Helen, who was my dad’s sister, was born Nov. 21, 1884 in Milton, Pennsylvania and grew up on a farm in Allenwood. She had 4 brothers and 2 sisters. Baby sister Blanche lived to age 3 but died when Helen was 4 years old. My father, Edwin was born when Helen was 7. He was a fragile baby and had to be carried around on a pillow his first year. Helen’s older brother became a doctor. I wonder, did the experience of death and illness influence Helen to go into nursing?
Or is it true what her sister, Chris told me when she was 92 years old?
She said Helen went into nursing because she was upset with her father.
She said Helen’s mother went visiting and said if Helen cared for the chickens she could keep the egg money, but … my grandfather kept the money. Aunt Chris told me that is what made Helen to decide, at age 26 to go to Phila. to become a nurse.
Around this time Victorian young women were becoming restless over their long hair, long skirts, petticoats, chaperones … and about not having the right to vote. It was the era of suffragettes. These women wanted the freedom to make choices about their life.
Helen graduated from Pennsylvania Hospital in Phila. in 1913. Five years later she would be dead. 95 years later she would be memorialized in Belgium and thanks to the internet, she would become an icon of bravery for young women around the world.
After Helen graduated, she stayed on working in Pa. Hospital. Helen wrote 100 pages to her mother.
They became my guide in telling her story. She often wrote, OH THE STORIES I’LL HAVE TO TELL WHEN I GET HOME, but she never got home.
The war in Europe broke out in 1914. Pres. Wilson won his second term in office on the basis he would not enter the war, but keep the US neutral.
In 1916, the Germans began sinking our cargo ships to Britain. The Luisitania was sunk, and the cause was under suspicion. Germany wrote to Mexico in what was called the Zimmermann Report, asking Mexico to join their side in the war. They promised when they won they would give Mexico Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. One government official suggested they should throw in New Jersey.
In the meantime, Helen wrote nothing of the news. Her letters refer to her mother as a worrier, which might explain it.
Instead, in 1916, Helen wrote she enjoyed ice skating, shopping, attending art museums and the opera. She said the streets were crowded, and everybody carried huge shopping bags, which hit your knees when you were in crowds on the street. Strawbridge & Clothier, Macy’s and John Wanamakers were the big stores in Philadelphia at the time.
In August 1916, the US was still neutral, but the doctors at Pa. Hospital felt they needed to be more prepared. It was at this time that Gen. Pershing was chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico. Pancho Villa was a Mexican renegade that had crossed our borders and killed and robbed our citizens.
The doctors met with the US Surgeon General in the Bellview Hotel and discussed the situation of the wounded soldiers. Based on that, our doctors visited the Tex-Mexican border and what they learned was that more nurses were badly needed for the health and well being of the wounded soldiers.
The doctors came back and formed a fully equipped base hospital, and set up a rehearsal tent-city in Fairmount Park.
They also formed the US Army Reserve Nurse Corps, and 60 nurses from the surrounding hospitals in Phila. enlisted. Helen was one of these nurses.
Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Bros., Johns Hopkins, and New York and a St. Louis hospital followed suit. Each hospital supplied equipment for 500 patients, and these supplies would accompany them overseas.
On April 6, 1917, the US joined the war, with Pres. Wilson promising 4 million men to be sent overseas. The nurses seemed not to worry, assuming they would be sent to a hospital somewhere in the States.
Meanwhile, Helen resigned from Pa Hospital to consider private duty.
Helen wrote: I have been offered a position at Great Neck, Long Island, a town about 40 minutes from New York. I will be a visiting nurse, and it pays $85 a month but living will cost me about $20 a month. Even at that, chances are good for the salary to go up to $100. I think too, I will like that kind of work for it wouldn’t be as confining as hospital work.
The first week in May, 1917, before taking on her new job, Helen visited her parents, Ambrose and Adda Dunkle Fairchild, as they moved from the farm in Allenwood to Adda’s former house on Main Street in Watsontown.
