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from Within the rim, and other essays, 1914-15 (1918)

by Henry James

                    THE AMERICAN VOLUNTEER
                     MOTOR-AMBULANCE CORPS
                          IN FRANCE:
       A Letter to the Editor of an American Journal

                               (issued as a pamphlet, 1914)

SIR, — Several of us Americans in London are so interested
in the excellent work of this body, lately organised by Mr
Richard Norton and now in active operation at the rear of a
considerable part of the longest line of battle known to
history, that I have undertaken to express to you our common
conviction that our countrymen at home will share our
interest and respond to such particulars as we are by this
time able to give.  The idea of the admirable enterprise was
suggested to Mr Norton when, early in the course of the War,
he saw at the American Hospital at Neuilly scores of cases
of French and British wounded whose lives were lost, or who
must incur lifelong disability and suffering, through the
long delay of their removal from the field of battle.  To
help energetically to remedy this dire fact struck him at
once as possible, and his application of energy was so
immediate and effective that in just three weeks after his
return to London to take the work in hand he had been joined
by a number of his countrymen and of others possessed of
cars, who had offered them as ambulances already fitted or
easily convertible, and had not less promptly offered
themselves as capable chauffeurs.  To this promptly gathered
equipment, the recruiting of which no red tape had hampered
and no postponement to committee-meetings had delayed, were
at once added certain other cars of purchase — these made
possible by funds rapidly received from many known and
unknown friends in America.  The fleet so collected amounted
to some fifteen cars.  To the service of the British Red
Cross and that of the St John Ambulance it then addressed
itself, gratefully welcomed, and enjoying from that moment
the valuable association of Colonel A.J. Barry of the
British Army, who was already employed in part on behalf of
the Red Cross.  I have within a few days had the opportunity
to learn from this zealous and accomplished coadjutor, as
well as from Mr Norton himself, some of the particulars of
their comprehensive activity, they each having been able to
dash over to London for a visit of the briefest duration. 
It has thus been brought home to me how much the success of
the good work depends on American generosity both in the
personal and the pecuniary way — exercised, that is, by the
contribution of cars, to which personal service, that of
their contributors, attaches itself, and of course by such
gifts of money as shall make the Corps more and more worthy
of its function and of the American name.

  Its function is primarily that of gathering in the
wounded, and those disabled by illness (though the question
is almost always of the former,) from the postes de secours
and the field hospitals, the various nearest points to the
Front, bestrewn with patient victims, to which a motor-car
can workably penetrate, and conveying them to the
base hospitals, and when necessary the railway stations,
from which they may be further directed upon places of care,
centres of those possibilities of recovery which the
splendid recent extension of surgical and medical science
causes more and more to preponderate.  The great and blessed
fact is that conditions of recovery are largely secured by
the promptitude and celerity that motor-transport offers, as
compared with railway services at the mercy of constant
interruption and arrest, in the case of bad and already
neglected wounds, those aggravated by exposure and delay,
the long lying on the poisonous field before the blest
regimental brancardiers or stretcher-bearers, waiting for
the shelter of night, but full also of their own strain of
pluck, can come and remove them.  Carried mostly by rude
arts, a mercy much hindered at the best, to the shelter,
often hastily improvised, at which first aid becomes
possible for them, they are there as immediately and
tenderly as possible, stowed in our waiting or arriving
cars, each of which receives as large a number as may be
consistent with the particular suffering state of the
stricken individual.  Some of these are able to sit, at
whatever cost from the inevitable shake over rough country
roads; for others the lying posture only is thinkable, and
the ideal car is the one which may humanely accommodate
three men outstretched and four or five seated.  Three
outstretched is sometimes a tight fit, but when this is
impossible the gain in poor blessés assis is the
greater — wedged together though broken shoulder or smashed
arm may have to be with a like shrinking and shuddering
neighbour.  The moral of these rigours is of course that the
more numerous the rescuing vehicles the less inevitable
the sore crowding.  I find it difficult to express to you
the sense of practical human pity, as well as the image of
general helpful energy, applied in innumerable chance ways,
that we get from the report of what the Corps has done, and
holds itself in readiness to do, thanks to the admirable
spirit of devotion without stint, of really passionate work,
animating its individual members.  These have been found
beneficently and inexhaustibly active, it is interesting to
be able to note, in proportion as they possess the general
educated intelligence, the cultivated tradition of tact,
and I may perhaps be allowed to confess that, for myself, I
find a positive added beauty in the fact that the unpaid
chauffeur, the wise amateur driver and ready lifter, helper,
healer, and, so far as may be, consoler, is apt to be a
University man and acquainted with other pursuits.  One gets
the sense that the labour, with its multiplied incidents and
opportunities, is just unlimitedly inspiring to the keen
spirit or the sympathetic soul, the recruit with energies
and resources on hand that plead with him for the beauty of
the vivid and palpable social result.

