With National Nurses Week underway and amid the World War I centennial, attention turns to the nurses who served during the war

April 6, 2017 marked the passing of a century since President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on the German Empire. That date marked American entry into World War I. All of the veterans of World War I have passed into history now. Frank Buckles, the last American veteran, died in 2011.

More than 2,000 residents of Ontario County served during World War I. There are about an equal number now resting in our local cemeteries. We are reminded of their service by numerous monuments erected in their memory. During National Nurses Week (May 6-12), however, one group of local veterans should be remembered, in particular — the Army Nurses of the First World War.

While there had been nurses and other medical practitioners present with American forces since the American Revolution, there had never been nurses actually enrolled in the armed forces until 1901. Prior to that time all military nurses had been employed, often in uniform, as Contract Nurses.

On Feb. 2, 1901, Congress authorized the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps, bringing trained, professional nurses into the ranks of the U..S Army. In 1908, the Navy Nurse Corps was established. There was little call for large numbers of professional military nurses prior to the outbreak of World War I. Through the Spanish-American War, the US military continued to rely mostly on medical corps officers and enlisted “medics” like “Doc” Evans and the dozen young Canandaigua men of the 106th Ambulance Company.

From the inception of the Army Nurse Corps, the American Red Cross worked in close cooperation with the War Department to fill the ranks of the ANC. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Red Cross-affiliated nurses volunteered to serve the casualties of all belligerent nations — including Germany. When the United States entered the war in 1917, some of those Red Cross volunteers were still serving with Allied forces. The Army Nurse Corps counted 403 professional nurses among its ranks in 1917. In less than two years, that number would increase to more than 22,000. They included a large portion of all the professional nurses in the nation’s hospitals. To provide additional trained nurses, the Army School of Nursing was established in 1918.

In 1916, the Surgeon General of the Army asked the American Red Cross to assist the War Department by enlisting medical personnel (nurses, physicians, and orderlies) in reserve Base Hospitals in preparation for eventual war. Base Hospital #19, organized in March 1916 with volunteers and personnel from what is now Rochester General Hospital, had its origins in that effort.

Base Hospital #19 was mobilized at the Main Street Armory (Rochester) in December, 1917. After five months of training, it embarked from New York on the ship, Baltic, and arrived in Liverpool, England, June 16, 1918. It subsequently moved to Le Havre, France and on to Vichy. Base Hospital #19 received its first patients on July 12, 1918. The largest number of sick and wounded the hospital treated at one time was 3,517, on Nov. 12, 1918, the day after the Armistice. While in France, Base Hospital #19 treated 11,071 patients. Base Hospital #19 embarked for home St. Nazaire on the ship, Freedom, on April 13, 1919. The crossing took 15 days. Base Hospital #19 was demobilized at Camp Upton, N. Y., on May 7, 1919, and its personnel returned to the Rochester area soon afterward.

Many of the nurses who served in the Army during World War I received their military orientation at one of several camps established around San Antonio, Texas. Many others received training at Ports of Embarkation like New York City. Others, like the members of Base Hospital #19, trained at local National Guard armories. Nurses deployed overseas often got their sailing orders just hours before boarding a transport vessel. Their new distinctive uniforms were often issued aboard ship.

Before the war ended, 92 Army hospitals of various types were established with more than 120,000 beds. While nurses were not initially expected to serve in front-line field hospitals, many eventually did so. When the war began, there were many local volunteers. Some nurses had volunteered to enroll with the Red Cross and accept appointment to the Army Nurse Corps well before the war declaration.

On July 25, 1917, the Ontario County Times reported that six Canandaigua nurses had volunteered for war service and were awaiting overseas orders. They included Elizabeth Weber; Caroline E. Nicholson; Margaret F. Bradley; Camilla Sale; Mary G. Savage; and Ida Hibbard. Another nurse, Grace E. Stoek (perhaps Stokoe), was already serving on the Mexican border for over a year and a half. All of them were graduates of the Thompson Hospital School of Nursing.

Camilla Sale, a Victor native, graduated from the Thompson nursing school in 1911 and was among the first volunteers to be part of Base Hospital #19 (Rochester) when that unit was created. Sale entered the Army Nurse Corps in 1916. She served at Vichy, France and later in the occupation forces.

Another nurse who volunteered to serve with Base Hospital #19 was Alberta Manley. Born in Canada, Manley came to the Clifton Springs Sanitarium School of Nursing just prior to the war. While she married J. J. Manley of Geneva in 1918, Alberta nevertheless went overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces.

Aline Balson, a Canandaigua native living in New York City when the war broke out, was part of the large number of Army nurses who remained state-side for the duration of the war. She was one of the many nurses who served in the hurriedly built training camps. While not facing the hardships of duty in France, many nurses like Balson found themselves in the first line of defense against the massive flu epidemic that broke out in 1918.

Rose Anne Mahar served longer in the Army Nurse Corps than most others at that time — nearly two years. She later became a Public Health Nurse in Baltimore.

More than a few of the local nurses serving with the Army remained in France after the armistice and were part of the Rhineland occupation after the war. On March 5, 1919, the Ontario County Times reported that a letter had been received at F. F. Thompson Hospital from Nurse Margaret Bradley. She reported that nearly all of the nurses from Base Hospital #19 had volunteered to join Base Hospital #103 and go to Coblenz, Germany where a typhoid epidemic had broken out. Elizabeth Weber, formerly Superintendent of Nurses at Thompson Hospital, was in charge of the detail that included local nurses Minnie Kane, Ida Hibbard, Margaret Bradley and Myra Ellsworth.

 The Army Nurse Corps of the First World War grew out of both the necessity inherent in massive field armies fighting a “total war” and the reforms taking place in the education and training of professional nurses. New York became one of a handful of states pioneering the concept of “registered” nurses with the passage of the Nurse Practice Act of 1903. By the time of American entry into World War I a majority of the states had enacted nurse registration laws. At the same time, rapid advances in medical knowledge and practice contributed substantially to the need for a professional corps of military nurses.

Much, of course, remained to be done after the war. For example, while nurses were part of the army, they had no rank other than the designation, “Nurse.” The abilities and contributions of Army nurses would not be recognized with permanent military rank until 1944.

There are several good sources of information about the Army nurses of World War I and their contributions to the allied “victory.” "Answering the Call: A Commemorative Tribute to Military Nursing in World War I," edited by Lisa M. Budreau and Richard M. Prior (Surgeon General’s Office of Medical History), was published in 2012.

A detailed account of Base Hospital #19, created from the staff at what is now Rochester General Hospital, can be found in "Rochester in History and Our Part in the World War" (Ch.XIV), edited by Henry C. Maine, It was published by the Rochester Historical Society in 1922.

Set aside some time to learn more about the young women who served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War I. Your local library or historical society can help you find these and other resources. When you come across the veteran’s markers for the first generation of Army Nurses, pause a moment to reflect on their patriotism and their selfless devotion to duty a century ago.

— Preston Pierce is Ontario County historian