The call to serve came via a small article in the Tufts Weekly on May 2, 1917. By then, World War I had been raging in Europe for three years. “It has been suggested,” the article read, “that... Tufts should have a body of men in the field of action flying the flags of the nation and Tufts on their machines.” These men, the article explained, would make up the college’s own volunteer unit with the American Ambulance Field Service, a group that was sending Americans overseas for six-month stints to transport wounded French soldiers back from the front lines. The work would be “difficult, unpleasant and nerve racking,” the article promised, and there would be “no remuneration.” The hope was to recruit at least twenty volunteers.
At the time, many Tufts students, young and full of idealism, were eager to fight the German aggressor. A couple of months earlier, when Germany had declared that it would engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, around forty students volunteered with the Naval Coast Defense Reserve to help secure the waters between Maine and Cape Cod. Then, when America officially entered the war a month later, on April 6, 1917, many Tufts men looked to make a direct contribution by enlisting in the US military.
Even so, the option of serving in a special Tufts corps of volunteer ambulance drivers continued to have its appeal. It would take months, maybe years, to be trained as an effective soldier. The American Ambulance Field Service, by contrast, offered a quick route to the front lines. Americans had been heading to France under the organization’s aegis since 1915, with their numbers eventually climbing into the hundreds. They were wooed by recruiters who traveled from town to town showing movies and photos from the front and giving rousing speeches about the heroic efforts of volunteers. Colleges became a fertile recruiting ground. Students from Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, and Cornell were some of the first to sign on. By the spring of 1917, the spirit had reached Tufts, where a tiny group of volunteers had assembled on campus. But they needed a leader.
He emerged from the Class of 1918. Herbert “Herb” Miller was his name, and he was well prepared to lead: he was an honor student, a member of the track team, and a Theta Delta Chi fraternity brother. Miller set about rallying others to the cause, and by May 9, the group had eleven volunteers. Two weeks later, there were twenty-two. “AMBULANCE UNIT TO SAIL,” read the headline in another Tufts Weekly article, published later that month. At a send-off in Goddard Chapel, the men received two silk flags made by faculty wives and the women of Jackson College: one was the Stars and Stripes, the other a brown and blue Tufts banner. They may well have sensed that they were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime—some were leaving New England for the very first time—but as they set sail for France, they couldn’t have known where it would take them.
The First surprise for the Tufts Division in the American Ambulance Field Service, as the group was officially known, came shortly after making land on French soil. None of the volunteers, they learned, would actually be driving an ambulance. Their arrival coincided with the greatest influx of American ambulance units into France yet, and no more were needed. But, the authorities told them, they could instead spend the next six months as ammunition carriers for the French army.
The men must have been dumbstruck, for apparently there had been no word of this possibility before they sailed. Nevertheless, they voted unanimously to join the Réserve Mallet, as the ammunition transportation unit was called, and became Section G of Transport Matériel (T.M.) 184. They put on French army uniforms and were given the rank of soldat de 2ème classe. After four days in Paris, they moved to a camp about forty-five miles north, where they learned the ins and outs of the five-ton Pierce-Arrow truck, their main vehicle, and practiced packing and distributing ammunition, especially 75 mm shells. They learned to “enjoy” French army rations—choclat, pain, et café for breakfast, and soup, salad, and beans for lunch and dinner.
Then, they moved into their permanent camp, which consisted of trailers covered by tarps in a field near the northeastern town of Jouaignes, not far from the Western Front. Days were often spent caring for their equipment or playing sports such as baseball. Nights were usually for work. A typical shift lasted ten hours and was repeated six days a week, with most hauls under the cover of darkness.
It was difficult work. The volunteers had to worry about gas attacks and air raids, and were forever at risk of a serious accident as well, since they had to make their exhausting nighttime ammunition deliveries without lights and on crammed roads. “Our runs are made after dark and have been real thrilling,” Herb Miller, the student leader, wrote in a letter to his uncle that was later published in the Tufts Weekly. “There is one road especially that I have in mind. It is right at the end of a long bridge over the Aisne. It is almost a right angle curve—scarcely wide enough for one car to pass over while on neither side is a fence nor any other means of stopping a car if it should go astray. On each side is a sheer drop of twenty feet. On a night when the rain comes pouring down and all is pitch black you may believe the progress on such a road is slow.”
