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“His Car Is His Pride”: Ode to a World War I Ambulance

Even before the United States entered World War I, some young men signed up with the volunteer ambulance corps, which recruited college students and recent graduates to serve on the French and Italian fronts. Among them were such later famous writers as e. e. cummings, Dashiell Hammett, John Dos Passos, and Ernest Hemingway. Not surprisingly, many of these former ambulance drivers later wrote about their experiences in memoirs and novels. In this passage, from a book-length memoir, Robert Whitney Imbrie wrote in a humorous vein of the bond of affection and loyalty between an ambulance driver and his car.

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 drives it through rain, hail, mud and dust, at high noon on sunshiny days, and through nights so dark that the radiator cap before him is invisible. Its interior serves him as a bedroom. Its engine furnishes him with hot shaving water, its guards act as a dresser. He works over, under and upon it. 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 then that his car is his pride. You may reflect on an ambulancier’s mechanical knowledge, his appearance, morals, religion, or politics, but if you be wise, reflect not on his car. To him, regardless of its vintage or imperfections, it is not only a good car, it is the best car. No millionaire in his $10,000 limousine feels half the complacent pride of the ambulance driver when, perhaps after days of travel, he has at last succeeded in inducing it to“hit on four” and with its wobbly wheel clutched in sympathetic hands he proudly steers its erratic course.

Source: Robert Whitney Imbrie,Behind the Wheel of a War Ambulance, (New York: Robert McBride & Co., 1918), pp. 14–15.

See Also:"This Is How It Was": An American Nurse in France During World War I
Gas and Flame in World War I: The New Weapons of Terror
"Bombed Last Night": Singing at the Front in World War I
Hot Chocolate: A World War I "Canteen Girl" Writes Home
"No Negroes Allowed": Segregation at the Front in World War I