World War I Ambulance Corps Formed in Summit in 1917

by Arthur Cotterell

It was the spring of 1917 and, as war raged across Europe, the small town of Summit (population about 9,000) was feeling the surge of patriotism and pride. Soon many of its young men would be going to Europe to take their part in what was to be called The Great War.


Dr. William H. Lawrence, Summit physician and the founder of Overlook Hospital, brought forth the idea of forming, an ambulance corps, with a large contingent of local men, early in 1917 as the United States was about to enter the war. The idea was well received, with 122 men, a majority from the Summit area, joining. The organization was to be identified as Ambulance Company #33 When Dr. Lawrence offered the Ambulance Company to the War Department, he was notified that the company would be accepted only if it were sponsored by a chapter of the Red Cross. The local Red Cross agreed to this condition and #33 began its training in Summit. That summer it was taken into the Regular Army and assigned' to the 4th Division.

Who was this Dr Lawrence? And how was it that he was able to form his own ambulance corps and lead it to France in 1918 where it served nobly in the last seven months of World War I? Who was this man who would leave such an indelible mark on the small community of Summit?

William Lawrence came to Summit in the late I 800's as a youngster with his father, who was a physician. TheLawrence's had moved here from upstate New York. The young Bill Lawrence entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University at the age of 15 (that's not a misprint, age 15). He was to become known as the "boy doctor from Summit." After completing his medical training, he became a general practitioner with offices in his home on DeForest Avenue. As his practice grew he installed an operating room and a patient's bedroom in the house.

A few years later the young doctor decided that Summit needed a hospital, so he courageously borrowed $15,000 and built one. Called Overlook Hospital, it was opened as a private institution with thirty beds in October of 1906. By 1911, more room was needed and Dr. Lawrence built two additions to the original building. In 1914 Overlook was purchased by public subscription and became a nonprofit community hospital.

In the spring of 1917 Dr. Lawrence went ahead with his idea of forming an ambulance corps, obtaining the charter from the American Red Cross. Drilling and lecture work started in May of 1917, with most of the lectures and exercises being held at Lincoln School, which at that time was located on DeForest Avenue.

After the initial organization and training had been accomplished during the summer of 1917, Ambulance Company #33 was ready to leave Summit and go on for further training before heading overseas. With a great deal of ceremony the company left Summit by train on August 31, 1917. Long months of training followed at posts in Syracuse, N.Y., Allentown, Pa., and Camp Greene, Charlotte, N.C.

It was during this time that Captain Lawrence was promoted to the rank of Major and was placed in charge of the entire ambulance companies of the 4th Division. Having completed its training, Ambulance Company #33 embarked for overseas on May 18, 1918 from the Bush Terminal at Brooklyn. They landed at the Mersey dock in Liverpool, England, on May 30. Four days later it was on to France where the company landed at Le Havre.

By early July the company was at the front and from that point until the close of the war it participated in every important battle in which the 4th Division was engaged. In the battle at Belleau Wood, #33 lost its first man when John Dean was killed while carrying a wounded Marine. On the morning of July 18, with the opening of the AisneMarne counter-offensive, all of the ambulances were in action and the wounded were pouring into the hospitals at Acy in a constant stream. #33 was in the thick of the action, carrying back wounded under fire, listening to the cries of the men who thought they might be left behind.

One of the men who was on front line detail work in every action was sent out to find a location for a dressing station. Proceeding cautiously, he came on the entrance of a deep cave and found concealed there ninety civilian French people, who had been prisoners. They were starved old men, haggard women and emaciated children, huddled in the place. The prisoners were taken from the cave, loaded on trucks, moved back to Mareuil, where #33 fed them.

Being engaged in all of the major actions of the 4th Division throughout the fall of 1918, # 33 natu- rally suffered heavy losses. The total of killed and wounded was nearly 50% of its original strength. Major Lawrence was taken seriously ill in September, 1918, and had to be returned to the United States. The command of Ambulence Company #33 was eventually turned over to another Summit doctor, Captain Maynard G. Bensley.

With the close of the fighting on November 11, 1918, the duties of #33 would now be changed. American forces were now to enter Germany, and given the honor of being the first outfit to reach the Rhine was the 39th Infantry of the 4th Division. Ac- companying the unit were ambulences from #33 as they took part in the dramatic entrance of the 39th into the Rhineland stronghold. What was to follow now during the winter and spring of 1918-1919 was occupation duty for #33 in Germany.

As the troops of the A. E. F. became less numer- ous due to the return home of the bulk of troops overseas, the 4th Division was assigned to more and more territory until, by the early summer of 1919, various detachments were strung out all the way from Bonn on the Rhine to Coblenz at the confluence of the Moselle Valley almost to Luxembourg City. As the ambulence companies were still responsible for the evacuation of the division's sick, Ambulence Company #33 saw practically all the area in the occupied territory.

Finally it was #33's turn to come home and the men were brought to Brest where they boarded the U. S. Transport "Minnesotan" for home on July 23rd, 1919. Landing at Philadelphia on the 3rd of August, the men of Company #33 were discharged three days later after completing more than two years of mili- tary duty for their country.

For years Company #33 had reunion dinners, some in Newark, and later in Summit at the Subur- ban Hotel. In 1960 there was a Company dinner at the Suburban Hotel honoring the company's com- manders, Major William Lawrence and Captain Maynard Bensley, better known to the men as "Ma- jor Bill" and "Captain Ben." They had led a group of men of whom Summit and the nation could well be proud.