AFS and American Volunteerism in World War I

Published: 1 February 2023

via the Inergency web site

American nurse talking to a French patient at Red Cross Hospital No. 1.


An American nurse talking to a French patient at Red Cross Hospital No. 1, the former American Ambulance Hospital

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, staff at the American Hospital of Paris opened a military hospital (also referred to as an “ambulance”) to accommodate a growing number of patients coming back from the Front.

The new civilian-run facility, known as the American Ambulance Hospital, was situated in the Lycée Pasteur, an unfinished school in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Classrooms and other spaces were transformed into hospital wards and offices. Classrooms held eight beds a piece, and the gymnasium was turned into two large wards containing about 35 beds each.  The American Ambulance Hospital had a great reputation among the French, especially with soldiers who convalesced there. The high quality of service provided by the Hospital was due in part to the large number of American volunteers who served there as ambulance drivers, doctors, and nurses.

One of the more famous volunteers at the Hospital was A. Piatt Andrew, a former Director of the U.S. Mint and assistant professor of economics at Harvard University. Andrew arrived as a volunteer at the Hospital in early 1915 and soon became Inspector General of the Hospital’s Transportation Committee. In April 1915 he negotiated an agreement with the French military to have some ambulance drivers from the Hospital serve closer to the front lines of battle. This group of ambulance drivers came to be known as the American Ambulance Field Service (later known as the “American Field Service” or “AFS”), and was the largest American ambulance corps serving overseas prior to the entry of the United States into the war. The 2,500 volunteer drivers evacuated more than 400,000 casualties during the war.

Today, the organization that began as the American Ambulance Field Service is known as AFS Intercultural Programs, a non-profit intercultural learning organization focusing primarily on student exchange. In 2014, AFS sent 12,222 students on exchange programs to 102 countries. AFS relies heavily on 40,000 volunteers worldwide, who work on efforts from policy development to serving as points of contact for AFS students and liaisons with host schools.

As one way to commemorate its centennial and long history of volunteerism, AFS is coordinating a number of projects on the history of volunteerism from World War I to the present day, including a series of lesson plans that will be made freely available online by the end of 2015. The National Library of Medicine has been an important component of the historical research process for this curriculum. In particular, the NLM’s collections document the activities of the American Red Cross in France.

Read the entire article on the Inergency web site.
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