Grace Nichols was born on 23 July 1874 to John Howard Nichols, who was in the cotton industry, and his wife Charlotte Peabody Kimball Nichols. She grew up in the Boston area. In September 1917, she sailed for France to take up Red Cross canteen work. Excerpts from her letters appeared in the 7 July 1918 Boston Globe describing some of her experiences:
Of course it is much more interesting living in the war zone, where there is a continual atmosphere of “what next” and where we live and have our being in a rapid succession of rumors day in and day out. Recently our 26th Division passed through here. We always know when the Americans go through, for they are always cheering and singing.
As often as I can, when not on duty at the canteen, I run over to the Gare as the trains go through and distribute fruit, nuts and anything I can get for the boys. ….
Just at present we are being incessantly bombed and I’m very sorry to say the town has suffered appallingly. Hundreds of civilians have left and the rest spend the nights in the big wine caves under the hills. Even the house cellars are not considered safe—the other night 45 people were killed in one cellar, including one of our workers and all her family.
The first two nights we stayed in our house. The first night I was alone with one other worker; we opened the windows so the glass would be less likely to break, then stood on the stairs, where there was less danger of falling bits. When it all let up, we went back to bed—but it was not for long. Back the Boche came and all our defense guns commenced again.
You can’t imagine the pandemonium all the cannon, mitrailleuse [machine guns] and bombs manage to make. This time we decided to join the others in the next house, so we flew through the garden, just escaping some falling glass which had been hit by shrapnel. We found everybody huddled in the tiny cellar, all in gas masks and wrapped in blankets.
I never can forget that night. We certainly had luck, for a bomb dropped not 50 feet away from our gate, and another back of us.
Elinor Whittemore was born on 29 Apr 1893 in Cambridge, MA, to lawyer Charles A. Whittemore and his wife Evelyn Cutting Bullard. She studied music education at Boston University. Whittemore performed as a violinist with the Ivy Quartet and as a member of the Whittemore Trio with her sister Martha (cellist) and her cousin Wells Weston (pianist) as well as an individual artist at other events.
She sailed for France in August 1918 as a YMCA entertainer in a group dubbed “A Little Bit of Cheer from Home” (composed of Whittemore, actress-singer Inez Wilson, pianist and future radio producer Henry Souvaine, and impersonator/monologuist Ethel Hinton). She performed in Austria, France, Germany, and Italy. According to the 3 Apr 1919 Boston Globe, she participated in more than 200 performances each month, playing for an approximate total audience of 300,000 servicemen, sometimes from the back of a truck. Whittemore also took rides in a French military airplane and an Italian seaplane. She told the Globe (12):
The American soldier is the most appreciative listener there is in the world … He doesn’t want ragtime. I played classical music during the entire trip and almost all the requests we received were for classical pieces.
The spirit of those boys is wonderful. … [T]he most important part of our work was giving a little entertainment for the units as they left for the front line. We would play for them and give a funny little entertainment and they would sit or stand listening with such a pleased, interested expression—and then they’d go marching off to go over the top. Lots of them never came back.
… Up there you don’t think of danger. There is the strangest something that takes hold of you as you go toward the front. It isn’t fatalism—I don’t know what it is, but you’re not afraid any more.
As soon as we landed at Bordeaux we were rushed to Paris and then sent to the Verdun sector. When the St. Mihiel drive started we were with the 13th Engineers. They wouldn’t let us stay after the drive began and rushed us back to Paris.
Then they sent us into the Argonne and we used to follow the Army. ….
In October we went over to Italy and made the rounds of the aviation camps. The Italians were delighted to see us. The soldiers used to come to us and grin and say “I speak American.” Sometimes it seemed like every soldier in the Italian Army had been in America. …
The most thrilling thing was our trip into Austria. We were probably the first civilians to enter Austria after the armistice. The 332d Infantry had been sent to Cormans, a little town away up in the mountains above Trieste. One night we were given permission to go and give them an entertainment. We were nearly 48 hours reaching Cormans, but it was well worth it. The boys were so delighted to see us. They hadn’t seen an American woman for months.
