World War I Ambulance Driver
1892 – 1973
By Emily Peterson
Better Days Intern
Born in 1882, Maud spent most of her life in Eureka, Utah, where her father owned a successful mining company. Maud grew up in Utah’s high society and enjoyed horseback riding, golfing, and going on luxurious vacations. She also developed a knack for driving and fixing cars thanks to the help of her family’s chauffeur. Maud was a devout Catholic and often supported efforts of local Catholic charities. Her own desire for adventure drove her to volunteer as an ambulance driver in WWI. Maud received a medal from the French government because of her service and showed that women could brave the dangerous war front to save lives.
In 1917, the United States entered World War I. Like many other young Americans, Maud was excited by the idea of going abroad to assist the war effort. Most women in Utah volunteered as nurses, but Maud lacked the required training. But she did know how to drive and repair a car, a rare skill because automobiles were relatively new. Because of this, she was selected to join a group of elite women in New York who planned to travel to France as ambulance drivers. The army was skeptical of women draining the army’s financial resources, so Maud had to buy her own car, disassemble it, ship it to Europe, and pay for 6 months of gas and oil before departing.
At the age of 35, Maud traveled alone to France where she waited to be assigned to an ambulance unit. During this time, she worked at a Red Cross station, helping to bring food to refugees and serving as a secretary. She wrote home anxious to “get into action AT ONCE…I do hope I shall DO something.” Then, on May 15, 1918, Maud wrote: “I am so thrilled I can hardly write, at last really and certainly I am off for the front in a REAL Unit.” Maud was finally able to join a British women’s ambulance group.
As a driver, Maud drove to first aid booths on the front lines, brought wounded soldiers into the ambulance, and drove about 40 miles to deliver them to the nearest hospital. Amidst the sound of exploding shells around her, she navigated crowded streets, often working up to 30-hour shifts with little time to eat or sleep. At times, she had to bribe soldiers directing traffic with cigarettes to allow her ambulance to pass through areas quickly. The danger and action thrilled Maud, who did not seem to shy away from the challenges she faced daily.
Maud constantly had to prove her competence as a woman and was often frustrated by the way army officers tried to “take care of” her and other women. Like other female ambulance drivers, she was never paid for her work; in fact, she paid $30 a month for her room and board and spent much of her time off working on repairing her car.
Maud’s immense strength and courage was recognized after only a month of driving when she was awarded the French Cross, which reads (translated from French):
“A driver intrepid and brave is here cited for having, on the evening of June 9th, gone into a village under heavy bombardment to bring out a wounded man; she has distinguished herself by her calm and her self composure.”
After serving 14 months as an ambulance driver, Maud returned home to Eureka when the war came to an end. She was celebrated as a hero.
At home, Maud served as president of the Eureka chapter of the Catholic Women’s League of America. At the age of 40, she married Paul Hilsdale and had a son, Paul. Her husband died only one year later, leaving her as a single mother to raise her son with the help of her family.
In 1928, Maud hosted Amelia Earhart for a few days after her plane crashed near Eureka while she waited for repairs. Although Maud’s own adventures had come to an end, she likely saw much of herself in the young, independent aviator and the two became friends.
Maude passed away in 1973 due to breast cancer. However, she left behind hundreds of letters that provide one of the most extensive accounts of women’s experiences in World War I and preserve her legacy as a Utah woman who refused to take “no” as an answer.
Emily Peterson is a history student at Brigham Young University.
Listen to the fantastic What’shername Podcast episode: “The Ambulance Driver – Maud Fitch”!