Monday, September 24, 2012

The American Field Service

In Ghostwriter, Seth was a member of the American Ambulance Field Service during WWI.

The American Hospital at the Lycée Pasteur in Neuilly, just outside of Paris, was opened in 1914 in an unfinished school building. The hospital was staffed by volunteers -- Americans living in Paris -- until the US entered the war. Money was solicited from donors, ambulance vehicles purchased, but the need proved greater than the volunteers could serve. In 1915, the French government approved a plan to solicit volunteers from within the United States itself.

The French were a little hesitant because the United States was still neutral in this conflict, and they were concerned about allowing unknown (and possibly disloyal) persons into their country. An agreement was reached that the volunteers would be subject to French military discipline and would have to provide letters attesting to their moral character.

The young men were recruited mostly from American universities. One of the founders, J. Piatt Andrew, had been a professor at Harvard. Recruiters were sent to the campuses, including Harvard and Yale, and Duke, the university Seth attends in Ghostwriter.

In the early 20th century, college was still a province of the elite. The GI bill had not been established, nor the extensive student loan system we have today. These were the sons of privileged families, which was necessary as the volunteers had to pay for their own uniforms and their travel expenses.

When John Masefield, the British poet, referred to the ambulance drivers as "the finest young men of America, the very pick and flower of the graduates and undergraduates of the universities" he was not exaggerating. Drivers were picked. The professor doing the recruiting was at the same time screening the applicants. Not everyone with five hundred and fifty dollars was allowed to join the services. The American Field Service required that volunteers "have letters of recommendation from six persons of standing" in their community. They cautioned drivers to 'remember that you are volunteers going to France for a lofty purpose and that you belong to an organization that has maintained the highest standards. -- James T. Lapsley III, Gentlemen Volunteers. American Ambulance Drivers in the First World War. (Master's thesis at UC Santa Cruz, 1971).

The recruiters appealed to the volunteers on the basis of the long-standing friendship between the United States and the French, who assisted us during the Revolutionary War.

"Gayley in a stirring impromptu speech recalled the long, historical friendship between France and the United States, and emphasized the need that the men chosen for the Corps should not only be willing workers but also entirely loyal to France and her cause. He raised the audience to a pitch of generous enthusiasm. Forthwith one hundred and ten men signed pledges signifying their willingness to take part in this humanitarian service." -- The AFS Story

The volunteers were paid the equivalent of thirty-four cents a week, the same as a French soldier earned. (By comparison, a French factory worker earned sixty times as much.) Their meals and lodging were provided and though they technically had no rank, they were treated as officers.

AFS drivers and French soldiers sharing lunch 
The French treated them as heroes and there are many stories of people stepping out of crowds to thank them or offer small gifts. They were beloved by the soldiers themselves.

By the time the US had entered the war and the AFS was merged with the Army, they had over 2,500 volunteers, who served in nearly every major battle of WWI. Despite their non-combat role, their service was very dangerous. Over 250 of them were killed in the line of duty, including 21 from Harvard University.

Many of the men wrote about their experiences in letters and newsletters sent home to their families, and later, in a book of memoirs they published:

Ambulance destroyed by artillery shell
Through deserted, shell-shattered villages we ploughed, the mud spraying us from tires to top and filling our eyes, over the wind-break. It was nearing dusk as we reached the poste, a dugout in the side of a hill. Just above us, on the crest was the line and we could hear distinctly the popping of hand-grenades between the battery salvos. Our men, one shot through the leg, the other hit in the chest, were brought in from a boyau and we started back, this time going more slowly. It was a desolate scene through which we passed, made more desolate by the fading light of a gray day. The miry, deserted road, the stricken villages, the overgrown fields it seemed the very stamping-ground of death and the voice of that death passed overhead in whining shrieks. There was little of life to dispute its reign. Now and then, at the nozzle of a dugout, there appeared a soldier's head, but that was all, and, for the rest, there might not have been a soul within a thousand miles.
So it was I had my baptism of fire. Perhaps I was not frightened by those first shells; curiosity may have supplanted other sensations, but. as time went on, and I saw the awful destructive power of shell-fire, when I had seen buildings levelled and men torn to bloody shreds, the realization of their terribleness became mine, and with it came a terror of that horrible soul-melting shriek. And now after a year and a half of war, during which I have been scores of times under fire and have lived for weeks at a time in a daily bombarded city, I am no more reconciled to shell-fire than at first. If anything, the sensation is worse, and personally I do not believe there is such a thing as becoming "used" to it. -- Robert Whitney Imbrie, "Notes of a Call" in History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France," 1914-1917, Told by its Members. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1920. Volume I.

