Army Nurses of World War One: Service beyond Expectations

By Telford, Jennifer Casavant | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Army Nurses of World War One: Service beyond Expectations

Telford, Jennifer Casavant, Nursing History Review

Army Nurses of World War One: Service Beyond Expectations. 2006. Lorraine Luciano and Casandra Jewell (Eds). Army Heritage Center Foundation, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Producer and Director: Anthony V. Rotolo. Narrator: Lisa Stofko. (DVD, 52 minutes $24.95), (book, 267 pages, $14.95), (DVD and book set $34.95).

As part of The Army Heritage Foundation's series, Voices of the Past Speak to the Future, editors Lorraine Luciano and Casandra Jewell reconstructed the experiences of two nurses deployed as part of the United States Army Nurse Corps during World War I. Luciano and Jewell use two different media to illustrate the stories of these nurses: a book and a film documentary, employing the diaries, letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and other primary source documents of nurses Elizabeth Lewis and Emma Weaver to create the landscape of experiences that typify World War I military nursing.

Luciano and Jewell's book begins with brief yet thorough prologue and introduction sections. These components provide the reader with the context necessary to understand the role of the featured nurses who served overseas during World War I with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Following the initial sections are more than 250 pages of prose and excerpts from primary data, effectively illustrating the compelling stories of Lewis and Weaver. The reader is enticed by the chronicles of these nurses and can easily overlook the way in which the introduction ends abruptly and lacks a segue into the subsequent section that features Lewis's letters.

Elizabeth Lewis, a young nurse from New England serving in the AEF, wrote letters home to her sisters and mother describing her experiences with Base Hospital Unit #9, which arrived in France in August of 1918. Although her wartime nursing experience was short in duration, ending after the 1918 Armistice, Lewis's written correspondence is rich in detail and description offering insight into how a young woman transitioned into a military nurse.

Lewis voices her concerns about breaching censorship regulations and worrying mom, and these themes come to the forefront of nearly all of her letters to her sisters. These letters, often quite graphic in their description of personal safety, speak to how Lewis establishes herself amidst a military routine. In a time of unrestricted submarine warfare, Lewis matter-of-factly describes the identification disc she wears that would identify her if injured. In Lewis's letters to her mother, however, she is instead reassuring minimizing the threats of war. Spelling and grammatical errors found throughout the text, although a likely distraction to the lay reader, for scholars, paradoxically, add to the richness of the data provided and add evidence of the authenticity of the transcription. Photos and scanned images of letters, photographs, and ephemera throughout the entire book are of excellent quality.

Emma Weaver, the second featured nurse, is Lewis's more mature counterpart. Nurse Weaver volunteers for service with the AEF at the age of thirty-nine and has the foresight to record her wartime experiences in a diary. Upon her return to the United States, Weaver turns her journal into a memoir wherein she contemplates the nature of war, provides rich detail of her care of wounded and gassed soldiers, and offers the reader a perspective on morale among service people usually reserved only to those possessing vast life experience. These data possess depth and breadth that few young nurses could offer.

Although the editors profess this to be a project done for a lay audience, they miss the opportunity to provide the reader with an analysis of how these firsthand accounts reveal prominent issues reflective of the World War I era, such as gender, rank, standards for entry into service that changed with demand for personnel, and race. Some, if not all, of these topics might have been presented in a way as not to be beyond the reach of the audience.

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