During World War One, people in Minnesota made a major contribution to The Great War effort. Minnesota women were among them. At home, they did many things to help, such as darn socks, make bandages, pack comfort kits, and offer first aid classes. More than 120 of them chose to be close to the front lines in Europe. Their names included Ruby, Marion, Grace, Marguerite, Julia, Aileen, Verna, Leila, Mary, Alice, Helen, Dee, and Rose. Their jobs were many, such as canteener, secretary, nurse, supply-truck driver, and social worker. They, like the men they helped, held steadfast.
As part of ongoing remembrances during the war’s centenary years through 2018, we share below an exceprt from “Awfully Busy These Days: Red Cross Women in France During World War I” by Nancy O’Brien Wagner and published in the Minnesota History Magazine, Spring 2012.
Late train arrivals were just one of many wartime annoyances. Flies, lice, fleas, hives, chilblains–nearly every woman complained of these. Food shortages, food and coal rationing, and high prices were popular topics, too. Marion Backus wrote: “Between cooties, fleas, and hives I am having an interesting time. The last two bother me most…the only things I miss are pie and cake. When I get home am going to eat a dozen pies right straight at one lick, and then a strawberry short cake.”
Alice O’Brien dismissed these discomforts with suspiciously adamant protests.
All your letters carry messages of Sympathy such as–I must be working so hard–not enough food–not enough sleep–feet must be sore, etc. etc. I am sorry if my letters have given you that impression because it is not a true one. Of course we do work hard but we love it and nothing is as healthy as hard work. We have fine beds, and I assure you we use them a lot. I have never been better in my life–never–and I have everything I need.
Everything but intact socks, it appears. In July Alice wrote, “Mugs [Marguerite Davis] came into the room last night and said that she realized, for the first time, how far we were from home. You bet we’re a long way off when I started darning.” She went on to request that socks be sent from St. Paul. They arrived four months later, in the hands of Grace Mary Bell, an acquaintance who had signed on as a canteener. She described the meeting for Alice’s parents: “I delivered safely into her hands sundry articles at which point she devoutly remarked ‘Thank the Lord, I can stop darning!'”
Cases of homesicknesses developed, too, though few would admit it. Dee Smith wrote from Paris with insightful candor:
The whole idea here is anything to keep the morale of the men as high as possible, & everyone is so proud of them that no one begrudges them a good time. It is fine for the girls, too, tho no one ever seems to think they may get lonely and discouraged. I have met an occasional one who was frankly homesick, & don’t doubt there are others who are, but keep it to themselves. I think I might be if I didn’t have lots of work, but I haven’t time to think of being homesick. I sometimes even forget there is a war.
Alone in a foreign land, fighting a war with an uncertain outcome, these women were determined not to let their comrades or their country down. Helen Scriver summed up these attitudes: “My conclusions are always the same, namely if others can speak this language, I can, if the rest can life in these houses, so can I and if the rest can hold their jobs, I must be able to hold mine. It is a good philosophy.”
Helen’s steadfast determination was common, and the volunteers’ unflinching efforts made the work of the American Red Cross possible. For example, nurse Marion Backus was transferred to Evacuation Hospital #110 in Villers-Daucourt in September 1918. After a long day of travel, she went on duty that night and stayed on for two weeks. “If anybody had told me that I could take care of more than two ether patients before I came over here I would have laughed and thought them joking. But now I can watch 45 in one ward, 36 in the next and never wink an eye.”
In the fall of 1918, Marguerite Davis and Alice O’Brien watched as train after train of men unloaded at their camp near Chantilly. “We are awfully busy these days,” Alice wrote home. On September 7, their friend Doris Kellogg reported that, with just three other women, they served 1,157 meals in their canteen in three-and-a-half hours; on September 18, they dished up 1,300 meals, and on October 20, more than 1,600.
Good humor, resourcefulness, and flexibility were invaluable traits for Red Cross volunteers. When asked, these women dropped their work and jumped to do whatever was needed. Margaret MacLaren enlisted as a hospital worker, then began running a canteen. Soon, she was driving a supply truck. Minneapolitan Winifred Swift volunteered as a physiological chemist at Red Cross Hospital #2 in Paris, helping to research the nature and treatment of gas gangrene. “During the heavy work following the offensive in spring 1918 and summer, research work was abandoned to give more hands for the task of caring for the wounded…all spare moments were given to relieve the nurses of such work as might be done by those less trained.”