  Not the least of the good offices open to our helpers are
the odds and ends of aid determined by wayside encounters in
a ravaged country, where distracted women and children flee
from threatened or invaded villages, to be taken up, to be
given the invaluable lift, if possible, in all the
incoherence of their alarm and misery; sometimes with the
elder men mixed in the tragic procession, tragi-comic even,
very nearly, when the domestic or household objects they
have snatched up in their headlong exodus, and are solemnly
encumbered with, bear the oddest misproportion to the
gravity of the case.  They are hurried in, if the car be
happily free, and carried on to comparative safety, but with
the admirable cleverness and courage of the Frenchwoman of
whatever class essentially in evidence in whatever contact;
never more so, for instance, than when a rude field hospital
has had of a sudden to be knocked together in the poor
schoolhouse of a village, and the mangled and lacerated,
brought into it on stretchers or on any rough handcart or
trundled barrow that has been impressed into the service,
have found the villageoises, bereft of their men, full of
the bravest instinctive alertness, not wincing at sights of
horror fit to try even trained sensibilities, handling
shattered remnants of humanity with an art as extemporised
as the refuge itself, and having each precarious charge
ready for the expert transfer by the time the car has
hurried up.  Emphasised enough by the ceaseless thunder of
the Front the quality of the French and the British
resistance and the pitch of their spirit; but one feels what
is meant none the less when one hears the variety of heroism
and the brightness of devotion in the women over all the
region of battle described from observation as
unsurpassable.  Do we take too much for granted in imagining
that this offered intimacy of appreciation of such finest
aspects of the admirable immortal France, and of a relation
with them almost as illuminating to ourselves as beneficent
to them, may itself rank as something of an appeal where the
seeds of response to her magnificent struggle in the eye of
our free longings and liberal impulses already exist?

  I should mention that a particular great Army Corps, on
the arrival of our first cars on the scene, appealed to them
for all the service they could render, and that to this
Corps they have been as yet uninterruptedly attached, on the
condition of a reserve of freedom to respond at once to any
British invitation to a transfer of activity.  Such an
assurance had already been given the Commissioner for the
British Red Cross, on the part of Mr Norton and Colonel
Barry, with their arrival at Boulogne, where that body
cordially welcomed them, and whence in fact, on its request,
a four-stretcher-car, with its American owner and another of
our Volunteers in charge, proceeded to work for a fortnight,
night and day, along the firing line on the Belgian
frontier.  Otherwise we have continuously enjoyed, in large,
defined limits, up to the present writing, an association
with one of the most tremendously engaged French Armies. 
The length of its line alone, were I to state it here in
kilometres, would give some measure of the prodigious
fighting stretch across what is practically the whole
breadth of France, and it is in relation to a fraction of
the former Front that we have worked.  Very quickly, I may
mention, we found one of our liveliest opportunities, Mr
Norton and Colonel Barry proceeding together to ascertain
what had become of one of the field hospitals known to have
served in a small assaulted town a few days before, when,
during a bombardment, Colonel Barry had saved many lives. 
Just as our Volunteers arrived a fresh bombardment began,
and though assured by the fleeing inhabitants, including the
mayor of the place, who was perhaps a trifle
over-responsibly in advance of them, that there were no
wounded left behind — as in fact proved to be the case — we
nevertheless pushed on for full assurance.  There were then
no wounded to bring out, but it was our first happy chance
of bearing away all the hopeless and helpless women and
children we could carry.  This was a less complicated
matter, however, than that of one of Colonel Barry's
particular reminiscences, an occasion when the Germans were
advancing on a small place that it was clear they would
take, and when pressing news came to him of 400 wounded in
it, who were to be got out if humanly possible.  They were
got out and motored away — though it took the rescuing party
thus three days, in the face of their difficulties and
dangers, to effect the blest clearance.  It may be imagined
how precious in such conditions the power of the
chauffeur-driven vehicle becomes, though indeed I believe
the more special moral of this transaction, as given, was in
the happy fact that the squad had blessedly been able to
bring and keep with it four doctors, whose immediate service
on the spot and during transport was the means of saving
very many lives.  The moral of that in turn would seem to be
that the very ideal for the general case is the not so
inconceivable volunteer who should be an ardent and gallant
and not otherwise too much preoccupied young doctor with the
possession of a car and the ability to drive it, above all
the ability to offer it, as his crowning attribute.  Perhaps
I sketch in such terms a slightly fantastic figure, but
there is so much of strenuous suggestion, which withal
manages at the same time to be romantic, in the information
before me, that it simply multiplies, for the hopeful mind,
the possibilities and felicities of equipped good-will.  An
association of the grimmest reality clings at the same time,
I am obliged to add, to the record of success I have just
cited — the very last word of which seems to have been that
in one of the houses of the little distracted town were two
French Sisters of Mercy who were in charge of an old
bedridden lady and whom, with the object of their care,
every effort was made in vain to remove.  They absolutely
declined all such interference with the fate God had
appointed them to meet as nuns — if it was His will to make
them martyrs.  The curtain drops upon what became of them,
but they too illustrate in their way the range of the
Frenchwoman's power to face the situation.

