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Robert Bacon

Roots, WWI

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Robert Bacon

(1860, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts - 1919, New York, New York)


Robert Bacon could be called the "godfather" of the American volunteer ambulance services. His wife was a mainstay of the American Ambulance.

Bacon was man of action and of few words--- qualities which served him well in his banking career where he became J.P. Morgan's "right hand man". He retired from business at age 43 and began a second career in government service. In 1905, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State under Elihu Root, whom he greatly admired and whom he succeeded as Secretary of State in the Taft Administration. In 1910, he was appointed Ambassador to France. Two years later he became a Fellow of Harvard University, his alma mater and , again in the wake of Elihu Root, made a tour of South America, this time representing the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Then came the war!

After the war broke out, the first telegram to come to me from America was from him: "France is fighting, I'll be right there!" We went to meet him at Le Havre, on the very eve of the Battle of the Marne.

Gabriel Hanotaux, "M. Robert Bacon", in James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923


The outbreak of the World War found Mr. Bacon a free lance, in the sense that he was not in business, from which he had withdrawn in 1903, and he no longer held public office. He was restless at home; he wanted to be in Europe, to see with his own eyes how things were going, and to help where he could.

It was clear as matters stood that the Allies were in need of hospitals, hospital supplies, surgeons, nurses, and hospital equipment. The war had come so suddenly that it took the world by surprise. At least, it so took the Allies and the uninitiated.

Here was a field of work, and in this field Mrs. Bacon toiled at home, raising funds through personal appeal and effort, and Mr. Bacon gave of his time, of his thought, of his money, now in England, now in France, but chiefly to the American Ambulance of Paris, the military branch of the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine.

By August 26, 1914, he was off to Europe on La France. . .

James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923


Bacon arrived in Paris in early September where his successor, Ambassador Myron T. Herrick, had remained behind to protect the city from the anticipated German invasion---while the French Government itself, along with most of the foreign diplomatic corps, had fled to Bordeaux. On September 6th, Bacon wrote:

I am going to stay on for a week or so with Herrick, who is perfectly fine, and needs all the moral support and as many aides as possible for he is not only the one ambassador remaining in Paris but is acting also for Germany, Austria, and partially for the British Embassy. The French people and the Government are all crazy about him and look to him in a large measure to protect property when the Germans come in, as they probably will....

James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923


The focus of American volunteer action in Paris was at the "Ambulance" in the suburb of Neuilly---an outgrowth of the little American Hospital of Paris which had been inaugurated in 1910 when Bacon was ambassador.

The American Hospital and the American Ambulance figure largely in Mr. Bacon's letters; they played a large part in his thought before our entry into the war and after. The American Ambulance was Mrs. Bacon's life during all the years of the war. She was chairman of the American Committee; she adopted, so to speak, the American Ambulance Hospital, which means in French, Military Hospital. By personal letters, each written in her own handwriting, she raised in America the funds for the Ambulance. She made the sacrifices in America which Mr. Bacon made in France, and it is with good reason that the large wing added to the original American Hospital is to-day named by the subscribers as an endowment fund for "Robert Bacon Ward."

The manner in which Mr. Bacon became interested in the project of the American Ambulance Hospital and his subsequent connection with it were typical of the reliance placed upon his sympathy and help by Americans in France as well as by the French Government and people.

The American Ambulance Hospital, or, as it was more generally known, the American Ambulance, was the outgrowth of the little American Hospital just outside the walls of Paris. When Mr. Bacon was Ambassador he was deeply interested in this hospital, which brought so much comfort, greatly needed medical skill and attention to Americans who were ill in France.

When the war came, the American Hospital considered the most practical expression of its sympathy for France would be the formation of an American Military Hospital. The French Government learned of this intention with deep gratitude and placed at the disposition of the little hospital a large, unfinished, high school building. the Lycée Pasteur, to be converted into a hospital for wounded French soldiers.

