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Vosges Detachment

To continue in Alsace the work of Sections Three and Nine in December, 1916, the Vosges Detachment of six ambulances went to Willer. There the Detachment remained for eight months attached to the 52d French Division, and serving the mountain postes of Mittlach, Larchey, Thann, Hartmannsweilerkopf, etc. In August, 1917, the men and cars were returned to Paris, and the Vosges Detachment as a separate unit was disbanded.

'The Ambulance Sections', History of the American Field Service in France, "Friends of France" 1914-1917, Told by Its Members, Volume I (Boston and New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1920)


 Most sane, most spiritual, because most sane,
Upon her bitter road she steadfast shows
The sacrifice majestic, while again
Freedom's own everlasting altar flows
With France's blood; in that most sacred stain
Once more her own immortal genius glows.




The Vosges Detachment of the American Field Service was formed in December, 1916, at the direct request of Commandant Doumenc, Director of the French Army Automobile Service, to carry on the work of evacuating the wounded in that mountainous sector of the front which had been so well served by Section Three and Section Nine. For a clear understanding of the work done by the light Field Service ambulances in this sector, it is really necessary to have a mental picture of the country itself and the position of the opposing battlelines.

The Vosges Mountains, rising grandly from the plains of Alsace, presented a natural barrier to the advance into France of any invader from the east. Many of the peaks attain a height of well over three thousand feet above the plains, and the sheer, rugged summits, snow-capped till late in June, offer a wonderful sight for the lover of mountain scenery. Roughly speaking, the French, after August, 1914, held the western slopes and most of the crests of these mountains, and the Germans held the plains stretching away eastward to the Rhine. The city of Thann, regained for France by her army in the first month of the war, lies at the point where the valley of the Thur River opens out to the southward into the plains, and it was along this valley, which stretched away for thirty kilometres to the north of Thann, that the French brought up their supplies and ammunition for the troops holding this sector. In order to reach the lines from this valley, it was necessary to climb over the mountains intervening between it and the German-held plains, and this was done by pack-mules on narrow military roads which sometimes averaged fourteen per cent grade throughout their entire length of twelve to fifteen kilometres. Endless cables and buckets were also used to transport the supplies and wounded up and down these mountains.

Such, then, was, in general, the sector in which Sections Three and Nine had worked for twenty months, and for which, upon their departure in the late autumn of 1916, Commandant Doumenc called on the Field Service to supply other ambulances. After the departure of Section Nine, the French had endeavored to do this work with one of their own sections, using their usual heavy ambulances; but the effort had proved unsatisfactory, and the arrangement was finally made that six Fords should be sent out, to be attached to this same French section --- the Fords to do the evacuation work from the postes to the valley, and the French section to take up the work from the valley to the rear. Such was the birth of the Vosges Detachment.

In December, 1916, Louis Hall left Paris with a camionnette and six ambulances driven by Hamersley, Ward, Nordhoff, Miller, Howe, and du Bouchet. The convoy pushed through to Rupt-sur-Moselle where the automobile parc of the Seventh French Army was located, and a stop of about a week was made at this place. Hall reported to Commandant Arboux, the Chef of the Automobile Service of the Seventh Army, and received orders to take his detachment to Willer for billeting and to report to the Médecin Divisionnaire of the 52d Division of French Infantry for duty. The Detachment began its service the next day. Comfortable quarters were found for the men in Willer, and Hall lived and messed with the Médecin Chef of the G.B.D. of the Division. One ambulance was assigned to duty at the "Ambulance Alpine" at Mittlach, near Metzeral, thirty-six kilometres from the cantonment; one at Larchey, at the "Ambulance Nénette," and one at Hoche, another branch of the "Ambulance Alpine," with call postes at "Bains Douches" and "Colardelle," two regimental aid stations at the foot of Hartmannsweilerkopf. Call postes were also established at Thann, Vieux Thann, Goldbach, Haag, and Markstein. Most of these latter were artillery postes and required little attention. The wounded were taken to hospitals at Moosch, Saint-Amarin, Urbès, and some few back over the Col de Bussang into France to Le Thillot.

