History

History Spot.....turning the clock back to 1917

“We never realize just how sad this war is until after an attack. Absolutely nothing is accomplished by either side, and both have hundreds of killed and wounded on their hands. When we see the carts loaded with dead go by, and our ambulances loaded with men crippled for life, some blind, others nervous wrecks, we take it as our daily work, but when we consider what it means to the hundreds of families somewhere in the south of France, it really is awful. The whole thing seems so useless.”

Twenty-year-old David Hugh Annan scribbled these words into his bound diary on July 20, 1917. He had been abroad for less than two months, and yet the horror of war had quickly become apparent.

Discovering France

On May 19, 1917, Annan left his studies at the University of Chicago and boarded a boat to France as an AFS volunteer. The trip overseas was eventful for the young man—he shot dice and sang college songs with his fellow passengers. He was entertained by the French soldiers on board, who performed acrobatics for the American volunteers.

He arrived in Bordeaux, France on May 30, and was immediately struck by the effects of war there: We never realize just how sad this war is until after an attack. Absolutely nothing is accomplished by either side, and both have hundreds of killed and wounded on their hands. When we see the carts loaded with dead go by, and our ambulances loaded with men crippled for life, some blind, others nervous wrecks, we take it as our daily work, but when we consider what it means to the hundreds of families somewhere in the south of France, it really is awful. The whole thing seems so useless.

Every man is in a uniform and the street cars and all other positions which [were] formerly filled by men are now run by women. I was greatly surprised to see old women out cleaning the streets. Great two-wheeled carts go rumbling past with women standing up in them yelling at the horses.

I never saw so many one-legged and crippled men in my life. Some blind, some with one leg gone, some with two every conceivable deformity.

The following day he traveled to the AFS headquarters in Paris and waited for further orders. Annan, who had never traveled abroad before, thoroughly enjoyed exploring the City of Lights. He saw captured German equipment at Les Invalides and visited the palace at Versailles, which he declared to be “the most wonderful place I ever saw.”

Preparing to Drive

On a hot morning in June, Annan arrived to the AFS training camp at May-en-Multien. The purpose of the camp was to train incoming volunteers to handle and maneuver the ambulances, in addition to learning about the French Army to which they would be attached. Annan practiced driving an old Ford Model T ambulance on a training course, drilled for several hours each day, and studied French Army organization with fellow volunteers.

The training camp was in a place formerly occupied by the Germans at the start of the war, and Annan walked out to explore the trenches and entanglements in his spare time. According to Annan, the trenches nearby extended “as far as one can see.”

The men were eager to see real action, however, and Annan expressed his frustration in his diary: “Our first month is up today, and outside of many interesting experiences, and lots of travelling, we have accomplished nothing.” The AFS volunteers’ free time was filled with swimming, visiting local villages, and playing pranks on one another. All the activity and confined preparation led Annan to later declare: “it is hard to imagine we are at war.”

Coping with War

Annan’s newly-formed unit, SSU 65, was sent off to Courcelles, France on July 4. His unit was attached to the 68th French Division of the Tenth Army with a poste de secours (dressing station) at Vendresse, only 1,200 meters from the German lines. The sense of wonder Annan possessed upon arrival in Paris quickly diminished as he witnessed the horror and destruction of war first hand.

During a brief stop in Soissons on July 6, Annan was awakened by “three terrific explosions” caused by a German raid. The explosives were “dropping all around, and for a person unused to it it was very nerve-wracking. It was just like a bolt of lightning followed by the thunder when the lightning hits close, only magnified thousands of times.”

Reflecting on this incident the following day, Annan noted: “Many times, after looking at shell holes, and especially during the raid last night, I wonder if I’ll ever get back to Chicago.”



History Spot….turning the clock back to 1963

United States President John F. Kennedy spoke to AFS Participants at the White House in Washington, D.C. three times during the course of his presidency.

On the website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, people can listen to the audio files or read the transcripts from any of his three speech given on July 13, 1961, July 11, 1962, and July 18, 1963.

Kennedy's final speech to AFS participants was in the third year of his presidency on July 18, 1963.

Kennedy's good friend Kirk LeMoyne Billings was an ambulance driver with AFS during World War II.  Kennedy referred to this when he commended the organization for its activities during the war, and noted that he "knew a good many young men who served in the second war in the American Field Service."

He felt that their experience working with foreign armies taught AFS drivers the importance of avoiding another war, and gave them a sense of "the importance of people working together."  Kennedy also addressed AFS Participants directly about their role in creating a more peaceful world, and asked that they "will not be a friend of the United States, but rather a friend of peace, a friend of all people."