Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Remembering a Veteran: Edward I. Tinkham – AFS Volunteer, Camion Driver, Naval Aviator

By James Patton

Part I: With the American Field Service

Edward Tinkham Before the War

Started in 1914 and funded by private donations, the American Field Service shouldered a mission to man ambulances transporting wounded Allied soldiers back from the front to casualty clearing stations and hospitals. Over 2,200 men served with the AFS, and one of these was Edward I. Tinkham, born 3 August 1893 in Radnor, PA. Schooled at Montclair Academy in New Jersey, he entered Cornell University with the Class of 1916, where he excelled as a member of the varsity track and cross-country teams. 
He left his studies midway through his senior year to join the AFS. On 26 February 1916 he joined SSU 3 in Lorraine, which was soon moved to Verdun. When SSU 3 was shifted to the Salonika Front, Tinkham was reposted to SSU 4 to stay on at Verdun, and he completed six months of continuous field service. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French 129th Division for bravery in action.

In December he returned to Cornell intending to complete his degree in forestry. However, his Verdun experience was burned into his consciousness and in February of 1917 he began to organize an all-Cornell section for the AFS, which was the start of an odyssey that is beyond the scope of this article. He wrote the piece below on 3 July 1916, originally for the Montclair Times, but later published in the Cornell Alumni News and the AFS Bulletin, among other places:

"WE are back, far back of the lines, en repos, with the tattered remains of our French division. We have just come back from two weeks at Verdun and our cars are battered and broken beyond a year's ordinary service. 

It began strong. The first night I was off duty and missed out on one disagreeable experience — a gas attack. One has to breathe through a little bag affair packed with layers of cloth and chemicals! The eyes are also protected with tight-fitting isinglass, which mists over and makes driving difficult. The road was not shelled that night, so things might have been worse.

AFS Ambulance at the National WWI Museum
The second night was my go. We rolled all night from the paste de secours back to the first sorting-station. The paste was in a little town with the Germans on three sides of the road and all in full view of them, which made daylight going impossible. The day work was evacuating from sorting-stations to field hospitals. There our work stopped. English and French sections worked from there back to the base hospitals.

The road ran out through fields and a little stretch of woods, with French batteries situated on both sides the entire way, which drew the fire. Four trips between dusk and dawn were the most possible. The noise of French fire was terrifying until we learned to distinguish it from the German arrivees. It is important to know the difference, and one soon learns. The depart is a sharp bark and then the whistle diminishing. The arrivees come in with a slower, increasing whistle and ripping crash. In noise alone it is more than disagreeable. 

The poste de secours was an abri in a cellar. Of the town there was scarcely a wall standing — marmites had done their work well. The road was an open space between, scalloped and scooped like the moon in miniature. We would drive up, crawling in and out of these holes, turn around, get our load, and go. When the place was shelled, we had time to hear the bus coming and dive under our cars. 

The drive back was harrowing. One was sure to go a little too fast on a stretch of road that felt smooth and then pitch into a hole, all but breaking every spring on the body. I'll never forget the screams of the wounded as they got rocked about inside. At times a stretcher would break and we would have to go on as it was. Of course we had to drive in utter darkness, with passing convoys of artillery at a full gallop going in opposite directions on either side. Each night a bit more of tool box or mud-guard would be taken off. Often I found myself in a wedge where I had to back and go forward until a little hole was found to skip through, and then make a dash for it and take a chance. 

One night there was a thunderstorm with vivid lightning and pitch darkness. The flashes of guns and of lightning were as one, and the noise terrific. That night, too, the road was crowded with ammunition wagons. But worst of all, it was under shellfire in three places so that traffic became demoralized because of the dead horses and wrecked wagons smashed up by shrapnel. All our cars were held up in parts of this road. There is no feeling of more utter helplessness than being jammed in between cannon and caissons in a road under shell-fire. In order to get through, two of the men had to run ahead and cut loose dead horses; but no one was hit that night.

The next night was the climax of danger, as things eased off a bit after; but the strain was telling and our driving was not so skillful. For instance, next to the last night I collided with a huge ravitaillement wagon coming at full gallop on the wrong side of the road, with the result that the entire front of my car went into bow knots. But I landed clear in safety. This occurred under the lee of a cliff, so we went in search with a wrecking-car the next day. After twenty hours my car was running again, shaky on her wheels, but strong in engine. She goes to Paris soon for shop repairs. Poor old Alice! A wrecked car in so short a time! Patched with string and wire and straps, she looks battle-scarred to a degree. Her real battle souvenirs are five shrapnel balls embedded in the roof and sides. I don't believe in collecting souvenirs, but these I could not help preserving!

Edward Tinkham, AFS Officer

There were humorous incidents; that is, humorous when we look back on them safely in camp. One goes as follows: Three cars running out to the post about thirty yards apart. The whistle of shells and a great increase in speed in the cars. (Somehow speed seems to give the feeling of more security.) Road getting too hot — shells falling between the cars as they run. First car stopped short and driver jumped about thirty feet into a trench by the roadside. Landed in six inches of water and stayed. Car No. 2 stopped, but not short enough to prevent smashing into tail-board of No. 1. Driver made jump and splash No. 2 into trench. Ditto for car No. 3 (me). Whistle and bang of shells, crash of hitting cars, and splash of falling men in water. Here we remained until the 'storm blew over.'

I am mighty glad we are through and out of it all. Whatever action we go into again, it cannot be harder or more dangerous than what we have been through. That will be impossible. I don't yet know whether I am glad or not to have had such an experience. It was all so gigantic and terrifying. It was war in its worst butchery. We all of us lost weight, but health and morale are O.K., and we are ready for more work after a rest."

More to come on Edward Tinkham's war service on Roads to the Great War.


  1. Compelling reading. Many Americans served in WWI long before 1917

    1. The numbers told to me were approx. 35 to 40,0000. Search the Canadian and British cemeteries if not already done, I was able to supply details to an American family regarding a lost relative who served in a British regiment, he was only 16 when KiA

  2. There is a wonderful film written by Ed Klekowski, a retired UMass professor, titled Model T's to War: American Ambulances on the Western Front that I highly recommend. Articles link and link to PBS store below: