Josephine H: A film about World War I nurse Josephine Heffernan.


Josephine Heffernan

A film and an exhibition trace the story of Irish immigrant Josephine E. Heffernan (ca. 1880–1962), who trained as a nurse at Blackwell’s Island and served as chief nurse at U.S. Base Hospital No. 59 in Rimaucourt, France, from September to December 1918 (coping with an average of 1,060 patients per week and only 50 nurses to care for them; see History of Base Hospital No. 59 [1919]). A naturalized American citizen, she remained in the Army Nurse Corps after the war—serving in posts in the United States, the Philippines, and China—and returned to Ireland in the 1950s. A child found her lost identity bracelet in a Rimaucourt garden in 2002, and the film provides a moving account of its journey back to her grateful Irish family.


The 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.

“Then came the morning of Nov the 11th….By two o’clock the streets were swarming with men, women and children, marching aimlessly back and forth, hugging and kissing each other and sometimes trying to sing the Marseillaise.

” With friends of the Marine Corps I drove down to the Place de la Concorde through the Champs Elysee and into the Bois. . . . ephemeral things, such as war, and immortal things, such as love, seemed once again, after four years of nightmare, to slip into their rightful proportions to each other.”

—US playwright Margaret Mayo, who witnessed the Armistice in Paris, 1918.
From Trouping for the Troops 145–47


Margaret Mayo (2nd from right) with (from left) Lt. Robert Mchaffey,  Ruth Harding of New York, and Marine captain Frank Howard, US Base Hospital No. 1, Neuilly, France, Nov 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.





Beatrice Ashley Chanler, actress turned relief worker.


Beatrice “Minnie” Ashley. NYPL.

In 1903, actress Beatrice Ashley (1880–1946) married her second husband, William Astor Chanler (1867–1934), who was a descendant of John Jacob Astor, an African explorer, and a congressman. She became a sculptor who crafted bas-reliefs in New York’s Hotel Vanderbilt at 34th St and Park Ave. She and her husband had two sons and amicably separated in 1909, and she visited him in France after his leg was amputated in 1913 due to an injury.

Chanler was active in World War I relief organizations, serving as president of the American Committee of the French Heroes Fund and a member of the executive committee of the National Allied Relief Committee. The French Heroes Fund assisted French wounded and their families, as well as purchased the childhood home of the Marquis de Lafayette to serve as a school for war orphans and refugee children, a medical facility for children, and a museum commemorating Franco-American friendship. She assisted in compiling the volume For France (1917) as a fundraiser for the organization, which featured a cover design by N. C. Wyeth; a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt; and contributions by writers and artists such as Gertrude Atherton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Richard Harding Davis, Hamlin Garland, Charles Dana Gibson, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Alan Seeger, John Singer Sargent, Ida Tarbell, Carolyn Wells, and Owen Wister.

The National Allied Relief Committee sought to publicize the experiences of the Allied nations in war and coordinate fund-raising activities among U.S.-based relief organizations. According to this publication, the committee raised $1 million by June 1917.

Among the other relief organizations in which Chanler was involved were the Czecho-Slovak Relief League, the American Branch of the French Actors Fund (which assisted families of French theater personnel serving in the war), and the Russian War Relief Committee (which addressed the lack of food and medical supplies in Russia). She spent five months in France in 1917 and told the New York Times in June 1917:

As to the devastated regions that I visited, the awful waste and desolation is almost inconceivable. . . . I visited the ransacked regions of Pozieres and Bapaume, where there was nothing but charred trees to make a village site, and a level country made undulating by shellfire. We came across a place called the Cemetery of the Tanks. Here were the battered remains of ten tanks, their hulls looking like ships wrecked at sea.

Thousands of hand grenades, many of them unexploded, were lying all about us. (7)

For her work, Chanler was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. She led an unsuccessful effort to have September 6 (Lafayette’s birthday) declared as a U.S. national holiday and, according to Paris Days and London Nights, was on the Carmania in 1918 when it was threatened by a submarine. Chanler published Cleopatra’s Daughter: Queen of Mauritania (1934). During World War II, she was president of the Friends of Greece Inc., a Greek relief organization, and the Committee of Mercy Inc.; she also was an organizer of the British Civil Defense Emergency Fund.

