Today is the last day to RSVP for my talk on “DC Women in World War I” at the March 16 luncheon of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of DC (AOI), the oldest civic organization in Washington, DC. I’ll also be signing copies of my book In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I.
Massachusetts-born Constance Cunningham (1886–1962) served as a YMCA canteen worker in France (from September 1917 to March 1918) and in Luxembourg (from March to June 1919). She was one of 3198 women recruited for YMCA service with the AEF in France. Her father, Frederic Cunningham, was an attorney specializing in marine law and a cofounder of the Boston Legal Aid Society; her uncle was William Lawrence, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Before her war service, she lived in France and England for four years. In The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919, she recounted some of her experiences in France:
Mr. K., our divisional secretary . . . gathered the four Y secretaries and the three Y canteen workers into a Ford camionette and whirled us away into the dripping black night (no street lights and shuttered windows on account of air raids) and deposited us on the railroad quai. Then with bated breath and dramatic gesture he told us that our troops, the first American artillery, were to entrain here, beginning at noon the next day and continuing on a six hour schedule, a battery at a time, and were to leave for the front. Our job was to build a little shelter, set up stoves to dispense hot coffee and make sandwiches to serve to the departing troops. All preparations must be finished by noon the next day, when the first battery was to arrive.
As part of Women’s History Month, I’ll be speaking on “DC Women in World War I” at the March 16 luncheon of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of DC (AOI), the oldest civic organization in Washington, DC. I’ll also be signing copies of my book In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I.
Artist Martha Putnam (1893–1983), the daughter of Boston physician Charles Pickering Putnam and cousin of fellow war worker Elizabeth Cabot Putnam (see blog post), was a reconstruction aide in physiotherapy at U.S. Army Base Hospitals Nos. 6 and 208 in Talance (near Bordeaux) from October 1918 to June 1919. In this January 1919 account from The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919, she describes Christmas 1918 at Base Hospital No. 6.
On Monday every one began decorating. Lt. [James M.] Davis of the decorating committee had brought in great piles of greens to be distributed; we also had oblong lanterns over the electric lights, made by the carpenter and covered by the patients. Our ward looked like a forest, even the Balkan frames entwined with holly. The contribution of Miss [Helen] Buckmaster, occupational aid, and myself was a “Merry Christmas” printed in red, and a three-foot paper Santa Claus to hang on the little pine Christmas tree.
On the afternoon of Christmas Eve the festivities began with the pageant inspired by that great man, Captain [Henry Chase] Marble, orthopedic surgeon. The pageant visited every ward and did its stunts in each. We in our ward scouted out to watch its progress and as it neared 31 we scuttled inside to receive it. We heard the merry music down the corridor. It was headed by Father Christmas kneeling grandly in a wheel chair turned back-side front and draped like a chariot, drawn by a real donkey. Behind him pressed a motley little throng—the orchestra, variously robed; the quartet, the violinist, the “trained ducks,” the dancing cooties [lice], then a few people all dressed up for show. We were honored with a piece from the orchestra, then the quartet, then the cooties who rushed about after their dance to find a juicy patient—the men adored it. The Doctor Marble, like a French cook, served it all to us, and we were left breathless and happy.
That evening there was a tree and an entertainment (of recitation and music) at the Red Cross hut, for the walking patients. The Red Cross did handsomely. Each man received a pair of socks full of delicious things; each nurse a nice bag, with a pretty handkerchief and goodies. I felt as much tickled as though there weren’t thousands of other presents just like mine.
Christmas morning Isabel [possibly nurse Isabelle Dewar of Boston] and I rose at five to sing Christmas carols in the corridors between various wards. then breakfast at seven and on duty till church. Then I visited Thurk, sick in ward 16, then a large Christmas dinner. Worked till 4 in the wards, then spent the late afternoon in visiting my special pets in the other wards where I have worked as a nurse, and ending with two dentists who while I was there came in awfully shot up. They were all recovering and really glad to see me. After supper rushed over to the Red Cross hut to help Miss Delahanty [possibly artist Frances Washington Delehanty], O.P. aid, make up the cast for “Spreading the News.” So that was the end of Christmas Day… (79–80)
Base Hospital No. 6, initially composed of 252 staff members from Massachusetts General Hospital, cared for 24,112 patients with 434 deaths of surgical cases (according to MGH Hotline). It later was combined with Hospital No. 208, which had personnel from Charlotte, NC.
