As of September 23, 1917, Harold Lewis was no longer a civilian volunteer, but a private first class in the U. S. Army. His pay was $36 a month rather than the $1.50 reimbursement he had received from France. However, other than a pay raise nothing changed. To ensure the uninterrupted continuation of their vital service and per the French government’s request, the U. S. Army agreed to leave the former Field Service ambulance men with the French troops.
In a letter dated October 8, 1917, Lewis wrote that the ambulances were forced to drive in view of the German trenches. To identify that they were on a mission of mercy, Lewis explained, “We have put white backgrounds on our Red Crosses. . . .” On arrival at this new location, he was the first to make a trip to the front where he picked up “some badly shot up soldiers” and carefully traveled “over that delicate land very slowly. Half of the time, I was holding my breath and praying that they would not shoot at us. They didn’t get me. . . .”
Lewis and the other ambulance drivers were not alone on the shell torn muddy roads to the front. Each night wagon trains of rations and munitions moved to the front. Also plying the roads were trucks with reinforcements and vehicles with officers. He wrote, “Along, in between, in and out and around these numerous wagons skip the ambulances; with I believe a noble duty of their own, because we are given the right of way before any other vehicle excepting heavily laden ammunition wagons. We go before all officers’ cars, caissons, and all wagons and carriages.”
After months of exposure to the cold and rain, Lewis came down with pneumonia in January 1918. He was hospitalized for two weeks; followed by a month’s convalescence in southern France, returning a few weeks before the German spring offensive on March 21, 1918.
The Germans realized their only chance for victory, before the human and material resources of the United States were fully in the field, was to launch an offensive and defeat Great Britain and France. Lewis was caught up in the ensuing fighting and described some of the action in a letter home dated “At the French Front, Easter Sunday [March 31, 1918].” He began: “Do you want to know how Easter morning began for me? At 12:30, a stretcher-bearer woke me to hurry to the advanced call post, where there were many badly wounded men.
“In two minutes I was in my car and started up the difficult roads. The way was getting very close to the advanced trenches so the road was roughly cut up and full of filled-in holes. Up I went in the dark; slowly and quietly.”
“At the post they had three severely wounded soldiers on stretchers waiting. One of them had both his legs cut off above the knees; none of them will ever be soldiers in service again. At 1 o’clock, I set out, gently upon my nine-mile trip to the hospital. Three lives I held in my hand this early Easter morning. We arrived at the hospital, all three were living, and they said faintly that I was good to them.
“Back to our post I went only to have them say that there are more wounded at the advanced post. In the middle of the morning I was relieved and was glad to get a rest.”
The Germans drove the French back toward Paris, and Lewis described what it was like: “Gas for several consecutive nights was shot into the trenches and we had to take many blind, hoarse, voiceless soldiers back to the hospital.” The first day three ambulances were hit by pieces of shells. One lost a wheel; another had a door blown off. Lewis commented, “We get some good scares up here and all have been shaken up a bit.” Nevertheless, he assured his mother that “he was well and none the worse for his experience.” However, in the retreat his unit lost their ambulances and personal equipment and were now in the process of being re-equipped. He further added, “Our division was, in checking the Boche, cut up a bit, so need some new soldiers and also need new equipment for every one lost something.” Both the French and American Armies officially recognized Lewis’ ambulance section for “its work during the retreat”.
By July 1918, Lewis was again at the front. Now though the Allies were driving the German back and the end of the Great War was in sight. Over shell-swept and rutted roads, he made the perilous trips to retrieve the wounded and bring them to the hospitals in the rear. For his part in the final drive, Lewis was cited for bravery and awarded the Croix de Guerre. The citation read, “Harold Lewis de la S. S. U. 643 pour le motif servant. Conducteur of perfect bravery. During the combats which took place form the 7th of July to the 16th of August 1918, he carried many wounded, which he went to get in the first lines; accomplishing his mission over violently bombarded roads. He has by absolute devotedness and the rapidity of his intervention, saved the lives of many wounded.”
On Lewis’ return to Quincy a reporter wrote: “In letters to his mother, which were printed in The Herald from time to time and which were read with keen interest by the public, the Quincy young man kept his friends well informed of his . . . experiences, giving in graphic detail the horror of the conflict as he saw it; but through all his communications there ran a vein of becoming modesty.”
Harold W. Lewis was discharged from the U. S. Army on May 3, 1919. He finished his education, graduating from the University of Illinois with degrees in both law and commerce.
The Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. https://www.the-afs-archive.org/index.php?option=com_2k&view=item&id=1645:1-1343-lewis-harold-wilcox<emid=230
“In the American Ambulance Field Service, 1916.” http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/ambulanceservice.htm
McDonald, Chris. “Three Lying or Four Sitting,” From The Front In A Ford, The WW I Letters of Kent Dunlap Hagler. Lincoln Land Community College Press: Springfield, Illinois, 2015.
Stallings, Laurence. The Doughboys, The Story of the AEF, 1917 – 1918. Harper & Row, Publishers: New York, 1963.
The Quincy Daily Herald, May 14, July 8, July 31, August 31, September 15, November 8, December 5, 1917, May 7, 1918, January 28, May 5, 1919.
The Quincy Daily Journal, May 14, November 5, September 5, 1917, March 31, June 18, August 8, 1918.
The Quincy Daily Whig, May 16, June 21, August 5, September 15, October 20, 1917, May 8, July 11, 1918, January 29, 1919.
The Quincy Herald-Whig, January 7, 1964.
The United States Army Medical Service Corps, World War I, The Ambulance Service. http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/HistoryoUSArmyMSC/chapter2.html