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World War I Nurses: The Journal of Emma Elizabeth Weaver

April 6, 1917. The United States formally entered the Great War in Europe, which had engulfed the continent since 1914. Within days of America entering the war, the US military began mobilizing and civilians were called to serve.

Medical care for the troops was a priority.

In 1916, the Army Medical Corps had begun working with hospitals affiliated with universities throughout the nation to establish medical reserve units. Red Cross nurses, doctors and medical corpsman working in these hospitals volunteered for medical units knowing that they might be mobilized in the event of war. They were practiced, used to working together and ready to go. In 1917, they immediately mobilized for overseas duty.

The first six university hospital units arrived in France by May 1917, even before American combat troops, and joined the staff of existing British hospitals. Six months after America entered the war, nearly 1,100 nurses served overseas in nine base hospitals. These first nurses to arrive were unmarried, between the ages of 25 and 35, Caucasian and graduates of training schools offering solid theoretical and practical medical training. They were part of the largest official mobilization of women in the history of the country. The nurses who served with base hospitals were among the best-trained and most experienced in the field; yet they could not imagine the conditions of war ahead of them or the work they would be called upon to do.

During World War I (WWI), more than 10,000 US Army nurses served overseas in France, Russia, Italy, China, England, Belgium, Germany, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. One hundred and two army nurses died as a result of illness or accident while serving overseas. Over the course of the war, approximately 265 Army nurses died as a result of their service, the majority from influenza. The United States awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to three nurses and the Distinguished Service Medal to 25 more. France bestowed the Croix de Guerre on 28 American nurses and Great Britain awarded the British Royal Red Cross to 69 American nurses and the British Military Medal to two of them.

Emma Elizabeth Weaver
Emma Elizabeth Weaver (1878-1966) of the University of Pennsylvania Base Hospital served in France and Germany between 1918 and 1919 and kept a journal of her service. The hardcover book includes over 200 tightly penned, legal-sized pages describing her experiences, her work, her impressions of Europe and the people around her.

Elizabeth (she did not use her first name) graduated from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in 1904. Almost 40 years old, she volunteered in February 1918 for overseas duty and, served at Base Hospital 20 in France and Base Hospital Coblenz with the Army of Occupation in Germany. During her year of service overseas, she traveled to 109 cities and towns in Great Britain, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Germany. Here, excerpts from her journal are transcribed as she wrote them.

Joined the service Feb. 16th, took the oath of allegiance & was sworn in at University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Next day, Sunday, was busy packing. The 65 nurses of the U. of P. unit left Broad St. Station for Ellis Island. N.Y. which was their mobilization center. Had a wonderful send off. The morale was excellent. All the nurses behaved splendidly. A fairly large crowd had collected at [the] station to see us depart & we were given, flowers, fruit [etc.] A special car was engaged for us. On the way to New York we passed a long train of khaki clad raw recruits. We flocked to the windows & there was wild cheering & waving & exchanging of salutes.

For two months, she remained at Ellis Island, NY, waiting transport to France. Finally, on April 22, she sailed aboard the Leviathan, a German ship interned in New York Harbor and subsequently converted to an American troop transport vessel. The ironclad Leviathan was the largest ship afloat, 16 stories tall and capable of transporting 20,000 troops quartered top to bottom from staterooms to below-deck steerage.

If the wind came in a certain direction, we could hear the roar of the big guns. We were in constant danger of gas attack & always slept with our gas masks at the head of our bed.

Nurses at the hospital] had suffered intense hardships the preceding winter, suffering intensely from the cold. They had chilblains & frozen feet. Many of them were ill with the flu. One of them died (Miss Maria Bowles) from scarlet fever.

Returning to the Parc Hotel Chattel Guyon, Elizabeth treated patients who arrived in waves by Red Cross trains. Each train seldom carried fewer than 300 cases. She reported the numbers and types of wounded and described medical treatment that the nurses provided.

Sept. 6 299 patients from base hosp. around Toul.
Sept. 15 – 390 pts evac. from hosp. From ST. Mihiel Salient.
Sept. 27 – 260 pts. evac. from hosp. around Langres.

Oct. 2, 380 From Verdun region.
Oct 6, 294 from Verdun Sector
Oct 7, 301 pts surgical cases from Argonne.
Oct 10, 192 pts surg. & med. cases, the medical cases being mostly flu & bronchitis. These cases came from the Argonne.
Oct. 15, 385 pts. from the Argonne
Oct. 23, 302 All types. med. surg. & gassed.
Nov. 1, 255 From Souilly on the Argonne. 17 measle[s] cases among this group.

During Miss Williams absence on Surgical team I had charge of Ward A. At this time the doctors were busy in the Operating Room practically day & night, consequently the nurses had to do the dressings on the ward. All day long from morning until night I went from bedside to bedside doing dressings. I had an orderly to assist me. He wheeled the dressing carriage, removed bandages, etc. Strenuous days. These patients were rushed directly from the front. I always dreaded removing bandages for fear of hemorrhage. I never knew what I was going to find. There were many missing limbs, horrible deep wounds. …

In January 1919, Elizabeth’s unit transferred to Germany to join the Army of Occupation at Coblenz. She traveled throughout Europe during rare periods when nurses were granted leave, at one point, stopping at the battlefields of Soissons.

It was a harassing sight, ruin & destruction everywhere. It was very dangerous for so many unexploded shells lay about. (2 sailor boys had been killed the previous day by unexploded shells) Machine guns & machine gun bullets & hand grenades lay everywhere. A pair of boots lay on the ground. I stooped to see to what country they belonged, but, I could not turn them over the feet were still within them & steel helmets lay strewn about, Oh, the horrible war with its carnage & bloodshed.

On Aug. 15, 1919, Elizabeth began the sea voyage back to America, arriving on Sept. 4, 1919.

Home again! “Fini la guerre pour moi”! [“For me the war is finished”!] The strangest city in the world to me is New York! I feel like a foreigner! [T]he motion of the boat is still with me, I’m rocking & rolling. How queer to be in a land where everybody speaks English & you can buy bananas.

Here, Elizabeth’s journal ends. After the war, she entered the Public Health Service and treated war veterans, helping to establish a hospital in Tacoma, WA, and serving as chief nurse.

She is buried in Weaverland Mennonite Cemetery in Lancaster County, PA, sharing a monument with her sister, Gertrude, who also served as a nurse in Germany during WWI.

For more information
If you’d like to read more about nurses who served during WWI, try the following books and Web sites:

Gavin, Lettie. American Women in World War I: They Also Served. Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Higonnet, Margaret, ed. Nurses at the Front: Writing the wounds of the Great War. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.

Rote, Nelle. Nurse Helen Fairchild, World War I. Grantville, PA: Privately Printed, 2006.

Schneider, Dorothy and Carl. Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.

Stimson, Julia. Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1918.