“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)

She stated later:

Two and one-eighth miles away in the woods. . . the guns and aeroplanes of the Huns pounded away at the French trenches. The order came to retreat with our 1,500 wounded on a sanitary train as fast as we could. With our equipment piled around us in the mud and debris, we finally got our wounded on board and fell back to the rear, with the schrapnel [sic] breaking the [glass] out of the windows of our coaches. (“Miss Florence C. Bullard,” 13 June 1919 The [Union City, TN] Commercial, 1)

Bullard was awarded the Croix de Guerre with bronze star. The citation included the following language:

. . . Ordered to Soissons at the beginning of 1918, she showed the most imperturbable sangfroid under all the violent bombardments of March and May, searching, in spite of the danger, for the wounded to assist and comfort them. During the operations of July 15 and August 5, she showed the same spirit, devoting all her strength to the care of the wounded. Her attitude was especially brilliant during the night of July 31, when bombs were bursting quite near the outpost. (qtd in “Miss Bullard Is Decorated,” Rochester [MN] Daily Post and Record, 16 Nov 1918, p. 7)

She returned to the United States in January 1919. She went on to lecture on war nursing, public health, and home nursing on the Chautauqua circuit, where, according to the History of Red Cross Nursing, “she held audiences from three to five thousand people tensely interested until she left the platform” (1055). Bullard later became the superintendent of the Samuel and Nettie Bowne Hospital for Private Patients in Poughkeepsie, NY, which treated tuberculosis patients. She sent her Croix de Guerre and citation to St. Mary’s School of Nursing in 1961.

Further reading
Florence Bullard: Local Nurse, World War One Hero” by Lawrence P. Gooley (Adirondack Almanack)

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