army took place. We acquired a good cook and, even though we still slept on the floor, we felt that we lived in style. The Section was divided into night and day shifts, and on 22 January we went to work. Five ambulances were always on duty at the freight yard, ready to meet the hospital trains as they came up from the French lines northwest of Ypres and to distribute the wounded throughout the city. There were said to be about 30,000 sick and wounded troops there most of the time. Whenever any specially large consignment came in, the ambulanciers then off duty were routed from their beds and all cars went to work.

Late one night in January the city was roused by a series of explosions and the drone of an airplane. It was the first night aerial bombardment of the War on an open city. The Germans sent over a single Taube, which dropped 5 or 6 25-pound bombs and then faded into the night sky. Little damage was done, although on the first night we gathered up a wounded sailor and a dead woman, and later a Belgian soldier on the docks. This unfortunate fellow had darted out of a shed and crawled under a freight car only to have the bomb land alongside of him and blow off his leg. Worse was to come. A week or so later a lone Taube flew over the city, and shortly after a 10-inch naval shell landed in a cemetery just inside the city. It fell squarely on a funeral party. This was followed every day or so by other isolated bombardments. One shell landed in the central square and killed a pleasant young woman at the grocery store where we bought occasional supplies. The military were alarmed and the civilians were thrown into panic. We moved all the wounded to neighboring towns, the Section working night and day for a week. Not until after the war was this gun located in Belgium, 19 miles away.

As the spring advanced and the ground dried out, speculation turned to the expected offensive. It seemed to be accepted that the Germans would attack on a large scale. But where and when? The answer came to us on the night of 21 April. A long hospital train pulled into the freight station crowded with poison-gas cases. Many were in horrible shape, gasping for breath. Wild rumors flew about to the effect that the Germans had laid down a mysterious cloud of deadly gas and routed the Canadian and French troops where they joined up northwest of Ypres along the canal. It was said the enemy would be in Dunkerque in 48 hours.

Section One was ordered to Ypres. We set out as the dawn brightened the east and at noon were in the British lines at Poperinghe, 5 miles from Ypres. Everything was in an uproar. Refugees crowded the roads, the town swarmed with British troops, and English cavalry in great numbers was moving towards the front.

We moved out towards Elverdinghe, west of Poperinghe. Along the roads, field dressing stations were set up where the gas victims were assembled. Hundreds of men lay on the ground, gasping and struggling for breath. We spent the day and night moving them back to the field hospital at Vleteringhe. One car made a hazardous trip into Boesinghe, a little town still held by the French. The German trenches were just across the canal, and the town was under artillery and machine-gun fire. The next day we set up camp in a field near Elverdinghe. The town itself and the roads were under intermittent bombardment, so that except for an occasional daylight foray we worked only at night. Our route led us to several dressing stations along the canal on the Brielen road. We would leave the car on the road and then advance cautiously to some ruined farmhouse or barn where our wounded lay. The Germans were on high ground across the canal, and the open space was frequently under small-arms fire.

The front had now quieted down. Home-made gas masks began to appear, consisting of a strip of gauze which could be dampened in ammonia when the alert sounded. The Germans had completely underestimated the devastating effect of the gas attack and had failed to follow through the 4-mile gap they had opened by their barbarous tactics. The French V Corps, "le Corps qui fait," moved in to support the battered African Corps. The cavalry melted away and was not seen again.

The Section continued to work at Elverdinghe with the French troops of the Corps d'Afrique. Meanwhile 5 cars were kept busy at Dunkerque, alternating with the 5 in Flanders. Many of the old drivers, with seven or eight months' service, returned to Paris and others were sent to replace them. Section Two, under Henry J. Reilly, had been established at Pont-à-Mousson. Men and money were coming in from America. Piatt Andrew, as Inspector General, had taken a firm grip on the organization. The American Field Service was in being.

The American Ambulance, which had first appeared at the Battle of the Marne nine months before, became a memory for the handful of men who had shared its first adventures.


Introduction 2: Between the Wars
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