World War I overview photo

The University of Illinois Ambulance Unit in World War I

  • Duration:Temporary
  • Location:Whitten Featured Object Case

(date) 9/16/2014–12/7/2014

Although the United States officially entered World War I on April 6, 1917, American volunteers eager to help in the war effort found earlier methods of entry. One was to join medical units stationed across Europe via the American Ambulance Field Service. UIUC alumnus Christian “Chris” Gross, Class of 1917, solicited donations and gathered 24 volunteers to form a U of I Ambulance Unit. They went to France for training and service, with the majority assigned to Sanitation Section (SSU) 65. The Section was located 10–12 miles back from the front lines near Chemin des Dames, a site of major action shortly before the men’s arrival in June 1917. Injured soldiers were prepped with field dressings and taken by stretcherbearers to the “place de secours” approximately one mile back from the front. The SSU retrieved the injured from here and took them to the field hospital. This daring work led to the Unit’s receipt of the Croix de Guerre from the French Army .Once America joined the war, several of the original volunteers returned for assignment in the U.S. military.

Ambulance Unit volunteers wrote of their experience in articles for the Illio and the Daily Illini. Though lighthearted in tone, they belie the serious danger revealed in letters home and to the Dean of Students. These often express a horror of the realities of war and a strong desire that none of their fellow students follow in their footsteps.

After the War, Chris Gross brought back souvenirs of the Unit’s activity as well as war trophies. These objects were displayed at the University Library and later donated to the Museum of European Cultures. For all soldiers on this battlefront, common tools of the trade included mess kits, field dressings, maps and compasses, helmets, identifications tags, and gas masks.