The enormous scale of World War I meant a staggering need for medical support for wounded soldiers. Although America was not yet directly involved in the conflict, popular support for American participation in the war increased. Volunteer organizations such as the American Red Cross Ambulance Service and the American Field Service capitalized on that spirit and enrolled many young Americans to serve as ambulance drivers in France and Italy.
These volunteers, who provided proof of America’s willingness to support its allies, received short orientation courses and wore uniforms patterned after those of the U.S. Army. When deployed, they served with Red Cross commissions to France and Italy. Volunteer ambulance organizations preceded U.S. Army ambulance units into Europe until the United States entered the war in 1917.
The work was frequently dangerous and involved transporting supplies and wounded soldiers in the midst of battle. Despite those disadvantages, many people volunteered to be ambulance drivers in the spirit of patriotism and adventure. The Red Cross Ambulance Service actively recruited volunteers through both its New York headquarters, as well as units in France and Italy. By the spring of 1917, it had 46 ambulance units supporting the Allies.
Eighteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway joined the service as a Red Cross second lieutenant and at the time was lauded by newspapers as one of the first Americans wounded in Italy. Hemingway (shown below at left recuperating with soldiers) received more than 200 artillery fragment wounds in his legs during a night attack in July 1918. He was also wounded by machine gun fire while carrying a wounded Italian soldier to safety.
Hemingway (shown above in a portrait taken in Milan) received the Silver Medal of Valor from the Italian government for his bravery. He was one of the first Americans to be honored in this way. (Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Library.)
His experience in Italy during World War I was the inspiration for Hemingway to write his famous novel A Farewell to Arms.
Find more information on the American Red Cross in World War I on redcross.org. Follow Nicholas Lemesh on Twitter, @NickLemesh.