When the United States entered the war, the American ambulance services were absorbed into the United States Army, but the AFS continued with various volunteer activities. The AFS still exists today, as an exchange program to foster friendship and understanding between nations.

As far as I am aware, there is no memorial to the men who served in the AFS, risking their lives to save others. The Museum of Franco-American Cooperation at Blérancourt houses an exhibit dedicated to them. It features what may be the last AFS ambulance in existence. 

The Iron Harvest

Found in the SommeCredit: shipscompass
Reading an article on the "Iron Harvest" is what inspired me to write Ghostwriter. I read the article with an expression of stunned disbelief. I'd heard of the Battle of Verdun, of course, but I never knew how indescribably horrific it was. I thought, for certain, that the figures listed in the article had to be incorrect. Researching it started me on a journey that coalesced in my mind as Seth's story.

This is where it began.

The scars of WWI linger in Europe. The soil around the battlefields are still littered with debris left from the war: shards of shrapnel, barbed wire, bits of equipment, and live munitions. Every year, the farmers who live where the battles of WWI raged plow up tons of live artillery shells in their fields.
Shell casings from the first day of the Battle of the Somme

Verdun wasn’t a “traditional” battle how we picture it from the movies, with men charging across the field to fire their guns at the enemy. Most of the time, there was little movement between the lines. The primary weapon used was artillery, and the majority of casualties originated from the bombs launched across the battlefield at enemy lines. Millions of shells were fired. It's estimated that at least one ton of munitions fell on every square meter of the Verdun battlefield.
One in four shells failed to detonate. By some estimates, twelve million shells are still buried in the earth of the battlefield. Sections of the battlefield are still barred to visitors because of the danger posed by these munitions.

A 2007 photo showing munitions found in the Somme
Credit: Salfordian
Every year, tons of shells are unearthed by plows, rains and the spring thaw. The farmers pile them up along the edges of their fields to be collected by démineurs who collect and destroy them in specially-built concrete bunkers.

It's a horrifyingly dangerous job. Even almost a century later, the chemicals inside some of the shells can still kill on contact with the skin or if inhaled. Sometimes, the démineurs can hear the liquid gas swishing around inside when the shell is moved.

Shells can also still detonate. 630 démineurs have been killed in the line of duty since 1945. Two were killed in 2007 when a shell they were carrying exploded without warning.

The farmers, too, are at great risk. In 1991, 36 farmers were killed when their equipment struck and detonated shells.

Nearby towns and villages still have to be evacuated on occasion. In 2001, shells gathered for disposal began leaking deadly mustard gas, necessitating the evacuation of 15,000 from Vimy in Flanders.
Unexploded ordnance found near Ypres. The photographer 
found it lying beside the road, likely placed there by local farmers.
Credit: ubulin21

At the rate of recovery, it's believed they'll still be finding munitions for 900 years.

The constant shelling took a huge psychological toll on the soldiers. In my next post, I'll talk about WWI and PTSD.

All photos used with permission of their owners.

The Thousand-Yard Stare


No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're 'longing to go out again,'--
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died, --
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd their pride...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

-- Written by Siegfried Sassoon, 1917, while in a hospital for "war neurosis."

The term "thousand-yard stare" originated in WWII, but it's described in survivors of WWI. It's an expression that indicates dissociation from trauma, the mind's effort at protecting itself from too much horror.

When you hear the whistling in the distance your entire body preventively crunches together to prepare for the enormous explosions. Every new explosion is a new attack, a new fatigue, a new affliction. Even nerves of the hardest of steel, are not capable of dealing with this kind of pressure. The moment comes when the blood rushes to your head, the fever burns inside your body and the nerves, numbed with tiredness, are not capable of reacting to anything anymore. It is as if you are tied to a pole and threatened by a man with a hammer. First the hammer is swung backwards in order to hit hard, then it is swung forwards, only missing your scull by an inch, into the splintering pole. In the end you just surrender. Even the strength to guard yourself from splinters now fails you. There is even hardly enough strength left to pray to God.... A letter from a soldier at the front.

