Letters from World War I

Chief Nurse Julia Stimson, to her parents , October 13-18, 1918

Refer to caption
Chief Nurse Julia Stimson at her desk, France, 1918
Courtesy US Army Heritage and Education Center


Courtesy Medical Center Archives of New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell

Julia Stimson had a prominent career as a nurse. She worked tirelessly and effectively as the chief nurse of Base Hospital 21, in Rouen, France. As a result, Stimson was asked in April 1918 to lead the Red Cross Nursing Service, the primary organization of American nurses, in France. In October, the American Expeditionary Forces asked Stimson to become the director of its nursing service. She wrote to her parents about her concerns regarding the new position.

one page of a typed letter


Sunday October 13, 18

[Handwritten: Dearest Dad & Mother]

This is an extraordinary place for me to befor Iam down at Rouen and as it has been three months since I was here last it seems extraordinary and certainly a lot of water has run under the bridge since July 13th. I came down last night and to return to night As always people here are so good to me and it seems just like coming home. Once more I am here under great mental stress. I had planned for two weeks to come down, them things happened last week and I could not leave even for twentyfour hours and this time it looked as tho there would be no hitch even up to two oclock Saturday (yesterday I was to leave at 5.) Then at two-thirty in walked General Ireland and Col. Murphyand seated themselves in great solemnity. As General Ireland had been up to my office at12.30 to say goodby as he said he was leaving for the States at once, I was a bit surprised to see him back again. Then he broke the news to me that he wished me to be Chief Nurse of the Army Nurse Corps of the A.E.F. It was a most staggering blow and made feel as though I had actually been struck in the solar plexus. I told the General right off that myidea of the job of the Chief Nurse was a mighty different one from the one that had been exhibited for the past year. He said he hoped it was and that all I needed to do was to go ahead and say what I wanted the job to be and that I would have every possible backing and assistance. We talked a little more and he told me to “jump right on the train and go down to Tours and talk to General McCaw the new Chief Surgeon”. He said he would telephone him at once when I was coming. I said Id needed a bit of time before I would be ready to talk to the General but that Id go down Tuesday. So they got up and left and there were people waiting to see me who had appointments wiht me so I had them in and on went the days work. I had a chance to speak just a word to the Colonel before I left. He suggested what I would have done anyway that I try to put in w writing what I thought the job should be. Then I flew for the train when Isabelle came with my little bag to get me and go with me to the station. Since then my mind has been going like a buzz-saw. For just consider, suppose somebody walked up to you and said Here are eight thousand troops, especially trained for a particular job, living and working under very peculiar and difficult circumstances, having all sorts of difficultie being needed desperately all over France at the same time, just what is your idea of the way they should be managed? Of course I have some ideas for I do know a little about conditions over here and I also know a bit about the way the British system works but you can imagine how utterly staggering the proposition [Handwritten: was]. I know of course what a compliment is being paid me when Im asked to tackle the proposition. Ive heard inklings of it for some time but thought it couldnt possibly happen to me because in the first place I am a Reserve not a regular Army Nurse. But it seems that many old army precedents are breaking down. And here is certainly a huge one. there is going to a lot a feeling about my appointment from the old regulars but fortunately they are vastly in the minority over here. I cant tell now what it is all is going to mean but I do know that Im going into the thing tooth and nail and Im going to see if I cant put the job of Chief Nurse of the AEF on the map. It hasnt been there before. Im going to insist upmon so much of a free hand that Im going to dumfound the old army stagers at the Chief Surgeons office who have been accustomed to run the whole show them selves without even consulting the Chief Nurse. I shall travel continuously, all the time almost except long enough to sign papers at the office. It seems that the office has to continue to be at Tours but Gen. Ireland said I didnt need to stay ther any more than he has. This is all very preliminary but I suppose there is no doubt that it is all going thro, the question is how much I can put over of my conditions and requirements before I begin. Naturally this is not to be mentioned for I have not my appointment yet. I dont know any woman anywhere who looks to me equal to the job it is so big and demands so much and has such huge opportunities. I am not big enough for it but I actually dont know any one who has had better leading up experiences for it than I. So do you wonder that under the circumstances I am under a certain amount of mental stress.

[page break] Monday Oct. 14.

Such historic days as these are thro which we are passing. We cant believe even what seem to be the bare facts and we dont dare hope that there is going to be an end soon. All day long in the midst of every conversation comes the question. What do you think it all means? What shall our plans be? You can imagine how all of our work will be effected if there is a possibility of a cessation of hostiltities soon Mosy of our officials say we must make no changes of plan but go on with our preparations as tho there were no possibility of peace for months. But how we with all the rest of the world are hoping and praying that the time may be soon when the only-possible peace terms may be dictated, those wghich mean a complete military victory as well as a diplomatic one. Phil and I were talking to a French officerlast evening coming up from the station and he said, In 1914 we couldnt believe that there really was going to be a war and now we cant believe that there is going to be peace.

