100 Years Ago Today: Steadying Them

posted in: WWI Nurses | 0

The German spring offensives were picking up steam.  American troops were not yet in the field (or in the trenches), but their sisters in the medical department were facing a heavy onslaught on the so-called “second battlefield.”  Chief Nurse Julia Stimson, of Base Hospital No. 21 in Rouen, France, requested additional staff to handle the surge: fifteen nurses and more than thirty corpsmen as orderlies.  When the nurses arrived, they seemed awfully green, awfully young.

Stimson’s existing staff had already had nine months to adapt to war nursing.  They had arrived in mid-June, 1917, among the first members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to see action. They took control of an existing British hospital and cared for wounded British soldiers long before any American troops arrived.  The shock of war nursing had been almost too much to bear in those first weeks.  Stimson herself, a mature hospital administrator, had almost broken down more than once.  She explained in a letter to her parents, “Naturally I cannot do any weeping here, since I have to be wept on, but there are times when it would be such a comfort to be braced myself.”

In time, the nurses of Base Hospital No. 21 steadied themselves.  By the end of summer, Stimson could report, in the lingo of the time, “Everyone has been a brick.”

Now, in March 1918, all were thoroughly battle-tested, but they needed all their grit to meet the rising tide of casualties that washed across their wards.  In one twenty-four hour period, almost a thousand patients had been delivered to their doors.  “We have long since ceased to attempt to change sheets between patients,” Stimson wrote.  “A good many patients have been in beds without sheets at all, but that is a minor matter.”  Meanwhile, her nurses were working around the clock, refusing to go off duty when their shifts ended. “No one has had a minute ‘off duty’ for five days now and they are beginning to show it.”

Hence, the call for reinforcements.

The new recruits seemed awfully green, awfully young.  Most had come from Kentucky and were as young as twenty-one-years-old.  (The War Department had recently lowered the minimum age from twenty-five.)  Stimson addressed the group before the arrival of their first ambulance convoy, but nothing she said could prepare them for the reality that was to come: the cries of pain and spurts of blood, the festering chest wounds and oozing pus, the stench of gangrene and iodoform.  “Such a baptism of fire they got that first afternoon!”

At the first lull, Stimson convened the group of rookie nurses and praised their initial efforts.  She told them that the nursing would never again be so emotionally hard.  Then she asked if, despite the horrors, they were not glad to be there.  Their strong affirmative gave Stimson confidence.  A few days later, Stimson wrote to her parents, the new nurses were “going about as chipper and happy as monkeys.  But oh, the poor little dears, they will never forget that first day.”


Source: Stimson, Julia C.  Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France.  NY: MacMillan Co., 1918.

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