Note: See blog post on Chanler’s niece by marriage, Hester Marion Chanler Pickman (daughter of Winthrop Astor Chanler, the brother of William Astor Chanler)

Further reading:
William A. Chanler III, “Beatrice Chanler and Lafayette,” Gazette of the AFL, Oct. 2016, 56–57. Short article by Chanler’s grandson on her World War I relief work.

Elizabeth H. Ashe, nurse.


Elizabeth Ashe. Nat Library of Medicine

“I am wondering and wondering if this is to be a thirty years’ war.”—Elizabeth H. Ashe, Intimate Letters 41

Elizabeth Haywood Ashe (1869–1954) was a granddaughter of North Carolina governor Samuel Ashe (who gave his surname to Asheville, NC) and a niece of Civil War admiral David Farragut. In 1902, she earned her nursing credentials from the School of Nursing at Presbyterian Hospital in New York. She worked with those affected by the 1906 earthquake and cofounded the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, the first settlement house in San Francisco. In 1917, she was slated to join the France-bound Base Hospital No. 30 unit of the University of California when Dr. William Palmer Lucas, who later established the UC Department of Pediatrics, asked that she lead the nursing staff of a Children’s Bureau unit of the Red Cross. Focusing on medical care of French children (who were experiencing a high mortality rate), the unit traveled to France in summer 1917. Ashe wrote letters describing her experiences, later collected in Intimate Letters from France during America’s First Year of War (1918). Although in administration, she did more than sit behind a desk; for example, she visited the front, was located at one time in a town that was regularly bombed, and taught children how to play leapfrog. She wrote in August 1918:

. . . I have an erratic way of suddenly leaving my bureau at the call of the wounded and appearing unexpectedly at the hospital, at the critical moment, where I am greeted with open arms. Then I come back so dead tired at the end of a week or so that no one has the heart to scold me. But to sit in that office dictating letters, knowing that those poor boys are actually suffering for the most rudimentary care, is beyond my powers of endurance. . . . .One of the doctors has just come in to tell me that a trainload of  wounded came in last night which means that 350 men have been brought to the hospital and are lying in all stages of discomfort over the floors, lawns, corridors and in fact wherever they can find floor space for them as they have to be undressed, fed and many things done for them before they find rest. They usually arrive on the stretchers without pillows, their heads resting on the iron cross bars. The suffering these poor fellows go through absolutely without a complain[t] is heroic beyond words. I can’t get used to it…( 116).

Ashe returned to the United States in July 1919, resuming her work at the Hill Convalescent Home for Children in Marin County, CA. In 1922, Ashe announced the opening of a rest home on the property for professional women.


Elizabeth Ashe, right, visits a Red Cross nursing home outside of Paris, June 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Margaret Richards Millar, relief worker.


Margaret Richards Millar, from her Dec 1918 passport application

The university archives at the Catholic University of America features the story of Vermont-born Margaret Richards Millar (1858–1947), who was a member of the Committee on Special War Activities of the National Catholic War Council (NCWC, later the National Catholic Welfare Council). From summer 1918 to fall 1919, she organized and operated clubs for service members in France. In May 1919, she was the only U.S. Catholic delegate to the International Congress of Women in Switzerland.

In a forthright March 1919 letter to Rev. John J. Burke (the head of the NCWC), Millar described the facilities of the Etoile Service Club in Paris for enlisted soldiers and sailors of the AEF:

We have books from the [American] Library Association and quite a number have been given us by different people so we have a fair library. We have all the magazines. There are always cigarettes on the tables and stationary [sic], and evenings each boy has a good cigar and either candy or chocolate. There is always someone to welcome him as he enters and someone to grasp his hand as he goes out. There are games and generally music. . . .We have had two really beautiful dances with music from the military headquarters’ band[.] (1–2)

Millar listed the serving of a total of 431 breakfasts and 2–6 gallons of soup or cocoa each night over the course of a month. She told of her “serious and intelligent” female workers’ activities in visiting military hospitals and planning sightseeing excursions for servicemen (2). Millar also noted, “I personally am visiting our U.S. Military Prison, seeing the men in their cells[.] There are between 250 and 300 there” (3). A list accompanying the letter noted the distribution to prisoners of 1500 cigarettes, 100 toothbrushes, 6 boxes of chocolate, and 493 doughnuts, among other items (5).

