Rose Saltonstall Peabody, nurse and Red Cross searcher.

We are still shaken with that same vibration of the shock and hideousness of it all.

—Rose Peabody Parsons, “Have We Kept the Faith?,” Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1923, p. 671.

Rose Saltonstall Peabody (1891–1985) was the daughter of famed educator and minister Endicott Peabody and his wife, Fanny, and a cousin of future Massachusetts governor and US senator Leverett Saltonstall. She attended a nurse’s aide course at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital before sailing for France in May 1917. Peabody first managed an orphanage in Etretat of 250 children, who often required medical attention. She then served as a Red Cross searcher for Mobile Hospital No. 2 of the AEF, liasing with families of US servicemembers (particularly when the servicemembers were killed or missing in action) .

Rose S. Peabody, ca. 1916.

A book of family war letters privately printed in 1921 and edited by Peabody’s sister-in-law Sylvia Parsons Weld provides illumination about Peabody’s war experiences (such as a close encounter with Lady Louise Mountbatten, a future queen of Sweden). Her sense of humor also is featured (in one letter, she tells her parents that her “hair is falling out by the handful. . . You mustn’t be surprised to have a happy but bald daughter arrive from the scenes of the Great War” [497]). Her letter to her parents dated 20 July 1918 from Mobile Hospital No. 2 at Vatry paints a harrowing picture:

At 12:10 a.m we were awakened by a whistling through the air and a loud explosion. It sounded very near. . . . . Happily an officer came around and said it was not gas, but to dress at once and go down to the dugout. There were about a hundred patients in the hospital (sick and accidents), and they were all down there, and all the personnel. . . . We got some hot coffee which I passed around in a pail . . ., and there we stayed for about two hours. . . .

We came up as patients started to come in. . . . . The wounded were coming in in a regular stream, some of them terribly bad. I wandered around a bit helping here and there; then they seemed to need help more in the resuscitation ward, so I stayed there doing odd jobs. The worst cases came in there and it was a heartrending sight. Each patient needed special care, and so we were kept busy flying from one to another. Their clothes had to be cut off—most of them, and debris around the ward added to the ghastliness. . . . . [E]very one was going at top speed, and perfectly calm with the roar of the guns and shells landing in nearby fields.

Then they started in with whizz-bangs which don’t even given you a chance to duck. . . . Three fell around us very near, and then three right on top of us. . . . . The next one crashed through the ward next to the one I had been in and killed two patients, and the next through another ward. They brought all the patients down into the dugout after this, and they had to stop operating and decided to evacuate at once. There were a few candles here and there in the dugout and rows of stretchers. The men, having just come in, were in agonies, and there was a rumble of groans and moans, which was really like a bad nightmare. We stepped gingerly, trying to avoid stepping on heads and trying to make them a bit more comfortable, propping them up, changing pillows, but it was sort of hopeless. Two or three died down there. (War Letters 463–65)

The following is an 11 October 1918 letter written by Peabody to the mother of a deceased soldier:

My Dear Mrs. Reynolds:

I was in the hospital in which your son died and I know you would like to hear the details. I know about him [;] he came to us on Sept. 29 after having been hit in the chest by a piece of schrapnel [sic] in this last great battle.

He was operated on and got on very well for a little while but he could not eat anything. Everything he ate made him sick. Everything was done to help him but he grew weaker and weaker and finally lost consciousness and died Oct. 9. I was very fond of him and talked to him every day and gave him cigarettes which he enjoyed right up to the last. He did not suffer very much, and the last few days did not know very much what was going on. He was buried beside the American boys who had so bravely given their lives for their country. I deeply sympathize with you in your loss. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.

I am Sincerely Yours

Rose Peabody (“From Those in the Service of Our Country,” 13 Dec 1918 La Plata [MO] Republican, p. 9)

Mobile Hospital No. 2 was cited by General Pershing for its “fine courage” under shellfire (War Letters 493).

After Peabody’s time in France, she served for a brief period in occupied Germany. She returned to the United States in February 1919. In March 1919, she married surgeon William Barclay Parsons Jr., whom she had known since her Presbyterian Hospital days and with whom she had served in France. They had two daughters. The 2 April 1937 Washington Post noted that Peabody attended a performance of Hoofprints at Fort Myer with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (her father, an influential mentor of FDR, had officiated at the Roosevelt wedding). She went on to work with Red Cross volunteers during World War II and establish Women United for the United Nations in 1946. Peabody was vice president of the International Council of Women in 1954 and president of the National Council of Women in 1956.

“Imperturbable sangfroid”: Florence Church Bullard, decorated WWI nurse.

Florence Church Bullard, ca. 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Florence Church Bullard (1879–1967) earned her nursing credentials at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, MN, in 1913. In November 1916, she sailed for France. Bullard cared for more than 1,000 French wounded each day at the American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly. In February 1918, she went to Vauxbain to care for wounded US servicemen and eventually was sent to Soissons. She recounted the background to the transfer and what she encountered once she arrived:

On the afternoon of March 22 I was in my barracks when I was called to the office of the medical chief. He had just received a telephone message that I was to be transferred at once (within half an hour) to this place where I now am.

. . . I had no time to say good-by to my patients, and there was no explanation why the other two American nurses were not to be sent.

. . . . I arrived here in this deserted village in due time. Everything in the place was evacuated except the hospital where I am, and we are installed in the cellar. It is a sort of coal-cellar, completely underground. The Army is only twelve miles away from us and only the wounded that are too severely injured to live to be carried a little farther are brought here.

I found on my arrival that my duties were to be interpreter for the English-speaking ones and the care of them. I have not seen daylight for eight days now . . . ; no air, artificial light, and the cots are so close together you can just get between them.

Side by side I have Americans, English, Scotch, Irish, and French, and a part in the corners are Boche. They have to watch each other die side by side. . . . . I wonder if it will ever end and if we will live a life other than one of confusion and tragedy. (“Letters from the Front to the Folks at Home,” Literary Digest, 22 June 1918, 51)

A 13 April 1918 letter to her sister Maude published in Iowa’s 24 July 1918 Vindicator and Republican provides further insight into her environment:

. . . I have been three weeks now in this cave. It’s a dark, damp, foul-smelling place, but there is help to give and one must not complain, but it is terribly depressing and I, for the first time, find myself in a bit of a nervous state. The roaring of the cannon and the constant whizzing through the air of these terrible “obus” [artillery shells] with never a thing to change the tension, is terrible.

Last night I felt I must sleep above ground, so I did. And I would be awakened as fast as I went to sleep by the red flashing across my eyes, and I would raise up and thru the windows would be the blazing flashes in the sky; and the things on my table just danced from the jar, the door rattled and my bed shook, so I got no sleep to speak of. . . .

Just before dinner at 7 p.m. a man was brought in who had to have both legs and an arm amputated. We were no sooner through with him than a woman was brought in, nearly burned to death. Another French nurse and I dressed every inch of her with sterile hosaline gauze. She had been doing a washing in a little house made of wood and an obus exploded nearby, and some of the “Eclat” which contain some of their terrible explosives hit her house, or a little shed, and it was like touching a match to kerosene. Of course she ran, but every inch of her body was like an apple that had been baked too hard, and the skin all separated from the apple. That was all I could compare it to. You can imagine what she suffered until midnight, and then she died.

I do not know what is to become of everyone if this war does not end pretty soon. . . . . I think I shall always, in time to come, hear these ear-splitting screeches of the obus rushing through the air, and then that awful explosion. (1)

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