A World War I Serviceman’s Centennial

This is William E. Votruba’s report to the Department of the Army about his service in Unit 591 of the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps. A pdf of the entire document is here. A summary of its contents, edited by his son David C. Votruba, is below. To submit a servicemen's story to the United States World War I Centennial Commission, go here.

William E. (“Bill”) Votruba was a 25-year-old sophomore at the University of Michigan when the United States declared war on April 6, 1917. He knew without question that he should—and would—willingly enter the service, but wrestled with how best to proceed. Should he volunteer or be drafted? Thinking first to apply for training as an officer, he was dissuaded by flat feet. Then, hearing a new unit was forming at the University of Chicago to augment and/or replace volunteers providing ambulance services at the fronts, he thought this might be a good fit. He jumped a train to get there as fast as possible but, on arrival, learned the recruitment quota for the unit was already filled. His disappointment was short, though, as he was informed by the recruiting officer that a companion unit was being raised at that very moment back at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. He rushed there in time to enlist in that unit. As it happens, the Ann Arbor unit (Section 591, U.S. Army Ambulance Corps) was one of the very few USAAC units to make it to the war.

The following are excerpts from a 1980 U.S. Army Military History Institute questionnaire completed by my father, then age 88. It is substantially in his own words.

Part I – General Military Service

From June 1917 to June 1919, I served as PFC in Unit 591 of the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps (USAAC), under the command of Lt. R.V. Ellis. This unit was headquartered in Paris and, from October 13, 1914, was further attached to the French Army Division No. 4, then under the command of General Gouraud.

What do you recall about entering military service (initial reactions and experience)?

Arrived at [Camp Crain] Allentown, Pennsylvania, after a night and day on the train. We were given some tea, poorly cooked food on dirty unwashed tin dishes. Many were sickened. Because of crowded conditions, several had to sleep on cots under big trees. That night there was a heavy rain that turned clay to mud in a jiffy and we were soaked and covered with mud.

Describe your training

We were vaccinated—given shots for malaria and just about every other disease or sickness. We did some marching—worked on small Ford cars—changing tires, etc. Drove around on a dump ground, around piles of garbage, to show we could drive the car under difficult conditions. [As for specialized training,] there were some lectures on first aid but no training.

At Saint-Nazaire, France, were given the job of assembling Ford ambulances that had come crated for overseas shipment. We were trained to operate these Ford cars. On the 13th of October, 1917, our first day in the war, we were given Italian Fiats, two drivers to each ambulance.

At what posts were you stationed for your service overseas? [2]

There were four outlying posts in the forest of Hesse. Avocourt B2, B1 up North, and P1 and P2. The wounded were brought to us by “Bancairies” [stretcher bearers] through the trenches. At B1 and P2, we got wounded from Hill 304. We took our sick and wounded to B4, a clearing station and then French drivers took them to hospitals south of the battlefield. Outside of being busy, the work didn’t change.

What was your opinion of the weapons and equipment you saw or used?

 We did not have guns. The French 75 cannon was a remarkable cannon. It could fire very rapidly. The steel helmets slipped on our heads. There was very little chloroform or drugs to relieve pain. Gas masks were not much good. I have the one issued to me. We did not get enough warm clothing for some time. I personally got sweaters, some full length wool underwear and a wool lined coat from home. The French did not like the civilian clothes we were wearing. Wrap-around leggings hurt the calves of our legs and were not always neat.

Opinion of leadership…

For a month or two, there was a French lieutenant assisting our lieutenant. After that, we were on our own. As far as I know, we had no problems. There was a French cook.


In May 1918, while evacuating wounded on the right bank of the Meuse, north of Verdun, the French general in charge was [Charles] Mangin, called “The Butcher of Verdun.” Some of his orders were ruthless, and obeying them actually meant a death sentence to those concerned. We thought his discipline very harsh. Evidently his orders produced results regardless of those sacrificed who went to their death feeling they were doing so for the Glory of France.

One of our ambulance company was outspoken in his criticisms and wrote criticism in his letters. He was court-martialed for this and given a reprimand and small cash penalty besides having it on his record. I think 85 or 90 percent of our unit felt as he did but of course we obeyed the censorship rules and were careful of what we wrote home to our friends and relatives.

