Section No. 1, American Ambulance, 1917


Riverside Press Cambridge


Jeanne d'Arc and the Cathedral at Rheims
The author and Paul Kurtz standing at the foot of the statue.




WHEN we parted from the happy-go-lucky heir to Leslie Buswell's famous Ambulance No. 10, --- now, alas, defunct and gone to its long rest on the scrap heap, ---he and his somewhat wheezy "Ford" had just gone through the fiery furnace of what at that time was regarded as the greatest battle fought by the French armies since the battle of the Marne --- the victorious battle for Fleury-Souville-Tavannes, near Verdun. That the young American volunteers had done their full duty on that momentous occasion appears without comment on the last page of the lively account of the fray as described by the author of At the Front in a Flivver, where the citation of the entire Section No. 1 in the order of the Army Corps is reproduced. This was awarded for the brilliant and devoted work done by the Section in the months of August and September, 1916. It is a curious fact that one year later, Lieutenant Stevenson's account of the battle and of the sort of work done by himself and his companions, so highly recognized by the heads of the French Army, received further confirmation from a source which, though humbler, was even still better qualified to pass judgment upon its quality.

The incident referred to is sufficiently singular to be given here. It was sometime in early November of the following year --- 1917 --- that a French officer of infantry, Lieutenant Froument, arrived on leave in Philadelphia, where he had lived many years prior to the war, earning his living as instructor in languages in a well-known school. That he had distinguished himself in sundry places of danger was attested by the array of his decorations. Not only did the much-valued Croix de Guerre appear upon his breast, but four silver stars enhanced its value, in addition to a Russian order.

To the inquisitive reporter of a Philadelphia evening paper, who interviewed him on his arrival, he obligingly told the story of each star, every one of which represented a citation for bravery. When he reached the fourth, he told the following story, which in its essential part was published in the Evening Bulletin in its issue of November 10, 1917, where it was read by thousands of people on that evening: --

It was a year before, at Verdun, on the 4th of September, 1916, in the fight for Souville, that, having received orders to go forth with his battalion of two hundred and fifty men to hold the fort against an expected German attack, he went over the top. Upon arrival at their objective, the men were surprised to find it lifeless. On penetrating it they discovered that it had been occupied by the Germans the night before, but that the tremendous shelling of the French batteries had destroyed the occupants. None but dead Germans were found there.

The French battalion then passed to Bois-Chapître, a short distance, which, the attack having come on, they held against the Germans' violent onslaught. Their numbers, however, from two hundred and fifty were reduced to forty valid, unwounded fighters. But the attack was repulsed. All officers had been either killed or wounded. No medical help was at hand. Lieutenant Froument could not stand: both legs had been damaged --- three splinters having struck his right leg while seven had seriously crippled his left. This had occurred at four o'clock in the afternoon. His captain, wounded in the head, had lost an eye and was suffering acutely. One of the men suggested that if the badly wounded men could manage to drag themselves to a certain road a mile or so distant, he thought that they might be picked up by some American ambulance, should one pass empty, as that was one of their routes on duty.

It was nine-thirty, however, when the wounded men --- the two officers, a badly hurt sergeant, and two seriously wounded men --- were dragged over the distance that separated them from that road, on the forlorn chance, and placed literally with their backs to the wall of a ruined fort, to await such developments as fate might send them. The road was then under shell fire.

When asked how long they had waited, Lieutenant Froument smiled a weary smile. "At such times, moments seem hours. I could not tell you. I was past taking note of time. It seemed years to us." The road was being shelled, and the helpless men's feelings cannot well be described. Finally, an American ambulance hove in sight. As it approached the men hailed the driver. He stopped and came to them. He was business-like and cool. Fortunately his ambulance was empty. He carefully loaded the five men into his car, said Lieutenant Froument, "as deliberately as though he had been in his own house, although the shells were bursting around the spot." Indeed, quiet speaker as the Lieutenant seemed to be by nature, he rose to something very near enthusiasm as he later described the incident. He had spoken to the American and had found that he was a Philadelphian. He wished to see him, if he had returned , to thank him for what he had done. He wanted to shake him by the hand, for he was a brave man.

