The American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps

Cynthia Dubose on “The American Volunteer Motor- Ambulance Corps: A Scholarly Assemblage”

Many critics have dedicated attention to The American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps in France during World War I, and its uncanny amount of ambulance drivers who would later become literary figures. Among them were E. E. Cummings, Dos Passos, Harry Crosby, Ernest Hemingway, William Seabrook, Malcolm Cowley, and others. Cowley portrays the organization as, “the most literary branch of any army”, and, “college-extension courses for a generation of writers” (Exile’s 37, 38). Richard Norton is credited for assembling the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. Norton and fellow Americans were disturbed by the unsettling reality of wounded soldiers and rising death tolls due to the delay of transportation of soldiers. With the help of sponsors and donations, Norton’s ambulances would, “get the wounded from the first-aid stations in from ten to twenty minutes instead of the hours-long trip of those early days” (Fenton 327, 328).

Young college writers were particularly attracted to the idea of joining this organization that was expanding; a possible result of their Ambulance Service executives.  Founder of the closely aligned branch named The American Field Service, Abram Piatt Andrew, was an assistant professor at Harvard University. In Addition, Richard Norton, a Harvard graduate himself, was also the son of Harvard Professor, Charles Eliot Norton. Thus, the Field Service sought out college men of a familiar academic nature, giving them the option of enlisting for a short amount of time, which “enabled undergraduates to resign from college at the end of the first term, for example, and return to their studies in September” (Fenton 330). Norton himself stated, “his drivers were excellent University men” (Fenton 328). Cowley observed in Exile’s Return that his professors “stopped talking about the international republic of letters and began preaching patriotism” (Exile’s 36). W.K. Vanderbilt stated that these men “have arranged to give six months to the cause of France and her allies, because they believe in France and the things for which she and her allies are fighting” (Fenton 331). The organization was divided into several sections, typically twenty volunteer drivers in each. Several volunteers came from similar backgrounds; therefore, it was simple for personal relationships to develop. After the armistice, reunions would continue to be held by each division.

Cowley portrayed his service as “almost ideal,” when he stated, “it provided us with fairly good food, a congenial occupation, furloughs to Paris and uniforms that admitted us to the best hotels” (Exile’s 41). However, not all volunteers shared Cowley’s outlook, one driver wrote “there was no schedule. Sometimes we were on duty thirty hours at a stretch. The days were bad, the nights were worse” (Rice 56). Each volunteer was issued tobacco and a quart of pinard, and time-off fluctuated with activity in the trenches. “The American volunteers received…the French rate of pay for poilus – five sous a day” (Fenton 333).

Although life for an ambulance driver was wearing and dangerous, many were appreciative for the life-changing experience. Hemingway wrote, I thought about what a great advantage of war was to a writer” (Hemingway 70). Cowley agreed with Hemingway, when he stated, “This spectatorial attitude, this monumental indifference toward the cause for which young Americans were risking their lives, is reflected in more than one of the books written by former ambulance drivers” (Cowley 43).  Whether it was a chance for literary figures to travel abroad, or an act of humanity, many of them joined the ambulance service during World War I, and conveyed their involvement through writing.

Works Cited

Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1976. Print.

Fenton, Charles A. “Ambulance Drivers in France and Italy: 1914-1918.” American Quarterly 3.4 (1951): 326-43. Web.

Hemingway, Ernest, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Scribner’s, 1935), p. 70.

Rice, Philip Sidney, An American Crusader at Verdun (Princeton: Princeton University, 1918), p. 56.


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