WWI journal by Hedvig Grund Hammann
116 Decatur Road, Havertown, PA
April 29th, 1920


It was just 2 years ago on April 16th, that I arrived at Chattanooga, in sunny Tennessee, on what happened to be a very rainy morning. From the station I reached Fort Oglethorpe, some ten miles south of the city, with the assistance of two officers, who were going there. This was my first Red Cross appointment.

The fort, an old Civil War post, is ideally located in Chickamauga Park, Ga. The rain, which greeted me on my arrival, was deceiving, for the summer is all sunshine and at this very moment, while here in the north we are still weathering storms, the roses are in full bloom, lawns green and even the woods.

The hospital was old, but had many new wards, beautifully built, hardwood floors and screened porches, large, modern and convenient. The nurses lived in wards also, as the nurses’ home had not been completed.

It was here I spent ten of the happiest weeks of my life – met delightful girls, learned something of the life and characteristics of the American soldier and saw and felt something of that wonderful comradeship which seemed to exist in the army between all concerned, and which I have never known so fully anywhere else.

Then the order came from Washington to “proceed at once” to New York to mobilize with Unit No. 11 for service overseas, and after 2 weeks at Hoboken (?) and four weeks in New York City we were on our way at last. Our ship, the White Star Liner “Cretic“, was an old English fruit freighter, carrying women passengers for the first time. Besides our unit, consisting of 106 nurses, there were 2400 troops, and among them I discovered two Ishpeming boys. The remainder of the cargo consisted of heavy artillery and ammunition. The ship was armed with one gun, but we were surrounded on all sides by the other ships of the convoy, 13 of them, including one cruiser and one destroyer. The day we left New York was the hottest in the history of New York and the first two days out were very uncomfortable. After that we were equally uncomfortable on account of the cold, as we took a northern route and on August 13th we saw an iceberg on the south side of the convoy. We were then 20 miles south of Newfoundland. As we entered the danger zone, we were met by a large number of destroyers, and later in the channel we had two airplanes as scouts as well. Land in sight, it surely did not look dangerous, but just off the shore of Ireland, where the Tuscania had been sunk, the exact location of a German submarine base was pointed out to us. During the entire voyage we had no lights. The boys could not even smoke after 8 p.m. This darkness at night was very depressing and also caused the first casualty among our number. One nurse fell down the gangway from the upper to the lower deck and broke her arm and has been incapacitated for duty ever since. The last two nights everyone slept fully dressed and a larger number of men were on guard duty all over the ship.

We landed in Liverpool and from there on our trip was tiresome to say the least, but we enjoyed it nevertheless. We were entertained at tea by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, saw the place where the Mayflower set sail for the new world at Southampton, also the room above the old city gate where they made their final decision before sailing.

We crossed the channel in England’s finest hospital ship, which Germany had coveted for Davy Jones’ Locker since the beginning of the war. We arrived in Le Havre just a few hours after an air raid. The next day we had our first delightful glimpse of the wonderful Paris. The French say of us: “The Americans want to see France in fifteen minutes” – and so it was, almost. The Louvre, The Gardens, the architecture of the bridges, and in the distance the spires of the beautiful Notre Dame. I wanted to see it all at once, – and was told it could not be done – we had just three hours between trains.

Two days later we donned our uniforms and caps and went on duty at Base Hospital No. 11, which was rapidly filling with patients from Chateau Thierry and various places. At first there were two nurses on duty in each ward, and about twelve on night duty, but before many days fifty were transferred and several sent to the front – leaving not more than about thirty-five.

Sunday morning, October 13th, a new ward was opened and about fifty patients were brought in, mostly stretcher cases, wounded in the Argonne drive and many were in serious condition. I was given charge of Ward 11 with one ward master assisting me. The patients had to be fed, washed and have clean clothes, their wounds dressed, tetanus anti toxin (for prevention of lock jaw) and all the numerous small details besides. One of the night nurses helped all morning, but for many days the work was very heavy. Eight hour duty was a myth those days. Those patients were not cared for as I should have liked. They did not have any fancy dishes served them, but they were given three meals a day, clean beds, wounds dressed daily and kept as comfortable as possible. Their fortitude was the most wonderful thing I ever witnessed – a complaint was almost unheard of and yet time and again they looked death in the face, as unflinchingly as they would have “gone over the top” at the Argonneor St. Mihiel, but fortunately it passed them by and I had the joy of seeing even my tow most seriously wounded patients go home in uniform.

One morning I came to the ward and found thirteen new patients, all German prisoners, very badly wounded. They were the most pitiful objects I have ever seen – so worn out and emaciated, and such wounds as I had never before seen. Some of them were only boys.

The Flu also found its way into our camp, though later we received honorable mention from Gen. Pershing for having it under better control than any hospital in France. The beds were alternately turned head to foot and all were required to wear masks. The patients were screened by sheets hung between the rafters, (we had no ceiling) and many windows opened to insure fresh air.

Of course, you have heard of the rain and mud. It rained all winter. I began to wonder how many miles wide the Loire River would be if it kept on much longer. It must have risen twenty feet, and that is the way every year.

Until after the armistice we had no heat whatever – not even in the dining hall and with all that rain it began to be very gloomy and depressing. The barracks and wards were portable, made of one inch lumber, single thickness. The rain poured through the roof like a sieve at times.

At Christmas time the wards were decorated with holly and mistletoe. At 5 a.m. on Christmas morning the nurses, dressed in white uniforms for the occasion, walked through the wards singing carols. The only light was the candle each nurse carried in her hands. From one ward to the other they all went, until finally they reached the German prison ward, which was next door to mine. My prisoners had been transferred to their own ward by that time. One song which was sung was “Silent Night, Holy Night”. The Germans sat up in their beds or up on their elbows and tears rolled down their faces as they said, as if they could not believe their eyes: “And the American sisters do this for us.” They spoke of it many times thereafter.

In January Base Hospital No. 11 was relieved from duty and in its place Evacuation No. 28 began its function. Patients were now rushed through rapidly on their way home. We still had the Flu with us – although just one ward was isolated for that purpose. But the majority of the patients were convalescents.

Here also the Red Cross found its great work. During the war there was no lack of interest and excitement, a sense of something to be accomplished. When it was over reaction set in, morale was lowered, and it was everyone’s personal battle to keep up this spirit. Boys sat on their bunks and fought over and over the battles in which they had participated. Some of them jokingly decided what they would be in the next war, which was anything from a Red Cross nurse to a General. The Red Cross hut was open to the boys at all times. They served ice cream every afternoon and gave entertainments every evening. They provided eggs, ice cream, chicken soup for the sick boys – and sweaters, mufflers, books, magazines, etc., to all. Boys would go to the Red Cross hut and ask for the most impossible things – and get them.

We remained on duty here until May, when the hospital was officially closed and once more we received our “proceed at once”.

Before that order came, however, I had two wonderful opportunities of visiting, first Paris, Reims and Chateau Thierry – in January – then in the spring Southern France, the Pyrenees, The Riviera, and the Alps and also the Rhine Valley in Germany, Brussels (Belgium) and Paris once more.

We left on July 6th from Brest, on the wonderful “Imperator“, now Berengaria, once Germany’s pride, sister ship of the Leviathan, carrying 13,000, including crew. We arrived in New York July 13th. Now that it is over, I can look back and marvel that such a privilege should have been mine. And we of the Army Nurse Corps, who were given that privilege, will carry with us the memories of it through all our lives. It would not be easy to forget the look of happiness on the tired faces of the soldiers when they found themselves in a hospital, and that the nurse was a “real American girl”, something that to many of them had been nothing but a memory since leaving God’s country, as they all called the States. And other things, photographed indelibly on our memories are the battlefields, the beautiful ruined cathedrals, the destroyed cities. And Germany, enemy though she was to us, we found a very fairyland of beauty. But the most beautiful was Paris – to me she seems a queen of cities.

But in spite of it all, I quite agree with Van Dyke:

Oh, London is a man’s town, there’s power in the air,
And Paris is a woman’s town, with flowers in her hair,
And it’s sweet to dream of Venice and it’s great to study Rome,
But when it comes to living, there’s no place like home.

I know that Europe’s wonderful, but something seems to lack,
The past is too much with her, and the people looking back;
But the glory of the present is to make the future free –
We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.

Then it’s home again and home again, America for me!
I want a ship that’s westward bound to plow the rolling sea,
To the blessed land of room enough beyond the ocean bars,
Where the air is full of sunshine and the flag is full of stars.

Footnotes

  1. Cretic: see http://www.greatships.net/cretic.html for brief history and many postcards of this ship
  2. Tuscania: The Tuscania was a luxury Ocean liner that was converted to a Troopship. It had a British registry, and crew. After four years of service a German U-boat sent the Tuscania to the bottom of the North Channel Sea.
  3. Davy Jones’ Locker: The bottom of the sea, especially as the grave of all who perish at sea.
  4. Chateau Thierry: Battle on June 3-4, followed by the Battle of Belleau Wood June 6-26, won by Allies
  5. Argonne: Meuse-Argonne Offensive September November 1918, ended when the Armistice was announced (west of Verdun) General John Pershing was given overall command of the operation and American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was given the main attacking role. ColonelGeorge Marshall, had the difficult task of bringing 400,000 troops from the successful St Mihiel campaign to take part in the offensive
  6. St. Mihiel (south of Verdun): US Army’s first offensive September 1918, won by the Allies
  7. Gen. Pershing: The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was under his command
  8. Loire River: major river in central, then western France, flowing west into the Atlantic Ocean
  9. Brest: port city in Brittany, on the western coast of France
  10. Imperator: see http://www.ocean-liners.com/ships/imperator.asp for pictures and a brief history
  11. Leviathan: see http://www.ocean-liners.com/ships/vat.asp for pictures and a brief history
  12. Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933): American poet, and Professor English Literature at Princeton – Van Dyke acted as American Minister to the Netherlands during WW1, and was also awarded with the Legion of Honour for his naval service as a chaplain. To read the entire poem above, go to: http://poeticportal.net/VWXYZ/vandyke-h.html

References and transcription from original journal excerpt by Barbara Melbye Janssen, granddaughter to Gerhard.