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Carrie Hall: MGH SON graduate makes her mark during WW I

Within 30 days of Congress voting to enter World War I, six American base hospitals were ordered to France to care for US soldiers. Base Hospital No. 5, also known as the second Harvard Unit, was the second to deploy, led by Dr. Harvey Cushing, noted neurosurgeon at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, and chief nurse, Carrie Hall, MGH School of Nursing (SON) graduate, class of 1904.

Nurses traveling overseas under the banner of the American Red Cross

Deployment of these units was so rushed, nurses embarked from New York Harbor in civilian attire with no time to wait for their Red Cross uniforms. They forewent the customary apprenticeship for military duty; the reputations of their respective institutions sufficient to allow the US Army to accept them without delay. Many MGH nurses had been overseas since 1915 serving in the first Harvard unit in France and other units attached to the British Expeditionary Force. Now under official US declaration of war, Base Hospital No. 5 departed aboard the Saxonia steamship, May 11, 1917.

Hall (far left) with other MGH Head Nurses

Upon arrival in France on May 31, 1917, Base Hospital No. 5 was assigned to No. 11 General Hospital, British Expeditionary Force, in Camiers, France. This unit was adjacent to the original Harvard Unit and close to other MGH nurses in the area. No. 11 was a well-established, tented, British facility of 2,000 beds. Situated mid-way between the mouth of the Somme River and Calais, it was almost always filled to capacity.

Carrie Hall

Once settled, Hall, then president of the MGH Nurses Alumnae Association, invited 18 MGH SON grads for a picnic at a nearby beach. They talked of home and shared concern for the whereabouts of the RMS Aurania, which was transporting the MGH unit, Base Hospital No. 6, across the Atlantic. Rumors had reached them that a German submarine had sunk the ship. But within days they would learn that the Aurania had safely crossed the English Channel.

US nurses aboard the RMS Aurania
The passengers of the RMS Aurania look on as they pass another ship.

Work in base hospitals was challenging, wrought with periods of intense strain, monotony, and exhaustive hours. Nurses and surgeons often worked until they were no longer able to stand, sometimes literally dropping at operating tables from fatigue. Originally, nurses were supposed to work well away from combat areas, but with new medical groups being organized, surgical and gas treatment teams were mobilized closer to the front. And nurses were key members of those teams. Nurses who remained at base camps faced their own battle-related dangers in the form of air raids and bombings. On September 3, 1917, several enemy bombs hit Base Hospital No. 5, killing a surgeon and three enlisted men and leaving one nurse with facial wounds. Following that raid, General Douglas Haig cited Hall for courage and efficiency under enemy fire.

Because of her extensive knowledge and experience, in May, 1918, Hall assumed directorship of the American Red Cross in Great Britain. She reported to the Bureau of Nursing Service of the American Red Cross in Washington, DC, and was responsible for the enrollment, assignment, and direction of all Red Cross nurses caring for Americans wounded in England. This included six hospitals for which Hall oversaw staffing and equipment, and the opening of a 60-bed hospital in London for sick and wounded American nurses.

Hall established convalescent homes in England to provide nurses who served on the front some much needed rest and relaxation. The severity and strain of nurses’ work in war-time conditions took its toll. Said Hall, “There is another kind of stress that they are subjected to, a sympathetic strain due to the condition of the patients. The nature of the wounds treated in a military hospital is more horrible than wounds caused by industrial accidents at home. High explosives produce ghastly results.”

While in London, Hall formulated recommendations that became the basis for all future Red Cross nursing organizations overseas. The British government presented her with the Royal Red Cross of King George V (First Class). During the summer of 1918, Hall transferred to assist the chief nurse of the American Red Cross in France, and later took over the position, remaining in that role for six months after the Armistice. The French government awarded Hall the Medaille de la Reconnaissance for her service to their country. The International Committee of the American Red Cross presented her with the Florence Nightingale Medal for her exceptional courage and devotion to victims of conflict— the highest international recognition that can be bestowed on a nurse.

From June, 1917, to February, 1919, the American Red Cross in France cared for 86,787 patients of the American Expeditionary Forces in 24 military hospitals. They organized, staffed, and equipped the 50 French Medical Department’s base hospitals, essentially treating a third of the American battle casualties of the European War.

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