We gave our concert in the square of an abandoned hospital. The boys crowded every inch of space. It was out in the open air and there was no piano, but they didn’t care. ….
We were mostly in and about Coblenz [Germany] with the 1st, 2d and 32d Divisions. We spent Christmas with the 2d Engineers in a little town outside the city. ….
Whittemore also disparaged the New York media’s fuss over her dancing with the Prince of Wales (she said all the women present at the particular event danced with the prince and that the New York reporters had “the most vivid imaginations”). She mentioned that a most exciting experience was during the Argonne drive: “About 12 o’clock we heard a tremendous roaring and thundering close at hand. It continued for some time. Then it seemed to die down a little and then started again, farther away. We knew that the troops were advancing. All night long it went on, slowly moving farther and farther away, until in the morning it was just a faint rumble. They sent us away from that sector that morning, but I shall never forget the sound of those guns going forward” (12). Colonel David Stone of the AEF Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff wrote to Inez Wilson, “The effect on the men of your visit and your work among them was immediate, and the coming of you good women to live and work among them was very concrete evidence of the interest you felt in them and of encouragement on your part and that of the people at home” (Musical Courier, 17 July 1919, 14). Wrote Major-General William Lassiter about the 32nd Division in Coblentz, “Every one in the division hates to see them [the members of the troupe] go” (14). Wrote H. C. Evans, director of the YMCA for Italy, “They have made the days and nights glorious for our boys” (14).
After Whittemore returned to the United States in March 1919, she continued her performing career, undertaking a concert tour in England and France in 1920 and even appearing on the Signal Corps radio station WVP in May 1922. In 1927, she married Atlanta lawyer Alexander Campbell King, the son of a US solicitor general and judge of the same name. They had three sons (including one who died at 4 months of age). She taught violin and continued to perform in the Atlanta area. She died in 1971. Her nephew is inventor and philanthropist Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr.
Yale School of Music will host a public performance by Samantha Ege of Helen Hagan’s Concerto in C Minor on October 21. This Yale News piece about the event mentions my past crowd-funding campaign to place a marker on Hagan’s grave in New Haven. Hagan, the first Black female graduate of the Yale School of Music, was the only Black female musician to entertain US troops in France during the World War I period.
Theodora Dunham (1895–1983) was born in Litchfield, CT, to Edward Kellogg Dunham, professor of pathology at Bellevue Medical College (later part of NYU), and his wife Mary Dows Dunham, a survivor of polio. In September 1916, she sailed for France to serve as a driver for the American Fund for French Wounded (established by Anne Tracy Morgan and Anne Murray Dike). She discussed some of her experiences in the August 1917 Red Cross Magazine:
After breakfast, we went immediately to headquarters of the American Fund for French Wounded … It …was before the war one of gayest cafes in Paris. Now there were bales piled high against the gilded mirrors, and the dancing girls on the ceiling look down upon a throng of women busily packing cases of hospital supplies to be shipped all over France. And in the theatre are now stacked hundreds upon hundreds of cases, containing the hospital clothes and surgical dressings made and sent over by the earnest-working committees in America.
I was taken over to the garage … and introduced to all the cars. There is “Boston,” a truck with huge Red Crosses on both sides, and on the doors of the back … “Elizabeth,” a cunning gray camion. “George” another of the same ilk, “Magnolia,” “Eddy,” “St. Paul” (a heavy machine this) … and another truck known as “San Francisco.”
…. The first hospital we visited was Number 113 [in Savenay, France], with seventy-eight patients. … Dorothy [Treat] A[rnold] and I took turns carrying the cigarette tray around, … and giving each one a package of cigarettes and some candy. …. The Poilu [French soldier] is the most grateful and simple person. … He is usually shy, but loves to talk about his family, or any other subject, whenever you get him started. ….
