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Photos of the Great War Website

World War I

A remarkable number of well known authors were ambulance drivers during World War I. Among them were Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, and W. Somerset Maugham.

There were three predominant WWI volunteer ambulance groups: the American Field Service (AFS), Norton-Harjes, and the American Red Cross operation in Italy. The United States entered the war on April 6, 1917 and both AFS and Norton-Harjes were merged into the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps by August 30, 1917.

Many of the future writers left the war rather than join the army where they would have become privates. In the volunteer groups they had been considered "gentlemen drivers" and the equivalent of officers. "Richard Norton is hanging on by his eye teeth," wrote E.E. Cummings to his mother on August 2, 1917, "God help us from being taken over by the American Army!!!!!!"

The American Field Service started as the ambulance arm of the American Hospital in Paris. Its driving force was A. Piatt Andrew, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and professor of economics at Harvard University. A mid-1915 agreement resulted in the ambulances being attached to French line divisions.

The AFS got an eighteenth century mansion of five acres as headquarters and cut its ties with the American Hospital. AFS had recruited its drivers directly from colleges and universities around the United States. Individual ambulance units were made up exclusively of drivers from particular universities. Thus there were Harvard units, Yale units, etc.

The Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps was created through the merger of the Harjes Formation of the American Red Cross and the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps organized in 1914 by Richard Norton, son of Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton. Harjes was A. Herman Harjes, a French banker. Norton-Harjes reported no fatalities among its drivers.

Nearly all of the Literary Ambulance Drivers listed below injected their experiences into their books at one time or the other, some blatent like Hemingway, others somewhat more subtle. The following is in regards to W. Somerset Maugham:

In 1944 British playwright and author W. Somerset Maugham's novel "The Razor's Edge" was published. The story takes place just following World War I and follows a young American Maugham calls Larry Darrell as he searches for spiritual awakening. High in the mountains of India he experiences Enlightenment. However, what drove him on his quest initially was seeing his best friend die in front of his eyes following a dogfight with the Germans. Darrell had gone to Canada, enlisted in the Canadian military at age sixteen and was flying through them for the British in France by 1917. His best friend was an Irishman called Patsy. Patsy taught him everything he needed to know and how to survive. Inturn, in the end, it was Patsy that Larry saw die...after saving his life. Although the type plane both Larry and Patsy flew is never mentioned in the novel, it is known they were Sopwith Camels (source). Maugham had seen the war and the war's carnage at field level because, like Ernest Hemingway and other writers and authors of the time, he was a former volunteer ambulance driver, one of the so-called Literary Ambulance Drivers. (source)

(click image)

Writers Who Were Ambulance Drivers in WWI

Related Occupation

The above ambulance, pictured in the 1923 Wonder Book of
, is slightly newer than what Gertrude Stein drove.

Majority of article contributed by Steve Ruediger

Courtesy of First World







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