In June 1921, Putnam married Alfred Clarence Redfield (1890–1983), Harvard professor of physiology and future associate director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They had three children: Elizabeth Redfield Marsh (1923–2009), chair of environmental studies at Stockton State College; Martha Washburn Koch (1926–2011); and Alfred Guillon Redfield (1929–), professor emeritus of physics and biochemistry at Brandeis University.
New Hampshire WWI Military: The Nurses of Base Hospital No 6 aka “The Bordeaux Belles“: Info about the personnel of Base Hospital No. 6, with a spotlight on the six nurses from New Hampshire.
Winsor School graduate and lab technician Julia Shepley Coolidge was the daughter of Charles Allerton Coolidge, an architect who designed buildings for Harvard and Stanford. Beginning in April 1919, she was one of five staffers for a YMCA canteen in the Orkneys serving some 4000 U.S. servicemen and 500 British sailors who were clearing mines from the North Sea.
Coolidge provided a lively account of her work in The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919. She wrote:
How in a little town of 5,000 people, with absolutely no resources could you keep men happy—men every last one of whom wanted to go home but stayed out on the mine-fields sometimes thirty days at a stretch. Not thirty quiet days, but days of constant danger, mines exploding on all sides, days which were not the eight hour union days, but often the eighteen hour days of a difficult task to be carried through by strong men. . . . .
. . .[I]t was like pouring water into the desert to try to provide sufficient dances, once or usually twice a week was the rule for the Y, the K. C. [Knights of Columbus] gave some, and the boys had their own parties. I danced very nearly every night, after the canteen was closed at ten till the liberty was up at eleven-thirty. . . . .
On the fourth of July there were 2000 men ashore on liberty and we fed them with only three gas burners to work with. . . .
Often I had it said to me by the English officers, “But we think it is wonderful of you to come all the way from America to look after your men, we have been here four years and nobody has done anything for us”. . . I laughed, and said, “You must not give me so much credit. For every Y girl there is over here there are probably 10,000 who would probably like to be in our places. We thought ourselves lucky to get the chance to serve, and where our boys go we always want to follow.” (34–35)
She returned to the United States in December 1919. In April 1921, she married investment broker Frederick Deane, and they moved to China. Their son, Frederick Deane Jr., worked for the CIA during the Korean War and later became president and CEO of the Bank of Virginia.
The Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette noted in its 2 September 1918 edition that Yeoman (F) First Class Anna Davis McSherry, who was assigned to the Department of Public Works at the Naval Academy, had bested 25 sailors in a shooting contest at the Glen Burnie rifle range and qualified for the marksman rating. The newspaper account was quick to credit her male shooting instructor, Sergeant J. E. Given of the National Guard, although it also noted that McSherry had won a prize in a YWCA shooting contest the previous year. Another newspaper account states that in the contest at the Glen Burnie rifle range, she made 156 hits out of 200 shots at a range of 500 yards.
McSherry, granddaughter of Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge James McSherry and great-great-niece of Rear Admiral Cadwalader Ringgold, enlisted in the Navy in March 1917 and “aggressive[ly]” captained Baltimore’s yeoman (F) basketball team. In 1924, she was listed as a senior stenographer in the Maryland attorney general’s office. In Nov. 1924, she married electrical engineer Robert Tyson Greer. By 1941, she was listed as a chief clerk in the Maryland attorney general’s office. She died in 1993 and is buried in Baltimore’s Lorraine Park Cemetery. Her daughter was Anne Greer Creamer (1928–96). A relative is Maryland attorney M. Natalie McSherry.
On Veterans Day, it’s good to remember that veterans come from many different backgrounds. Such a veteran is Sister Chrysostom Moynahan (1863–1941), a member of the Daughters of Charity religious order that has a long history of caring for the sick and vulnerable. Its record includes distinguished service during the Civil War by American Daughters of Charity and during World War I by some 15,000 French Daughters of Charity and the only U.S. nuns to work in the European theater.