She wrote to my dad she needed to close the letter she was writing to him because her mother was “figiting.” That’s a new word, Helen wrote.
Her next letter to my dad on May 9 reads:
Dear Brother, Monday I got a telegram telling me to be ready to go abroad by Friday, so here I am, waiting for the pokey old government to get things ready for us to go. I am grateful to be one of the ones to go, but feel sorry for Mother … if only she wouldn’t worry so much.
Don’t feel uneasy about me, ever, for the folks at home will be notified immediately if anything should happen. Heaps of love, and write me right away. Lovingly, Sis
From the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, England, May 26, 1917: Dear Mother, Someday I will write you all that’s happened from the time we left NY last Saturday. We sailed at noon, and by 6 o’clock P.M. I felt as if the floors were coming up to meet me and the whole universe was whirling. You can
See I didn’t waste much time getting seasick, and I like to die all Sunday and Monday. Then on Tuesday we had para-typhoid vaccine. Everybody had to take it and everybody had quite a reaction. We were on the boat just 8 days.
Our boat is the SS St. Paul, classified as a fast auxiliary cruiser. It is 554’ long and 63’ wide. It can outrun most naval ships, but it is under gunned and has a combustible interior. It hauls 1,340 passengers, but there are only 600 of us on board. The other group of 60 nurses with us are from St. Louis, Mo.
Their Director is Miss Julia Stimson, and she wrote to her mother saying:
To be in the first ranks in this most dramatic event that was ever staged, and to be in the first group of women ever called for duty with the US Army…is all a too much good fortune for any person like me.
Julia Stimson wrote many letters to her mother. Because she was the director, she did not have her letters censored. Dr. Harvey Cushing from Boston Hospital, and Dr. George Crile from Cleveland Hospital, were the only two other people I know of who took notes and later translated them into books. Fortunately for Helen’s history, her path traveled along Stimson and Cushing’s path at critical times in her own story, and I could make good use of the information.
US censorship was so great that Dr. Cushing, to name one, had his Kodak taken from him upon landing in France. Photographs were not allowed until the date the war ended November 11, 1918.
On board the ship going over, Miss Simpson commented she had worried about the behavior of her St. Louis nurses until “she saw how the Phila. nurses acted.” She also tried to teach all the nurses how to march in military formation drills so that they could “march in decency and order when we have to.”
Stimson wrote in her book, Finding Themselves, when landing in Liverpool, England on May 28 “… we were welcomed by a Colonel Johnson, a man eminently fitted to take charge of 123 women. We were first taken to the Adelphi Hotel and then given liberty to see the city. The next day we nurses were taken to London by train, and tea biscuits were brought on,
And for the first time we partook of the great English custom of drinking tea. We were made to feel much wanted.”
Still in London on June 8, 1917, Helen wrote, “We were in a restaurant and the orchestra played the Star Spangled Banner and maybe we didn’t cheer. You never appreciate your own National Air until you hear it in some foreign land. On Wednesday we had tea with Miss Emily Sargent, a sister of John Singer Sargent, who is considered America’s most famous artist. We are being well treated, but I am ready to work. Heaps of love, Your very own Helen”
June 8 is memorable in that General Pershing crossed the English Channel with his small army to raise morale saying the Americans have arrived.
On June 8, Messines Ridge was blown up by many buried mines in anticipation of the Third Battle of Passchendaele.
On June 9 our nurses crossed the channel on an empty hospital boat. They didn’t think it would be an overnight trip, and not being prepared, they had to sleep in their underclothes with their life belts handy, in a clean, empty ward.
When they arrived they were given orders to stand on the docks while the ship was loaded with wounded soldiers. I can’t imagine the impression that made on our nurses, who had no experience like this.
The two nurses units parted company, with our Philadelphia unit progressing by train up the coast of France, heading north past Omaha Beach and beyond to LeTreport, France. The St. Louis group boarded a train for a short trip south.