Millar told Father Burke, “We are wanted, needed and asked for on all sides. . . . Mr. [Harry Emerson] Fosdick [a Protestant chaplain] appeals to us to go into the leave areas. . . .This club is a success, an absolute success, but we should be doing a far greater work…”

Hope Gray, reconstruction aide.


Hope Gray (2nd row, left) and Lena Hitchcock (2nd row, right) with other reconstruction aides, Base Hospital No. 9. Nat. Library of Medicine


Hope Gray (1882–1979)—daughter of Boston stockbroker Samuel Shober Gray and Caroline Balch Weld Gray, sister of architect-artist Ralph Weld Gray, and a cousin of actress Tuesday Weld—was a reconstruction aide (RA) in France with the AEF at Base Hospitals No. 9 (Chateauroux), No. 69 (Savenay), and No. 114 (Beau Desert). In July 1918, she sailed on the Walmer Castle to Liverpool and arrived in France on August 11.  Gray worked with wounded servicemen via occupational therapy, a relatively new field at the time (the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy— precursor to the American Occupational Therapy Association—had been established in 1917).

Gray described her experience in The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914–1919 (48–49):

…[U]nder the special wing of the Orthopedic Department, the Surgeon-General sent overseas the first group of thirteen Occupationals (as they were familiarly called) of which I was a member, and to which group were attached fourteen Physio [therapist]s. . . We were given to understand that the future continuance of the work hinged on how we made good, which was rather appalling to six of us who had been ordered overseas when only half way through our training in the Boston School of Occupational Therapy, and who had no hospital experience.

We . . . . found that they neither wanted nor expected us. .. . [We] were reluctantly allowed to begin our own work, I think at that time on the theory that given enough rope we would soon automatically hang ourselves. Though the government had provided for our salaries no such provision had been made for materials with which to teach the various handicrafts, and those first months were a long struggle to make good on a basis of supplies wrested from the Salvage Pile. . . .

There was much to overcome, but once two or three boys had rather sheepishly started on knitting caps, block printing, making of bead chains or any other occupation, first curiosity would attract others to watch, then to try, and . . . they would usually grin and agree to “try anything once,” which was an attitude of mind very typical of the American Army. Within a few days the wish to make something would become epidemic, and a cheerful busy crowd would be getting into difficulties with recalcitrant thread or clamoring for how to get their initials on the leather cigarette case they were making, or joshing each other in place of just thinking desolately or gambling. And they are boys when all is said and done, big overgrown boys, keeping the heart and simple responsibilities of a child, with the extraordinary silent courage which could stand not only the tests of bravery under the excitation of battle, but the long months of blank suffering in hospital where the thrill of emotions and big sacrifice were past, and only the acute consciousness left of a maimed body with which to face the unknown world of the future.  To be truly their friend, their confidant, to know that by ever so little one has been able to help them keep their faith in life is all and more than one would ask. And one must feel that if some such spirit can be kept alive now that the return to peace has come, if some spark of their high purpose remains lighted, the present clouds of class antagonism, suspicion, and unrest (where that unrest is destructive) must finally break away showing a clearer dawn ahead.

Gray’s friend and fellow aide Anna Lena Frances Hitchcock noted that Gray “had been doing eight to nine hours nurse’s aide work in addition to O.T.” (Hitchcock, “A Great Adventure,” p. 72; qtd. in Moloney). She also stated that Gray, to assist a patient who had lost both hands, fashioned “an ingenious leather band with slits to hold paint brush, knife, fork, or spoon, one for each wrist. The change in him is amazing” (Hitchcock, “A Great Adventure,” qtd. in Gavin 112).

Gray was honorably discharged in mid-June 1919. The RAs—appointed by contract with the Surgeon General’s Office—were considered civilian employees and thus did not receive veteran status (see McDaniel, “Occupational Therapists before World War II (1917–40).”