Born in Ireland as Hannah Moynahan, Sister Chrysostom immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1879, and they resided in Massachusetts. According to the History of American Red Cross Nursing, Sister Chrysostom, after graduating from the seminary of the Daughters of Charity in 1889, was sent to Carney Hospital in Boston. Sister Chrysostom then entered the Daughters of Charity’s school for nurses, graduating in 1894. During the Spanish American War, she cared for the Spanish who were injured after the Maria Theresa attempted to run a U.S. blockade and was fired upon. She had subsequent assignments at Fort Thomas (KY), in Evansville (IN), and in Birmingham (AL). In Birmingham, she served as administrator of St. Vincent’s Hospital and founded the hospital’s school of nursing—the first nursing school in Alabama. In 1916, Sister Chrysostom became the first registered nurse licensed in Alabama. In 1918, she was appointed chief nurse of Base Hospital 102 (aka the “Loyola Unit” or the “New Orleans Unit” because the personnel mainly was from Loyola University in New Orleans) and set off for Italy on the Umbria from Baltimore in August. Along the way, the Umbria rescued survivors of the torpedoed oil tanker Jennings, who received medical attention from the hospital staff. Said Sister Chrysostom in the El Paso Herald prior to their departure:
We are all registered nurses and are anxious to go across and get to work. . . .We will have charge of the operating rooms and hope to do our full duty to bring the American boys back to health and happiness. . . .The sisterhood feels keenly the desire to be of the utmost service in caring for the soldiers of Italy or any of the other Allies of America. War makes its demand upon the woman power of America as well as upon the man power, and all who can do so, no matter what the sacrifice, should serve the interest of America’s part in the war.
The Herald account noted that the nuns were unaccustomed to having their photograph taken and only consented so “they might serve as an example for others to follow.” The Daughters of Charity nurses were permitted to wear the garb of their order but also wore a device and a cap while on duty to indicate that they were members of the Army Nurse Corps (see The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War 297). From September 1918 to the end of March 1919, Base Hospital No. 102 in Vicenza cared for a total of 3,000 patients, which included nearly 400 Americans. Twenty-eight deaths occurred. The Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives blog notes that the hospital was located 15 miles from the Italian front, and its cases included burns from mustard gas, pneumonia, malaria, and influenza. Sister Florence Grace Means, one of Sister Chrysostom’s colleagues, provided some harrowing glimpses into their environment in her diary, describing stoves that “blow up at regular intervals” and 2000 lying wounded and dying at a field hospital that had only 10 nurses in attendance. A 21 June 1919 Literary Digest account of the unit’s work at the front provided equally sobering details on air raids, lack of heat, and patient conditions, and stated:
The entire detachment, including the nurses and officers, was also mentioned in the order of the day issued to the Sixth Army on December 12, and awarded the Italian service ribbon with the Monte Grappa medal commemorating that memorable campaign… (76)
Sister Chrysostom returned to the United States in April 1919, going on to administer hospitals in St. Louis, St. Joe (MO), and Mobile. When she died in 1941, she was accorded a funeral with full military honors and was buried in Mobile’s Catholic Cemetery. Sister Chrysostom was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in October 1982.
From April 1917 to March 1919, Elizabeth Claghorn Potter (1894–1985) worked as a staffer in Paris for Duryea War Relief, which assisted refugees; as secretary to Lieutenant Colonel Cabot Ward, chief of the U.S. Intelligence Service; and as a Red Cross canteen worker in St. Pierre-des-Corps. The daughter of Harvard librarian Alfred Claghorn Potter and cousin of author Conrad Aiken, Potter graduated from the Winsor School in Boston.
The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School 1914–1919 reprints part of a letter on her canteening experiences. In one moving passage she writes:
I have been called out to an American hospital train to sign for the effects of a boy of nineteen who died from gassing while I was in the interpreter’s office calling for an ambulance for him, and seen the pitiful blanketed figure put out on the platform in the warm sunlight . . . . Instead of retiring to cry, one dashes back to the canteen, puts on another record, pours more coffee, swallows one’s tears, smiles the eternal canteen smile, and hands out the snappy back talk over the counter. (77)
In May 1921, Potter married Stedman Buttrick Hoar (1893–1961), a Harvard graduate and World War I veteran who turned to canning grapefruit and orange juices in California.
“Super-sensitive people should not come here.”
—Margaret Hall, on the suicides of her colleagues Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell after their service in France (see Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country)
Although there has been recent coverage about the health care needs of U.S. female service members, it is not a new matter. In 1923, the American Legion called attention to disabled American women who had served in World War I. In 1931, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R–MA), the first congresswoman elected from New England who had served in France and at Walter Reed, asked President Hoover to open homes and hospitals specifically for female veterans.
Accounts of U.S. women who served in the war and had their lives cut short tend to be deeply sad, not least because often little of their story is known. The following are some examples.
- Yeoman (F) Genevieve Cox Petrone was murdered by her husband on the Southern Pacific ferry Santa Clara in October 1917. The husband’s suicide note included in the newspaper account suggests that Petrone intended to leave him after a history of marital discord. Another newspaper article stated that they were separated.