In the letter, Miller also wrote of a different kind of thrill: the opportunity to fire on the enemy. “Three nights ago while waiting for our car to be unloaded I went up to the battery and after a little bickering got the [French] gunner to let me pull the string,” Miller wrote. “There were three other guns in the battery and after taking the range the men shouted ‘prete!’ which means ‘ready!’ and a moment after the guard outside yelled ‘attention!’ Then we all let go the strings [and] amid a deafening roar, a recoil, an ejection and injection of a shell, four messengers of death began their flights to the German lines.” Perhaps worried that this made him sound overly aggressive, he ended his letter by saying, “I fired two shots for democracy though I hope neither of them spilled a drop of blood.”
Occasionally, the unit would make daytime runs, which could be even more perilous than the ones at night because the Germans could more easily shell the trucks. But the Tufts volunteers seemed unfazed. As Raymond Bond, Class of 1920, wrote to Tufts President Hermon Carey Bumpus, “Several of our men have been under fire and instead of running from it they go to see what the shell did when it exploded. No one has been scratched yet but some have had close calls. I guess we all must have charmed lives.”
Unfortunately, the Tufts unit, and Miller himself, would soon learn otherwise. In midsummer 1917, during the push to retake the ridge of Chemin des Dames, shells wounded two Tufts volunteers. A “truck manned by ‘Herb’ Miller ’18 and [Roland] ‘Skip’ Davies ’17 was struck by a bursting shell,” read a Tufts Weekly story a few months later. “A piece of shell bounced from Miller’s ‘iron hat’ to Skip’s shoulder.” A student from Princeton who was hitching a ride on the truck was also wounded in the incident. And then there was the harrowing experience of Daniel Prescott, Class of 1920, who was coming home on the US transport ship Finland when, as he told the Boston Globe, “I observed what appeared to be a periscope a quarter of a mile away on the starboard side… then saw the wake of a torpedo coming toward the ship. This was followed almost immediately by a heavy explosion. The ship listed, the whistle was sounded, men poured out on the decks and life boats were lowered. I got off in one of the boats.”
In time, some of the Tufts volunteers came to suspect that the glory they were seeking might be illusory. In a letter to President Bumpus, Davies—who’d been with Miller in the truck that was hit by a shell—wrote, “On the heights, where the battle of the Aisne was fought, we passed nearly fifty villages, where only bare walls of shattered houses remained as tokens of former habitation. The fields were torn up with many trenches and barb wire entanglements interlaced each other, where once crops grew. It makes me wonder whether war totally wrecks civilization.” In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway and other members of what came to be known as the Lost Generation would publish literary works that articulated this same bone-deep sense of futility. For the moment, though, Davies was alone with it: he was able to express his despair to President Bumpus, but others in the Tufts community never knew what he was going through, because Bumpus never shared that part of his letter.
In Late November of 1917, the men’s service in the unit came to an end. Everyone had survived. Some went on to enlist in the US armed forces, especially in the new field of aviation. However, others, including Herb Miller, wanted out, completely.
Miller returned to campus in early January of 1918 and found a student body full of patriotic ardor. He told his story of war to the Tufts Weekly, adopting the lofty tone he’d used in the past while never mentioning any trauma or showing any sign of disillusionment. “To speak as one quite unprejudiced,” he said, “[the] honor and integrity [of the Tufts volunteers] was never questioned and [they] performed in the highest commendable way imaginable….Every fellow is proud he was one to carry the ‘Brown and Blue’ to France and not one would hesitate to stake his life for that which she stands.” But underneath the façade was a shaken man. His fraternity brothers noted that when he’d left for France, he “had carried over his heart a small Theta Delta Chi flag… [but he had] returned to the College . . . shell shocked, with dysentery and nerve strain.”
What kept Miller together, it seemed, was his desire to return to normalcy, especially within Theta Delta Chi. Although men were now leaving for service in ever greater numbers, he continued to hold weekly fraternity meetings and plan activities such as dances, parties, and intramural sports. At times he was the only member present for the meetings, but he was credited with keeping the fraternity active during this period. He was also elected the Tufts Chapel orator for his commencement exercises. Then between graduation and his departure for a teaching job at the Kingsley School in Essex Fells, New Jersey, he became a “war instructor” at Tufts—that is, a teacher in the Student Army Training Corps program—and could be seen around campus helping with the victory garden near the present-day Ellis Oval.
It was not until armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, that the return to normalcy Miller had pursued became the goal of most others at the college. Twenty-one Tufts people had given their lives in the war, and for many who had made it home, their experience had likely taken a considerable toll. Few cared to dwell on any of that, however, as evidenced by talk in the Tufts Weekly. Gone were the articles and editorials about the state of the world and the reports from Tufts soldiers. Instead, stories about fraternity rush, dance parties, and intercollegiate sports dominated the student press. In many ways, Tufts as a whole had turned the page on the war. No one, it seemed, wanted to talk about it anymore. All simply wanted to move forward.