Voices of the Past Speak to the Future
October 27, 2008
World War I effectively ended ninety years ago this week, when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. That war wrought many profound changes. Great empires were destroyed; new nations were recognized; and societies, institutions, and armed forces were affected, not only in Europe but also in the United States. One such major change involved the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.
America entered World War I in 1917 with an established cadre of graduate school trained female nurses who had only paramilitary status -- acting rank with no formal recognition of their status as officers. Nevertheless, women joined;21,480 women served in the Army Nurse Corps, with more than 10,000 serving overseas with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).
Two such Army Nurses with the AEF were Elizabeth Lewis and Emma Elizabeth Weaver. The formerAca,!a,,cs letters to family and the latterAca,!a,,cs journal, now held within the AHECAca,!a,,cs collections, document their love of country and commitment to service.
While training in the United States, Lewis wrote regarding future perils and her determination: Aca,!A"I will be as careful as I can and take what comeAca,!A|I wonder if they think I am a fool and donAca,!a,,ct know of the dangerAca,!A| Some one has got to take the chanceAca,!A|I am just crazy to go [overseas] and glad the opputinity [sic] has come my wayAca,!A|I know it will be very hardAca,!A| if I can only prove satisfactory that is all I will ask.Aca,!A? For Weaver Aca,!A"Aca,!A|it is no sacrifice...it is a privilege to be in the service of Uncle Sam.Aca,!A?
In preparation for service overseas, Weaver Aca,!A"encountered an endless amount of red tape connected with Aca,!A|preparation for overseas service.Aca,!A? With 64 other nurses she drilled every day with Aca,!A"good results.Aca,!A?
Travel to France was an experience. It took eight days for WeaverAca,!a,,cs ship to journey from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Brest, France, with a convoy, dazzle camouflage, zig zagging, and speed acting as deterrents to German submarine attack. A certain number of whistle blasts warned of submarine attacks. Lewis slept through her shipAca,!a,,cs night whistle blasts Aca,!A"intend[ing] to sleep while I have a chance to.Aca,!A? Her roommate, she was certain, would wake her if it was the danger signal.
In France, work was hard and long. Lewis Aca,!A"Aca,!A|got on duty at 11pm. [and] worked continually until 7 a.m. One case right after another just as fast as we could do them.Aca,!A? Another day: Aca,!A"this morning when I went on duty I started doing dressings and I never stopped until dinner timeAca,!A|started in again and kept it up until I went off duty. Never did so many dressings in one day in all my life.Aca,!A? WeaverAca,!a,,cs Base Hospital #20 had anywhere from 49 to 65 nurses to care for 2275 patients: 35 to 46 patients per nurse.
The women in the Army Nurse Corps served beyond all expectations. Three were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, twenty-four the Distinguished Service Medal, sixty-nine the British Royal Red Cross, twenty-eight the French Croix de Guerre, and two the British Military Medal.
While none were killed by enemy fire, three were wounded by shellfire, and 272 died of disease or accidents.
World War I contributed significantly to the process of changing the status of women in culture and in society and provided the opportunity for women to be seen as active participants Aca,!" Soldiers, capable of doing the work assigned.
Our Guest Contributor, Lorraine Luciano, is the Education Director of the Army Heritage Center Foundation. She holds a degree in history from Notre Dame College, now St. Johns University, New York.