Military Nurses in World War I
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 Armistice
Day on November 11, 1918, 21,480 nurses had enlisted 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 200 died in-service.
The 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 October
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 1,386 members who served stateside, 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.
Chief Nurse of the Army Nurse Corps Julia Stimson
described a scene at Rouen 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. A 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,
contracted as they cared for patients.