The Ambulance Driver


When World War I swept across France, Maurice Ravel set aside composing and became an ambulance driver. He was an ambitious volunteer. But at the age of 41 he discovered a problem that threatened to take him out of the service entirely. He wrote to a friend at the end of May 1916:

“You know—because you tried to talk me out of it—that ever since the war began, I had intended to join the Air Force. As soon as I joined this unit three months ago, I wrote to inform Captain L. that I was at the front and to remind him that I wanted to become a bomber pilot. I received no answer and, as it turned out, my work here quickly became so interesting that I forgot my Icarian dreams.

“Until the day before yesterday, when I heard that the commander of the squadron had been killed, that the squadron had been disbanded, and that Captain L. was in this vicinity, and would soon be writing to me.

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“That immediately revived my old yearning. I forgot how tired I was and asked to take the examination for my medical certificate.

“The Major urged me not to fly. I have an enlarged heart. It’s no big deal, nothing serious, they say. [I wouldn’t give it a second thought if I’d had little heart flutters all my life, as most men do.] But at the end of last year, when I had a complete examination, the doctors found nothing whatsoever, which means it’s a recent occurrence, and now I understand that troublesome discomfort that I didn’t notice while I was leading an adventuresome existence.

“Now what am I to do? If I’m looked at again by a more thorough doctor I’ll be told I’m not fit for driving and pigeonholed into office work. So surely you will understand that I prefer to let the matter drop.”

Maurice Ravel—or “Driver Ravel” as he signed himself, in a letter from May 1916.