The trips in this sector were unusually long and the grades up and down the mountains very severe. On both the climbs up to Hoche and over to Mittlach, the little Fords would be in low gear for half an hour at a stretch, and it was frequently necessary to change the water in the radiator two or three times on one trip. In order to keep the gasoline consumption as low as possible, the needle valves of the carburetors would be closed at the top of each descent and the car allowed to coast down against the engine as a brake. Naturally the wear on the transmission bands was tremendous, and in order to equalize it the following method was employed: The low-speed band was worn during the climbs; the reverse band was used very lightly as a brake during the straightaway descents; the foot-brake was used only at corners and on the steepest portions of the hills; and the emergency brake was strictly reserved for real emergencies. In this way the bands were made to last for as much as ten days or two weeks, but naturally the wear on the cars under such conditions was excessive, and it was found necessary at different times to replace the ambulances.



Much snow fell during the winter and the weather was very cold, so that some of the mountain roads became quite impassable and certain postes had to be given up. Mittlach, Haag, and Goldbach were not visited from the end of January till the beginning of April. The poste at Hoche, however, was attended all through the winter. Sometimes not more than two blessés could be carried at one time, and frequently, even with this light load, the ambulances had to be assisted over icy portions of the grades by friendly poilus. By April, matters became better and the regular service was resumed.

In May the original Detachment began to break up as the engagements of the men ran out, and by the middle of June an entire new personnel was in the Detachment consisting of Greenwood, in charge, and Richards, Colie, Lindsey, Harrington, Wilson, and Phinney, as drivers. These men carried on the work until the beginning of August, when orders were received to take the Detachment to Rupt, where it was to be joined by new men and cars from Paris and organized into a full twenty-car Section, which was to take over from the French Section Eighty-Four the entire work of the sector. At Rupt, however, the orders were amended; the ambulances and touring-car were loaded on freight cars, and the entire body returned to Paris, where it was officially disbanded on August 9, 1917, after eight months' service.

The work had not been hard, but the driving had been far from easy, the sector being certainly the most difficult as regards driving of any along the whole front, and any conducteur who could successfully bring a loaded ambulance over the mountain from Mittlach to Urbès on a dark, rainy night was surely entitled to a niche in the automobilists' hall of fame.

The work of the Detachment also varied considerably. Ordinarily the sector was quiet, and the car at Hoche was then relieved every forty-eight hours and the one at Mittlach every three days. The drivers were, of course, always supposed to be within call of their cars, but it was easy for them to obtain permission from the Médecin Chef of the poste to be away for an hour or two at a time, and they could then make interesting excursions out on the slopes of Hartmannsweilerkopf or into the village of Metzeral and up its surrounding hills. Some of the fiercest battles during the French advance into Alsace took place at these two points, and it was intensely interesting to visit the scenes of these struggles and discover unexpectedly gun emplacements and trenches hidden in the woods. Boche and French aeroplanes were overhead daily, as each side kept a close watch on his adversary, and air battles were of frequent occurrence. One German airman fell in flames in a field close to the poste at Mittlach, and shortly after a Hun machine gun, pieces of a propeller, an iron cross, and other souvenirs made their appearance in the American cantonment at Mollau.



