In May 1917 the war in Europe had been raging for almost three years while America officially remained on the sidelines. Americans were involved in private efforts to offer humanitarian aid and support. Chauncey Maher, a young man from Payson, felt called to leave his university studies and volunteer to go to France to help the war effort by joining the American Ambulance Field Service. He was the first man from Adams County to respond to the desperate need for help. His words were saved, in part, because his father was editor of the Payson Times. Maher and others like him also helped redefine the word "ambulance."
In 1915 Abram Andrew, a former Harvard professor and volunteer driver, transformed the motorized unit working as a branch of the American Hospital to an independent organization designed to get wounded men away from the front. This was the same volunteer corps in which Ernest Hemingway served, and was the basis for his novel, "A Farewell to Arms." Andrew's transport service grew exponentially and served in France on the Western Front, and also in war zones in Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, the American Ambulance Field Service became part of the U.S. Army.
Chauncey Maher left his pre-med studies at the University of Illinois to join this corps. The hospitals that treated the wounded were originally called by the French word, "ambulance," which came from a Latin verb meaning "to walk." In French, the term was used for a portable hospital that could be packed up and moved from place to place to "walk" behind the army. By the time World War I volunteers brought the word back to America, "ambulance" had come into English language and now meant the vehicle used to take the wounded to the hospital.
Maher was part of a unit of 23 men from his university, who were chosen from among 50 volunteers. Men were selected for their character, scholarship and physical abilities, and had to help raise money to pay their way to the war. The unit raised about $8,000 and took a mechanics course to be able to maintain and repair the vehicles used to take the wounded from the front lines. Passage across the Atlantic to the war cost each man about $150, and each initial enlistment term was for six months. Most expected to stay and serve until the war ended.
Two young men equipped with steel helmets and gas masks drove each ambulance, working at night when darkness grounded the airplanes and shelling was light. In return for their bravery, the men received 19 cents a day from the French government, plus $15 a month from the Field Service, which was a civilian organization.
By June, Maher had arrived in France and was quartered in a church. In August he was in a hospital near Paris, which was financed through American donations, principally from Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt, who contributed about $30,000 a month and secured R. Alexis Carrell, a noted U.S. surgeon and previous Nobel Prize winner, to head its medical corps.
By September, Maher was at the front. His letters home provide a glimpse of another time. His topics are carefully selected and describe his housing (often sleeping on the stretchers from his vehicle), food (only black coffee for breakfast; meat, carrots, potatoes, onions, lettuce salad and cheese for the others), and even a swim in a canal that gathered an audience of 50 Frenchmen to watch the Americans. Interspersed with daily life are evocative descriptions of other scenes.
"Last night, while lying on my stretcher and looking over toward the front, I could see the shells light up the sky, and one time, all along the sky, there was a big red light flare. The cannons were booming all night and the airoplanes (sic) were flying about. Section after section of automobile transports pass us here hauling ammunition to the front."
Maher complains of the cold and wishes for more letters and baked goods from home. "Put them in a box and sew a cloth over it, then on a tag describe its contents. Put on my address and ‘Active Military Service,' and parcel post."
"I nearly freeze to death every night -- it's so cold. I don't take off my clothes only shoes and socks. Send me some heavy socks and a pair of gold stocking. I'm going to take a bath about tomorrow -- it's a week yesterday since I've had one."
"I guess I haven't told you how we live -- we have a base where we eat and sleep, of course no conveniences. Then we have two potato caves, which are about a kilometer back of the trenches and a hospital to evacuate. Four men stay at this post for 24 hours and are then relieved; two stay at the other and one at the hospital. We will be relieved tomorrow noon but the other post changes at night because a road leading there is under observation by the Boche."
Boche was army slang for a German soldier.
"I think the hardest thing is to keep on a road full of holes with no lights when it's full of wagons, troops and guns -- it's just guesses all the way through for when it rains or is misty one can't see the hood on his car. ‘It's a gay life,' as the bunch say, ‘if you don't weaken' and I think Section 88 will come through as they always have."
In October 1917 a letter read, "My Dear Folks: Yesterday I re-enlisted in the ambulance service for the duration of the war in the United States Army. We remain with the French. I couldn't come home and feel right about it."
Maher did indeed come through the war. His division won a citation for courage, and in 1919 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre. After serving two years, he was discharged, but hospitalized with the flu, and his decoration arrived in Payson before him. Maher himself arrived home in August 1919. He went on to become a cardiologist associated with several major hospitals in Chicago.
Beth Lane is the author of "Lies Told Under Oath," the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, and a former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.
"2nd Letter from C. C. Maher," the Times, Oct. 4, 1917.
"All Women Should Register," the Times, Sept. 13, 1917.
"An Interesting Letter Written by Payson Boy," Quincy Daily Whig, Dec. 4, 1918.
"C.C. Maher Now at the Front," the Times, Oct. 11, 1917.
"Chauncey C. Maher at the Front," the Times, Sept. 13, 1917.
"Chauncey Maher Gets Appointment," Quincy Daily Herald, Aug. 27, 1923.
"Chauncey Maher in Section Cited by General," Quincy Daily Journal, Dec. 4, 1918.
Chauncey Maher is Married in Chicago," Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 23, 1920.
"Chauncey Maher is Quartered in Church," Quincy Daily Herald, July 5, 1917.
"Croix de Guerre to Chauncey Maher," Quincy Daily Herald, May 3, 1919.
"Dear Folks," the Times, Aug. 9, 1917.
"First volunteer from this County," Quincy Daily Herald, Aug. 18, 1919.
"Four Generations Gather in Payson," Quincy Daily Journal, April 23, 1924.
"Life in French Trenches," Quincy Daily Journal, Sept. 5, 1917.
"Maher Not at the Front," the Times Oct. 25, 1917.
"Payson Lad works with Dr. Carrell," Quincy Daily Whig, Aug. 28, 1917.
"Payson Man has Christmas Box sent from Home," Quincy Daily Whig, Dec. 18, 1917.
"Personal of Ambulance Section," the Times, Dec. 6, 1917.
"Quincy Boys to France to Drive Ambulances," Quincy Daily Herald, May 14, 1917.
"Stewart in the Signal Service," the Times, Oct. 25, 1917.
"With U.S.," Quincy Daily Whig, Oct. 23, 1917.