One may well understand his feelings of relief and what this thing meant to him and his comrades. But it gives one a realizing sense of the work of these young men. To them, such tasks are all in the day's work. In his two years of service this man had picked up hundreds of similar cases; but to each man who was picked up, it might mean his life.

Well, the five men and the "ambulancier" reached the "poste de secours" at Dugny, near Fort Marceau, and the driver went his useful way. Lieutenant Froument was three months in a hospital before he was about again. A long period of convalescence followed before he was sent to this country to become a member of the Bureau of Information at Washington.

Meantime, thousands of people in Philadelphia had read his story as cursorily given in the paper, and among those thousands was a friend of Lieutenant Stevenson, to whose mind it seemed familiar. Turning to At the Front in a Flivver the entries for the beginning of September were referred to, and sure enough, under date of September 6, 1916, the following entry was found: "One man I carried by the way, asked me where I came from, and I answered, 'America.' He said, 'I know; but what city?' I said, 'Philadelphia.' 'Thought so,' he said. 'I lived for years at Thirteenth and Pine Streets, and taught in the Berlitz School there!' "

After calling up the Berlitz School to verify the correctness of these facts and finding that Lieutenant Froument had taught several years in that institution, from which he had retired in 1914, the friend in question wrote to that officer and arranged for an interview with the family, which took place on Christmas Eve, 1917, in which most of the above details were obtained. As he left the house, Lieutenant Froument said that ever since that day he had tried to meet his friend-in-need and he asked Mr. Stevenson's friends when they wrote: " Please tell him that I have tried to thank him for what he did. It was our duty to defend our country to the last man; but it was not his. He and those who like him came over from this side, leaving every comfort, went into that hell to help us --- that was magnificent. Please write to him that I came to thank him."

After the great battle of which the above is but an infinitesimal personal episode, the volunteer "ambulancier" had returned on leave to spend Christmas with his family. His intention was to return on February 1, but having met with an automobile accident in which he was hurt, it was only toward the end of March that he finally sailed on the Espagne, to return to his work. Soon after his arrival on the other side, the United States at last proclaimed war on Germany. This at once altered every one's attitude in France toward this country --- a change which our author was quick to perceive upon his return. It also greatly altered the situation of the volunteer ambulance service.

As Mr. Henry Davis Sleeper, the able administrative officer of the American Ambulance Field Service, and its representative in the United States, has so well put it in a report issued in the winter of 1918, in which an account of his stewardship is given: --

"During the present period of our transition, in justice to those who have given themselves so unsparingly to this work, there could have been no other policy than for us to have offered as prompt and complete coöperation as possible to the United States Army Ambulance of which we are to become a part, and which has to accomplish in so few months so great a task. If we cannot, perhaps, wholly repress a sense of regret in having to yield all rights of administration, and the personal satisfaction which an intimate knowledge of each day's achievement in such work as this means, it is compensation to remember that the Americans whose courage and energy these past three years have made so fine a record in France, and those of us here whose privilege it has been to stand behind them, are now able to turn over to our own army at one of the greatest moments of need in its history, so useful an organization."

Under these conditions, it was impossible that the transition stage from the volunteer system to that of the regular army should have been accomplished without some difficulty. There was perhaps no man in the service who felt the change more keenly than did the author of the present book.

When he returned to France in April, 1917, there already were rumors of plans and adjustments by which the service was to be passed over to the United States Army. This created an uneasiness among the boys which manifested itself in an effort to forestall the event by personally changing into other arms. Aviation exercised upon all an irresistible fascination, and all who could qualify passed from the Ambulance Service into aircraft. Next to flying, the artillery was the most popular. The necessary increase of the Transportation Service, in which the French authorities requested the assistance of Major A. Piatt Andrew, also created unrest, as the former "ambulanciers" were offered inducements to enter that service, the least popular though the most indispensable of the various services that go to form the efficiency of an army.

Taking it altogether, the summer and autumn of 1917, preceding as they did the final elimination of the wonderful volunteer organization known as the American Ambulance Field Service in the creation and support of which so many prominent people had taken a creditable part, ---none so honorable, however, as the young drivers themselves, who had kept up the traditions of the founders of this great commonwealth in going forward at the crucial hour to assist France, the France of Lafayette, of de Grasse, the France of Franklin, --was a period of considerable unrest among the boys and of anxiety to their officers.

In the forthcoming pages, Lieutenant Stevenson throws side-lights upon the feelings of the college lads who, at that time, largely constituted the personnel of the corps. He, also, in one of his conversations with an intelligent French officer,(1) shows of what importance to France thinking Frenchmen thought the Ambulance Field Service over and beyond its concrete usefulness to the sanitary department in providing intelligent carriers. This importance lay in the interest which their presence in France created in her struggle among the men's friends and relatives in the United States. Whole communities took pride in their action. Whole colleges and universities had their attention directed toward the questions involved in the war by the fact that their graduates had gone into the mêlée, and through their letters these became unconscious propagandists of the truth and the greatness of the cause. When the boys won distinction, their alma mater, their home town, the newspapers of the various localities burst into acclaim, in which the cause for which they had toiled so bravely was extolled, while other young men, fired with enthusiasm by their example, enlisted in the hope of doing as well. Thus was daily increased the subtle influence that was gradually strengthening the love of France among the generous young manhood of America, and through the young manhood, among all who were connected with it.

While Lieutenant. Stevenson had from the beginning hoped to go into aviation --- I believe that he tried four times to do so, but was rejected owing to imperfect sight --- he did what he could loyally to promote the interests of the Service, when the final adjustments were made for the elimination of the volunteer American Ambulance Field Service, and its merger into the American Army. Of course, the change was more than a mere signing into the Army. The boys under the volunteer system had felt that they were, so to speak, a sort of club or fraternity, whose headquarters were at 21 Rue Raynouard. Of course there was a certain amount of discipline. That is, when they went too far, they usually were quietly sent back to Paris. But every one evidently wished to be easy with them. This appears clearly through the pages of the present book. There was a camaraderie between officers and men which found expression in a fellow-feeling when things happened, disturbing to a proper conduct of the work. All this made the transition somewhat difficult, and still more irksome was the constant need for reporting and recording which was required of the commanding officer --- and which we call red tape. But while these things were realized they were accepted and acted upon with regularity.

Before the passing away of the American volunteer took place finally, on January 1, 1918, however, Section No. 1 was privileged to see some glorious days, not only in Champagne, at Craonne, at the Chemin des Dames, Route 44; but at Verdun, Hill 304, and Douaumont, and other points, now famous, during the great French victory of August-September, 1917, when for the fourth time the "Section Solitaire" was cited, this time before the Army, an honor which added the palm to the Croix de Guerre on its Section flag, as well as to that worn by its French and American commanders.

Meantime, while going through the horrors of this wonderful war, as well as through its excitements, the "ambulancier's" life, as presented by Lieutenant Stevenson, was not without its charm for men who were good sports and who loved life in the open. It is largely this spirit which pervades Lieutenant's Stevenson's writings, as well as his sense of humor, that makes his books good reading. He deals with the gruesome side of war, as he does in his appreciation of the Boche character, with an easy philosophy that has all the merit of originality. One understands what he thinks, but he does not quite say it. And that is restful in these days of penny-dreadfuls.




PART I: ---March to July, 1917






PART II: ---July to October, 1917








 At the Front in a Flivver, William Yorke Stevenson, 1917

Part One