When they arrived it was midnight, very dark … no lights … and raining. They huddled around until available transportation, which were ambulances, came to pick them up. They were driven by young women called chaufferines. When our group arrived at their destination, a British base hospital, the British nurses crawled out of their warm beds and gave them to our cold and tired nurses. In the morning they realized instead of a 500 bed hospital they would be taking over, it was now a 2,000 bed hospital that would be run only by our 60 nurses.
For the very first time, Mustard gas had been used north of the hospital just days before their arrival, and the hospital was filled to capacity with mustard gas cases.
Suffocating and burned men were dying a slow death with nothing but morphine and loving care to ease their burden. It was now June 12 and our nurses went to work to learn as quickly and as best they could. The English nurses left the entire hospital to our Americans, and the name was changed from British Base Hospital 16 to American Base Hospital 10.
Helen wrote: “The wind is rustling around the hut. I do not mind the rain so much, but the wind makes me cross, and it blows a perfect gale even in perfect weather. We never stay in on account of rain, for we have 2 rain hats, 2 rain coats, and a pair of rubber boots. A Frenchman said he didn’t know American women were so ugly.”
By mid-June the British called for volunteers from Base Hospital 10 to send surgical teams to the Front. It was in preparation for the Third Battle of Ypres-Passchendaele. (See movie War Horse, that was this battle).
Helen, two doctors, and two orderlies traveled 100 miles into Belgium. Two units like this went up, and they passed Dr. Harvey Cushing on their way. He wrote in his book he passed Dr. Harte and his little group and wrote, “They were as dusty as I was.”
The end of June Helen had arrived at a British Casualty Clearing Station
we now call MASH units. The monks at nearby St. Sixtus Monastery later wrote in their journal that 300 more white tents had been put in place. On July 30 is seemed as if the world was coming to an end, as Dr. Crile wrote the explosions were atomic-like of planetary proportions.
In this Third Battle for Passchendaele, 250,000 allies were killed, and a like number of Germans. 500,000 young men wiped out. And all within a four month period when that battle ended. The No Mans Land was an area 50 miles long and no more than 20 miles wide. THIS IS WHAT OUR NURSES EXPERIENCED! They didn’t write about it, and nobody talked. We are
fortunate this history is now coming out by a handful writers, or this history would be forever lost. Just like your grandfather’s history of his experiences of WWI. The horror itself killed the part of a m an or woman that would talk and write of it.
On August 17 Helen’s casualty clearing station No. 4 at Vleteren, Belgium, on Kamiel Inion’s farm was bombed. Three nurses were injured and I can account for two of them. I don’t know about Helen, but she and her doctor left immediately that night to travel back the 100 miles to their base hospital on the coast. The doctor signed in the next morning, according to records I have, but no one seems to able to learn anything about Helen.
Letters show her health started to fail. She had jaundice, anemia, and couldn’t hold down food.
During this illness on October 10, 1917, she wrote: I hope by next summer I can be home to help eat the peaches Irma tells me you are putting up. One of the girls brought me some great big, dandy ones, but they were so bitter I couldn’t eat them.
Sometime when you want to send me something, send me that cake that Henrietta makes, the one with the raising and nuts, for that will save well.
Just as soon as I get home I am going to get dresses all colors of the rainbow, but never again blue serge or a blue felt hat. Gee, now I know how the kids in orphan asylums must feel when they all have to wear the same kind of clothes.
Rained some last night and is frightfully windy and cold. I put on some woolen clothing for we do not have any fires in the hut yet, but in spite of two pairs of stockings my feet are still cold. Right now I stopped writing and got two hot water bottles and have my feet on one and the other on my lap.
Helen was admitted to a British General Hospital nearby in December, and had surgery January 15.
“They operated, suspecting ulcers, but they found none, according to her autopsy report I found at College of Physicians and Surgeons in Phila. Three days later she went into a coma and died a painful death of “acute yellow atrophy of the liver,” a reaction to the chloroform anesthetic.
She was given a funeral with full military honors in a small cemetery, and later removed to Somme American Military Cemetery in Bony, France.
