Upper-Class Adventurers Meet Horror, Duty in the Great War

Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War

August 1914-September 1918

By Arlen J. Hansen

Arcade, 254 pp., $27.95

When you think of the advent of modern warfare, World War I rumbles to mind - the first tanks, the first planes, the first massive reliance on automatic weapons, and, of course, poison gas. Yet there was another facet to early mechanized warfare: not only the use of machines to slaughter soldiers, but also their use to remove the wounded from the battlefield.

The pioneers in this more humane application of technology to warfare were not visionary officers or medics, but an elite crew of volunteers, largely American, who took it on themselves to form ambulance units, recruit drivers, and then send them off to brave the incessant shelling and scenes of carnage.

A few highly motivated - and sometimes highly prideful - upper-crust Americans assumed the organizational responsibilities. Most prominent: Herman Harjes, a banker working in Paris when war broke out, whose ambulance unit was known as the Harjes Formation; Richard Norton, who formed the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps; and A. Piatt Andrew, who headed the American Ambulance Field Service (after the war transformed into the AFS student foreign-exchange program).

Arlen Hansen has set down, in occasionally graphic detail (especially on the battlefield), what these men went through to form, staff, equip, and maintain their units. It's a tale of bureaucratic entanglement with the government of France (the volunteers saw themselves as serving the French cause), with sponsoring organizations such as the American Red Cross, and ultimately with the US Army, which took control of the ambulance corps once Washington shook off its neutrality and entered the fray.

Among the most interesting sections of the narrative are those dealing with the vehicles themselves, especially the converted Model T Fords that vindicated their creator's ideas about durability and ease of repair under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Andrew made the "Tin Lizzies" the mainstay of his service. One driver wrote home about seeing a comrade's ambulance (rushing to pick up the wounded, one assumes) slip off a muddy road, hit a tree, and flip over. A couple of French soldiers helped the driver right the thing, and he then "drove off as though nothing had happened."

Another arresting section explores the motives and feelings of the drivers, many of them fairly privileged young men (and some women) drawn both by the promise of adventure and the desire to do something worthwhile.

Among them were a few who later became celebrities, such as novelist John Dos Passos. Many underwent transformations of attitude once they saw the devastation of war. Adventure soon ebbed as a motive. One young man quoted by Hansen notes: "...having arrived in France and learned of some of the terrible things which had been done by the enemy and what the French people had gone through ... we were ashamed of our primary object in offering our services."

There are lessons here for volunteers in any age: Motives, and the willingness to refine them, can have a lot to do with success. And even the best motives can be twisted by ego. Hansen describes the troubles the ambulance-service founders, particularly Norton, had with the perhaps inevitable takeover by the US military. "The volunteer ambulance corps was, to Norton, rather like a gentlemanly service club," he writes. "Instead of raising funds for widows and orphans, its members performed ambulance duty in France."

That attitude was a poor fit for modern warfare. In fact, the whole volunteer effort could seem a gallant, perhaps quaint, detail attached to the opening scenes of a century that would see war mount toward a climax of destructiveness and inhumanity. But it's a humanizing detail worth remembering.

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