There is one hospital here—Hosp. No. 1 Rue Waldeck-Rousseau, in which there are at present only twenty-seven men, all convalescing …. It suddenly occurred to me that what that place needed more than anything was music. … Miss P— and I found the sole phonograph in Chambéry, took it back to the hospital immediately, together with three excellent double records of French patriotic songs, and soon had the men gathered around it with smiles on their faces, and finally joining in the choruses! I went to bed that night feeling like a different person! (288, 294–95)
She wrote to her aunt Margaret Worcester Dows Dunham in 1917:
In Belgium there was a whole Hospital of ricketty [sic] children, several hundreds of them, and the head nurse pleaded for sugar. They could give up everything else, she said, in order to get sugar, for if they had that they could cure them. Ricketts was appearing among a great, GREAT many of the children of Belgium.
And again I took down 50 jars of jam that mother had sent me, and we gave it to the little refugee children as they came into the Gare du Nord. I don’t believe that we have ever had jam taste as good to us as that jam tasted to those children who had been living under the hands of the Boche, within the sound of bombardment for three years, and had been fed on practically nothing but rice. (Irvington [NY] Gazette, 7 Sept 1917, p. 2)
Dunham’s fellow driver Amy Owen Bradley mentioned that Dunham’s family thought she was living in luxurious surroundings in France, which Dunham and Bradley thought was hilarious when they had to struggle to find and transport scarce coal to heat their lodgings (see Bradley’s Back of the Front in France). Dunham returned to the United States in June 1917. Perhaps returning to US driving involved some adjustment, because, according to the 1 Oct. 1917 Boston Globe, Dunham had to go to court for speeding on the North Shore Highway and paid a fine of $20 (ca. $300 in today’s dollars).
In December 1917, she married Herbert L. Bodman, a member of Company B, 302th Military Police, 77th Division, who received the Croix de Guerre for his service at St. Mihiel. He later headed a firm that exported grain. They had three children, including Violet Bodman Coffin, who served with the OSS and later was active in the Vermont Democratic Party, and UNC–Chapel Hill professor of Islamic studies Herbert L. Bodman Jr.
One wonders if one has forgotten how to feel and how to suffer, because it seems strange to go on existing when on all sides the horror and the agony is so intense.
—Marie Van Vorst, War Letters of an American Woman 87
Marie Van Vorst was born in New York City in 1867 to Judge Hooper Cummings Van Vorst and his second wife Josephine. She and her sister-in-law Bessie Van Vorst worked clandestinely at mills and a factory in an effort to understand the plight of a woman in the industrial workforce, resulting in the book The Woman Who Toils: Being the Experiences of Two Gentlewomen as Factory Girls (1903). She also published novels, short stories, and poems.
I wish I had the power to describe the Aubervilliers Station as I saw it to-day. …. Along the platforms are ranged a row of neat tents—two of them booty taken from the Germans. One is a little operating room, another a dressing-room, the third a kitchen with quantities of good things. Then there is a tent for the dead, one for the dying, and one for those who are to be given a few hours of repose before being sent on to the provinces, and in front of those mobile houses, waiting for the trains, are the women nurses—knitting, reading, resting, quiet and dignified, and with that look all women wear here now—of patience and strength. . . . .
In the big station itself all picturesqueness is lost. There is nothing but odour, flies, mosquitoes, and crowds upon crowds of beds.
….Very shortly Mrs. [Anne Harriman] Vanderbilt transferred me to the gangrene ward. … The odour seemed a conglomeration of every foul and evil thing—penetrating, dank; and from then on that terrible odour seemed to penetrate to my very bones . . . . .[T]he only hope was to save as many as could be saved from putrefaction and death. (91–92, 108)
In October 1916, Van Vorst married Count Gaetano Cagiati, and they adopted a son, Frederick. The 5 Nov. 1917 New York Herald reported that she was organizing nursing staff for a hospital at the American Academy in Rome. She became a painter in the 1920s and died in 1936.