When she was disinterred, it was officially noted she was 5’2” tall and c. 122 pounds. She was dressed in a full military nurses uniform, minus the cape. I inherited her cape.
Her fellow nurses wrote home telling how they lined her casket with soft material and a blanket. She was fortunate, because soldiers were merely wrapped in a blanket and buried in the mud along with five other soldiers in a trench 6’ feet wide and 12’ long. One of the nurse’s relatives sent me a copy of the letter describing how they went to the casket makers’ shed and lined her casket. A teacher wrote to me telling me he had letters written by his grandfather naming himself and two others who had been pall bearers at Helen’s funeral.
Her parents had received the usual letter: It is with regret that I have to inform you of the death of your daughter, Miss Helen Fairchild RN, on January 18, 1918, while on duty with the Base Hospital 10, American Expeditionary Forces, France. D.E. Thompson, Superintendent of Army Nurse Corps.
I have many letters of sympathy written by those who knew her, and on one letter are tear stains. I’m sure they are her mother’s tears.
Her Chaplain Jefferys later would write in the History of Philadelphia in WWI that “Nurse Helen Fairchild died from her work at the Front.”
I feel he would know, and that he would speak the truth.
Also in Philadelphia, the returning nurses formed a Helen Fairchild American Legion Nurses’ Post. Since women could not join men’s posts,
women formed their own Legion Posts. The Helen Fairchild Post disbanded just a few years ago.
The American Legion Magazine in 2001 told Helen’s story and quoted President Wilson as he referred to these brave nurses who galvanized support for the 19th Amendment of the Constitution allowing women to vote. saying, “How can we admit them to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
In 2010 my daughter took me to Belgium and France to visit the site of the casualty clearing station, not far from Ypres and Passchendaele, and to Somme Cemetery where Helen is buried. It was an emotional experience.
The Belgians knew I had written a book, and knew my family had a loss like they all did, and greeted me by saying, “Welcome Home.”
My friend, Luc Inion held a ceremony in Dozinghem Cemetery, site of CCS No. 4. He told how Helen answered the call and came to them and for them and gave her life. He told the story in Flemish, Dutch and English, and
all the villagers of Vleteren learned more of their own history, and America’s history. As a consequence, the villagers count Helen among their heroes and last month showed her photo and story in their own ceremony. The country of Belgium has allotted one million euros for three small cemeteries, for repair of roads and whatever is necessary to remember the 100th anniversary of WWI in 2014. Since the governor of Flanders attended our ceremony,
Luc and I feel giving Helen’s history in a ceremony which he organized brought attention to this unknown American and little Dozinghem Cemetery and its casualty clearing station that once stood on Belgian farmland.
If Helen had to give her life to a group of people, or a country, Belgium was the right one. They are kind and grateful people.
At Menin Gate, Europe’s most prestigious war memorial, Luc, my daughter Susan Hefty DeBartolo and I placed a wreath for Helen, and they honored us by having me read:
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them,
Nor the years condemn, At the going down of the sun,
And in the morning, We will remember them.”
Nelle Fairchild Rote
Illustrations: Over 300 pictures from 1917, obtained from magazines, postcards, photos, family archives, Imperial War Museum, Carlisle War College, eBay purchases, and photos from friends.
Nurse Fairchild’s 16 letters: December 1916, thru December 31, 1917.
* * * * *
"Nurse Fairchild died from her work at the Front," wrote Chaplain E.M. Jefferys of Pennsylvania Hospital Unit 10, U.S.A., in Philadelphia in the Great War, 1914-1919. Pub. 1922.
The book Nurse Helen Fairchild World War I is out of print.
There were 400 hard cover books printed.
Completely sold out.
© Nelle Fairchild Hefty Rote 2004.
All rights reserved—no part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the author or publishers, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in magazines or newspapers. Material out of copyright may be used, giving proper credit to original authors, sources, and book, Nurse Helen Fairchild.
Links to more information on Nurse Helen Fairchild
"History Lookback: Army Nurse Corps"
"The Army Nurse Corps in World War II"