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Thursday, June 6, 2024

Marietta College Ambulance Corps

     There is a monument at the corner of Gilman and Virginia Streets in Harmar. It sits near busy traffic lanes, yet offers a serene view of the Ohio River. It was a gift of France, donated as part of the Northwest Territory Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1937-38 in appreciation for the service of the World War I Marietta College Ambulance Unit. On October 17, 1920, French military attaché General Collardet decorated the Corps members for their “noble service.” The solemn ceremony took place in Muskingum Park in the presence of college faculty and community members.

Twenty young men, primarily students from Marietta College and Miami University, had volunteered in 1917 to serve in the Ambulance Corps. Beman G. Dawes, Jr. organized the group with help from his father and others. The group received a rousing send-off by thousands of Mariettans on May 22. 

Photo of Ambulance Corps Ceremony in Marietta College Yearbook, from Marietta College Legacy Library Special Collections. CLICK TO ENLARGE

They landed in France at Bordeaux bearing the first American flag carried by a military organization in WW I. The Corps were actually assigned to “camion service,” not ambulance service, driving large Pierce Arrow trucks to move supplies because that was the most pressing need when they arrived. Yet the “Ambulance Corps” moniker stuck. It was strenuous, dangerous duty, often conducted at night. 

Photo of Ambulance Corps in France with last names written at bottom. From Marietta College Legacy Library Special Collections. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Several letters from corps members gave fascinating views of their experience. 

Donley Parr from Dayton OH reported in a letter to his brother that the liner Rochambeau which transported the men was followed by German U-Boats. In the U-Boat zone of the Atlantic, “passengers slept on deck in chairs.” Luckily for them, they saw no submarines, but U-Boats sank the Mississippi which followed their boat. The cruise ship menu - offering “French bills of fare” - were not to the group’s liking; they missed their typical American food from home.

On landing at Bordeaux, no one greeted them; they had to fend for themselves at first. Parr described the country as “very attractive and beautiful…It’s wonderful to see the great (patriotic) enthusiasm for their cause. We in America do not appreciate what it means to be fighting for existence.”

 H. Ellis Sibley wrote in a letter that they saw other Americans there. “A fellow named Hall knew friends” of the group. He went out yesterday and failed to come back…So it goes….It is a pretty grim business…..Today we (saw) part of the Aisne battlefield. There were barb-wire entanglements and trenches by the hundreds…We have heard big guns often.”

“The weather here is most peculiar to us…we roast during the day and nearly freeze during the night under three blankets…it rains frequently and our barracks leak!”  

Sibley learned about the war first hand from men on the front. A Canadian soldier was on leave after 32 months. Physically he was ok, but “his nerves were shot.” “Sherman was right,” Sibley astutely observed, referring to General William Tecumseh Sherman’s quote admonishing those who glamorize war. “War is hell,” Sherman bluntly stated. 

A newspaper article reported on Rutherford M. DeArmon’s experience with “the famous Marietta College Ambulance Corps.”  He said the corps members were treated well, including a seven day leave after three months during which they toured Nice. His photos and the reporter’s narrative document the destruction wrought by German artillery. Orchards were “laid waste,…houses shown in ruins, churches were not spared….” Other photos show “stacks of shells ricked up like wood” in public parks and captured German planes on exhibit, plainly showing the German cross. 

The “Ambulance Corps” turned truck drivers worked until mid-November of 1917 when their enlistment ended. Many transferred to other American military units after that. The French recognized not only their dedication but their excellent work doing a difficult task - as civilian volunteers.

Sidebar notes: 

I was surprised to read that the president of Marietta College at the time, George W. Hinman, criticized the Ambulance Corps group. The Marietta Times reported that he called them “cowards,” saying that they recruited their parents to pull strings for them to avoid the draft. I saw no other indication of draft dodging as a motivation for their service.

Your author was curious how the idea for the Ambulance Corps came about. Before researching, I had thought it was a purely grass roots student idea which became an altruistic reality. But I noticed the names of some prominent business people, including parents, who provided financial and other help. So, did the students recruit the parents to help or did the parents recruit the students? It’s not clear; perhaps it was a team effort

Notice of Beman G. Dawes, Jr.’s engagement to Miss Janet Newton appeared in the Washington D. C. Times Herald on July 9, 1917 while Dawes was in France.

H. Ellis Sibley’s father, W. G. Sibley was in New York to see off his son to France. He was editor of the Gallipolis (OH) Tribune and quite a renowned angler. The Idaho Statesman newspaper reported on Sibley’s advice given at New York for successful fishing. He extolled the value of “spitting on the bait” to improve fishing success. “Many fishermen scoff at the idea,” he explained, “but the practice is one of the best aids to anglers.” Why would an Idaho newspaper publish fishing advice given by a man from Ohio offered while he was visiting New York City? Who knows, but it’s entertaining.

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