Beginning in June 1918 in some quiet hour, maybe at night or early morning, Emma Elizabeth Weaver would sit down at Base Hospital No 20 in central France and pen her impressions. She wrote about things she had seen, and things she could never un-see. There were the buildings decimated, reduced to heaping “piles of mortar, bricks, and stone” . Whole villages razed and erased and tombstones blown apart, “the dead out of their graves in every direction.”
There were the trenches, deep and muddied, where soldiers had camped out for hours, sometimes days. And then there were the bodies, mangled and burned, shredded and oozing with infection. They came to her at all hours, from places across the globe, the young men naked and writhing in agony. Some she could help, but too many were beyond saving. Despite being one of the best trained, Weaver never imagined the conditions of war and the work she had volunteered to do.
In February 1918, almost, nine months after the United States officially entered World War I, Weaver felt compelled to join the thousands of all white nurses going abroad as medical volunteers–despite the increased need and recruitment, we cannot forget nor ignore that black nurses were refused entry into the Army and Navy nurse corps, a gross oversight on the part of the US government.**
Some balked at her decision. At 40, she was considered too old—most nurses were between the ages of 25-35—but she ignored the naysayers. Possessing a confidence that younger women didn’t have and guided by 14 years of nursing experience (she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1904) she joined the service. Within days along with 65 other nurses, Weaver had taken the oath allegiance and was preparing to leave for embattled Europe. On a crisp morning, the nurses, some of the best in the country, departed from the Broad Street Station in Philadelphia and headed to their mobilization center at New York’s Ellis Island. Weaver writes about the moment:
Had a wonderful send off. The morale was excellent…A fairly large crowd had collected at [the] station to see us depart & we were given, flowers, fruit [etc.] A special car was engaged for us. On the way to New York we passed a long train of khaki clad raw recruits. We flocked to the windows & there was wild cheering & waving & exchanging of salutes.
But, it would take two more months before the nurses sailed for France. On April 22, Weaver finally left Ellis Island and boarded a German ocean liner, SS Leviathan, that had been detained in New York Harbor and converted to an American troop transport vessel. True to her name, Leviathian, was a monster of a ship; ironclad, she stood 16 stories tall and could transport 20,000 troops “quartered top to bottom from staterooms to below-deck steerage.”
Weaver arrived in France and was stationed at the Châtel-Guyon, one of hundreds of Base Hospitals around Europe created to treat soldiers. Known as Base Hospital 20, it belonged to the University of Pennsylvania and served the American Expeditionary Forces, but, like many of the base hospitals, it treated wounded soldiers regardless of nationality.
According to her notes, patients arrived on hospital trains in staggering numbers:
Sept. 6—299 patients from base hosp. around Toul.
Sept. 15 – 390 pts evac. from hosp. From ST. Mihiel Salient.
Sept. 27 – 260 pts. evac. from hosp. around Langres.
Oct. 2, 380 From Verdun region.
Oct 7, 301 pts surgical cases from Argonne.
Oct 10, 192 pts surg. & med. cases…mostly flu & bronchitis.
Oct. 23, 302 All types. med. surg. & gassed.
Nov. 1, 255 From Souilly on the Argonne. 17 measle[s] cases among this group
Once triaged, they were separated into different wards: medical, surgical, ophthalmological, laryngological and urological services; a mobile team took care of those who could walk. The injuries confounded even the most seasoned of medical professionals, as Weaver wrote about the human devastation she witnessed everyday: faces blown apart; bones shattered; skin flayed, and limbs torn apart. But the most horrific were the wounds from the gases, chlorine, phosgene, and mustard: She recalled her days that summer:
July 17, 411 patients arrived, many gassed with phosgene, mustard & chlorine gas. Many acute surgical cases that had to be operated on…
July 25, 587 cases all from Chateau Thierry front, most all surgical cases, suffering from various types of gun shot wounds. Many required operations, Foreign bodies to be located, & debridements…[sic]
We are terribly busy, patients coming in from all fronts, many direct from the battle-field, many terribly mangled & shot to pieces. Now 2200 patients –38 nurses. You can imagine the nature of our duties. We certainly need more nurses. We have mustard phosgene & chlorine gas cases. The mustard gas causes horrible body burns…
A patient was brought in one day wrapped a blanket, no clothing his body burned black & literally raw, face black, eyes completely swollen shut & he was suffering agonies. This was a case of mustard gas burns. Another patient, gasping & coughing, blue in the face, intense pain in his chest on every respiration. This, of course was a case of phosgene gas poisoning. The wounds are caused mostly by high explosives, machine-gun bullets & shrapnel. A Kansas farmer boy was brought in half of his abdomen was shot away & intestines protruding. Bishop Israel gave him the last sacrificial rites before he was rushed to the Operating Room. He had been driving a soup kitchen, next thing he know both horses had been shot away, while he was still sitting with the reins in his hand then he discovered he had been wounded .
Weaver remained in Europe until August 1919 when she began her three week voyage back to the States. Upon arrival, she wrote her last entry, describing the culture shock:
Home again! “Fini la guerre pour moi”! [“For me the war is finished”!] The strangest city in the world to me is New York! I feel like a foreigner! [T]he motion of the boat is still with me, I’m rocking & rolling. How queer to be in a land where everybody speaks English & you can buy bananas.
When she returned, Weaver continued her work as a public health nurse, treating veterans and helping to establish a hospital in Tacoma, WA where she served as chief nurse. She died in 1966 and was buried in Lancaster, PA beside her sister who also served in Germany.
Thousands of nurses served during World War I, but Emma Elizabeth Weaver was one of the few who kept an extensive journal. In her writing, she dug deep, contemplating the nature of war, and through her exquisite eye for detail described the day-to-day care of the wounded and dying. Her writing brings us into the center of Base hospital No. 20 where we see the wounded, hear their agony, and feel the helplessness of the doctors and nurses who cannot stop the savagery of humans and their war machines. Through the power of Weaver’s words, we can grasp “the horrible war with its carnage & bloodshed,” and the extraordinary service of these nurses who risked their lives by putting their bodies on the front lines.
**Join me next week when I’ll be highlighting the African American nurses who fought to serve during World War I.