  Still another form of high usefulness comes to our Corps,
I should finally mention, in its opportunities for tracing
the whereabouts and recovering the identity of the dead, the
English dead, named in those grim lists, supplied to them by
the military authorities, which their intercourse with the
people in a given area where fighting has occurred enables
them often blessedly to clear up.  Their pervasiveness,
their ubiquity, keeps them in touch with the people,
witnesses of what happens on the battle-swept area when,
after the storm has moved on, certain of the lifeless
sweepings are gathered up.  Old villagers, searched out and
questioned, testify and give a clue through which the
whereabouts of the committal to thin earth of the last
mortality of this, that, or the other of the obscurely
fallen comes as a kind of irony of relief to those waiting
in suspense.  This uncertainty had attached itself for weeks
to the fate in particular of many of the men concerned in
the already so historic retreat of the Allies from
Mons — ground still considerably in the hands of the Germans,
but also gradually accessible and where, as quickly as it
becomes so, Colonel Barry pushes out into it in search of
information.  Sternly touching are such notes of general
indication, information from the Cur‚, the village
carpenter, the gravedigger of the place, a man called
so-and-so and a gentleman called something else, as to the
burial of forty-five dead English in the public cemetery of
such and such a small locality, as to the interment
somewhere else of 'an Englishman believed to be an officer,
as to a hundred English surprised in a certain church and
killed all but forty, and buried, as is not always their
fortune for their kindred, without removal of their discs of
identification.  Among such like data we move when not among
those of a more immediate violence, and all to be in their
way scarce less considerately handled.  Mixed with such
gleanings one comes upon other matters of testimony of which
one hopes equal note is made — testimony as to ferocities
perpetrated upon the civil population which I may not here
specify.  Every form of assistance and inquiry takes place
of course in conditions of some danger, thanks to the risk
of stray bullets and shells, not infrequently met when cars
operate, as they neither avoid doing nor wastefully seek to
do, in proximity to the lines.  The Germans, moreover, are
noted as taking the view that the insignia of the Red Cross,
with the implication of the precarious freight it covers,
are in all circumstances a good mark for their shots; a view
characteristic of their belligerent system at large, but not
more deterrent for the ministers of the adversary in this
connection than in any other, when the admirable end is in

  I have doubtless said enough, however, in illustration of
the interest attaching to all this service, a service in
which not one of the forces of social energy and devotion,
not one of the true social qualities, sympathy, ingenuity,
tact, and taste, fail to come into play.  Such an exercise
of them, as all the incidental possibilities are taken
advantage of, represents for us all, who are happily not
engaged in the huge destructive work, the play not simply of
a reparatory or consolatory, but a positively productive and
creative virtue in which there is a peculiar honour.  We
Americans are as little neutrals as possible where any
aptitude for any action, of whatever kind, that affirms life
and freshly and inventively exemplifies it, instead of
overwhelming and undermining it, is concerned.  Great is the
chance, in fact, for exhibiting this as our entirely
elastic, our supremely characteristic, social aptitude.  We
cannot do so cheaply, indeed, any more than the opposite
course is found, under whatever fatuity of presumption,
inexpensive and ready-made.  What I therefore invite all
those whom this notice may reach to understand, as for that
matter they easily will, is that the expenses of our
enlightened enterprise have to be continuously met, and that
if it has confidence in such support it may go on in all the
alert pride and pity that need be desired.  I am assured
that the only criticism the members of the Corps make of it
is that they wish more of their friends would come and
support it either personally or financially — or, best of
all, of course, both.  At the moment I write I learn this
invocation to have been met to the extent of Mr Norton's
having within two or three days annexed five fresh cars,
with their owners to work them — and all, as I hear it put
with elation, 'excellent University men.'  As an extremely
helpful factor on the part of Volunteers is some facility in
French and the goodwill to stay on for whatever reasonable
length of time, I assume the excellence of these gentlemen
to include those signal merits.  Most members of the Staff
of thirty-four in all (as the number till lately at least
has stood) have been glad to pay their own living expenses;
but it is taken for granted that in cases where individuals
are unable to meet that outlay indefinitely the subscribers
to the Fund will not grudge its undertaking to find any
valuable man in food and lodging.  Such charges amount at
the outside to 1 dollar 75 per day.  The expenses of petrol
and tyres are paid by the French Government or the British
Red Cross, so that the contributor of the car is at costs
only for the maintenance of his chauffeur, if he brings one,
or for necessary repairs.  Mr Eliot Norton, of 2 Rector
Street, New York, is our recipient of donations on your side
of the sea, Mr George F. Read, Hon. Treas., care of Messrs
Brown, Shipley & Co., 123 Pall Mall, S.W., kindly performs
this office in London, and I am faithfully yours,

                                    HENRY JAMES.