From a diary written at the Battle of Verdun:

Alone, in a sort of dugout without walls, I pass twelve hours of agony, believing that it is the end. The soil is torn up, covered with fresh earth by enormous explosions.
In front of us are not less than 1,200 guns of 240, 305, 380, and 420 calibre, which spit ceaselessly and all together, in these days of preparation for attack. These explosions stupefy the brain; you feel as if your entrails were being torn out, your heart twisted and wrenched; the shock seems to dismember your whole body. And then the wounded, the corpses!
Never had I seen such horror, such hell. I felt that I would give everything if only this would stop long enough to clear my brain. Twelve hours alone, motionless, exposed, and no chance to risk a leap to another place, so closely did the fragments of shell and rock fall in hail all day long.
They called it "war neurosis," "soldier's heart" or "shell shock." Col. Frederick Hanson described its effects in 1943: 

 They walked dispiritedly from the ambulance to the receiving tent, with drooping shoulders and bowed heads. Once in the tent they sat on the benches or the ground silent and almost motionless. Their faces were expressionless, their eyes blank and unseeing, and they tended to go to sleep wherever they were. The sick, injured, lightly wounded, and psychiatric cases were usually indistinguishable on the basis of their appearance. -- PTSD Compensation and Military Service

Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t understood at the time. Doctors thought the soldiers who exhibited mental disturbance must have been physically injured in some way, their brains jarred around in their skulls by having a shell explode too close, perhaps. Men who broke down under the strain were derided as being “cowards,” which is one reason ilitaries didn’t want to recognize PTSD as real; they thought it would encourage “cowards” to use it as an excuse to get out of fighting.

Soldiers were sometimes executed during WWI for breaking down under the strain and fleeing.

Private Thomas Highgate was the first to suffer such military justice. Unable to bear the carnage of 7,800 British troops at the Battle of Mons, he had fled and hidden in a barn. He was undefended at his trial because all his comrades from the Royal West Kents had been killed, injured or captured. Just 35 days into the war, Private Highgate was executed at the age of 17.
Many similar stories followed, among them that of 16-year-old Herbert Burden, who had lied that he was two years older so he could join the Northumberland Fusiliers. Ten months later, he was court-martialled for fleeing after seeing his friends massacred at the battlefield of Bellwarde Ridge. He faced the firing squad still officially too young to be in his regiment.
To their far-off generals, the soldiers' executions served a dual purpose - to punish the deserters and to dispel similar ideas in their comrades. Courts martial were anxious to make an example and those on trial could expect little support from medical officers. One such doctor later recalled, 'I went to the trial determined to give him no help, for I detest his type - I really hoped he would be shot.' -- BBC (Note: The men in the above article have since been pardoned posthumously.)

Dr. Frederick Walker Mott wrote a description of a soldier under his care

Wounded Soldier, (1924) by Otto Dix
He belonged to a Highland regiment. He had only been in France a short time and was one of a company who were sent to repair the barbed wire entanglements in front of their trench when a great shell burst amidst them. He was hurled into the air and fell into a hole, out of which he scrambled to find his comrades lying dead and wounded around. He knew no more, and for a fortnight lay in a hospital in Boulogne. When admitted under my care he displayed a picture of abject terror, muttering continually, "no send back," "dead all round," moving his arms as if pointing to the terrible scene he had witnessed.
There aren’t many statistics for European soldiers in this regard. Unfortunately, a large portion of the WWI records were destroyed in the bombings of WWII. We do know from pension records that by 1929, the British military was paying a pension to about seventy-five thousand “neurological cases,” men completely disabled by their wartime traumas. The real number of PTSD sufferers was probably far higher.

"Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it. When one arrives here the shells are raining down everywhere with each step one takes but in spite of this it is necessary for everyone to go forward. One has to go out of one's way not to pass over a corpse lying at the bottom of the communication trench.
Farther on, there are many wounded to tend, others who are carried back on stretchers to the rear. Some are screaming, others are pleading. One sees some who don't have legs, others without any heads, who have been left for several weeks on the ground..." Letter from a soldier at the front, Verdun, 1916.

The United States sent nearly two million soldiers to Europe. 159,000 of them were taken from the lines for psychological reasons. About half were permanently discharged for it.

