The Nurses

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World War I, often called "The Great War," was responsible for the deaths of about 9 million people worldwide. Though the U.S. didn't enter the war until April 6, 1917, Red Cross nurses were on the scene from the outbreak in 1914, supplying aid to every country involved in the conflict.

During the two years of U.S. involvement, the Army Nurses Corps grew from 403 members to over 22,000. These nurses served in camp, field and train hospitals, evacuation, mobile, and base hospitals. 

Julia Stimson was head of the Red Cross nursing service in France and later became superintendent of the Army Nurses Corps. She received the Distinguished Service Medal, and was the first woman to achieve the rank of major in the U.S Army.

"We have had less than a week's notice to get ready for mobilization for service in France, and so it has been a rushing week," she wrote in 1917. "I have been quite disgusted with the quitters who, for one reason or another, have begged to be excused. But I am finding substitutes who will me much more desirable than such weak-kneed individuals. Two names I submitted had to be dropped on orders from Washington, because they were born in Germany."

After a long voyage by ship to France, there was little time for sightseeing, and the nurses might be housed under difficult circumstances.

Elizabeth Lewis wrote "Tell Papa that living in these evacuation hospitals in the front has campin' in the Maine woods skunked a hundred way. It is so much worse! In the Maine woods you can cut enough wood to keep warm, where over here, you cut down any trees and the French have a fit about it, and the coal they have isn't any good. It is just like dust.  We are the only women around here, and all there is here is soldiers. Here we are out in these teams, never getting any mail, or never having been paid, and are pounced around from place to place, never knowing from one meal to the next where we will be." 

The workload was numbing.

"Patients began to pour in upon us. Day before yesterday we operated on fifty cases, yesterday fifty-one, and today seventy-three scheduled, and at least forty more tonight. The doctors are about dead." -- Julia Stinson, March 1918.

Revolutionary new roles for nurses were created as they moved ever closer to the front. Five to six-member medical specialty teams were moved to the rear areas to the front lines where they were most needed as members of surgical teams, trained for immediate surgery, bypassing lengthy evacuation.

Describing her nurses at the front, Julia Stinson wrote "Service at the front was the goal and prize for which every nurse longed. They are working terribly hard, sleeping with helmets over their faces and enamel basins on their stomachs, wearing men's socks under their stockings trying to keep their feet warm in the frosty operating rooms at night, and both seeing and doing such surgical work as they never in their wildest days dreamed of. But all the time unafraid and unconcerned at the whistling, banging shells exploding around them. Oh, they are fine! One need never tell me that women can't do as much, stand as much, and be as brave as men."  -- October 9, 1917.

The World War I Series on KEDM Public Radio is produced with the School of Humanities at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Support comes from the Dean of the College of Arts, Education & Sciences and Sidney Wilhite of Louisiana Plastic Industries.

Air Date: Thu, 10/09/2014