In April 1917, the U.S. declared war, and a month later, Parsons received a telegram form Clara A. Noyes, head of the department of nursing for the American Red Cross. She directed Parsons to activate the unit, and ensure each nurse had the appropriate vaccinations and had passed the physical exam that met the Government’s requirements. Of the 64 nurses activated, 55 were MGH graduates, three were graduates of the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital School of Nursing chosen for their advanced training in caring for patients with infectious diseases, and four were graduates of Children’s Hospital School of Nursing. The Red Cross quickly filled “eleventh hour” vacancies, one due to a marriage and the other to a case of whooping cough. Most had graduated within the previous five to ten years. Thirty-eight had held leadership positions as head nurses, supervisors, superintendents or directors. For the first time these graduates would work within an all-RN nursing staff and directly at the bedside.
R.M.S. Aurania, one of several ships torpedoed by the Germans
On June 29, 1917 the nurses of Base Hospital No. 6 left Boston for New York. On July 11, 1917 they boarded the R.M.S. Aurania, which took them safely through the danger zone off the coast of Ireland that Winston Churchill dubbed the “cemetery of British shipping.” It was here a German submarine torpedoed the H.M. S. Lusitania two years prior, and where seven months later the Aurania would itself be torpedoed. Throughout 1917, torpedoes sank a total of 1,059 ships. The MGH nurses passed safely, however, landing in Liverpool and then making connections for their journey to Le Havre and Talence, France, where they arrived 17 days later. For the next 19 months, the Bordeaux Belles, as they called themselves, cared for soldiers who arrived in convoys from the front. Some nurses were dispatched to care for men on hospital trains. Others joined mobile surgical teams. Still others set up public health units to care for the war’s refugees.