In Her Words

Letter from Julia C. Stimson to her family, May 4, 1917

The American Red Cross began organizing military hospital units in 1916, in anticipation of U.S. entry in the First World War. Julia C. Stimson, director of the Washington University Training School for Nurses, joined other physicians and nurses from St. Louis in forming Base Hospital 21. The unit was one of the first to go overseas after the United States entered the war, sailing from New York in May 1917.

Julia Stimson served as chief nurse of Base Hospital 21 in Rouen, France until April 1918, when she was appointed chief nurse of the American Red Cross. Seven months later Stimson was appointed chief nurse of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris.

Rev. Henry A. Stimson, father of Julia C. Stimson, compiled his daughter’s letters to her family into a book, Finding Themselves. Published in 1918 (before the end of the war), Finding Themselves tells of the experiences and gradual changes in the nurses as they “found themselves” through days and nights of unrelenting and difficult service.

The following is the first letter from Julia Stimson to her family. The members of Base Hospital 21 left St. Louis on May 17, 1917 and sailed from New York two days later.

St. Louis, May 4, 1917

Dearest Mother and Dad –

      As you have probably seen by the papers, we all are in the midst of alarms. We have had less than a week’s notice to get ready for mobilization for service in France, and so it has been a rushing week. Last Saturday afternoon we received word we were likely to be called out soon – in two or three weeks – but on Tuesday night I received word to have the nurses ready by Saturday. It is now Friday evening and most of the nurses are ready, but it is quite certain we won’t be leaving for several days as the doctors’ uniforms, for instance, won’t be ready till next Wednesday. I am glad indeed for the extra time. The nurses can take a very small steamer trunk and a suitcase. As we apparently are to be sent abroad “for the duration of the war” it is rather a puzzle to know what to take.

      Of course this order for foreign service is playing havoc with the personnel of the Unit, so few expected to be called for duty abroad. In fact no one expected a call of this sort at all. I have been quite disgusted with the quitters who, for one reason or another, have begged to be excused. I have had about ten drop out, but I am finding substitutes who I think will be much more desirable than such weak-kneed individuals. But every substitution means a great deal of work and much telegraphing; for each name has to be approved at Washington, and after physical examinations are made here they also have again to be approved at Washington. I have had a number sent back for more complete details. I am to have a detachment of Kansas City nurses attached to my corps. Ten, and maybe more, for there are to be sixty-five, and I had only fifty in my original order and some of these have been dropped or have had to fall out. Two whose names I submitted I have had to drop by orders from Washington because they were born in Germany. So there is much to do, you see.

Celebration for Base Hospital 21 in front of Barnes Hospital, May 7, 1917
Celebration for Base Hospital 21 in front of Barnes Hospital, May 7, 1917

      It is now Sunday, and we are going down to hear [French General Marshall Joseph] Joffre speak if we can get into the Coliseum. He and his staff are coming out to review the Unit at the [Barnes] hospital to-morrow. I do hope that by this time next Sunday we shall be on our way, for waiting around after one is ready is very trying, particularly when people of all sorts are weeping farewells over you all the time. Well, anyway, here is loads of love to you all. We know it is the biggest opportunity of our lives.

      People are being wonderful and are rallying around us splendidly. We are offered more help than we can possibly use. It has been pretty fatiguing but I am beginning to realize that I can take things more slowly now. Naturally I wanted to be as nearly ready with all my force by Saturday as I possibly could be. You can imagine the number of questions I have had to make up answers for, that come to me every hour of the day and night, not to mention all the details I have to impress upon many people, those who go, and those who stay.

Base Hospital 21 nurses en route to London, May 1917
Base Hospital 21 nurses on board the S. S. St. Paul, May 1917

      But it is all wonderful beyond belief. I just wish I had the words to express what I think about this opportunity. Aside from what we think about the causes and principles involved, and the tremendous satisfaction of having a chance to help work them out, to be in the front ranks in this most dramatic event that ever was staged, and to be in the first group of women ever called out for duty with the United States Army, and in the first part of the army ever sent off on an expeditionary affair of this sort, is all too much good fortune for any one person like me. The responsibility of my big job of whipping into shape a band of heterogeneously trained nurses and of competing for loyalty and spirit with groups of nurses from the East, and mostly all from one school, seems almost an overwhelming job, but naturally I am going to do my very best. I have some splendid women to help me in the executive line, and although we do not know each other’s ways at all we will do what we can. As for the men, we could not have a more splendid group to work with. I shall have every possible help from them. Personally I am feeling fine and oh, so keyed up. I cannot ever be worthy of all the honor and opportunities that have come to me, not to mention all the happiness. It seems as if my life has just overflowed with good things and that I can never live long enough to put back into the world all that has been given to me.

      My little nurses* are being so fine. The present Senior class of thirty-two would have been my first real class, the first I have taken all through, and they are weeping around that I am not going to be here to graduate them. But to-morrow night after chapel I am to have a heart-to-heart talk with them and I believe I can make them feel better.

* Miss Stimson was then superintendent of the Washington University Training School for Nurses.

Next letter from Julia Stimson to her family (June 6, 1917)>>