Mary Shannon Webster was born on 2 November 1895 to Arthur Gordon Webster, a professor of physics at Clark University and a founder of the American Physical Society, and his wife Elizabeth Townsend Webster. She graduated from Smith College in 1917. Webster sailed for France in November 1917 to take up canteen work with the Red Cross. In 1918, the Syracuse [NY] Herald published a series of letters she wrote that dealt with her work.
[Syracuse Herald, 18 April 1918, p. 25] …General Pershing, Secretary [Newton] Baker and their respective staffs and correspondents came to make their inspection of the camp, being a most important one. … I was making sandwiches; we all rose when he came in and then he (Pershing) ate a sandwich and talked to Gertrude [surname unknown] and me! He asked how we liked it here and I used slang as usual and said, “Crazy about it!” … Pershing said it was fine to see us here and when they left the camp we all lined up at attention. He was much pleased at our “military discipline” and said it would make the soldiers better to see us.
….We had quite an alarm for an air raid of the camp the other night. It was the night of a Paris raid, and they also came very near here. Every light was out here, and we sat and waited for the sound of the Boche engines and the signal to scatter, but nothing came to bother us. …We all enjoyed the novelty and the excitement. Signals were seen at the German prison camp and fifteen arrests were made. A man was marched past us in his shirt sleeves. I don’t know where.
[Syracuse Herald, 5 May 1918]…Four months of my first enlistment are up and there is not a doubt in my mind as to re-enlistment. In two more months I shall have earned a service stripe on my sleeve. I can hardly believe it. To-day I am taking my first day off in three months and am spending it in bed and I surely am appreciating it. This working seven days a week is no joke, when you never work less than eight and some times twelve and thirteen hours a day. It is much better now for they sent us more workers and we can keep to our schedules when no one is ill or away.
….I am on officer’s mess. I wait on five tables at every meal. There are nine at a table and usually they all fill up at once and have to be served at the same moment. Our mess hall holds 150 officers comfortably, but one day last week we had nearly 100 extra officers come in at once and for two days we had to wait on all of them beside the others. Those were hectic meals for us, for we had to set the tables up twice and repeat the process of serving everything.
…I can now carry five plates full of dinner on one trip. It was a great moment when I achieved that success. I have not yet achieved perfection, for sometimes I spill gravy down the officers’ necks or on their trousers. If they are khaki trousers, I always tell them “That’s all right. Gravy and coffee are the same color. It won’t show.” If they are the blue trousers of my French officers it is disastrous, for we have no blue gravy.
….My tables are always filled up way ahead of time and they say I give the best service. It is really lots of fun and I don’t mind it at all. I am in the dining room all the afternoon setting up the tables for dinner and I have to serve all the teas beside.
[Syracuse Herald, 19 May 1918] … I have been under fire at last. The big gun had not been heard for several days when yesterday afternoon—a heavenly sunny day—we were walking down the crowded Rue de la Paix when “BOOM” it sounded. It kept on all the afternoon at intervals of about twenty minutes. So now I am in “the battle of Paris,” and it doesn’t seem any different than when I was in Worcester [MA] and blasting was going on.
It went on to-day and I suppose it will begin again early to-morrow morning. […I] merely turned over in bed and went to sleep again when the bombardment started again this morning. Getting prepared for the front, that is all. Fatalism is the only belief to have if you want any peace over here.
Yesterday afternoon that gun hit the Maternity hospital and killed some mothers and young babies and wounded nearly forty of them. That is what makes my blood boil.
Webster returned to the United States in January 1919. She experienced tragedies in her life: first, her fiancé, Croix de Guerre recipient Captain Henry H. Worthington, was killed in action at Soissons in July 1918 (she stated in the 30 Mar 1919 Syracuse Herald, “I did not stop work … there was no time to let personal things enter. Indeed, I was thankful for the work which made me forget my own sorrow in helping others.”) Second, Webster’s father committed suicide in 1923 after writing in a note to her brother that he was a failure.