Hemingway himself may have suffered from it. Some of his characters certainly did. It appears in other early 20th century works, a reflection of the society authors saw around them, and the struggle to understand what had happened to these men.
 In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf writes about the incompetent treatment given to soldiers asking for help:
There was nothing whatever the matter, said Dr. Holmes…When he felt like that he went to the Music Hall. He took a day off with his wife and played golf. Why not try two tabloids of bromide dissolved in a glass of water at bedtime?

Soldiers in the modern era still struggle with PTSD. Studies suggest that around 10% of soldiers will be afflicted by it. (Up to 30% of Vietnam veterans were affected.) Though we know more about PTSD now and have better methods of treatment, soldiers sometimes don't want to admit they're struggling. There are many resources available to assist soldiers and their families. If you or someone you love are struggling with it, please reach out. No one should have to fight this battle alone.

The Battle of Verdun

In Ghostwriter, Seth witnesses the Battle of Verdun while he serves as an ambulance driver for the AFS.

Verdun was arguably one of the most horrific battles in human history. It lasted for almost a year, two massive armies fighting over the same small bit of ground, with neither side emerging as decisive victor. Hundreds of thousands of casualties resulted; to this day, no one is sure of how many. Estimates range upwards of nearly a million.

The reason why the casualties were so high is because of the new type of warfare being waged. It wasn't the traditional style of battle, where two armies charge at one another firing their weapons. Some of that did occur, but the majority of the casualties were caused by artillery fire.

The German army's chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, famously stated in his memoirs that his intention was to "bleed France white" by inflicting such enormous casualties that it would destroy the French army and morale. As it happened, the Germans lost nearly as many troops as the French. Some modern historians believe that von Falkenhayn used attrition as an excuse, when his motives were actually refusing to surrender because of the amount of resources already invested in the battle.

I wrote in my post on the Iron Harvest that somewhere around fifty million artillery shells were fired during the course of the battle. Along with conventional explosives, many of these shells carried poison gas. Phosgene and chlorine gas was the ones most frequently used at Verdun; mustard gas came later.

This was trench warfare. The soldiers lived in deep ditches, dug in zig-zag patterns. The conditions were horrifying. The bottom of the trenches rarely dried, so the soldiers fought, ate and slept in mud. Sanitation was primitive at best, with overflowing latrines dug into the sides of the trench itself. The soldiers suffered from dysentery and trenchfoot, and were tormented by vermin: lice, flies and rats that grew to the size of cats.

The dead, for the most part, lay where they fell. One French soldier wrote:

"You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead."

The medics often couldn't reach the dead because of the constant shelling. A French soldier wrote of their predicament:

"At Verdun the ones who have suffered the most are the wounded and, along with them, the stretcher-bearers who transport them. Some of the bearers carry them from the front lines all the way to our post (1.5 kilometers); other ones take them in order to carry them off to Fleury and, having arrived there, the wounded have almost another 2 kilometers to go by stretcher before they can be transported by car. Imagine such a trip under the shells which hardly ever stop, through a landscape full of shell holes, tree trunks, and wrecked wire, through deep mud and, in certain areas, through clay where the stretcher-bearers sink down all the way to their waists, being forced to call for help to get themselves out of difficulty..."

The French tried to reduce the horrific mental toll the battle took on its soldiers by rotating units away from the front after a certain period of time. The Germans were unable to do that. As a result, some 70% of the French army saw service at Verdun as opposed to 25% of the German army.

The battle permanently altered the landscape and the scars can still be seen today.

An American pilot who flew over the battlefield wrote:

"...Nature had been ruthlessly murdered. Every sign of humanity had been swept away. Roads had vanished, and forests were fire-blackened stumps. Villages were gray smears where stone walls were tumbled together. Only the faintest outlines of the great forts of Douaumont and Vaux could be traced against the churned up background....only broken, half obliterated links of the trenches were visible."

The land which was once lush French farm country was left an alien moonscape of craters. The only trees left standing were shattered and blackened. Nine villages were destroyed during the battle. Six of them were never rebuilt. Today, only signs mark the location where they once stood.

Parts of the battlefield were so contaminated by chemical munitions, unexploded ordinance and human remains that it was designated a "Red Zone." In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Austrian pine trees were planted there; they were hardy enough to withstand the acidic soil.

The battlefield is still littered with the remains of the fallen. The Douaumont Ossuary (the building in the background) contains the bones of over 130,000 individuals found over the years, which are laid to rest in the crypts below.