At one time, one of our outfit, W——— H———, objected to a small serving our French cook gave to him. There were words and some blows struck. W——— pulled a knife and for that he was arrested and confined. There was a court-martial trial in Paris. About six of us who had witnessed the argument and fight went to Paris to testify. [The offender] was given a term in the labor department. It was a U.S. Court.

Was there any desertion? Theft?

No problems of this kind in our outfit.

What did you think of the medical and supply services in the service?

After four years of war, chloroform and painkillers in France were exhausted. Blankets to cover the wounded were torn or patched. When staying at our pointes de secours overnight, we used these blankets for our own needs even though they were covered with blood.

During the winter of ’17, the Forest of Hesse–Avocourt Sector was very cold and, as mentioned before, we did not have enough warm underclothing. There were lots of cooties, vermin, and rats, and many suffered deep colds, bordering on pneumonia. In September and October, 1918, there was much flu; many were hospitalized and two died. I was sick for about two weeks.

What did soldiers use their pay for?

Wine, cheese, chocolate, or other food could be found to buy. The French gave us a daily ration of Pernod, a cheap wine, and sometimes a bit of yellow whiskey. The French at the posts were good cooks and made much out of lentils, vegetables, horse meat, cheese or rice. All meals included soup of some kind.

Was drinking a problem?

No. Here and there in villages could be found an épicerie—a little shop where some wines could be bought. Brandy was available, but for other liquors one had to go to a large town.


The wage of the common French soldier was 5 cents per day. One could not gamble much with that. As for members of our unit, we were glad to rest after our duties at the front.

Do you recall any songs that were popular during your military service?

We sang and played all UofM songs as well as those of Harvard, Yale, and some of the others.[1] I am sure we played all popular U.S. songs. Our group loved music and when I was away from the base, they took good care of my violin for me.

Do you recall any military slang words or phrases peculiar to those times?

“Oh, the Ambulance! The Ambulance with blood behind our ears! Not infantry or cavalry or G.D engineers! We’ll get the Kaiser by the ——— and cut his ——– off too and put it in the Ambulance and bring it back to you!”

From what port did you leave the U.S.?

Hoboken. Our boat was the Baltic. We followed the East short to Halifax where we waited for a convoy of many loaded ships and their protective destroyers. The Baltic was very crowded, maybe 5,000 people. Considering wartime conditions, it was very good. The hold and lower decks smelled bad. There were complaints of moldy bread and wormy cheese. We were on the Baltic four weeks. Coming in to Liverpool, were struck a glancing blow on our port side by a submarine’s torpedo.

The railroads were excellent. Then from Verdun to Soissons, we drove our ambulances.

What sort of country and people did you expect to find? What were your first impressions and how did they change?

Driving through towns, civilians were very kind and greeted us. At the front, soldiers were exhausted after years of war. They were very tired; ready to give up. They thought the U.S. was too late in coming and by coming so late, were just delaying the surrender to the Germans. But those we met personally were very good to us—opened their homes to us. I think our members were all gentle minded too.

Perhaps our being there early [e.g., this unit came in with the earliest deployments, ahead of the main U.S. force and was attached to the French army] caused people to get used to us; we were common place, “old shoes.” There were never any severe arguments or hard feelings on either side.

Consorting with local women? Looting?

Two of our unit picked up a disease and, we understood, were discharged dishonorably from the army. No one I knew was aware of any looting or other misbehavior by our soldiers.

Morale? News coverage? Postwar histories?

Most of us received many letters from family and friends. Also, as many magazines as possible; many gifts of food, chocolate and candy. Daily wartime bulletins were posted at headquarters and at some bases; however, much information came from newspapers sent from home.

Items that I have read and studied on the war since returning I have found very good and very well informed.

Did you take part in any combat operations?

Only as ambulance drivers.

Did you participate in cooperative operations with sister services?

[Dad misunderstood the Army Department's question, but the French nurses would have been called soeurs ("sisters").] Arriving at Le Havre we found women ambulance drivers taking wounded from trains to boats. There were no women at the front for ambulance service or any other duties. There were women nurses in some of the hospitals, three or four miles from the front.

Was your unit ever attached to an Allied command? If so, were there any special procedures, training, etc.?

October 13, 1917, we were attached to the French Army Division No. 4; May and June 1918, under General Mangin’s 5th Division at Haudramont, Bras, and nearby towns. September to October 1918, Soissons and the Chemin des Dames, with the 29th Division. We all did all or more than what was expected of us and got along very well. Our French companions made themselves understood, as for the most part, our French was very limited.

