MGH nurses describe conditions while serving overseas the Great War

Some 250 graduates of the MGH School of Nursing (SON) served overseas during World War I, the great majority of them in clinical roles. Many of the day-to-day experiences of those nurses were captured in personal diaries and letters later published in the SON alumnae newsletter, The Quarterly Record. Unfortunately for historians, letters during that era were rigorously censored to prevent operational details, troop locations, and other key information from falling into the hands of the enemy. We’re fortunate that some documents from that time survived to provide a glimpse into the conditions nurses endured while serving their patients and their country in the Great War.

Helen Jordan, RN class of 1916

When the MGH Unit was activated, nurses needed to move quickly. Helen Jordan, RN, class of 1916, Harvard Surgical Unit, wrote:

“Nov. 9: Telephone from Miss Parsons concerning the Harvard Unit.

I phoned to mother for her consent, had my picture taken, went to Hugh Cabot’s for typhoid inoculation, had my name crossed off the Central Directory, gave up my room, and went home for my birth certificate.

Nov. 20: Sailed at 5pm.”

MGH nurses crossing the Atlantic aboard the R.S.S. Aurania
Carrie Hall, RN, class of 1904, chief nurse of Base Hospital #5

The conditions nurses would face overseas would be unlike anything they had ever experienced. Their best defense was to be as well prepared as possible. Carrie Hall, RN, class of 1904, chief nurse of Base Hospital #5, Peter Bent Brigham Unit, wrote: “Some of the things that should form the equipment of every nurse: 3 blankets at least and a steamer rug and down puff; 8 uniforms, colored—white is no good and laundry facilities are poor; tan shoes and very heavy boots; a lot of good warm underclothing, storm rubbers big enough to go over her biggest shoes; toilet paper; matches. The cabins or huts are much like the ones in which I have spent vacations in the Maine woods. They are fine for summer but I can imagine a bit chilly in winter. Those who were here last winter tell the wildest stories about hot water bottles freezing in the bed. Each person has an allowance of two tub baths a week.”

Far from the comforts of home, nurses faced extreme cold as they cared for the sick and wounded. Alice Drapeau, RN, class of 1916, Harvard Surgical Unit, wrote: “We live on army rations but will all learn the food plays a very small part in our lives. Our homes are little cubicles in wooden huts, six cubicles to a hut, two nursing sisters in each cubicle. Each morning we draw our ration of coal [to] have a little fire when off duty at night. It did no good the first week for neither my roommate nor I could build a fire. It was the coldest winter since 1885. The tents were cold, dark and cheerless. We kept our heavy woolen gloves and sweaters to work in all day long, making beds, taking temperatures, etc., taking them off just to do the dressings of the wounded lads. For a few days we even wore our gloves in our mess at meals. We had some skating and tobogganing on army tea trays.”

To care for the wounded more efficiently, many nurses found themselves closer to the front than they had bargained for. Olga Olsen, RN, class of 1915, MGH Unit, Base Hospital No.6, wrote: “I am up at the American front—as far as the AEF nurses are allowed. In my wildest dreams I had never thought such a thing as this possible. The reserve trenches are a very short distance from us. The CO presented us with our new spring hats—steel helmets which, with gas masks, we are ordered to take along with us when walking. We get no regular time off duty, as we do at the Base, but go off for an hour now and then.”

A page from a WW I duty log

Surrounded by the realities of war, nurses sought to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Maude Barton, RN, class of 1917, detached from Base Hospital 6 working with an operative team close to the front, wrote: “We have moved again. All that is necessary [to set up housekeeping] is a wooden box to put the suitcase on [to be off the mud] and a board to step on at the bedside. Can you imagine fussy me living for 7 months in a suitcase? This is the realest looking war scenery one could imagine—nothing but a sea of hills barren of trees and most every square inch of ground pitted with shell holes...We went for a walk the other day with the CO (We aren’t allowed to go anywhere without one as we are the only women for some distance and there are encampments through all these hills.) Last night was quite exciting as we were operating, and being only in tents, had to turn out all the lights, and I was giving ether, so had to keep on in the dark rather wondering what the patient’s condition was. The regular anesthetist has been ill and did not move up with us to this tent life. It is a wonderful experience for me to learn something.”

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