Literary giants Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, W. Somerset Maugham, Dashiell Hammett—all were aspiring writers when they volunteered as ambulance drivers during World War I. But Hemingway, perhaps the most celebrated for his experience, which he immortalized in A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, actually drove an ambulance only once, possibly twice, during his five-week stint with the American Red Cross in Italy during the summer of 1918. In fact, the wounds that informed those novels occurred when he was delivering canteen supplies to the Front via bicycle.*
The lesser known fact is that Gertrude Stein, literary iconoclast and Hemingway’s mentor, drove an ambulance during WWI for two years. Along with her partner, Alice B. Toklas, Stein delivered medical supplies to hospitals behind the front lines for the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW) in a Ford ambulance nicknamed “Auntie.”
I learned of their experiences and about the AFFW, which plays an important role in my novel Line of Flight, while reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which Stein wrote in Toklas’s voice, referring to herself always in the third person as Gertrude Stein. It’s a fascinating chronicle, not only of the war years in France, but also of Stein’s artistic and literary circle, and her friendships with Picasso and so many other rising artists and writers in Paris in the early 20th century (that is, once you get past all the name-dropping).
Stein and Toklas were visiting friends in England when the War broke out in August 1914, a stay that stretched to months. Finally in October, they gained permission to return to Paris, where Stein had lived since 1903, and Toklas with her, since 1907. By spring of 1915, however, they decided to leave France to get away from wartime stress and visit a friend on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
“We led a pleasant life, we walked a great deal and ate extremely well, and were well amused by our Breton servant,” wrote Stein in Toklas. “Life in Mallorca was pleasant until the attack on Verdun began. Then we all began to be very miserable. We tried to console each other but it was difficult.”
One of the longest and bloodiest battles of WWI, Verdun lasted 10 months, from February 21 to December 18, 1916, with French forces ultimately repelling the German offensive. After Verdun, Stein and Toklas returned to France: “We came back to an entirely different Paris. It was no longer gloomy. It was no longer empty. This time we did not settle down, we decided to get into the war.”
A chance meeting with a young American woman who was backing up a car with American Fund for French Wounded painted on the side was a defining moment. “There, said I,” wrote Stein-as-Toklas, “that is what we are going to do. At least, said I to Gertrude Stein, you will drive the car and I will do the rest.” That encounter led the pair to meet Isabel Stevens Lathrop, AFFW founder, who encouraged them to “get a car” from America. So Stein procured a Ford from an American cousin.
Their first drive in the Ford, once it arrived a few months later, with Stein at the wheel, was less than laudatory. She stalled out on a streetcar track in Paris, necessitating help from others to push Auntie to safety. There were more mishaps and more learning (although Stein never managed to master backing up the vehicle) as the two began a series of AFFW postings, including in Perpignan to the south near the Mediterranean, and Nîmes, not far from Marseilles.
Along the way, they delivered AFFW supplies, donated by volunteer groups of women in the States, to area hospitals, made friends with French soldiers, and became “god-mothers” to a number of troops. This involved writing to their adopted soldiers as soon as they received letters and sending care packages every ten days or so. Much as the food was appreciated, wrote Stein-as-Toklas, “they really liked the letters even more. And they answered so promptly. It seemed to me, no sooner was my letter written than there was an answer.”
By June of 1917, American troops began to arrive in France, and Stein and Toklas befriended doughboys, as well. Stein, who had spent four years in medical school at Johns Hopkins before moving to Paris, was invited by the French attending physicians in the Nîmes hospital to be present whenever American soldiers were patients. Their days were filled with hospital visits:
“There were all the americans, there were a great many in the small hospitals round about as well as the regiment in Nîmes and we had to find them all and be good to them, then there were all the french in the hospitals, we had them to visit this was really our business, and then later came the spanish grippe and Gertrude Stein and one of the military doctors from Nîmes used to go to all the villages miles around to bring into Nîmes the sick soldiers and officers who had fallen ill in their homes while on leave.”
Stein and Toklas continued their work for the AFFW after the Armistice, moving on to Alsace to help deliver supplies to refugees. While there, they finally saw for the first time what was left of the battlefields and trenches: “To any one who did not see it as it was then it is impossible to imagine it. It was not terrifying it was strange. We were used to ruined houses and even ruined towns but this was different. It was a landscape. And it belonged to no country.”
By the end of May 1919, they were ready to return to Paris. Battered and repaired many times over, Auntie barely held together for the final drive home. The city had changed. Friends had died. Stein burrowed into her writing, which she had continued throughout this period.
For the one year anniversary of the November 11 Armistice, Stein and Toklas watched the Allies processional beneath the Arc de Triomphe: “We wandered up and we wandered down the Champs Elysées and the war was over and the piles of captured cannon that had made two pyramids were being taken away and peace was upon us.”
Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at evelynherwitz.com.
*See Arlen J. Hansen’s comprehensive history, Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War August 1914 – September 1918 (Arcade Publishing: New York, 1996), 159-160.
Image: “Portrait of Gertrude Stein, Biliguin” by Carl Van Vechten, 1934, Library of Congress.