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Live Healthy, Atlanta! Thought Leader

Nursing Forces in WWI Faced Harsh Conditions

By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

World War I earned the moniker the “Great War” for good reason. The First World War ranks among the deadliest conflicts in recorded history. The total number of casualties, both military and civilian, was around 37 million. Sixteen million people died and 20 million were wounded. The majority of deaths were caused by combat, not disease, though Spanish flu caused a significant number of deaths for every participating military force. Many soldiers and civilians required care. American nurses played a vital role in WWI, serving our own soldiers and our allies throughout the conflict.

Although nurses had proven themselves indispensable (especially for the Union) in the Civil War, a reserve corps of army nurses wasn’t established until the Spanish-American War proved how necessary such a reserve was. The Surgeon General established criteria for the reserve nurses and in 1901 the Nurse Corps became a permanent part of the Army.

At the outset of WWI, around 400 nurses were on active duty. By the end of the war, the corps had more than 21,000 nurses, 10,000 of whom served overseas. The nurse corps was exclusively female and comprised of volunteers. One thing to keep in mind is that these nurses proudly served their country at a time when they were not allowed to vote.

During WWI, nurses worked in evacuation hospitals in Europe, on bases, transport ships, hospital trains and in mobile surgical hospitals in America. American nurses arrived in Europe before American troops did. The first nurses set sail in April 1917 and established six base hospitals in partnership with the British Expeditionary Forces.

These nurses worked long hours under harsh conditions. There was little respite from cold weather and water shortages meant bathing and laundered clothes were rare. There was little privacy and little time off. Nurses treated shrapnel wounds, bullet wounds, infections, mustard gas burns, exposure, medical trauma and the newly recognized “shell shock.”

“Shell shock” was initially thought to be caused by the powerful mortar shells exploding around soldiers. The force was thought to shock a soldier’s brain, shaking it in his skull. Doctors began to notice that symptoms of shell shock were appearing in soldiers that had been nowhere near the bombing. These included trembling hands, lost memory, confusion and trouble sleeping were symptoms of neurasthenia, or weakness of the nerves.

The numerous treatments used to care for shell-shocked soldiers can’t be aptly described in this column. The history of WWI’s defining injury is fascinating and heartbreaking. A thorough and compelling article by Caroline Alexander in the Smithsonian Magazine is well worth the read.

Though thousands of nurses served in the dangerous theater of war, there were relatively few casualties, most of which were caused by the Spanish flu. Around 200 nurses died while serving. Many were recognized for their dedicated service by both the United States and our allies. Three nurses were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Established by President Woodrow Wilson, the DSC is second only to the Medal of Honor. Three nurses were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, given to those who provide exceptional meritorious service.

Lessons learned during WWI set the stage for nurses during the next great conflict. Come back next week to learn about the service of nurses in World War II!


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