Over 22,000 professionally-trained female nurses were recruited by the American Red Cross to serve in the U.S. Army between 1917 and 1919 — and over 10,000 of these served near the Western Front. More than 1,500 nurses served in the U.S. Navy during this period, and several hundred worked for the American Red Cross.
During that time, many kept personal diaries documenting their day-to-day lives. For many, this was their first time away from home.
They served bravely. Yet no nurses would begin to receive actual commissions until 1947.
After the war, many of those nurses (in Britain, called VAD’s: voluntary aid detachment) who had not perished often returned home to marry or lead perfectly ordinary lives, retreating from public service without any parade, ceremony or rank whatsoever. Unacceptably, as so often happens in “Herstory”, the experiences of these extraordinary women and so many others like them “got lost.”
The use of primary sources such as journals often reveals riveting stories and extremely well-crafted eye witness accounts.
There is an effort going on now by family descendants to posthumously award commissions to these women as part of the World War One Centenary.
Please read their diary entries and share their stories with others, so as to honor them and bring the lives of these resilient, fierce souls back into the light.
“Alone” by Ellen N. La Motte
“Alone,” is a first-hand journal account from WWI field hospital Army Nurse Ellen N. La Motte.
In 1915, La Motte was sent to Belgium, about six miles behind enemy lines. For the next year she kept a personal diary. “Was it not all a dead-end occupation, nursing back to health men to be patched up and returned to the trenches, or a man to be patched up, court-martialed and shot?” she wondered. The work was grisly and La Motte, like many of the field nurses and VAD’s, kept personal notebooks detailing day-to-day life.
After returning to America, she published The Backwash of War, which gathered a dozen profiles of soldiers and civilians at the front. One scholar notes, “La Motte’s writing demonstrates [that] one of the most insidious traits of war is the way in which it strips the individual of his or her particularity.”
One of La Motte’s personal stories gives an account of such a man, Rochard, a dying soldier she met at the field hospital.
“Sister” by Helen Dore Boylston
We continue our study of first-person WWI field hospital accounts by reading “Sister” -The War Diary of a Nurse, by Helen Dore Boylston.
23-year-old Helen Dore Boylston was from an affluent family, unlike many of the nurses who came from poor or rural families. In her diaries she describes her work with the first Harvard Unit, a U.S. medical team that treated more casualties than any other group of American doctors and nurses during the conflict.
In May 1917 (almost precisely 100 years ago, next month), U.S. medical teams like Boylston’s became the first American troops to arrive right in the middle of the war zone.
Although quite close to the fray, sometimes dropping face-down into mud when bombs were dropped, Boylston also took time to describe the social side of the war.
When does a worker turn for a moment and strive to retain friendships and the appreciation of small human connections and joy in everyday things?
What are primary sources?
Primary sources provide firsthand testimony.They are usually created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.
Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but can also sometimes include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.
Authentic first person accounts- diaries, letters, telegrams -can tell the story of an hour, a day, a historical event or an era.
How do authentic source materials shape our understanding of events in history? And what about your own family history?
Do you have any albums, journals, letters or other authentic records which create your own family’s narrative, or shed light on a particular era in history?
Diary entry by Sister Edith Appleton, relating the story of a soldier dying after being gassed in the trenches of the Western Front. Young Private Charles Kerr’s last wish was a kiss from his nurse.
For Further Study: The Website of The British Red Cross: WWI: Potato Peelers, Sock Knotters and Moss Collectors
Ready for a fantastic time portal into history? Then check out this website of the British Red Cross,which is really just outright fantastic.
For International Women’s Day, Their bloggers created this website to honor volunteers of The Great War.
Learn about the nurses and VAD’s who by the thousands supported the war effort.
Discover more remarkable VADs – the potato peelers, sock knitters and moss collectors of WWI !
Scroll down slowly- this site is just chock-full of information. Enjoy!
For more information on primary resource collections by women . . .
The Diary of Dorothea Crewdson:
Dorothea Crewdson, a Red Cross nurse, was given instructions to leave for northern France in 1915. She spent the next four years as a witness to some of the worst horror of the Great War, yet her diaries, with their beautiful hand-drawn illustrations, sparkle with warmth and humour. Now Dorothea’s nephew, Richard, has brought her diaries together so that they may be published for the first time. Sometimes intimate and gossipy and other times moving and charming, these evocative diaries offer a rare glimpse into the heroic world of a nurse in the First World War.
Link to The Crimson Field, a Masterpiece Theater Presentation from from BBC1:
Watch previews of The Crimson Field: