British Volunteer Aid Nurse Vera Brittain left No. 24 General Hospital in Étaples in time to escape the bombings of May 30 [see “Etaples Hospital Air Raid;” May 30, 2018] but not so soon that she missed the arrival of fresh-faced American doughboys on French soil. She wrote of the “unusual quality of bold vigour in their stride.”
They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had become accustomed…. I wondered, watching them with them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect. Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted Dominions?
No, they were Americans, come at last to reinforce the bone-weary Allied armies. Brittain wept, overcome with relief from the “intolerable” tension she had kept bottled up inside.
General Pershing, the proud American, resisted placing these early arrivals under French or British command. He insisted they be trained until they could fight as part of an independent American army. Events dictated otherwise. American units were raced into action against the German drive to Paris. Their crucial role in the stand at Chateau-Thierry earned the Americans eternal gratitude from the French.
Shirley Eastham, a nurse in a French evacuation hospital in the Soissons sector, recorded her encounter with American patients ten days after Chateau-Thierry, July 28, 1918:
So many Americans. I hate to see them pouring in, yet I am proud of them. Such gallantry, such nerve, such pluck! Even the French nurses have remarked about it. Always: Thank you, for every little thing. And: How soon will I be able to go back to the line? And: Help him first, he has waited longer than I have.
I feel they are mine, every last one of them, and their downright grit makes me want to cry all over them. Now I know what real nobility means.
Eastham questioned whether she might be “too sympathetic” to be a good nurse. Many volunteer nurses did.
Pershing eventually got his wish. A planned offensive with a full American Army of nine divisions at St. Mihiel began September 12. The Americans’ success in eliminating the German salient might have led to overconfidence. The United States First Army was rushed into battle between the River Meuse and the Argonne Forest just a week later. Doughboys fought their way through “a brutal tangle of crisscrossed ravines,” taking heavy casualties, 120,000 in all, of which 25,000 killed. 95,000 American wounded kept Nurse Corps nurses busy until the armistice six weeks later–and beyond.
- Brittain, Vera. Chronicle of Youth. Burlington, VT: Phoenix Press, 2000 (1923).
- Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005 (1933).
- Millard, Shirley. I Saw Them Die. New Orleans: Quid Pro Quo Books, 2011 .
- Ross, John F. Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed. New York: St. Martin’s Press: 2014.
- Images: Wikimedia Commons and Ancestry