From June to September 1924, she traveled abroad. In June 1925, Webster married advertising salesperson Harold Flint Thomas. She died in 1985.
Kingston, NY, native Helena Clearwater (1879–1956) was the daughter of laborer John W. Clearwater, who was blinded while serving as a private in Company C, 80th New York Infantry, during the Civil War. According to Military Medicine (vol. 119, 1956, p. 218), she graduated from the Kingston Free Academy in 1897 and taught in Kingston schools before joining the US Student Nurse Reserve in 1917. In the 18 Feb. 1919 Kingston Daily Freeman, she related some of her experiences at USA Debarkation Hospital No. 2 on Staten Island (where men wounded overseas received care until they were moved to other hospitals. Clearwater also was listed as working at Fox Hills Base Hospital, also on Staten Island, in the Army School of Nursing Annual, 1921):
The rules are very, very strict. One is reprimanded for the first offense, but the second one means dismissal from post. …. There are 42 wards and about 72 beds to a ward. [S]ome have more. I am in a “doubledecker” No 35, where there are convalescents from gas attacks. They are a brave bunch, and I have become very much attached to them. We have some dreadful cases here, too dreadful to speak about! Death would be a blessing. One cannot be here without feeling the bitterest kind of hatred toward the people who caused these wrecks. Yet I haven’t heard one of these boys complain, even when they know how hideous they are.
We are evacuating this place fast, so by next week we expect to be pretty well cleared. It has been turned into a Reconstruction Hospital, and we expect about 1,000 patients tomorrow. The transport is in now. That means some dreadful litter cases and they will stay here.
The bugle call is 5:30 a.m. Then our beds must be “unfrocked,” even to the mattress and we must be at mess hall at 6:15 a.m. Then we will rush back to our rooms, make the beds up to pass inspection, which we have every morning; then dust, and we must be in the ward at 7 a.m. Now my ward is at least a mile from my room, so there’s some hustle for me. There are over five miles of corridors here. I leave the ward at 10 a.m. for class and am in class until noon, when we have lunch. Then there are classes in the afternoon except when I am in the laboratory. … The first year here will be really spent in study and when this course is finished it will be my own fault if I don’t know something. (6)
She also noted the following regarding food and recreation:
Our meals are splendid, I never ate better cooked food and when one thinks of two-hundred nurses eating at one time, they can imagine the fun. …. We have a fine Recreation Hall, prettily furnished, with a piano, 2 victrolas, lots of books, etc. We can go there at any time. Then the Red Cross Hostess House is just across from us, where we can get fine “eats” for mere nothing. Every Tuesday afternoon we have movies or a show. Tuesday is a very hard day so we have the afternoon off. (6)
Clearwater worked in pediatrics, obstetrics, and gynecology at Bellevue and graduated from the Army School of Nursing in June 1921, receiving her diploma from General Pershing, and was assigned to Walter Reed. In 1923, she was appointed superintendent of the Frances Warren Pershing Memorial Hospital (named for Pershing’s wife, who died in a 1915 fire) in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in a civilian capacity and returned to the army and Walter Reed in 1925. She served in the Philippines, China, Shanghai, Colorado, West Point, Louisiana, and Texas, and was promoted to captain in 1942. Clearwater received the Legion of Merit for, as the citation noted, “exceptionally meritorious service in the performance of outstanding service as the Chief Nurse, North Sector General Hospital, at the time of the Japanese attack on Hawaii, 7 December 1941 and in the months that followed. Captain Clearwater displayed unusual courage, fortitude and devotion to duty during this period and thereby rendered a service of great value.” She retired from the army in 1944. After Clearwater’s death from cancer in 1956, she was buried with full military honors in her hometown.
