Armistice Day, World War I, and the Birth of the Minnesota Red Cross

Minnesota Red Cross volunteers supported World War I efforts. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

By Nancy O’Brien Wagner

This Sunday morning, at eleven o’clock, you may hear the ringing of church bells pealing out over the state. This tribute marks the centennial of Armistice Day – the end of World War I, which occurred on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month– November 11, 1918.

Nowadays, we celebrate November 11 as Veteran’s Day – a holiday to acknowledge the impact and efforts of all of our nation’s veterans. This year, however, it seems appropriate to draw special attention to the history and legacy of World War I – or the Great War as it was called then.

It is impossible to over-state how significant World War I was to our country. Beyond the military events, the War impacted our economy, our transportation system, our politics, and our culture. One of the greatest legacies of the War was the impact on the development of the American Red Cross.

Though the American Red Cross was founded in Washington D.C. in 1881, its presence and impact throughout the nation had been sporadic. During its first three decades, local and national Red Cross volunteers had responded to floods, droughts, fires, earthquakes, and the Spanish-American war of 1898. By the 1910s, the organization was muted – and the Minnesota Red Cross chapters were frail- if they existed at all. World War I changed that.

Within weeks of the U.S entering the war, the critical importance of the Red Cross was evident. In May 1917, the Red Cross was placed under the direction of President Woodrow Wilson’s War Council, which directed organizations and industries needed in the war effort. Across the nation, millions of people donated and signed up to volunteer for the Red Cross. In Minnesota, hundreds of thousands joined the Red Cross. They stepped forward in a spirit of can-do optimism, loyalty, and sacrifice. Most of those worked locally, but others served overseas.

“I summon you to comradeship in the Red Cross” – U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s call to service. Poster by Harrison Fisher, 1918. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Locally, Red Cross volunteers operated canteens for soldiers at the railroad depots, offered support to soldiers’ families, and organized recreation events for soldiers at Fort Snelling. They offered classes in First Aid, Elementary Hygiene, and Home Dietetics. For overseas, Minnesota members sponsored Base Hospital No. 26 in Allerey, France, and raised nearly $50,000 to supply the hospital with equipment and bandages. Members sent new and used trucks, ambulances, and cars to Europe. In addition, volunteers produced 5,842,078 surgical dressings, knitted 94,439 sweaters, produced 14,522 garments for refugees, and packed 38,551 “comfort kits” with shaving supplies, cigarettes, chewing gum, and other essentials.

For many local volunteers (who were mostly women), this effort expanded their social circles and built up their sense of community: As one Red Cross scholar said, “The big thing…in this Red Cross work has been the bringing together of women of all nationalities, all social strata, all creeds, and all religions onto a common, harmonious unit.”

In addition to local efforts, hundreds of Minnesotans served as Red Cross volunteers in Europe. Red Cross volunteers established and offered service from 551 stations, including 24 hospitals and 12 convalescent homes for soldiers and 130 canteens. They established emergency depots of medical supplies for the American Army and for French hospitals. The Red Cross also produced and supplied all necessary splints, nitrous oxide anesthetic, and oxygen for the Army. There were also reconstruction and re-education efforts for crippled and disabled men, recreation and welfare service, hospital service, hospital farms and gardens, moving pictures for hospitals, grave photography, civilian relief, relief of French soldiers’ families, children’s relief, and anti-tuberculosis relief. The largest group of Red Cross volunteers was nurses, who faced particular dangers. Nurses Miss Anna M. Dahlby of St. Paul and Miss Mary H. Cummings of North St. Paul both died while on duty.

The red poppy is the flower symbolic for remembering those who fought in WWI and the wars following, especially overseas. Photo by Lynette Nyman

After the war ended on November 11, 1918, the Red Cross continued to its war-related work. Overseas, the Red Cross helped at hospitals, camps, and transportation depots. Locally, Red Cross volunteers continued to staff booths at train depots to assist soldiers as they traveled home, and completed paperwork to apply for support services. While many Red Cross chapters shuttered or closed completely, other chapters in larger cities began to shift their attention to address issues such as public health (the Spanish Flu) and natural disasters (the Cloquet Fire). Both the St. Paul and the Minneapolis Chapters offered continuous service from 1917 on- and mark that year as their true foundation date.

