The following is a guest blog post by Veterans History Project (VHP) staff member Candace Milburn.
Working as a Processing Technician for the Veterans History Project allows me to gain and capture a plethora of knowledge concerning American wars and first-hand veteran experiences. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to step outside of the “processing box,” and give a gallery talk on the significance of two Army nurses who served during WWI. I discovered that giving a presentation can be a bit challenging, and somewhat intense. I’m so glad to have access to cool mechanisms like Facebook and this blog, which allow me to go back and summarize with clarity what I may have left out, and to reiterate the awesomeness of each nurse.
Outside of work, I have a passion for fashion, and while researching, I found a bit of fun fashion knowledge within the VHP collections as well. VHP’s archive holds several interesting stories from nurses who have served throughout every American war fought in the 20th and 21st centuries. Since we are honoring the 100th year of the United States’ involvement in WWI, my focus is on the nurses of that era.
Due to the increased need for military nurses in the war effort, the Army Nurse Corps increased from approximately 4,100 to 21,460 between 1917 and 1918. They served at base and evacuation hospitals in Europe as well as transport ships, hospital trains in France and mobile surgical hospitals stateside.
Clara Hoke’s VHP collection stands out tremendously. Prior to WWI, she graduated from nursing school in 1914 and went on to assist with home surgeries throughout Michigan. During her VHP interview, she tells of a time when she assisted with an emergency surgery despite the fact that she was in route to a formal affair. She gives a detailed description of the fancy green chiffon and cotton taffeta dress, made by her roommate’s brother, who was a fashion designer from Chicago. Chiffon and taffeta were popular fabrics during that era. In spite of the dress, Hoke instinctively cut the sleeves, threw an apron over top and began assisting the doctor with the skull fracture surgery. This story reminds us that regardless of the task, women were willing to take on all sorts of courageous challenges.
Shortly after, Hoke heard that nurses were needed at Fort Custer, and went to Red Cross Headquarters to sign up. She was among the first group of nurses to go overseas with surgeons, and was assigned to two field hospitals and a huge facility in Paris where General Pershing and President Wilson visited. She worked in the Jaw Ward with patients who had been facially disfigured due to the brutal effects of the war. Some of the first successful skin grafts were done in WWI to treat facial injuries, and the treatment of these injuries was crucial to the development of modern plastic surgery.
Hoke also tells of a harrowing incident during which she was watching an air raid from a hospital window, and a soldier pulled her away just before an explosion hit the very spot in which she had been standing! After the Armistice, she was among the first group of women to visit the battlefield at Reims.
The second fashion savvy WWI nurse I highlighted during my gallery talk is Nettie Trax. She started out as a nurse at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where her unit, Base Hospital #18, was formed. Trax worked with the American Expeditionary Forces in field hospitals in Savenay and Bazoilles-sur-Meuse, France. Her collection includes correspondence to her parents on wartime conditions, the appreciation she felt from soldiers she cared for and how they dealt with the influenza epidemic. She also tells of how the nurses were provided with sweaters, mufflers, undergarments and other necessities by the Red Cross. Trax’s collection also includes a group photograph of her unit wearing black cape-style uniforms (shown above). This cape style soon turned into a fashion statement during that era for civilian women too.
American women put on various uniforms to take on their war work. It happened in all parts of women’s war efforts. Several military styles of coats and capes were adapted all over the world as well. WWI introduced a new coat style, the “Trench Coat,” that became a classic for the rest of the century and beyond. In London, Burberry patented an all-weather, breathable fabric approved for military use. French fashion designer Coco Chanel is credited for popularizing pullover-style sweaters worn by servicewomen. Flip through any fashion magazine or walk down any street in America today, and you will see just how big of an influence these WWI styles were.
Trax and Hoke are just two examples of the many heroic and strong women who served this country during WWI, and did so with style. Visit loc.gov/vets to access their collections and more.