Military nurses arrived in Europe before the American Expeditionary Forces. At the outset of World War I, 403 women were on active duty in the Army Nurse Corps, founded in 1901. By Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice Day, 21,480 nurses had joined and over 10,000 had served overseas. They served with distinction: three were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, 23 received the Distinguished Service Medal, and numerous nurses received meritorious awards from allied nations. Several were wounded; more than 250 died in-service.
he first Army nurses sailed for Europe in April 1917, before American troops were there and established six base hospitals with the British Expeditionary Forces. In Oct. 1917, they began serving with the American Expeditionary Forces. They served in France, Belgium, England, Siberia, Italy, Serbia, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. They worked in field hospitals, mobile units, evacuation camps and convalescent hospitals as well as on troop trains and transport ships.
The Navy Nurse Corps, founded in 1908, grew from 406 to 1,536 members who served stateside, and in the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, Haiti and the Virgin Islands. More than 325 served in Europe in field hospitals, on troop transports and on loan to Army Nurse Corps units. Thirty-six died and three among them were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for service during the influenza epidemic.
War service was hard, uncomfortable and heartbreaking. Overseas the nurses faced raw, cold weather and shortages of water for bathing and laundry, long hours at work and little privacy or time off. They treated shrapnel wounds, infections, mustard gas burns, exposure, and medical and emotional trauma.
Future Chief Nurse of the Army Nurse Corps Julia Stimson described a scene at Rouen, France, in 1918, “Amputations are being done almost every day. Yesterday, I went down to the Theater Hut to see how our nurses were going to handle a very bad case. … Our people at home would marvel to see what fine work can be done when all the water used has to be heated on top of a small oil stove and all the instruments boiled the same way.”
But the need for nurses extended beyond caring for battlefield casualties. The flu epidemic of 1918-1919 took more lives than the war itself, killing 675,000 Americans and more than 20 million people around the world. Most of the more than 200 nurses who died overseas and in the United States were victims of the epidemic.