This was an undertaking much too great, of course, for the limited personnel and small facilities of the American Hospital at that time. Therefore, the Board of Governors immediately turned their thoughts to Mr. Bacon and sent a cable to this country asking him to undertake the work of raising sufficient funds to carry out the project and to interest American physicians and surgeons.

From that time on Mr. Bacon's zeal in the American Ambulance never flagged. He began with a few of his personal and business friends who made the first donations, raised among themselves a guarantee fund, which was in keeping with the whole spirit of Mr. Bacon and Mr. Bacon's friendships. The donors of this fund, which was kept to the last as a guarantee, declined in the end to receive any part of it back, but contributed the full amount of their subscription to the American Hospital for twenty free beds in his memory.

James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923

Mrs. Robert Bacon---who remained in New York during the War---had connections to Paris of her own:

ON OCTOBER 10, 1883, Mr. Bacon married Miss Martha Waldron Cowdin. She, like him, was of New England ancestry although she was then a resident of New York City, where he himself was soon to settle and to become a leading citizen. Her father, Elliot C. Cowdin, was born in Vermont in 1819. Mr. Cowdin's grandfather, Thomas Cowdin of Massachusetts, was a captain in the Army of the Revolution, and for many years thereafter a member of one branch or the other of the legislature of Massachusetts. Entering business in Boston, where he mastered the intricacies of silks and their manufacture, Mr. Elliot Cowdin established a firm of his own in New York with a branch in Paris, and lived alternately in one place or the other as circumstances dictated or suggested. In Paris he was the leading member of the American colony, and friend and confidant to a succession of American ministers,

James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923 (chapter 4)

While Mr. Bacon jumped into the thick of things in Paris, Mrs. Bacon was busy raising money back home in New York.

The appeal for the subscribers in the beginning was made under the direction of Mr. Bacon and Mrs. Bacon, who was chairman of the American Committee responsible for raising funds for the Ambulance. Some extent of this work can be gained when it is stated that more than $2,000,000 was raised by Mrs. Bacon's committee and its branch committees throughout the United States.

James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923

To return to Bacon's letter of September 6th:

Mr. Bacon landed at Havre, rushed to Paris, and installed himself in the Crillon, where he kept an apartment. What he did in these first hectic days he tells in a letter dated Sunday night, September 6th, from Paris:

[...] To-day there has been fighting out by Coulommiers and yesterday, and I suppose there will be a big battle on that side to-morrow or within a few days unless the Germans have entirely changed their plan of campaign.---They are now between the French army of Paris and the French army of the East or Northeast. The English are doing splendidly.---We have just been talking to a couple of wounded English cavalry boys just in from the front.

James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923

He then went into the field himself to see what he could do.

On September 9th or 10th, at Coulommiers, just after the Battle of the Marne, Major General d'Oyly Snow was carried into the town suffering from injuries caused by a fall from his horse and was brought to me for treatment. I found that he was suffering from what seemed to be a fracture of the pelvis, but the case was an obscure one and complete rest, radiographical examination, and skilled and deliberate treatment were obviously necessary. How were these to be obtained at such a moment and how was the injured officer likely to stand a journey of several days to Le Mans in an improvised ambulance train? Full of perplexity as to how to cope with these difficulties, I was just about to arrange for his transfer to the Railway Station when I was told that there was an American Red Cross officer in the town with a motor car fitted up to carry wounded and that he would be willing to help. A big man with the kindest and cheeriest face that one could imagine followed closely on this information and I was introduced to Mr. Robert Bacon. From that moment all my difficulties disappeared. Robert Bacon had a suitable car, he was ready to take the General straight to Paris, and he knew just where to take him: to the American Ambulance at Neuilly-sur-Seine. I only saw him for a moment on that occasion. It did not require much knowledge of psychology to realize that, with this man, General Snow would be in strong and capable hands. We nodded good-bye, the car disappeared in the direction of Paris and the incident closed.

Colonel S. Lyle Cummins, in James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923

The manager of the Hotel de Crillon reported on Bacon's activities during the month of September:

Personally and at his own expense he had succeeded in chartering three automobiles and day and night without ceasing he travelled back and forth between Paris and the front, at that time Meaux and Soissons, to bring back the wounded; he would often return on the step in order to let them have his place in the car. In those days he had the room above mine and sometimes, at two, three, or four o'clock in the morning, I would hear him drawing his bath and would go up immediately to hear the news. Then he would throw himself fully dressed on the bed to wait until daylight so that he might be furnished with packages of first edition papers, a good supply of cigars and tobacco, and some bottles of cognac, for he would say to me, "this is what pleases your dear soldiers the most." Then he would start out again requesting me to say, if one of his friends asked for him, that he had gone out without knowing when he would return.

James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923

By October, he was named to the Board of Governors of the American Hospital of Paris where he was elected president---administrative head not only of the hospital, but of its subsidiary, the Ambulance. There, he encouraged others to do as he had done, and promoted the various initiatives for organizing such "ambulance" service.

On October 1, Bacon introduced Toland to Dr. Edmund Gros, one of the chief medical officers at the American Military Hospital in Neuilly. who proposed that Toland come to work for them. As President of the American Hospital Board, Bacon added that the American Military Hospital "would offer me [Toland] more opportunities than the Majestic Hotel Hospital." The hospital in Neuilly was a much larger operation, Bacon pointed out, with a capacity of six hundred patients. Moreover, it was about to establish a small ambulance unit for transporting blessés to and from the hospital. Driving an ambulance for the Military Hospital, Toland felt, was "more like the work I have been wishing to do."

Bacon mentioned a second, even more appealing, possibility to Toland. H. Herman Harjes, the 39-year-old Senior Partner of the Morgan-Harjes Bank in Paris, was planning to organize a mobile field unit under the sponsorship of the French military hospital, the Val de Grace. Harjes, Bacon said, intended his field service to work in cooperation with both French medical and military officials (thus avoiding the ban against allowing neutrals in a war zone) in the Compiègne-Montdidier sector, where the battle lines had not yet completely stabilized. If Toland so wished, Bacon would try to get him into Harjes' unit. "It is exactly what I want," Toland wrote in his diary that evening.

Arlen Hansen, Gentlemen Volunteers, New York: Arcade, 1996.

By the end of November, Bacon was appointed to the Ambulance Committee where he could become more directly involved in ironing out problems. The Ambulance, moreover, was soon to dwarf its parent organization!

That is why I went on the Committee, and have been spending tedious hours day after day at Neuilly; but it is all coming out with flying colors, and the little things, the difficulties, the obstacles coming principally from the personal equation will all be forgotten and will sink into insignificance. The work will remain and outlive us all, and the American Hospital work during this awful crisis and what it stands for will never be forgotten, and will always remain one of the bright spots in our international relations. This is my honest conviction and this is why I am making and am asking you . . . to make big sacrifices. You and I have become too much identified with it all to permlt me to "lacher" now. The Whitney Unit at Juilly is coming along all right, and is playing a big part in the development and extension of the whole thing as originally hoped for and planned by Herrick, and now the Transport Units, the Ford Squads and Sections are going to play a still bigger part, and this of late has been my chief interest and is just beginning. I was much pleased to-day to get Elliot's cable saying he had money for ten more Fords. We can use any number just now if we can get just the right kind of volunteer chauffeurs, but it may all change at any minute, as everything does.

Robert Bacon, in a letter to his wife, dated December 17, 1914. In James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923

The "right kind of volunteer chauffeurs"?

Mr. Bacon reported on the visit made by Dr. Gros and himself to the French, Belgian and English Milititary Authorities, and stated that the French and Belgian Army would appreciate the supply of an Operating equipment. He mentioned further the insistence of all Military Authorities upon the maintenance of a high standard of men in the Ambulance Service, as otherwise the Authorities would prefer cars without men.

Minutes of the Meeting of the Ambulance Committee, December 2, 1914.

While performing his administrative duties and "diplomatic work" at the Ambulance, Bacon continued his own work in the field. He became a regular fixture at British medical headquarters at Braisne and Fère-en-Tardenois, to the north of Paris.

Work now increased more and more for us all and Robert Bacon became a sort of unofficial member of our Head Quarters. He spent as much of his time as he could in Braisne and the Advanced Area where he was, by this time, a familiar and welcome figure, always ready to help with transport or in any other way. At this period, we formed the first of the Motor Ambulance Convoys and here came a great opportunity to help of which Bacon took full advantage. He and Doctor Gros organized a highly efficient detachment of American Red Cross cars and drivers which was officially attached to the regular ambulance convoys and worked with them in the most complete harmony, remaining at this arduous and dangerous duty for many months during the most trying part of the war.
Early in 1915 he reappeared at General Head Quarters and became a member of the little mess in which General O'Donnell, Colonel Thresher, and I were living; and once more he became an active and invaluable helper in all the work that was going forward. He was with us again during the battle of Festubert and, on that occasion, I being at Advanced G. H. Q., he came up and worked with me for several days, describing himself as my "Officier de Liaison," a very good name as he and his car were always available to take me or my messages anywhere at any time. He felt all the tragedy of that unhappy battle as a personal suffering. I remember sitting with him in his car at a cross roads close to the line, held up, for the moment, by part of a Highland Division that was moving forward to take its part in the fighting. The men were young lads, fresh out from home and still full of excitement and gaiety. They marched past us with a fine swing, laughing and joking like a lot of hearty schoolboys. I happened to look up suddenly toward Bacon. His eyes were full of tears. He saw that I had noticed and understood and said simply, "Do you know, I can hardly bear to see these lads going forward like this." He would have liked to go himself but the sight of all that promise going to destruction was too much for him.

Colonel S. Lyle Cummins, in James Brown Scott, Robert Bacon, Life and Letters, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1923

While detachments of the American Ambulance transportation were serving the British and Belgian armies. Herman Harjes and Richard Norton had organized their services under the aegis of the American and British Red Cross societies, but remained frustrated in their efforts to do more than "jitney" work. The picture was soon to change when Bacon finally turned to A. Piatt Andrew.

Piatt Andrew had been driving his Model T ambulance at Dunkirk for nearly two months when Robert Bacon acted to end this impasse. Early in March Andrew was summoned back to Neuilly and offered the position of inspector general of the nascent ambulance service. This was a flossy title, but it carried little weight within the hospital hierarchy. While final authority resided with Bacon, he had to be highly circumspect in wielding it, and the chief surgeon at the hospital, Dr. Edmond Gros, regarded Andrew as little more than an annoyance. The members of the transportation committee, even less enchanted at Bacon's intervention, were disinclined to surrender management prerogatives without stubborn resistance. "I am to go up and down the land," Andrew observed, "inspecting and advising and making myself generally obnoxious to our several équipes."

Instead Andrew headed straight for the headquarters of Marshal Joffre at Chantilly. He had two personal friends on the marshal's staff, one of them the future premier of France, André Tardieu, who had been a guest lecturer in political economy at Harvard. The second was Gabriel Puaux, a young lieutenant whom Andrew had met while studying German at Jena in 1898 and who subsequently went on to a brilliant diplomatic career. These men had no difficulty introducing him to Captain (later General) Doumenc, who was serving as Joffre's staff adviser on transportation problems. Skeptical at first, Doumenc recommended that Andrew send a section of ambulances to the French divisions fighting in the Vosges on a trial basis. The man to see, he added, was a Commandant de Montravel, in charge of all transportation for the French armies fighting in Alsace-Lorraine.

Andrew Gray. The American Field Service. American Heritage. 1974.

Andrew's initiative, backed by Bacon, led to the attachment of "sanitary sections" of American volunteer ambulance drivers to the Automobile Service of the French Army----and to work with the armies at the front.



Robert Bacon

WW I – Organization of the Field Service (Administration)