Legacy Build: ICM 1:35 Model T Great War Ambulance
THE LEGACY BACKSTORY
My grandfather, Roger Allen Burrell (1894-1981), was born in Spokane, Washington to Alexander Burrell and Abigail née Kiersted. While his mother’s Dutch heritage reached back into early 17th colonial New York (then New Netherland), his father Alexander had immigrated from Scotland to the United States as a lad in the mid-19th century with his family under the leadership of his father, Archie Burrell. The Burrells settled in the Chicago area where Alexander grew up.
After a business relationship with his brother failed, Alexander moved west and found success as an executive for a London-based mining and lumber firm. The Burrells lived a genteel life in Helena, Montana, with Alexander prospering in business and politics (as a state senator), and his wife serving the community through her charitable activities. It was while on a business foray in Spokane that Roger was born. He grew up a cowboy on the family ranch in Montana.
Roger was 16 years old when his mother, whom he adored, died from a botched surgery. As a child I remember my mother telling me how her father was miles away from home when a breathless ranch hand rode up and told him that if he wanted to see his mother one last time, he’d better hightail it home. My grandfather essentially destroyed his horse to make it to his mother’s bedside before she passed. Five years later, when Roger was 21 and in his third year at the University of Wisconsin, his father, Alexander, died of a massive heart attack as he ate his breakfast porridge.
Now, all of this biography may seem little more than spurious and even self-indulgent backstory. But taking a step back one can perceive the profile of a young man who felt himself something of an orphan, was raised with an air simultaneously aristocratic and ruggedly adventurous, and who found himself at a place in history that made him a prime candidate for the decision he was about to make. The romantic idea of running off and joining the French Foreign Legion is the stuff of stories both serious and whimsical; for me, it is pretty close to family history, because in essence that’s exactly what my grandfather did.
The man himself, Roger Burrell, my grandfather–rather a dashing figure with the smoke in his hand, don’t you think? In an incredible coincidence of photographic record keeping, his SSU number (14) can be seen behind him on the side of an ambulance.
My grandfather’s unit. Papa’s the clean-shaven bloke standing second to the right of the man kneeling with the banner at center
My grandfather was hardly alone. Thousands of idealistic young prep-school Americans went to France before America formally joined the fight in 1918. Up to that point, they joined the AFS—the American Field Service, driving modified Model T’s to ferry the wounded back from the front. [There are many online resources about the AFS, but I found this one to be concise and helpful: http://www.france24.com/en/20160218-france-world-war-i-battle-verdun-american-ambulance-drivers-usa. A good read is https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/gentlemen-volunteers-arlen-j-hansen/1122495008, which was written by a personal acquaintance of my grandfather.] Truth be told, I can only guess the precise circumstances of my grandfather’s going and returning from the Great War; he passed away before I was old enough to have the sense to ask him such questions. But by following this link: http://www.ourstory.info/library/drivers/WW1/rosterindex.html you’ll be able to locate my grandfather’s unit, his name, and his length of AFS service (4 months in 1917, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant; he completed the duration of the War under the U.S. Army Ambulance Service, which took over the AFS when America joined the fray in 1918). He obviously came back, eventually marrying and having five children, my mother his only daughter. My childhood memories of him summon a charming, peace-loving man of great patience and generosity who loved cigars and sent us top-shelf Texas grapefruit and Smokehouse almonds every Christmas, on top of other gifts.
Yet Papa (as we called him) left quite a legacy of information in the form of over 200 photographs he took in the field. Most of them would be important only to him—candid character studies of the men he served with, French and American, and specific places and experiences that marked him. He even handed the camera to a friend now and again so that we might see the younger him. For my model-building purposes, this never-before-published collection of Papa’s photos was a goldmine. I was able to ascertain with great precision what the ambulances he drove looked like and consequently had the information I needed to create accurate markings and modify the ICM kit for a truer (if not perfectly accurate) legacy build. The truth is, Papa probably drove any number of different vehicles with his SSU (Section Sanitaire [États-] Unis), which happened to be #14. I chose the markings of one vehicle that seems particularly prominent in his photographic record (#35431).
Scores of AFS Model T ambulances during a respite.
Some pretty remarkable field photos of AFS ambulances in action. The links provided above indicate that American volunteers ferried over 400,000 wounded soldiers to safety during the War. I tossed in a pic of my build in the mix for the sake of comparison.
AFS volunteers called themselves Friends of France. The photos above show a ceremony between French and American units, clearly demonstrating this deep affection.
OK, love of the French notwithstanding, once a Scot, always a Scot! Papa couldn’t resist snapping this great shot of bagpipers.
In order: a biplane over a church (likely a French Caudron G.3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caudron_G.3 or G.4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caudron_G.4); a mobile artillery unit; a stark reminder that ambulances cannot stop the Grim Reaper; a chilling view of No Man’s Land from a pillbox; and men in a trench.
The ICM kit is a good one, though the more I studied the subject the more puzzled I was that the only schemes they offer (painting instructions and decals) were either French or (post-1918 U.S. Army) American (for examples within the iModeler corpus, see the fantastic representations here http://imodeler.com/2017/01/icm-135-ford-t-ambulance/ and here http://imodeler.com/2017/02/ww1-model-t-ambulance-western-front-1918/). The truth is that the bulk of ambulance history from WW1 has to do with a corps that was somewhere in between: the AFS, officially an arm of the French army but overwhelmingly manned by young Americans. The photographic record shows that the configuration of these vehicles, while varying greatly, also had common traits. I modified accordingly as follows:
*The ambulance is painted French (middle) blue as were other French ambulances, but the identifying markings were in English. The olive paint scheme didn’t come into play until America officially joined the fight in 1918 and SSU code numbers became 3-digit, 600-based designations.
*The tires were fabricated of real rubber and were therefore natural white; the spoked wheels were also painted white.
*Instead of the kit’s cabinetry affixed to the sides, the ambulance had a reinforcement plank of sorts running along the length of the rear; this plank sported the identifier “American Ambulance.” I had to scratch build this using Evergreen materials. I also scribed lines into the sides to reflect the rustic look of the rear cabs that were handmade of wooden planks.
*The spare tire was carried on top, wrapped in a black tarp, not bare on the side of the ambulance as the kit indicates.
*The markings all had to be either fabricated (self-printed decals for the SSU and the ID number at the rear of the vehicle), painted on (the red cross), or applied via dry transfer lettering (“American Ambulance” and “Field Service,” and the vehicle ID on the hood/bonnet). The only stock decal I used was that depicting the medical “Staff of Asclepius,” which I modified to reflect (as best I can make out) the regimental insignia seen in the photos.
Other general information: I painted with Mr. Color lacquers, but detailed and weathered (some) with acrylics and watercolors. To this post I added some of my grandfather’s photos, as I’ve stated (to my knowledge) never before published, though they bear a strong likeness to others that are readily available with a bit of research.
More photos below. Comments encouraged.
8 additional images. Click to enlarge.
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PLASTIC MODEL KIT MODEL T 1917 AMBULANCE, WWI AMERICAN CAR 1/35 ICM 35661