Further resources • Helena Clearwater in October 1942 (photo)
• Helena Clearwater on Detroit radio program “In Our Opinion” with individuals from Battle Creek’s Percy General Hospital, 14 March 1943
Allison S. Finkelstein’s book Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917–1945 (University of Alabama Press, 2021) delves into efforts by U.S. women to commemorate World War I service by themselves and their loved ones. This sometimes took the form of contributing to the construction of memorials or establishing organizations where the women could continue their service to former servicemen and others as well as maintain ties with each other and seek to be remembered and recognized. Some stories are sad ones, such as accounts of indigent and disabled former women workers and the group of occupational therapists and physical therapists who did not succeed in obtaining veterans’ status during the lifespan of the organization. African American mothers could not join white chapters of an organization of war mothers, and they could only visit foreign cemeteries where their loved ones had been laid to rest on separate trips from white women. Frustrating is the lack of awareness that female WWI workers could bring skills to the U.S. conduct of WWII. The book underscores the need for continued discussion and recognition of U.S. women’s varied roles in World War I.
Born in St. Paul, May Margaret Egan (1887–1976) was the daughter of Illinois engineer and railway executive John Myers Egan and his wife Susanna. She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1911. After working as a secretary in Connecticut, she sailed for France in November 1917 to serve in Red Cross canteens in Chalon and St.-Pierre-des-Corps. In December 1917, she wrote this letter to her mother that was published in the 11 Jan 1918 Dixon [IL] Evening Telegraph:
Margaret Elizabeth “Beth” Satterthwaite (1890–1978) was born in Tecumseh, MI. Her father, John Newton Satterthwaite, operated the Satterthwaite Brothers Hardware Store in Tecumseh with his brother, E. Newbold Satterthwaite. Her brother, Joseph C. Satterthwaite, served in the army in World War I and later as US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Burma, and South Africa.
She attended Oberlin College in 1909 and graduated from the Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1915. In December 1917, she sailed to France to perform civilian relief work at l’Hospital du Chateau, Sermoize les Bains, Marne, as part of the Friends’ Unit of the American Red Cross. A letter from Satterthwaite addressed to “Dear Old Friends” appeared in the 8 July 1918 Marshall [MI] Evening Chronicle:
If I don’t hurry, your little afghans will be showing wear before you know how welcome and useful they are. They have done hours and hours of active service already. We especially like them for wrapping up the kiddies out doors. There is so much tuberculosis that we try to use every bit of sunlight and fresh air. I decided to put one … on a bed in the nursery and save the other for an especially poor child to take home but my small Paul saw it under my arm and raised such a howl … that I put it on his bed for the sake of peace. They adore bright colors after all the terror and hardships and poverty that has filled their small lives. They all know the American flags now. … Our chateau was also used by the Germans for a hospital while they occupied the town. They left in such a hurry that they left their patients and one of their soldier-nurses left his diary. …. He said that even to an enemy, these ruined towns were pitiful because you [sic] could picture the same thing same thing happening to their own dear German home towns. It makes you so thankful that little Tecumseh isn’t suffering like so many of our allies’ homes. It makes me shiver to think of Tecumseh burned and treeless, with you all living in your cellars or in new shacks, with graves of our own boys and our enemy’s boys all over your lawns and fields, and every man who could carry a gun on duty, leaving the old men and boys and women to do all the work (without whimpering or heroics) and a lot of our brothers and fathers in German prisons and no word from a lot of others at the front for weeks—and a lot of very comfortable people not owning a handkerchief—and most of our women in mourning. I’m so proud that the Stars and Stripes are taking a real part now. We have reason to believe that American soldiers are at the helm in the new offensive just starting. The old guns are booming more heavily again, and we all feel a big weight hanging on our hearts. We are not near the sectors of great activity, but we are near enough to realize part of the agony the world is going through. …. We are so glad we came and that we can be used a little, but just imagine how good it will seem to see you all again and get back on the Raisin [R]iver, and the peaceful shade of our beautiful old elms and maples, and to the fine spirit that lives there. (1)
After Satterthwaite returned to the United States in February 1919, she worked as a nurse in the Tecumseh area.