Ones own personal plans seem so unimportant when considered as personl but all these plans about me just now arent really personal. I shall have a chance to do more for a large number of women than most any woman has ever been able to do before. Miss Morgan says I have been trained like a race-horse for this very job and she has seen it coming for six months. The few other people who know about it say much the same things. If only I can measure up to their expectation of me, and to my own hopes and desires. It may be that because of all their preconceived notions about the job, and the regulation of the old Army Manual, I wont be able to get all those headquarters staff officers to let me have the free hand that I feel I need, but General Ireland led me to think he had paved the way for me pretty thoroughly. I have never ever seen, Col McCaw the new Chief Surgeon. He is reported to be the most polished gentleman in the army. Well by tomorrow night this time I shall know more what things are to be like. I cant refuse the job even if I cant have my own way, but I cant be much help unless my plans are accepted and so it will be at their own risk if they insist upon having me and then tying my hands. I have my little schedule of propositions all in order and tomorrow at dawn I sally forth. I worked them out on the train to Rouen, then today Fred asked me to lunch and he went over them with me and put them in better shape than I had them. Late this afternoon he saw them in their final form, gave his approval and sent me off with his blessing so to speak. Ill be gone all day from 7 to 9 about.

Its now Friday the 18th. I had a very difficult day Tuesday when I went to Tours. But the important part went well. Col. McCaw, the new Chief Surgeon agreed to all my suggestions and is apparently ready to help me in every way. I am asking for full responsibility under the C.S. for everything pertaining to the Army Nurse Corps, assignments, transfer, discipline, regulations, none of which have been in the Chief Nurses hands before. It really has been as tho there were no chief Nurse here. Both General Ireland and Col. McCaw are are very nice about saying they want me to take hold and do things and

[page break] Oct. 18, 18

that they will back me, but there are bound to be difficulties with the lesser men who have been doing all the work for the Nurse Corps, at least until I can get them trained. The idea is that I shall spend most of my time on the road, inspecting and visiting, all over France, especially at the front. Im to have automobile transportation and passes for every where. The details of this have not as yet been worked out, but it looks now as tho the Red Cross were to have something about the transportation as its contribution, along with me!, for there is something of an obstacle in the way of the Army supplying it. But it is surely going to be worked out for everyone agrees that without transportation I should be nearly useless and had far better be left with the Red Cross. I am going to keep on my share of the apartment here and make this my real headquarter as I just cant get along without someplace where I belong and where there is somebody to look after me and my things. Phil will probably get one of his doctors to come and live here with him, but I shall keep my room and Isabelle will of course stay on. I shall take a room in Tours so that I shall have a regular place to stay there but that is not going to be home, as I mean to be in Tours a very small proportion of the time. I was very much depressed by the enormity of the job and the difficulties presenting themselves when I returned from Tours, in spite of the very satisfactory talk I had with the C.S. It will a very different thing working there from working here in Paris. The only friend I have there is Col.Fife who is the nice regular army man who brought our Unit over and was transfered to GHQ a few months after our arrival. He’ll be a help. That is the way things stand now. My orders have not come thro as yet but are expected soon. It is not settled who is to be my successor here. I want Miss Hall, who has just come over from England to help me, to go with me to the new job, but she will have to stay here in Paris until the new person arrives and gets on to her job. Fortunately she is becoming so familiar with the general situation in my office now after here three weeks with me she will be able to go on with things quite easily and I can be free to go soon after the orders come thro. I dont know whether I told you about getting Miss Hall. She was Chief Nurse of the ARC for England, and formerly Chief Nurse of the Peter Bent Brigham Unit. I like her very much and shes a great help. Tuesday coming up from Tours I had to stand the whole way in the corridor, or sit on a suitcase, so I got very tired and caught a germ. Since then Ihave been fighting the grippe and trying to get rested, so I stayed home halves of two days and today I am better and have decided I am not going to have pneumonia and things begin to look not so impossible. Things at the front are going so wonderfully well everyone is most enthusiastic. There is a great deal of illness among ou own personnel and a huge amount of influenza. There have been a number of deaths among the nurses, canteen workers, doctors and other workers, but everything is being done that cane be done and I dont believe its much worse here than it is at home or in England.

Im not going to send on the reports of my English trip, I mean the one with Miss McCarthy for after all I dont believe it would interest you and I told the essential things.

Now goodnight to all of you dear people. [Handwritten: Julia]

My Fellow Soldiers