Monday, February 13, 2017

A Virginian at Verdun: Arthur Taylor’s Wild Ride, 1916

Young Arthur Manigault Taylor hailed from Charlottesville, the son of Joseph M. Taylor and Sarah Bergh Taylor. Soon after graduating from the University of Virginia, he set out on the adventure of his life, joining hundreds of his fellow countrymen who chose to cast their lot with France.

Taylor joined the famed Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, a group of volunteer ambulance drivers that included an improbable amount of soon-to-be famous writers, Jon Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, and Ernest Hemingway among them.

In November of 1916 Taylor and his youthful companions found themselves near Verdun, living in the cellar of an abandoned monastery by day and driving their ambulances loaded with the wounded by night.

A member of Taylor's section described this vampiric lifestyle in a letter home on December 6, 1916:

"Every night as soon as it is dark we go up near the front line and wait for the stretcher-bearers to carry [the wounded] out to us. It's inky dark and the road is filled with artillery teams and supply wagons...Everywhere are dead horses, broken trees and carts, shell holes, and mud. Not the faintest light may be shown, cannot even smoke a cigarette."

On December 21, 1916 Taylor prepared for his usual routine without realizing that he was about to experience what International News Service correspondent C. F. Bertelli would call "a story of bravery and devotion that has not been surpassed in the war."

That evening, as the temperature sank twenty degrees below zero, Taylor set out towards the dressing station just beyond the town of Bras on a road choked with snow and the detritus of battle. As the American reached the walls of Verdun, he was hailed by the night patrol who told him that the Germans had just obliterated a convoy that was traveling the same route just a few hours earlier.

Nonetheless he was ordered proceeded, and as he drove on he found that the Kaiser's artillerists had blown away a significant portion of the road when they took out the convoy. For several tense minutes he jostled along, unable to find anything resembling a road.

Once outside Bras, Taylor managed to find the road and continued without accident to the dressing station. There the commanding officer asked him to phone the other drivers and hurry them along while the darkness lasted.

Taylor jumped down, just as a stray piece of shrapnel tore through the side and roof of the ambulance. After calling his comrades, he came back out to help with the last stretcher being loaded into his ambulance.

The poor Poilu’s foot had been torn off and as Taylor helped lift the stretcher into the ambulance he was showered with blood from the poorly dressed wound. After accepting the French soldier's apology for soiling his tunic, Arthur jumped back into the ambulance to begin the perilous journey back to Verdun.

American Ambulance at Verdun.
Library of Congress.
He had barely begun the mile and half journey back when a star shell lit up the sky and a German battery spotted the lumbering ambulance. Taylor floored his accelerator and spotted two vehicles heading his way – a fellow American driver named Briggs and a French mule-drawn ambulance swaying behind.

Taylor was within twenty feet of the French ambulance when it sustained a direct hit that obliterated the driver, mules and ambulance and creating a gaping hole in the ground. The Yank narrowly escaped driving into the newly-created shell crater and was sickened to make out the faint outline of the French drivers arm slowly sliding off the hood of his car.

He no doubt breathed a huge sigh of relief when he arrived back at Verdun and began off-loading casualties.

Incredibly, the other ambulances in his section immediately set out upon his return. In all, the Americans of Section 7 would rescue 178 badly wounded French soldiers.

For his heoic exploits on the night of December 21st, Taylor and five of his fellow drivers – Norman C. Lee, John Briggs, C. Stuart Forbes, Sydney Fairbanks, and Dr. Charles Briggs – would receive the Croix de Guerre.

A division order contains the following description of their service:

"The courage and devotion of these Americans, volunteers in the ambulance service, has never faltered for an Instant amid the most trying circumstances. In the most perilous situations they secured the transportation of the wounded with a calmness and devotion to their duty which has been the admiration of all."

In June of 1917, the 21st Division's commander, General Dauvin, personally pinned the medals on each man in a ceremony at Ressons. At the end of the ceremony, Gen. Dauvin and company were startled to receive "a surprise in the way of an American college yell."

Norman Lee of Taylor's Section Receives his Croix de Guerre.

Arthur Taylor would end the war as a Captain in the American Field Service, spending the final year of the war helping wounded American soldiers with the same courage and devotion he had shown to the French.

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