In Minnesota, many of the women who served overseas and lead local Red Cross efforts used their strengthened problem-solving, organizational, and networking skills to tackle local needs. Many became active in the Women’s Overseas Service League, and others took an active role in promoting the women’s right to vote and the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Local museums, hospitals, libraries, schools, orchestras, and charities all benefited from this generation of generous and civic-minded women.

In the decades since, the Minnesota Red Cross has continued to respond to both international and local needs, evolving to fulfill new roles such as blood services, and shifting out of old ones — no more knitting sweaters.

When you hear the bells toll this Sunday, recall both the relief and joy at the conclusion of the Great War, but also mark the creation of the Minnesota Red Cross – and the spirit of optimism, loyalty, and sacrifice that continue to define us as Minnesotans.

Happy Armistice Day.

Nancy O’Brien Wagner is a local historian and author of Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O’Brien. She is the proud granddaughter of two World War I soldiers, and great-niece of two World War I Red Cross volunteers.

Red Cross Women in France during World War I

Dee Smith, 36, served with the American Red Cross as secretary in Paris, during World War I. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society collection.
Dee Smith, 36, served with the American Red Cross as secretary in Paris, during World War I. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society collection.

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.”

World War I-era, 1914-1918, Red Cross poster in the Minnesota Historical Society collection.
World War I-era, 1914-1918, Red Cross poster in the Minnesota Historical Society collection.

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.”

To read the full article, click here.
To learn more about the American Red Cross during World War I, click here.

Chicks, Goslings and A Quilt for Red Cross

Olufine Kristofa Olsdotter Fjeld, 1914. (Photo provided courtesy of great-granddaughter Melanie Moser)
Olufine Kristofa Olsdotter Fjeld, near Adrian, Minnesota, 1914. (Photo provided courtesy of great-granddaughter Melanie Moser)

Olufine Fjeld was a busy farm wife when she wrote a letter to her family in Norway in 1918. There were chicks, goslings and children to tend to. There were crops to sow. There was weather to mind. Dangerous storms had recently swept across nearby areas, killing 18 people and injuring 150.  And there was patchwork to do for a quilt that would help raise money for the American Red Cross and its work during the Great War (WWI).

“I made a quilt with red, white and blue, which I gave to the Red Cross; I made a cloth for the middle square in the quilt, and sewed 48 small pieces which should resemble stars; then I sent the quilt to the Red Cross headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, and now one day I received a letter full of thanks and praise.”

Olufine felt the need to support the war effort. Her husband and oldest son both had registered for the military and waited for their call to service. She recognized the bounty in her life while others were forced to do with less or without.

The quilt made by Olufine Fjeld for the American Red Cross. (Photo provided courtesy of great-granddaughter Melanie Moser)
The quilt made by Olufine Fjeld for the American Red Cross. (Photo provided courtesy of great-granddaughter Melanie Moser)

“And now I hear that you have to use ration cards for foods; such things we have not seen here, yet it is only sugar and wheat flour we cannot buy in as large quantities as we have been used to; except for this, one can buy as much as one wants of everything else.”

Olufine was motivated to make a quilt made by hand–stitch by stitch for humanitarian relief. And winter was the time for her to finish the patchwork, sewing together cloth patches before sowing beans, cucumbers and pumpkins. For the patches she used silk patches purchased through a magazine.

“The ones I got this winter are smaller, the reason is, I guess, that everything is more expensive, and these large clothing magazines use the fabric in a better way; these patches are quite beautiful; some of them are all silk, some half silk.”

Like so many others during her time, Olufine stepped up to help others in need. She turned a personal passion into a means for easing the suffering of others. We can only hope that her quilt made its way to a home, bringing warmth and comfort. And that she continued for many more years writing home to her loveliest Norway.

“Now it is late, almost ten thirty, I have to go out and look after the small goslings before I go to bed…the best of greetings from Fina, and write soon.

Olufine Fjeld's 1918 letter to her family in Norway. (Photo provided courtesy of Halvor Skurtveit)
Olufine Fjeld’s 1918 letter to her family in Norway. (Photo provided courtesy of Halvor Skurtveit)

Thank you, to Melanie Moser, for bringing her great-grandmother’s story to our attention. Thank you to historian Halvor Skurtviet for providing Olufine’s letter and translation from Norwegian. And thanks also to American Red Cross archivist Susan Watson for sending  along information about Red Cross quilts during the Great War.

Click here to learn more about the American Red Cross, its history and how you can get involved.

Story written by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross.