Personal Letter of a Driver at the Front Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By the end of 1914, the German Army had pushed through Belgium and into France, where its progress was halted by a combined force of French, British, and Belgian troops. Rather than retreat, both sides dug trenches to maintain their positions. By 1916, trenches built by both sides ran from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. Leslie Buswell was an ambulance driver for the American Field Service, a civilian organization that offered medical transport to the French Army and its allies at the front. As an auxiliary to the French Army, Buswell had access to the trenches along the Western Front and provided detailed descriptions of his wartime experiences in his letters home.

Summary Overview

By the end of 1914, the German Army had pushed through Belgium and into France, where its progress was halted by a combined force of French, British, and Belgian troops. Rather than retreat, both sides dug trenches to maintain their positions. By 1916, trenches built by both sides ran from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. Leslie Buswell was an ambulance driver for the American Field Service, a civilian organization that offered medical transport to the French Army and its allies at the front. As an auxiliary to the French Army, Buswell had access to the trenches along the Western Front and provided detailed descriptions of his wartime experiences in his letters home.

Defining Moment

The American Field Service (AFS) was founded in 1915 by A. Piatt Andrew–referred to as “Doc” in Buswell’s letter–and was an outgrowth of an ambulance and hospital service created by Americans living in Paris at the outbreak of World War I. Ambulance drivers served as auxiliaries to the British, French, and Belgian armies before the United States entered the war in 1917. They were responsible for moving injured soldiers from the battlefield to medical stations using Ford Model Ts modified for service. The AFS recruited its drivers from the campuses of American colleges and universities and allowed volunteers to serve in units with their classmates and friends. Some AFS volunteers, including the English-born Buswell, were unable to join the Army because of medical issues, but were determined to serve somehow. Drivers were often put in extreme danger, and by the end of the war, more than one hundred men serving with the AFS had been killed in action or died of other causes. Ambulance drivers, such as Buswell, had unique access to the front lines and were able to provide descriptions of what they encountered in letters home.

The Western Front was a virtual stalemate, with trenches changing hands in places along the line many times over as the line moved no more than several hundred yards in either direction until 1918. Entrenched armies attacked each other with poison gas, shells from large-caliber guns, various projectile rockets, and grenades. Trenches were built in zigzag or undulating patterns to make targeting difficult, and abandoned trenches were often mined to prevent their use by the enemy. In spite of this, life in the trenches took on a certain rhythm, with both sides making private agreements about when and how they would fight. Most attacks took place at dawn or dusk, for example, and so, daylight hours were relatively calm. Shells whistled when they fell, so they could often be avoided. Soldiers occupying trenches for long periods of time often developed agreements not to shoot during mealtimes, for example, and allowed each side time to clear the fields between the trenches of their dead and wounded. Because of the relative stability of the line, some trenches had access to nearby railway lines and electricity, while others were primitive, muddy, and infested with rats.

By the time of Buswell’s visit in June 1915, the trenches along the Western Front had been occupied, with little serious movement, for months. Buswell visited trenches near Pont-à-Mousson, a small village in northeastern France.

Author Biography

Born in England, Leslie Buswell came to the United States as part of Cyril Maude’s acting troupe in 1914 and became close friends with A. Piatt Andrew and Henry Sleeper, who went on to found the AFS. He had managed a large pharmaceutical factory in London and went on to manage John Hays Hammond’s laboratory in Gloucester, Massachusetts, after the war. Buswell was unable to pass a medical examination in 1914 to join the regular British Army, so he instead volunteered as an ambulance driver. His letters from France were gathered and published as With the American Ambulance Field Service in France in 1915. The book was reprinted in 1916 as Ambulance No. 10: Personal Letters from the Front. For his service, Buswell was awarded the Croix de Guerre, an honor given for distinguished service to France.

Document Analysis

Buswell begins his letter by expressing his worry about the health and safety of his friend Doc, a nickname for A. Piatt Andrew. He was also anxious to get letters home, which could only be accomplished through a personal courier, as mail was tightly controlled. Buswell was likewise concerned with his own health, as the poor food available hampered recovery from even a minor illness.

Buswell’s position as a driver put him in close contact with soldiers on the front lines. In 1915, trench warfare was still relatively new, and Buswell seems eager to share details of the soldiers’ experiences there. In areas where the lines of battle were static, soldiers in opposing trenches were often curious about each other and sympathetic in some cases. Buswell describes how a group of German soldiers were convinced to raise their heads out of their trench and have their picture taken. He also describes how familiar soldiers became with their enemies’ routines. They crossed a field in range of the German forces because it was dinnertime, and “they never fire while food is about.” Some soldiers agreed to alert their opponents “when they meant to attack or blow up a trench.”

Despite these accommodations, the trenches were still theaters of war, and Buswell is unflinching in his description of the weapons that were quickly developed by both sides to cause maximum destruction. Large-caliber guns shelled both sides, but soldiers soon became familiar with the sound of incoming shells, which whistled as they dropped and could, therefore, sometimes be avoided. Buswell describes a torpille, a noiseless torpedo that caused extensive damage and could not be heard before it fell, and he includes a small drawing of the device. He also describes the destruction caused by mines, which were commonly used to booby-trap abandoned trenches.

Buswell’s tour of the trenches left him with mixed feelings. As an ambulance driver, he was intimately familiar with the cost of battle. At the same time, men who had been living in the trenches had made accommodations to their situation, and he visited an officer’s room that had been made “quite comfortable.” Before he left the trenches, however, he passed the soldiers on guard duty, “looking and waiting,” and was struck by the “thin blue line that guards France’s frontier.” Buswell’s description of the trenches captures the everyday experiences of soldiers as well as the constant danger that surrounded them.

Essential Themes

Buswell’s letter provides details about the experience of life and warfare in the trenches. His overarching theme is that of the resilience of the soldiers and their determination to re-create some of the comforts and civility of home while living amid the violence and death of a battlefield. Buswell’s letter expresses wonderment at the relative comfort and neatness of parts of the trenches he visited, and he also describes how soldiers on both sides made allowances for each other even during a bloody and prolonged engagement. He was shocked by how much danger the soldiers he encountered were able to live with, even walking openly within range of the enemy. In describing the weapons used in trench warfare, he reminds his readers that despite clean trenches and occasional niceties, a bloody war with terrible human cost was still being fought. In Buswell’s capacity as ambulance driver, he was in a unique position to witness that cost.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Buswell, Leslie. Ambulance No. 10: Personal Letters from the Front. New York: Houghton, 1916. Print.
  • Ellis, John. Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.
  • Murray, Nicholas. The Rocky Road to the Great War: The Evolution of Trench Warfare to 1914. Washington: Potomac, 2013. Print.
  • Seymour, James. History of the American Field Service in France: “Friends of France,” 1914–1917. Boston: Houghton, 1920. Print.
  • Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine, 2004. Print.
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