An American Ambulance Driver’s Experiences in the First World War

IN RECOGNITION OF THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE END OF THE GREAT WAR, later to be known as World War I, let me share with you the impressions of an American ambulance driver to what he saw in that war. This article originally appeared in the Clarksburg (West Virginia) Exponent Telegram on November 11, 2012, and will be included in a future volume of my West Virginia Histories book series. All rights reserved.

Today is Veterans Day, originally established as Armistice Day to commemorate the dead of what in 1918 was called the Great War. Long before the United States got involved in that conflict, some Americans crossed the Atlantic to serve with European nations. One such was Henry Sydnor Harrison, the bestselling author of Queed and other novels and something of a social critic.

Born in a lovely little wide-spot-in-the-road called Sewanee, Tennessee, he was living in Charleston, West Virginia, when war broke out in Europe. Upon his return from the war, The Greenbrier Independent (Lewisburg, WV) of July 29, 1915, wrote about his experiences.

The French Army accepted him as a driver in the American ambulance unit, so named because of the large American hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly. There was just one wee problem: Harrison didn’t know how to drive.

He learned, but he said driving the Ford ambulances was doubly difficult because “a Ford is driven with your feet.” Early Fords used three foot pedals but had the ability to traverse “almost inaccessible places.”

He said the ambulances would go as close as a mile from the front, where stretcher-bearers carried the wounded to them. He seemed impressed by the stretcher-bearers, who had been the musicians of their units in peacetime, but “in this war there is no music.”

He never went into the trenches, but in response to a question he replied that bayonet charges were the most terrible test any soldier could endure. “When the battle was over those that were unhurt were broken men in every other respect,” he said.

Those charges were part and parcel of that war, despite advances in military technology that drastically increased the strength of defenders, including machine guns, greatly increased lethality of artillery, and Germany’s M98 Mauser rifle, the progenitor of all bolt-action rifles developed since.

Harrison’s ambulance section was assigned to Dunkirk. On April 22, 1915, all 20 cars of the ambulance corps were suddenly ordered to a small town near Ypres. A German offensive, known as the Second Battle of Ypres, had begun that day and would last until May 25. (Harrison’s interview with the Independent was published just over two months after the end of Second Ypres.)

A French lieutenant requested Harrison assist him in some matter, which resulted in the American being in the town of Poperinghe (Poperinge), Belgium, about four miles west of Ypres.

“It was here that the novelist saw every angle of the war,” the Independent wrote.

Standing on a corner in the village, Harrison watched an English army marching toward the front, including lancers, artillery, dragoons, and cavalry—”all spic and span,” the newspaper said, adding that the eager, fresh-faced English boys “were the fodder for the cannons.” Many foot soldiers of that force, the Second Army, were actually Canadian.

As the horsemen went forward, Harrison saw “an almost endless string of ambulances … carrying thousands of broken wounded men” westward to trains that would take wounded to the rear. Also sweeping west were the refugees, “women and children fleeing from place to place.”

Although the article did not mention it, Second Ypres marked the first large-scale use of poison gas on the Western Front. The Germans opened their assault with a barrage of 168 tons of chlorine gas that inflicted some 5,000 casualties within 10 minutes.

Harrison expressed great admiration for the French, who were bearing the brunt of the conflict in the West.

“The war has drained (France) white. In Paris, one sees boys of twelve and thirteen years old waiting on the tables in restaurants and cafes. One can go into a barber shop and perhaps a boy of ten will lather one’s face, and a woman, probably the boy’s mother, will do the shaving. The sight of 10 men sitting together in a town this size is unknown. All men are now soldiers.”

In the 20 hospitals at Dunkirk, Harrison saw “the horrible side of this almost world war,” the Independent wrote. Over 20 years later, it would indeed become known as the First World War.

In the image above an artillery shell explodes in the distance as an American ambulance makes its way toward Verdun. It was originally published by Bain News Service. Library of Congress LC-DIG-ggbain-23118

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