Further reading: Eleanor Rowland Wembridge, “How the Reconstruction Aides Have Proved What They Are For,” Carry On Apr 1919: 10–11.

Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, canteen worker.


Eleanor Butler Roosevelt, ca, 1917

Eleanor Butler Alexander Roosevelt (1889–1960) was educated at Miss Spence’s School in New York and in 1910 married Theodore Roosevelt Jr., oldest son of the former president (the latter considered her a “dear girl” but dubbed her father “a skunk”). In July 1917, she headed to France on the Espagne—as a 1 Jan. 1919 Grand Forks Herald article describes—to establish a YMCA canteen in Paris; work in the YMCA center in Aix-les-Bains that hosted approximately 4000 servicemen on leave; tend to Paris’ Hotel Richmond for U.S. officers; and teach French to soldiers. A 17 Mar. 1919 Richmond Palladium and Sun Telegram article adds the information that she also organized and assigned women workers to all the YMCA leave centers as well as supervised the “bath centers” where servicemen on 24 hours’ leave could have a hot bath and have their clothes cleaned and mended.

In the Grand Forks Herald article, Eleanor states:

Our work at the start was ubiquitous. We waited on table, scrubbed floors, painted walls and shelves—doing, by the way, no more than the gallant French women. We cooked doughnuts and made sandwiches. The men seemed greatly gratified by the “Y” work. Any complaints that have been made are those to be expected from a large number of men. We had to combat the natural tendency of the men—released from the horrors of front line service to the relaxation of vacation hours—to complain about various things. (6)

The Library of Congress has an interesting article on Eleanor’s work as a photographer. As the piece notes that Eleanor was subject to migraines, the fact that she could manage the considerable workload of canteens in light of this ongoing problem must be viewed with respect. In Canteening Overseas, 1917–1919, Marian Baldwin, who worked with Eleanor and emphasized the vital services provided by canteens, describes Eleanor as “working like a horse” (72) without sufficient help.

The following film clips show Eleanor and Ted Jr. touring the ruins of Romagne (note that Ted Jr. has a cane; he had been wounded) and Eleanor attending a Women in War Work congress in Paris. She is wearing the simple uniform that she designed for women in YMCA war service. Eleanor returned to the United States in December 1918.

Marion Stevens, WWI dentist.


Dentist Marion Stevens with her brother Caleb, ca. 1919. Library of Congress, Prints & Photos Div.

Marion Cecelia Stevens (1895–1964) was the daughter of Frank W. Stevens, founder of the Stevens Advertising Agency in Reading, MA. She earned her DMD degree from Tufts in 1916. In 1916-17, she was a member of the visiting staff of the Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children in Boston. Specializing in children’s dental care, she was the first U.S. female dentist with the Red Cross in Toul, France, in World War I. She then traveled to Serbia as a member of the American Women’s Hospitals unit of the American Medical Women’s Association and received the Order of the Red Cross, Serbian, and the Order of St. Sava from the Serbian government for her service.

In November 1917, she wrote a letter to Charlotte Conger, executive secretary of the American Women’s Hospitals, that was published in the January 1918 Woman’s Medical Journal. It provided a few details about the environment in Toul:

. . . I went out to my new headquarters, the Asile Cazerue de Luxemburg, an old French barracks, about two miles out. There are many buildings here and at present five hundred children, all refugees. I shall do all I can for the dental welfare of those children, and feel very much encouraged to find their teeth in as good condition as they are. . . . .We are near enough to the front to hear the can[n]ons and see a large number of aeroplanes.

As Toul and Nancy have been bombed a lot of late, we are always ready to go the cave route . . . whenever the warnings are given. (16)

In January 1920, Stevens married Georgia physician Northen Orr Tribble (who had served with the Army in England and France, as well as with the Red Cross in Eastern Europe), whom she had met in Serbia. For the ceremony, the bride and groom wore their service uniforms. Stevens was an instructor at Atlanta-Southern Dental College (now part of Emory University) in 1920–25. She is buried in Arlington Cemetery.