- Canteen workers Dorothea and Gladys Cornwell jumped from the ship taking them to the United States in January 1919 after suffering under bombardment in France (discussed in my book In Their Own Words).
- Azeele Packwood, a member of the New York chapter of the Women’s Motor Corps (affiliated with the Red Cross), was found dead from chloroform asphyxiation at the Palisades in January 1919. According to newspaper accounts, she was despondent after the October 1918 death in France of her close friend (and rumored boyfriend) Dr. Clarence Fahnestock, son of millionaire banker Harris C. Fahnestock. Packwood, the daughter of businessman and Civil War/Spanish-American War veteran George H. Packwood of Tampa, was not mentioned in Fahnestock’s will. Her nephew, Ernest Packwood MacBryde, asserted that she was murdered. Azeele Street in Tampa is named after her. (The New-York Tribune has side-by-side accounts of the Packwood and Cornwell deaths).
- Former Yeoman (F) Grace Coombs, 28, committed suicide in her lodgings in Washington, DC, in April 1919. Relatives attributed it to ill health. Her brother, Guy Coombs, was an actor in silent films.
- Yeoman (F) Flossie May Rosell, who graduated in 1917 from Colorado State Normal School (the precursor to University of Northern Colorado) and enlisted in the Navy in September 1918, drowned at Great Falls, VA, in September 1920. Her body was discovered in Maryland. The coroner deemed it an accident (without hearing testimony from witnesses who had details about Rosell’s despondency due to erratic employment, which probably influenced the earlier accounts listing the death as suicide).
- Dr. Caroline Purnell’s 1923 obituary attributes her death to overwork during the war. Purnell received the Médaille de la Reconnaissance Française and honorary French citizenship for her service with the American Women’s Hospitals.
- The 1925 death of war composer and former senior chief yeoman (F) Daisy May Erd is attributed in her death certificate to the tuberculosis she contracted during her military service.
During World War I, Fannie Marion Gregory (1874–1923) served as a YMCA entertainer/canteen worker and a translator with the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals (sponsored by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Assn) that counted her sister, Dr. Alice Gregory (1876–1953), as a key staffer before Alice resigned to serve in the French Army medical corps. The Gregory sisters had a few notables in their family tree: their paternal grandfather was Dudley S. Gregory, the first mayor of Jersey City, NJ, and a NJ congressman; and their maternal grandfather was J. Marion Sims, dubbed the “father of modern gynecology” and recently the subject of statue controversy.
Marion recounted her experiences in Memories of Service in France (1918). She left the United States on the Espagne on 3 Nov. 1917 and remained in France for seven months. She stayed at first with her widowed aunt, Eliza Sims Pratt, who had a house in Paris. She wrote:
One had to try to get used to seeing maimed men everywhere. At first it was heartrending for the newcomer, but it was beautiful to see the care and devotion shown the returned mutiles by everyone. (9)
She had firsthand experience with the large German gun called Big Bertha and air raids:
The night raids were horrible. No words can convey the sickening sensation of hearing the explosion of a bomb. The firing of the defense is nerve-racking, but when the horrible bomb comes one’s heart is cold at the thought of what it means. (11)
Marion next went to Labouheyre—a village near Bordeaux—with American Women’s Oversea Hospitals staff to care for civilians and provide medical assistance to nearby US Army engineers. She worked with refugee families before she moved to YMCA service as a singer and canteen worker (noting that she was unable to cope with the climate of the hospital’s locale).
Her sister Alice graduated from Cornell Medical College in 1902 and was on staff at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with fellow Cornell Medical College alums Caroline Sandford Finley and Anna von Sholly. Her WWI service began in early 1915, when she was part of the medical team for approximately five months at a French military hospital headed by Dr. Percy Turnure and located in Chateau de Passy, about 60 miles southeast of Paris. In 1917, Alice set off for France with the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals staff (including Finley and von Sholly). Her matter-of-fact, often wry account “Work at a French Army Dressing Station” (Women’s Medical Journal, Jan. 1920) describes day-to-day life close to the front as a first lieutenant in the French Army medical corps. Stated Alice, “we averaged 1000 wounded every 24 hours” (3). Her 21 Apr. 1953 obituary in the New York Times noted that at this station, “it was not unusual for her to perform forty-two operations in eight hours,” and her account indicates that these procedures were not minor—”infected compound fractures, chest wounds, cranial injuries, and amputations galore” (1). Alice received the Croix de Guerre for her service.
Marion and Alice are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.