Book review: “At the Front in a Flivver”

William Yorke Stevenson went to France in 1916 as a volunteer ambulance driver. His year-long sojourn resulted in the memoir – part diary, part letters – “At the Front in a Flivver.”

WYS

William Yorke Stevenson with his ambulance

The flivver was a Ford ambulance, in a battered fleet of ambulances the American Ambulance Field Service used to transport French soldiers to dressing stations. The ambulances ran back and forth on heavily shelled roads full of holes. They frequently broke down with a cargo of badly wounded men, and the drivers jumped out and fixed them, often while under fire.

Stevenson served with Section No. 1 during its assignments to the Somme – yes, there were French troops at the Battle of the Somme – Verdun and the Argonne. He was on duty at the final battle for Fleury in September 1916, the end of the Germans’ offensive at Verdun.

It’s not fair to Stevenson to paint him as a carefree lightweight who blundered naively into war and had to grow up. His writing is casual, but only because he doesn’t want a lot of fuss. And like most of the American volunteers, his admiration is all for the troops and none for himself. Still, you can see the change from his first diary entry from Paris on March 15, 1916:

 “Most of the Ambulance men are at the front. They have organized a new special fifteen-day corps for emergencies. It is now at Verdun. I hope I get a chance, although, of course, the turns go more or less by seniority.”

On Dec. 3, he writes aboard the ship taking him home:

 “C. started the ball rolling by copying in his sleep the sound of the guns at Verdun. He did it so well that it sent one woman into hysterics and they had to wake him up. Then an aviator on twenty-one days’ leave proceeded to have a nightmare. Then they tell me I called out in my sleep, ‘What, four new men and only one going? For Heaven’s sake!’ They say it was quite distinct.”

He returned to France in March 1917, just ahead of the U.S. entry into the war and made the transition from volunteer to combatant, which he detailed in the sequel “From Poilu to Yank.”

“At the Front in a Flivver” makes a pleasant read, but if you read it alongside an account of the actual battles, it’s hair-raising.

The Battle of Verdun ended on Dec. 19 with the Germans pushed back to their jumping off positions and 700,000 men dead, wounded or missing.

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