Skip to main content

Mr. Keenan

Go Search
St. Mary's Church
Elementary School
Support Services
High School > Mr. Keenan > The WikiTSAR Library > Nurses of WWI--Women on the Frontlines  

Nurses of WWI--Women on the Frontlines

World War I

            World War I (also known as the Great War, the War of Wars, or the First World War, abbreviated WWI) began in June of 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. The war lasted until November 1918. The lives of Americans in World War One would never be the same again. Many soldiers suffered severely from PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Everyone Has Their Breaking Point). Sadly, the nurses could not prevent or treat this disorder. During this four year time period, over 21 million were wounded. These 21 million were cared for by the nurses that served in the war. 1


Table of Contents
Women in the Military
American Red Cross
Role of Nurses
Life Style of Nurses
WWI Nurses
    Edith Cavell
    Helen Fairchild


Women in the Military

            The first war that allowed women to openly serve in the army was World War I. This was made possible by the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps. The Army Nurse Corps was founded in 1901, and allowed women to enter the military legally. However, combat access was denied to women still. Some women took up jobs as occupational and physical therapists2 and served in hospitals overseas and in the U.S.3; most women served as nurses for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps.2

Over 30 thousand women served as nurses during WWI. Many were given medals and other honors for their service. The Distinguished Service Medal, the Army’s highest noncombat award, was given to several nurses. The nation’s second highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, was awarded to at least three Army nurses. Over twenty nurses received the French Croix de Guerre. Many nurses were wounded and died while trying to rescue wounded soldiers on the frontlines.3


American Red Cross

            The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton. The American Red Cross worked during WWI alongside many other relief organizations. They established hospitals, procured ambulances, and above all, recruited nurses. By the end of the war, the American Red Cross had expanded to provide aid to veterans and their families. 4


Role of Nurses

            The nurses of WWI worked on the front line, picking up the wounded soldiers. They made dressings for scars and battle wounds, ran canteens, and drove ambulances. Nurses also organized, cleaned, and set-up hospital rooms and equipment.3 Experienced nurses were stationed at hospitals along the frontlines. These hospitals only received the severely injured soldiers.5 In a letter written to generate funding for support in hospitals overseas during the war, a nurse elaborates:


I have installed the whole place, from base-boards up, as a very up-to-date looking operating room, sterilized, ticketed, and in short very neat and complete. The surgeon is very satisfied. Why I was chosen for the exalted post, Heaven only knows. It is altogether too cold and scientific to have only chloroformed men to deal with, when I do love to coddle and make comfy. As to the latter, however, there will be precious little of it. We are just behind the firing line, and only get desperate cases.5


Life Style of Nurses

Nurses of WWI worked from sun up to sun down, and barely got any sleep. However, this did not bother many nurses. The conditions were cold and sometimes rainy. The sounds of the battlefield could be heard in the nurses’ living quarters.5 An American nurse wrote a detailed description of her morning and nights on the frontlines:


It is a marvelous life; and strangely enough, despite all the tragedy, I call it a healthy one. One works, and when that is over one sleeps enough to keep in condition, and that is absolutely all, except a cold sponge bath (no bath-tubs here), and an eau de cologne rubdown in the morning, and the walk to and from the Hospital. In the morning now it is bitter cold and misty and half dark, and one gets weird glimpses of departing regiments, and white-capped old market-women, and pointed gables across the gloom; and at night the splendid stars, and now a great lustrous moon, and every day and night the boom, boom of the cannon which sounds very awesome these days. That is all I know of the world I live in.5


Nurses sometimes shared rooms with civilians while serving in the war. In Miss Esmee Sartorius’ diary, she writes about a night spent in a Belgian woman’s home:


It was now getting very late, and we were told nothing could be done till the morning, so we gratefully accepted the offer of one bed from a kindly Belgian.  We spent a sleepless night.  The guns sounded so close and shook the house…6


Esmee Sartorius also wrote about the food in a later passage of her diary:

Food was getting beautifully less and less, meat very occasional, and we lived for the most part on beans and potatoes and soup made of the same, flavoured with many fryings in the frying-pan.6

WWI Nurses

Edith Cavell

            Edith Cavell was a British nurse who served in Belgium when war broke out. With Germany’s occupation of Belgium, Cavell was forced to join the Red Cross and serve during WWI as a nurse. She was stationed at Berkendael, which was an Institution that had been converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Captured Allied soldiers were frequently treated at Berkendael. Cavell nursed the soldiers to full health and then helped them escape to Holland, which was neutral at the time.7

            Cavell was arrested by German authorities in August of 1915 for having personally aided the escape of over 200 soldiers. She was kept in confinement until she was found guilty. She was sentenced to death by firing squad. Two months later, Cavell’s death sentence was carried out on October 12, 1915.7

Helen Fairchild

            Helen Fairchild served as a nurse with the American Expeditionary Forces. She was sent to Casualty Clearing Station Number 4 at Passchendaele upon arriving on the Western Front. Fairchild began experiencing severe abdominal pains, which later escalated. When Fairchild finally received an X-Ray, a large gastric ulcer was revealed. Doctors attributed Fairchild’s death to the poisonous mustard gas that was used by the Allies.8

American Red Cross nurses tending to
wounded soldiers on the battlefield.


Works Referenced

1.     "World War I." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 12 Dec. 2010.

2.     Norris, David A. "Life on the Home Front During WWI." History Magazine (Toronto, Canada) Vol. 7, No. 6. Aug./Sept. 2006: 21-25. SIRS Renaissance. Web. 12 Dec 2010.

3.     "WWI: Thirty Thousand Women Were There." Military Women Veterans. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

4.     "American Red Cross." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2010.

5.     "Mademoiselle Miss." Virtual Library. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

6.     "Memoirs & Diaries - August 1914." First World - A Multimedia History of World War One. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

7.      "Who's Who - Edith Cavell." First World - A Multimedia History of World War One. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

8.      "Helen Fairchild." Spartacus Educational. Web. 12 Dec. 2010.

9.      American Red Cross Nurses. Photograph. Web image. PULSE. 12 Dec. 2010.


WikiTSAR Library Home


Last modified at 12/16/2010 12:53 PM  by Norwood, Megan