A Veteran’s First Vehicle: Incorporating the Automobile into the Army during WWI

By Bobby Brito, Oral History Intern
The Great War inaugurated the twentieth century, while the proliferation of the internet can be thought of as one of the events that bookended the twentieth century. Conventional conversations would not typically involve both events in relation with each other. However, through my work at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum these two events are inextricably linked. In preparation of the centennial anniversary of the United States involvement in World War I, I have worked in the museum’s Research Center with the Museum’s collection of World War I oral history interviews. I have been tasked with using the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer in order to index these interviews and make them publicly accessible on the internet.

The interviews provide a wealth of information that cannot be gleaned from history textbooks or other archival sources.  For example, in his interview John Pavlik (OH 464) describes his experiences with a new technology and mode of transportation that was being integrated into the armed services when he enlisted, the automobile. The prior generation of medical transporters, Pavlik explains, relied on mule drawn wagon ambulances in order to transport patients from the front. Travelling in a convoy, Pavlik describes, could be difficult.

Wisconsin Veterans Museum Collection – John Pavlik, World War I – Every Veterans Is a Story

No windshields, no side curtains, and you carried either eight patients sitting up or four     on litters… if you were second and third you just were feeling your way because of the dust and so forth. You had no clear vision of the road… No windshields, no—none of that. If it rained, it rained in on you, and you put your poncho in front of you to keep water off your legs and feet […]it was hard riding, really.

While riding in an early ambulance versus a horse drawn carriage may not have felt very different, the early ambulance ride was certainly faster. Automobiles also eventually replaced horses when it came to transporting heavy artillery. Pavlik recalls how soldiers were trained to value the lives of their horses above their own in the event of a gas attack.

Wisconsin Veterans Museum Collection – John Pavlik, World War I – Every Veterans Is a Story

As you know, all our guns were moved up by horses. The horses and the guns were moved up sometimes very fast, and we would be in the area where when we would get shelled they would drop shells which were filled with gas. We would then hear the Klaxon horn go “oo-ah, oo-ah, oo-ah,” whereby meant that you put your gas mask on. Well, the boys that were taking care of the artillery, the horses, their job was to put the gas mask on the horse first before they put their own mask on themselves. Horses were very valuable, and we needed that.

In a number of ways, automobiles helped to save the lives of soldiers, whether by transporting wounded soldiers faster, or by making the war effort more efficient.

The past couple of months have truly been an exciting time for me as I worked with WVM’s Oral Historian, Ellen Brooks, preparing these interviews as part of the WVM’s larger efforts to memorialize the U.S.’s involvement in World War I. The interviews represent a broad array of experiences, and provide different perspectives from which to learn about World War I. It is my hope that these interviews, now more readily accessible thanks to the internet, provide the public with a similarly illuminating experience.

To listen to the complete interview with John Pavlik, and other interviews with World War I veterans, visit our Featured Interviews Page.