Shirley Eastham’s imagination had caught fire. “Banners streamed in my blood. Drums beat in my brain. Bugles sounded in my ears,” as she wrote in her memoir twenty years after the fact. She had determined to go to France as a nurse’s aide to help beat back the invading Hun. She imagined herself “gliding silently among hospital cots, placing a cool hand on fevered brows.” Eastham even fantasized that Ted, her boyfriend who also enlisted, might be wounded–“oh, very slightly wounded, of course”–and she would care for him in the hospital. Her upper-middle-class parents objected, but Eastham would not be dissuaded.
As it happened, Eastham reached the front many weeks before her beau. She underwent her “baptism of fire” just as the German spring offensives were heating up in March, 1918. The wounded were brought to her French evacuation hospital by the hundreds, all needing attention immediately, if not sooner. Eastham was thrown into the work, no time for practical training. She learned in the frenzy of the moment, by observation, when possible; more often by improvisation and pure grit. When a nurse thrust a hypodermic in her hand, Eastham had to stick it in her patient without practice or guidance. When asked to “prepare” a patient for surgery, she could only rely on her instincts and make it up as she went.
As the wounded arrived, Eastham had to remove their mud- and blood-soaked clothes, and wash their stained bodies–somehow–without causing pain. “Gashes from bayonets. Flesh torn by shrapnel. Faces half shot away. Eyes seared by gas.” She was repelled yet strangely fascinated, too. The privileged upper-middle-class twenty-six-year-old had traveled a long way in just a few days, a few weeks. She had “crossed a river of blood,” as she put it, and come out changed on the other side. Now, when she thought of Ted–when she had time to think of him–she felt “years older” and wondered how she would feel when she saw him again.
Her feelings were complicated by developments in the hospital. On May 13, she caught Dr. Girard staring at her “in an odd sort of way.” When she tried to leave the room, he did not let her pass, then forced himself upon her. Eastham struggled to break free. Girard, pathetically, asked her to accompany him to Paris. Eastham’s refusal was unequivocal: “Absolument jamais!” Absolutely never.
Eastham recorded the unwanted advances in her journal, noting at the same time, that she might rather welcome attention from a certain Dr. Le Brun. Indeed, she lamented that he hardly seemed to notice her existence. Three days later, though, his coolness thawed. She recorded the words he spoke as she carried a load of bottles from the surgery: “Bien fait, bébé, bien fait.” Well done, baby, well done. It was the start of a consensual workplace romance.
It was not the only one at the Chateau Gabriel evacuation hospital outside Soissons. Years later, writing under her married name Shirley Millard, Eastham confessed that many of the nurses “were not above flirting outrageously with these indifferent and altogether interesting males who were naturally somewhat woman-conscious after a long period of grim duty and military segregation. …I think we all emerged from our experiences none the worse, except for an increased opinion of our own seductiveness.” OK, then.
Eastham’s relationship with Dr. Le Brun could only have been fraught. He was an officer in the French Army; she a Red Cross volunteer. He a doctor with years of medical training and experience; she a nurse’s aide with just a month on the job. France was his country and French his native language; France was a foreign country for her and French her second language. The power differential was manifest. By all the evidence, though–and the only evidence we have is provided by Eastham–Le Brun was nothing if not a gentleman.
Eastham described taking long walks with Le Brun while off duty, and sharing tea and chocolate bars with him during breaks. Eastham wondered if she might just move beyond Ted–“that is if Le B. shows any further signs of interest.”
Understandably, Eastham left the course of the romance to the reader’s imagination. If Le Brun abused his position as a medical officer to gain favors from Eastham, she did not say. What she does say is how she used her relationship with Le Brun to advance her position in the hospital. Sometime in August, after a surgical nurse collapsed from exhaustion, Eastham begged Le Brun to give her (with all of five months’ hospital experience) to take her place. Le Brun may have been reluctant to say no outright. He gave her a condition, instead, with a high bar to meet. If she could learn all “hundred and one” surgical instruments–in French–she might have the job.
Le Brun underestimated Eastham’s ability and drive. (Or, perhaps he did not!) Eastham studied and passed the surgeon’s test. She was admitted to the operating room to hand him instruments and serve as his assistant. It was a most memorable experience for the volunteer aide nurse:
I saw after that, all the surgery I ever wanted to see again. Difficult amputations, sutures, skull trapening, probing for bullets and shrapnel, blood transfusions, elementary plastics, spinal operations, and too many kinds of human repair to list here.
Le B.’s hands, incased in rubber gloves, were swift and sure. He always worked with a cigarette hanging limply from the corner of his mouth. It was part of my job to keep lighting fresh ones for him. At first when the ashes fell into an open wound over which he was working, I asked him frantically what I should do about it. He went on calmly muttering: N’importe ça. C’est sterile. It doesn’t matter; they’re sterile.
Then, on September 1, Eastham received a letter from Ted. By this time he had reached the front and already earned a leave. He asked Eastham to meet him in Paris, sparking mixed emotions in his erstwhile girlfriend. “Wonder if he will still care,” she wrote. “So much has happened. I feel changed.” Tension erupted with Le Brun, too. The Frenchman’s jealousy was piqued. He became a little pushier, verbally, and resorted to flattery: “Yes, you can work like a man,” Eastham recorded him saying, “and at the same time you are soft and sweet, and very brave. That is the best thing of all, to be brave.” Eastham didn’t fall for the sweet talk. She insisted on going to Paris to see Ted. She understood, wisely, that she needed to see her old beau in the flesh to know how she truly felt.
Her answer came immediately: “Ted met me at the train and I knew the minute he put his arms around me in the dismal old Gare du Nord that he is mine and I am his and, war or no war, we belong together.”
World War I was the first war in which U. S. Army nurses worked alongside Army corpsmen and doctors; the first time men and women (in large numbers) worked side by side near the front lines. Military leaders understood that women nurses improved the survival rate of wounded soldiers, but they worried that “feminine” personnel near the lines of battle might jeopardize the military (read: “masculine”) mission. Shirley Eastham did not serve with the American Expeditionary Force, yet her experience, unusual for the frankness with which she recorded it, is illuminating. Eastham did not buckle under the pressures of war work, nor did she lose her identity as a woman. She did not allow herself to be dominated by the men she worked with, even when one made unwanted advances and another applied the full battery of his charms. She kept her poise. She performed admirably. She gained valuable new skills and understandings. Shirley Eastham did not allow herself to become a victim.
Real stories, biographical stories, are complicated. They don’t follow a satisfying arc; don’t offer a happy ending. (By definition, they all end in death.) Eastham returned to the United States after the war and married Ted right away. She became Shirley Millard. The couple had to wait eleven long (agonizing?) years for the birth of their first child–then got divorced the very next year in Reno, Nevada. Shirley Eastham Millard never married again, nor did she ever work as a nurse. Did she have any more lovers? We just don’t know.
Source: Millard, Shirley. I Saw Them Die. New Orleans: Quid Pro Quo Books, 2011 .