World War I was a profound event that played an important role in the placement and future advancement of women within the military. It demonstrated that women were not only capable of duties supporting active military troops, but that their own enlistment in the military was invaluable in multiple capacities.
This was particularly true when discussing nurses and the service and care that they provided the U.S. military. During WWI, both the Navy and the Army allowed women to become more mobilized than ever before.
According to the United States Army, the Army Nurse Corps had approximately 403 nurses who were active at the onset of the war and roughly 170 reserve nurses. Within a month of the U.S. entering World War I, some of the nurses who would serve overseas were sent to Europe. This was in advance of the troops and allowed them to set up base hospitals. In October 1917, some six months after their arrival in Europe, they began serving with the American Expeditionary Forces upon the request of Gen. John J. Pershing. The number of nurses rose significantly, as women enlisted by the thousands, and by the last year of the war there were approximately 12,000 active nurses from the Army Nurse Corps serving across the world. By November 11, 1918, there were some 21,480 enlisted nurses serving, with more than 10,000 of them stationed and serving overseas.
At the beginning of the war, the Navy Nurse Corps also contributed over 160 active duty nurses; however, the number of navy nurses grew slowly compared to the army but rounded out to nearly 1400 by the end of the war. The Red Cross was also a major contributor when it came to nurses during the war. Much of the care for American servicemen came from the Red Cross, which served as a nursing reserve to the navy and army.
While in service, nurses carried out a number of critical functions. For instance, they treated numerous types of wounds, as well as infections and mustard gas burns. They were also faced with soldiers suffering from emotional injuries, including shell-shock. Nurses treated patients near or just behind the front lines at field hospitals or at evacuation stations or clearing houses. Nurses could be found at base stations, which were generally far removed from battle; however, they also served in troop transports and transport ships. Some nurses even drove ambulances.
World War I brought about many changes in terms of medical care and medicine. The importance of cleanliness and its association with reduced infections was a major step forward in the saving of lives. Blood transfusions were also relatively new during this time and various medicines were used in the care of the wounded. Dakin solution, for example, was an antiseptic solution made using diluted boric acid and sodium hypochlorite. It was used to irrigate wounds before closure. Other medications that were frequently used included cocaine hydrochloric, as a local anesthetic, and chloroform, as both a general anesthetic in surgeries and a sedative. For pain, some of the common painkillers or analgesics used at the time included sodium salicylate, elixir of opium or Opii Tinctura Camphorata, and morphin sulphate.
The working conditions for nurses overseas were generally poor. Typically, nurses had to adjust to many things that were uncomfortable or limited their ability to provide care. Long hours, extreme cold and poor weather conditions were just a few of the adjustments that needed to made, along with seeing and treating severe and often horrifying injuries with minimal equipment. Nurses faced other difficulties as well. For example, nurses serving the army were not afforded the status of officers. At times, this created a problem for nurses treating patients, as their authority was undermined or outright not accepted by some, particularly medics.
Another major hurdle for nurses was also a deadly one. Near the end of the war, in 1918, nurses and the rest of the world were faced with a large scale flu epidemic. This epidemic was deadlier than the war itself and was responsible for a majority of the deaths involving nurses. During WWI there were over two hundred army nurses who died while in service and thirty-six navy nurses. By the end of the war nearly three hundred Red Cross nurses had also lost their lives.
Nurses received awards for their service in the war, although some awards were given posthumously. Twenty-four nurses were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, twenty-eight received the French Croix de Guerre, and the British Royal Red Cross was awarded to sixty-nine. The army's second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, was also awarded to two nurses, and the navy awarded Navy Crosses to four of its nurses.
Nurses in World War I were an undeniably important part of the deadly and bloody war that was World War I. Their skills helped save the lives of countless soldiers, and their mere presence served as a balm to many of the injured and dying. The efforts and accomplishments of these brave nurses also began a forward advancement for women who were not nurses.