Patrick Gregory discusses how America’s voluntary effort took shape in the Great War, as a new exhibition opens at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
‘The world must be made safe for democracy……We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion’.
Woodrow Wilson was keen to focus on a nobler ideal for the American people to espouse as he addressed Congress in early April 1917. He was preparing both the politicians before him and the public at large for a war he had spent the better part of three years attempting to steer his country away from: one he now found unavoidable.
For his critics in the United States – among whom former president Theodore Roosevelt and the Preparedness Movement had been particularly vocal – Wilson’s declaration of war had come not a moment too soon. They had long argued that German aggression had to be confronted head on by more active means than mere financial support and trading help, as vital as that was.
Yet there was a legion of Americans who had been active in Europe since war had broken out in the summer of 1914 – volunteers and participants who had been drawn into the fray by what they saw as a ‘righteous’ cause.
Some of them had ties of family or friendship with France or Britain, others had found themselves in Europe at the beginning of the war as an accident of timing and travel plans. Either way, they had fetched up in Paris offering their services in whatever manner would be deemed most useful: first in ones and twos, and then on a more organised basis, reporting to hospitals and military offices and American expatriate organisations.
One of the first major encounters of the war, the first Battle of the Marne in September 1914, had acted as a notable early recruiting sergeant.
The volunteer effort soon took shape, aiding increasingly in the task of evacuating military wounded from the front, and by the tail-end of 1914 into 1915 three distinctive ambulance groupings began to emerge: the Harjes Formation – named after the senior partner of the Morgan-Harjes Bank in Paris – and the second, Richard Norton’s Anglo-American corps.
These developed separately and worked as distinct units for over a year before eventually merging under the banner of the American Red Cross. But it was a third ambulance grouping spawned by the American Military Hospital in Neuilly, in Paris’ western suburbs, which would grow into the largest and best organised: the American Field Service.
The AFS’ efforts in Europe were in large part the work of one A.Piatt Andrew – Abram Piatt Andrew.
Piatt Andrew had arrived in Paris at the turn of 1914–15, and like others before him joined as a volunteer. Yet his background was slightly different to the majority of those serving. To begin with he was not in early 20s but his early 40s, and he already had a notable career in academia and public life behind him: a first job had been as an assistant professor of economics at Harvard, a post he held for nine years; after this came stints as director of the United States Mint and the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Taft administration.
But following a defeat in a congressional primary contest, Piatt Andrew had contacted the President of the American Hospital’s board, former U.S. ambassador to France, Robert Bacon, offering his services. Bacon accepted, albeit on the understanding – that is Andrew’s understanding – that the only work which was on offer was whatever ambulance driving needed doing at the hospital. That was enough for Andrew: all that he needed. It was a fresh challenge.
Within weeks of arriving in France he had taken stock of the challenge. He was there to drive, certainly (that was, after all, what he had agreed with Bacon that he would do), and he had got down to the nitty-gritty of obtaining a driver’s licence and getting out on shift. But the hospital, with a still limited number of ambulances, had at that time taken the first steps in sending some vehicles out into the field to serve smaller regional hospitals.
‘APA’ was a resourceful and politically savvy operator and he identified what he thought needed to happen next. It was a two-fold approach: firstly, he would expand the service in terms of size and scope, in numbers of men and ambulances available; but secondly he wanted to address the issue of where these men would operate. He thought they should get closer to the front itself, offering an immediate assistance from the battlefield, not busying themselves with the more humdrum business of ferrying less acute or more stable cases from railway stations to hospitals; the frontline would hold more interest for his eager young volunteers.
For the first months of the war French military policy was to keep any American volunteers away from the front, for them to do ambulance driving and relief work at a safe distance from the battlefield. The authorities’ thinking appeared to have been governed by wariness at the possible motivation of these ‘neutrals’. Could volunteers have divided loyalties, perhaps harbour pro-German sympathies, and prove a danger if left to wander freely near the frontline and Allied troops?
Piatt Andrew begged to think otherwise and set about persuading the French military that this was a risk worth taking. His AFS or ‘American Ambulance’ organisation would recruit able and properly-motivated volunteers, and vouch for their good conduct. He persuaded them to offer his men a trial on the frontline in the Alsace region, to test them closer to the fighting and working directly with French troops. It did the trick. The work was deemed a success and quickly led to the proper incorporation into French fighting units of these new, young ambulanciers and drivers of camions supply trucks. From April 1915 onwards American Ambulance and other Norton-Harjes/Red Cross units found themselves in a new, more advanced role.
Their numbers swelled. By summer-autumn 1917 Norton-Harjes units had over six hundred ambulance drivers and three hundred ambulances; the American Ambulance could boast 1,220 ambulances spread out over 31 sections and supporting a total of 66 French divisions, and serving in the Balkans as well as on the Western Front. Still others were engaged as actual combatants: American members of the French Foreign Legion and most famously – and glamorously – the pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps.