Knights on Wheels: Chivalry and Horsepower in the American Ambulance Corps

23 March 2021
By Daniel J Bowman

Figure 1: Government issued recruitment poster.

The significance of the First World War in the United States’ transition from horse power to horsepower can hardly be overstated. This had less to do with the incorporation of automobiles into the Army itself than the practical shortage of horses back home, combined with the devastating impact of modern warfare on the enduring image of the horse in the human psyche. The heroic symbolism of the equine body in warfare found no reflection in the material reality of the horse on the modern, mechanised battlefield.

It is possible to witness the legacy of the noble steed being transferred from animal to automobile in the literature of those Americans who volunteered to drive motorised ambulances in France, transporting blessés (injured French soldiers) from the front lines to hospitals (often using dead horses as landmarks). Many of these autobiographical accounts were consumed enthusiastically by the public, with Robert Whitney Imbrie’s Behind the Wheel of a War Ambulance (1918), William Yorke Stevenson’s At the Front in a Flivver (1917), and Philip Dana Orcutt’s The White Road of Mystery (1918) all featured in a 1918 bibliography in The New York Times of the ‘best books from the front.’[1] Through the forgotten works of these so-called “gentleman volunteers” it becomes clear that the car performs much more than its practical purpose of navigating the battle-ravaged landscape for these technological chevaliers, becoming a vehicle for the qualities of patriotism, courage, and heroic masculinity in modern warfare.

Almost two decades before the outbreak of World War One in Europe, the first periodical in the English language dedicated to the automobile was published in New York City—The Horseless Age (1895-1919). As discussed at greater length in my ShARC Blog post from March 2019, The Horseless Age imagined the civilisation of the future as one in which humanity was not confronted with the sight of nonhuman animals on a daily basis, as the name suggests. Contrary to the narrative put forward in such periodicals that the horse was fast travelling into the past, equine populations in the United States continued to grow right up to 1914, the point at which the US began shipping horses over to Europe for the purposes of war. Horse populations never got the opportunity to recover, as the scarcity of horses during the war had forced many Americans to adopt the automobile as their primary source of horsepower.

This effect was foreseen by many auto-enthusiasts, some of whom were practically licking their lips at the thought of all those horses (the competition) being unceremoniously wiped out by machine gun fire.  As one 1914 article in The Horseless Age notes:

‘An increased world demand for automobiles and motor trucks will result from the European war from which America should profit.  This demand will be produced by […] the requisition and purchase of horses for army service, the loss of horse flesh in the war and the inability to replace this loss for several years following the close of the war.’[2]

The apathetic terminology in which The Horseless Age reported ‘the loss of horse flesh’ in the war demonstrates that the practical shortage of horses in the US was not the only factor in the rise of automobility. The glorious legacy of the horse in warfare, as the leader of the charge through enemy lines with its speed, power, and bravery, was relegated to history by the barbed wire, trenches, heavy artillery, and machine gun fire of World War One. Very few soldiers would have actually ridden a horse during the conflict, as horses’ primary function was to pull artillery and supply carts where terrain was too rough for automobiles—even officers’ horses were commandeered for draft animals with the suggestion that bicycles be used for duties such as inspection trips.[3]

The horse in warfare was being reduced to the practical capabilities of its corporeal body (pulling freight), even as its traditional glorious image was being trotted out on posters to raise the status of the humble prospective soldier. This government-issue recruitment poster (Figure 1) entitled Pro Patria! appropriated the glorious image of the horses’ bodies in order to sell their own story of warfare that they might persuade more citizens to commit their own bodies to the cause. All this in the full knowledge that millions of men and horses were being subjected to unimaginable cruelty and indignity faced with the material realities of modern warfare.

The Gentleman Volunteers

Declining social prestige in the US cavalry meant that American would-be-gentlemen required an alternative means to assert their heroic masculinity which still emphasised their elevated social status over the common foot soldier. Something had to replace the horseman in warfare, and this may well have been the motivation for those Americans who volunteered as motor-ambulance drivers. Given the challenging road conditions of wartime and the temperamental nature of automobiles in general, mechanics and repairmen from garages in the US would surely have made excellent recruits. Yet the main recruiter for the service—a banker named Henry Sleeper—took a different approach, aiming to enlist volunteers exclusively from elite educational institutions. As George Plimpton notes, ‘one would have thought Sleeper was searching out candidates for an extremely exclusive men’s club—the criteria for membership not the ability to take apart a manifold but good bloodlines and impeccable manners.’[4] The opportunity to represent the US as a volunteer in Europe was limited almost exclusively to those in (what are now) Ivy League universities and Eastern Prep schools.[5] In other words, membership of the American Ambulance Corps was to convey a certain social prestige not unlike that of the cavalry officers of old. 

Whilst there are several famous accounts of European soldiers forming close, emotional bonds with the horses in their regiments, few such relationships can be found in the literature of US combatants.[6] In the accounts by Imbrie, Stevenson, and Orcutt mentioned above, however, we find that a novel kind of bond is generated on the front lines which mirrors that of the cavalier and his horse—between driver and automobile.

Not only did the car fill the physical gap left by the departure of millions of horses from the US to Europe, in some sense it also filled the space left in soldiers’ imaginations by the dawning realisation that the cheval of chivalry could no longer be considered a vehicle for heroic masculine identity. Author and US war correspondent Frederick Palmer was one who noticed the unique bond between motor vehicles and soldiers during his time in France, in what he called the ‘joy-ride’ of war. The soldiers, Palmer noted, ‘have something of the feeling for the truck that the mounted infantryman has for his horse.’[7] As for whether or not a ‘pulseless machine’ (as it was dubbed by the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association)[8] could inspire courage like the equine chargers of old, Palmer claims that as the men jump from their convoy into battle, ‘something of the motor column’s movement is imparted to their spirits.’[9] Before US soldiers arrived in Europe, the volunteer drivers felt something of this too, as Philip Dana Orcutt testifies in The White Road of Mystery (1918). Orcutt recalls the nervous anticipation before all the motors engaged at once, ‘settling into a rhythmic whir.’ The men, he continues, ‘are in their seats with somewhat of an echo of that whir in their hearts.’[10] This machine, it seems, was far from pulseless.

In Robert Whitney Imbrie’s Behind the Wheel of a War Ambulance (1918), the relationship between driver and automobile is presented as one of mutual dependence, not unlike that between a horse and a soldier, and certainly not lacking any of the sentiment:

‘It is difficult for one who had not led the life to appreciate just what his car means to the ambulancier.  For periods of weeks, mayhap, it is his only home. […] He paints it and oils it and knows its every bolt and nut, its every whim and fancy.  When shrapnel and shell éclat fall, he dives under it for protection.  Not only his own life, but the lives of the helpless wounded entrusted to his care depend on its smooth and efficient functioning.  Small wonder his car is his pride.’[11]

I have discussed in a previous blog post the tendency of automobile drivers to theriomorphise their machines, or treat them as if they were living creatures. Imbrie claims that the ambulance driver knows his car’s ‘every whim and fancy’ (ibid), and a few paragraphs earlier describes his automobile an possessing ‘an air of rakish abandon and dogged nonchalance […].’[12] The point here is not to suggest that these men actually mistake their machines for living creatures, but that this machine, unlike most, is capable of instilling its perceived qualities in its human driver—just as the horse imbued its rider with speed, strength, and stature. Fellow volunteer Arthur Gleason puts it well when he writes that ‘[t]he car becomes a personality to the man at the wheel,’[13] not only in the sense that the car takes on a character of its own, but also that these so-called characteristics help form the man’s own self-image as resilient, powerful, and modern. 

The extent to which the automobile reflected the men of the ambulance service is made plainly visible in the account of William Yorke Stevenson, who was, coincidentally, partnered with Imbrie during their time in France. At the beginning of Stevenson’s account is a copy of a General Order from the French Army, which states that volunteer group D. E. (to which Stevenson and Imbrie belonged) are to be awarded the Croix de Guerre for their courage and devotion to the French cause. As the group have no official regimental standard, however, the General pins the actual medal on one of the cars ‘as representing the section.’[14] Although the medal was not actually awarded to the vehicle itself, clearly it was felt that the automobile was a suitable stand-in for the men of the regiment and was able to embody the heroic qualities conveyed by the Croix de Guerre. No such honour was afforded to a single one of the millions of horses who were subjected to the torments of war, not even General Jack Seely’s famous war horse Warrior, who was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal.

For volunteers like Stevenson, the pinning of the medal on an automobile was more than a token gesture. In the preface to his account, Stevenson claims that the US Army initially planned to scrap many of the service cars, including that which received the medal—a plan which was met with anger by the men of the Section. ‘She is a veteran,’ Stevenson claimed, ‘and deserves an honorable ending. We should not be ungrateful to a thing which has served us so faithfully.’[15] The contrasting treatment of cars and horses in the aftermath of WWI is indicative of US priorities in modern industrial capitalism. Despite sending millions of horses across the Atlantic, historian John Sorenson records that a measly two hundred were safely repatriated after the conflict. The difference in attitude toward the automobile and horse in these cases demonstrates the extent to which the war altered how each was perceived.  Cars are inert machinery, yet received medals and deserved ‘an honourable ending.’ Horses actually lost their lives, suffered injury and pain, experienced fear, displayed courage and other qualities which identified them as true veterans—yet most horses fortunate enough to survive the fighting ended up in French abattoirs.[16]

[1] Anon, ‘Growing Literature of the War,’ The New York Times (October 20th, 1918), 65.

[2] ‘War’s Effect on Automobile Industry’, The Horseless Age, 34.12 (16 Sept. 1914), 438.

[3] Matthew G. McCoy, ‘Grinding Gears: The AEF and Motor Transportation in the First World War,’ War in History 11.2 (April 2004), pp. 193-208, 198.

[4] George Plimpton, ‘Foreword’ in Arlen J. Hansen, Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the First World War [1996] (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2011), pp. 6-10, 7.

[5] In addition to the eight Ivy League institutions, volunteers were also recruited from the universities of California, Stanford, MIT, and Penn. 

[6] For examples of soldier/horse relationships in British forces, see My Horse Warrior (1934) by Captain Jack Seely, the fictionalised account of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse (1982).  For critical discussion, see Jane Flynn, Soldiers and Their Horses: Sense, Sentimentality and the Soldier-Horse Relationship in the Great War (New York and London: Routledge, 2020).  For one account of a U. S. soldier-horse relationship, see Joseph S. Smith, Over There and Back in Three Unforms: Being the Experiences of an American Boy in the Canadian, British, and American Armies at the Front and Through No Man’s Land (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1918), 206-225.

[7] Frederick Palmer, America in France (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1918), 239.

[8] I. R. Sherwood, ‘The Horse,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association 28.118 (April 1918), pp. 498-520, 505.

[9] Frederick Palmer, America in France (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1918), 239.

[10] Philip Dana Orcutt, The White Road of Mystery: The Note-Book of an American Ambulancier (New York: John Lane Company, 1918), 19.

[11] Robert Whitney Imbrie, Behind the Wheel of a War Ambulance (New York: Robert M. McBride & Co., 1918), 14-15.

[12] Imbrie, 14 [emphasis in original].

[13] Gleason, 42.

[14] William Yorke Stevenson, At the Front in a Flivver (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917), 1.

[15] Stevenson, xvi.

[16] John Sorenson, ‘Animals as Vehicles of War’ in Anthony J. Nocella II, Colin Salter, and Judy K. C. Bentley (eds) Animals and War: Confronting the Military-Animal Industrial Complex (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014) pp. 30-44, 39.