If you’ve ever driven in the city, then you are certainly familiar with the jarring sound of an ambulance on an emergency run. The loud wee-woo-wee-woo, in concert with rotating red lights, evoke a sense of urgency that causes you to instinctively check your mirrors and pull over—making way for the vehicle that just may be the link between life and death for some poor soul nearby. If you’ve ever ridden inside of one, strapped to a gurney with your neck in a brace after a car accident, as was I a few years ago, then you probably have an elevated sense of awareness, respect and gratitude for the people who drive them. Before then, I had never given them much thought. I just tried to stay out of their way.
Ambulances were still considered high-tech during World War I. This marked the first major conflict in which automobiles could be utilized to move the wounded and dying. Now, countless lives that would have otherwise been lost on the battlefield could be saved. Driving an ambulance enabled Americans to participate in the war before the official entrance of the United States in 1917; it also gave younger Americans, who were not yet 18, an opportunity to participate, as well as those who might have supported the Allies, but did not want to serve in a combat role.
The American Red Cross and the American Ambulance Field Service (AFS) provided the majority of ambulance drivers to the Allied Forces. The Women’s Motor Corps of America and Nortan-Hajes Ambulance Corps also provided drivers and support.
According to the American Red Cross website, “During World War I, Red Cross employees and volunteers provided medical and recreational services for the military at home and abroad, and established a Home Service Program to help military families. Eighteen thousand Red Cross nurses provided much of the medical care for the American military during World War I, and 4,800 Red Cross ambulance drivers provided first aid on the front lines,” including one Ernest Hemingway and a young Walt Disney. Other notables served as World War I ambulance drivers, including the ninth Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish. “During World War I, 296 American Red Cross nurses and 127 American Red Cross ambulance drivers died in service to humanity during the war,” according to the American Red Cross.
According to the AFS website, “AFS participated in every major French battle and carried more than 500,000 wounded during World War I. By the end of the war, 2,500 men had served in the American Field Service with the French Armies.”
The Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP) holds more than 350 collections from World War I veterans, some of whom served as ambulance drivers with fascinating stories to tell. Through recorded interviews, photographs, letters, diaries and other documents, these veterans help to paint a vivid picture of what life was like for them a century ago.
The last known World War I veteran, Frank Woodruff Buckles, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 110, has three VHP interviews in the Library of Congress archives. Buckles’ collections also include a multitude of documents. During one of his interviews, Buckles shared that his main goal upon joining the Army was to get to France as soon as he could. He took the advice of a sergeant who told him, if he wanted to get to France, he should train to go into the ambulance corps, and that’s just what he did. Little did the Army know that Buckles had lied about his age; he was only 16 years old when he told the recruiter he was 21.
Eugene Curtin served in the Army medical corps attached to the 100th Ambulance British Expeditionary Force. Stationed near the front lines in France, he was often one of the first people to treat wounded soldiers rescued from the battlefield. Curtin took great care to write home often, mostly to his mother, describing life at war. In a letter written to his sister, Clare, he said,
They speak of the grandeur of war. There is no such thing; it’s just a deadly, sickening, bloody slaughter.
Ambulance drivers, nurses and medical corpsmen were not immune to the uncertainty that infantrymen felt in the heat of combat, and, like their comrades, were very cognizant of the anxiety their loved ones were feeling back home. This fact rings true in Curtin’s very first letter.
Where I’ll be sent to after I don’t know. Wherever that place may be I’ll go gladly and I want you all to know that I’ll be happy but lonesome wherever I am. So don’t worry and I’m sure I’ll come back O.K.
World War I Army veteran Richard Thomas Crump kept a meticulous scrapbook detailing his days as an ambulance driver. An historical treasure trove, this 65-page book of photographs documents everything from Crump’s training days, to ambulances, to snap shots of images we don’t usually associate with World War I: German Prisoners of War, French villagers and the aftermath of war.
Like Crump, Longshaw Kraus Porritt was careful to document his experiences through photographs as well as through several other documents and materials. Porritt enlisted in AFS in March 1917, shortly before the United States had officially entered the war. Following a stint on the Western Front, he transferred to the Navy, and then went on to serve with the American Red Cross as an ambulance driver on the Italian Front. The 272 photographs in his collection offer a rare glimpse of the Italian side of World War I, while the assorted manuscripts tell another side of his own personal story—that of being unable to qualify for war benefits because his “official” military service lasted for less than 90 days.
As they were more than 100 years ago, ambulance drivers remain a necessary, yet often overlooked group of public servants—that is until you are the one trapped in your car, covered in glass and blood and slowly losing consciousness. So the next time you hear that piercing wee-woo-wee-woo, check your mirrors, pull over, resist releasing a groan of frustration and give that driver a nod of gratitude.