The service was not all play, however, by any means, and when a French or Boche coup de main occurred, the Vosges Detachment had plenty of hard work. Picture a perfect summer evening, the sun an hour set behind the mountains and the beautiful afterglow lighting up the few clouds in the sky. The peaceful little village of Mollau is just preparing to turn in for the night. In the distance one begins to hear the rumbling of thunder, and before darkness has finally settled, a terrific summer storm is sweeping up the valley. It passes over, leaving behind a steady downpour of rain, but as the thunder gradually dies away a new sound takes its place --- the rolling, reverberating, reëchoing roar of a barrage up in the mountains. Everybody is up and about, for something is evidently doing up toward "Hartmanns." Then is heard the telephone bell in the office at Mollau, and an order comes to send all available cars to the poste at Hoche, whereupon the Chef sets out in his staff car followed by the ambulances. The run along the valley to Willer is quickly made, but then begins the fourteen-kilometre climb up the mountain. A steady rain, wet, narrow, steep, curving, slippery roads, long convoys of pack-mules, artillery caissons, and ravitaillement wagons make the trip up a difficult one, indeed, especially as after a certain point is reached no lights of any description may be used. Arrived finally at the poste, the first word is obtained as to what has happened, and we learn that the Boches have taken advantage of the storm to lay over a heavy barrage and try a coup de main, with a net result for the French of two killed, seven wounded, and no prisoners. Four of the blessés are at Hoche itself, and these are loaded into an ambulance and started on their way down to the hospital at Moosch. The three others are down at Colardelle in an ambulance that cannot pull the grade to come back to Hoche. Two of the men afoot push on the two kilometres to the regimental poste, where they find the Médecin Chef raving crazy because he has loaded three couchés into an ambulance that cannot move, the low-speed band having burned out. So there is nothing else to do but for the two Americans, two brancardiers, and the Médecin Chef to join forces and push the loaded ambulance all the way up the muddy road to Hoche, whence it can coast down the other side of the mountain to the triage at Willer. Nor is it an easy task to push a loaded Ford ambulance up a steep hill on a slippery, muddy road, at 2 A.M. on a rainy night! At Hoche no more blessés have come in, so the chef serves a round of hot tea and rum to every one, two ambulances are left at the poste in case any more work develops, and the staff car rolls its way back down to Mollau to close the night's work at 4 A.M. Punctuate and illumine this description with a fairly heavy bombardment, plenty of star-shells, and roads which have a sheer drop of several hundred feet from the outside edge, and a fair idea of an active night in this sector will be obtained.

The Americans made many friends among both the soldiers and the civilians in the sector, and many are the stories that could be told, some sad and others amusing, to show how warmly the ambulanciers were regarded by both the French and Alsatians. Richard Hall, a member of Section Three, and brother of Louis Hall, the Chef of the Detachment, had been killed on Christmas Eve, 1915, by a German shell on the road to Hoche and had been buried in the little military cemetery at Moosch. When the Vosges Detachment arrived a year later, they found two young Alsatian girls of a well-to-do family of Moosch carefully tending the grave and seeing that it was always well kept and covered with fresh flowers.



The sector was a quiet one during 1917, and many "concerts" and entertainments were given by the soldiery. Always "les américains" were invited and good seats reserved for them. Whenever the Chefs visited the different postes, they were always pressed to stay for déjeuner or dinner by the Médecin Chef, and the meal was invariably turned into a small fête. At Mittlach the drivers were frequently asked to eat at the Médecin Chef's popote, and at the different popotes at Willer, at Saint-Amarin, at Nénette, the Americans were always welcome. On the 4th of July, Commandant Arboux sent a message of felicitation to the Detachment, and that night the Americans gave a dinner to which they invited the officers of S.S. Eighty-Four, and at which the citizens of Mollau presented them with a huge formal bouquet. The presentation was made by an Alsatian girl in full national costume, and all the Americans insisted on thanking her in person on both cheeks. The Detachment was also host on the 4th to all the men of the French section at an afternoon party, at which wine, cakes, and cigarettes were served. One of the drivers in the French section was Charliez, the leader of the orchestra at the Café de Paris in Paris, and he supplied music on his violin for many of these festivities, the musical selections ranging all the way from Chopin to "Annie Rooney." On the 14th of July, S.S. Eighty-Four had a wonderful party which lasted almost continuously from 11.30 A.M. till 10 P.M., and the Americans were enthusiastic guests. On this occasion all the citizens of the valley were in the full national Alsatian costume; American, French, and Allied flags were seen everywhere; band concerts were given in many of the towns; and wherever the Americans appeared. they were greeted with cheers. In fact, this friendly feeling between French and Americans is one of the pleasantest souvenirs of our sojourn in Alsace.

The Vosges Detachment made no records for "number of blessés carried," nor for the "number of kilometres run," but it played its part in the game all the same. It kept alive in the minds of the Alsatians the knowledge that America was with them in spirit even before we entered the war; it maintained the good feeling that all the French officers and poilus had for the American volunteers; and it did its work in the true spirit of the American Field Service --- that of helping France no matter what the work or where it led.

*Of New York City, Princeton, '05; served in Section Eight of the Field Service, February to June, 1917, the Vosges Detachment, June to August, and Section Fifteen, from October to November, 1917; became a First Lieutenant and subsequently Captain, U.S.A. Ambulance Service, commanding first a Section, then a Parc.