What was your opinion of the troops of our allies?

The Australian soldiers were tall and good looking—about 6'2" or more. The British and Canadians were great soldiers. After the armistice, we worked with civilians in the Amiens, St. Quentin areas and [witnessed] results of the fighting there. They deserve nothing but praise. Our French 29th Division soldiers were great soldiers too at Verdun, Argonne, Soissons LaFaux and the Chemin des Dames.

Did their arms and equipment differ from that of our soldiers?

I can’t answer about guns and equipment. On two or three occasions, our French division used colonial battalions to attack the Germans. These soldiers were wild-eyed and dressed in their own fighting gear when going into battle. They were big men and their appearance would scare anybody. They were given lots of whiskey before they charged and gave a wild yell when in combat. They were terrible fighters; they mostly used knives, and if they did not draw blood of the Germans, they would cut a gash on their own faces, legs or arms. When wounded, it took three or four ambulance drivers to get them on a stretcher and into the ambulance for the trip to the hospital. They were absolutely no good at all in cold weather.

Did you and your comrades consider your enemy to be good fighters?

The Germans were well trained and good fighters. They were disciplined and well-armed. Toward the last however, some ranks were filled with very young men.

How were American prisoners treated by the enemy?

No personal observations but some stories I have heard or read suggest many American prisoners of war were treated badly

[On the other hand,] I saw many groups of prisoners being marched to the rear and put into stockades. I can imagine it was hard on them too to be prisoners of the French.

Part 2 – Occupation and Demobilization

How were local civilians treated by the allied military administration?

In December, January, and February of 1919, our ambulance group worked with French civilians going into the country locating the sick and taking them to hospitals at St. Quentin, Lille, Arras, etc. After four years of war and being transported to the South of France, they rushed home by repaired railroad or trucks to see if their old homes were still standing. Many had poor clothing and little food and got sick with pneumonia or bad colds. Many came home in rags and covered with sores.

When and where were you discharged and under what conditions did you return home?

I was discharged June 20, 1919, at Battle Creek, Michigan. Afterward, I had a fine home—with my father [Frank] and mother [Amelia (Bartak)] and older sister [Minnie Frances]. As soon as I was able, I began to help my father in his wholesale and retail leather goods business [Votruba's, in Traverse City, MI]. My military experience wasn’t particularly transferable. Nearly everyone wanted me to talk about my war experiences.

If the Army sent you to school, please recount your experiences there

No school—just $60 in railroad fare to get home.

What were your expectations of civilian life upon leaving service (postwar America, GI benefits, educational and career opportunities)?

After seeing what other veterans of war received, I thought WWI vets should get some benefits too, but I guess the $60 we got is all that we can expect. Apparently, they do not think WWI was a hard war, and WWI vets are not worthy of help anymore. If they delay long enough, WWI vets will die off and so they won’t have to do anything. It won’t take too long for this. Out of 40 to 45 in our section, there are about four left. Personally, I do not need anything like a pension. I am 90 years old [Grandpa was rounding up here] and have enough to last me. There are, though, lots of vets who do need help and it would be good if they could get help.

Was your service during World War I of any specific benefit (or detriment) when you returned home?

It took me quite a while to get adjusted. Because of the illness of my father and his need for my help at home, I was unable to go back to the University and get my degree [he had wanted to study medicine].

Do you have any historical material to add to the Military History Institute?

Yes: diaries, memoirs, letters, photos, insignia, etc. [3]  I also have German maps of French territory which I feel are priceless. I also have about 45 French National war loan posters. These were a present to me after I got home. There were purchased at Brenton’s, Paris. I am holding my diary and many items for a son who is a capable writer and wants to put my experiences in story form. He plans to get the diary copy protected.


[1] Anecdotally, Bill took over a billet previously served by a member of the Libby vegetable family. Numerous Harvard undergrads precede the USAAC. The “Harvard Boys” are frequently mentioned in WEV's diary and those of his companions.
[2] Here it is thought the questionnaire was soliciting the name of a base or other location, but my father assumes they want the names of the “postes de secours” where he traveled to collect wounded for transport to medical centers.
[3] All this has been offered to various official archives but declined as uninteresting. Much of it been well received at exhibits by local libraries, etc., but remains the property of WEV’s descendants. Some of it will be on display starting May 27 at the Benzie Area Historical Museum.