The Nurses and Men of the Northwestern Unit,

U. S. Army Base Hospital 12,

World War I, 1916-1919

Edited by Michael W. R. Davis


Excerpt from "Tales of the South Pacific"

“Military custom regarding nurses is most irrational.  They are made officers and therefore not permitted to associate with enlisted men.  This means that they must find their social life among other officers.  But most male officers are married, especially in the medical corps.  And most unmarried officers are from social levels into which nurses from small towns do not normally marry.  As a result of this involved social system, military nurses frequently have unhappy emotional experiences.  Cut off by law from fraternizing with those men who would like to marry them and who would have married them in civilian life, they find their friendships restricted to men who are surprisingly often married or who are social snobs.”


James A. Michener, Tales of the South Pacific, pp. 46-47.

© 1946, 1947, 1960,

The Macmillan Company, New York.


Table of Contents

FORSAKEN ANGELS: IN THEIR OWN WORDS THE NURSES AND MEN OF THE NORTHWESTERN UNIT Edited by Michael W. R. Davis TABLE OF CONTENTS Title Page Excerpt from Tales of the South Pacific Table of Contents List of Illustrations PREFACE DIARY OF RESERVE NURSE LAURA HUCKLEBERRY, MAY 17-JUNE 11, 1917 I HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION II BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES III THE BACK STORY U. S. Declaration of War and Base Hospitals THE FIRST YEAR IV CALLED TO DUTY The Nurses The University Men Troop Train and New York City Dangerous Journey Chicago’s First War Casualties Submarine Duel England and Wartime Sightseeing V EAGERNESS TO DRUDGERY Welcome to Dannes-Camier, Pas-de-Calais, France--and Censorship Summer 1917: U.S. Base Hospital 12 Replaces British General 18 The New World Meets Old Europe Air Raids, Troop Mutinies and Routine Fall 1917, October-December: War, Wards and Weather Reinforcements Arrive The Cross-Atlantic Mail Lag Weariness, Wounded and Infections Winter 1918, January-March: No End In Sight The Nurses Rebel Helplessly Winter Battle Respite First Leave and Sightseeing in Paris Spring 1918, March-May: German “Big Push” Threatens Something in the Air The Sweethearts Disconnect German Spring Offensive Nears The War Wears On THE SECOND YEAR VI END IN SIGHT AND POST-ARMISTICE Spring 1918, May 17-June German Air Raids Continue Summer 1918, July-September Americans in Force and the Tide Turns Chicago Base Hospital 11 to Nantes, Loire, France Second Leave in Alps The Final Allied Push Begins Fall 1918 and Armistice, October-November 11 Rumors Amidst Overflowing Wards Influenza Epidemic Armistice as Anticlimax November 1918–February 1919 Peace and Longing The Sweethearts Celebrate Patient Load Finally Declines, along with Morale BEF General Hospital 18 Closes, U. S. Army Base Hospital 12 Departs March-April 1919: Forsaken Angels Stolen Moments The Nurses Again Forsaken Their Returning Glory Missed VII EPILOGUE VIII ACKNOWLEDGMENTS IX BIBLIOGRAPHY AND SOURCES X APPENDICIES

List of Illustrations


List of Illustrations


Graduation picture

Sun, Jun 1 1913

Laura's graduation picture from nursing school, June of 1913


Thirty-odd years ago, my sister called me from her home in Northern Virginia. “Did you know Mother kept a diary?” she asked. “No, what was it about?” “When she was a nurse in the First World War.” “Where’d you find it?” “Well, you know I have her dresser.” Our mother Laura had been dead for some ten years. I recalled the beautiful light-wooded, gracefully bowed chest with the fourth drawer a secret one at the bottom. “Yes?” “The drawers have been sticking so I finally got around to taking everything out so I could fix it, and I found this diary stuck in the back.” “Can you make a copy for me?” This was before the day of copy machines, not to mention home scanners. Then I called my father who lived near us in a Detroit suburb. “Dad, did you know Mother kept a diary?” I asked. “No, what’s this all about?” “Ann called me. She found it caught in the back of Mother’s old dresser. It’s about when she went overseas.” “No, I never knew anything about that. But I have all her letters, the ones she sent me when she went to France. If you’d like to have them, come on over.” He’d saved the letters, neatly tied with cotton strings in four small bundles and packed in a grapefruit shipping box along with snapshots, picture post cards from his own duty in France with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), and yellowed newspaper clippings about my mother’s hospital unit. Later, after the children had gone to bed, I sorted all these materials he had kept into piles spread over the living room carpet and sampled the journey to the past they revealed--images of my mother and her adventures which I knew about vaguely but had never absorbed intellectually. As a journalist I sensed there was a grand story here, but not one I had time to explore at the time. So the keepsakes, along with a copy of the diary that my sister had dutifully sent along, were bundled up and put away for many years, only now unfolding. Telling the story of Laura and her sister nurses of Base Hospital 12, known as the Northwestern (University) unit, was never forgotten, just delayed. Indeed, during a business trip to London a few years later, I took a few days off to trace Laura’s footsteps from Falmouth to London, to Lady Henneker Heaton’s country estate near Ipswich where she had been a guest, and finally across the English Channel to the French coast to locate the hospital site where, evading German bombings and suffering other hardships, she treated British and American soldiers for more than a year and a half. After retiring from three different jobs, returning to graduate school and then authoring, co-authoring, editing or making major contributions to eight other historical books, late in 2002 I finally undertook transcribing Laura Huckleberry’s letters to John Erle Davis. Whatever happened to his letters to her is simply unknown. But her letters raised questions–such as how it was that civilian Red Cross nurses walked through a door and became U. S. Army nurses with no indoctrination whatsoever–requiring further research in the archives of Northwestern, the Chicago Historical Society, the American Red Cross and the National Archives. These sources provided corroboration and perspective to Laura’s diary and letter accounts, which have been woven into this narrative. Editorial notes: Throughout Laura’s letters and the letters or memoirs of other nurses, doctors or a soldier of Base Hospital 12, there are some spelling and punctuation conventions which seem incorrect today but apparently were acceptable when they were recorded. For instance, the punctuation mark in these documents commonly was placed outside the quotation mark, a British convention but not now an American one. More noticeable are shortened spellings, for example, “thot” for “thought” and “c” as shorthand for the Latin “cum,” meaning “with.” The frequent use of “staid” for “stayed” may be another version of this simplification. There have been numerous largely unsuccessful literary movements over the decades in the U. S. for adoption of simplified spellings, and the aforementioned examples may have been typical of the First World War period in the American Midwest. And there are instances of “there’s” being used with plural objectives, grammatically wrong but certainly common in conversation even today. Laura also made occasional, but common errors in use of apostrophes, spelling of commonly misspelled words such as “judgment” and she confused “effect” with “affect.” Considering that Laura’s letters were written deliberately in “flow of consciousness” conversational style and often in dim light under trying wartime conditions with no dictionary handy--much less a computer’s “Spelling” and “Grammar” check programs--her writing is remarkably literate for a small-town high school graduate with one year of college. Indeed, her well-educated descendants could learn from her precision. In the main body of the text, commentary and interpretations by the editor are presented in italics while explanations are bracketed without italics. Michael W. R. Davis Royal Oak, Michigan September 2008





May 17, 1917

Thu, May 17 1917
May 17, 1917 12:15 am On our way at last. A big crowd to see us off--Star Spangled Banner etc. Felt rather like a corpse, but am still able to tell the tale. Frances, Mac and Bess are all in my car, also Miss Cleveland. Edith is ahead with Daisy and Ella & Emma are in the rear car. Our train is a special c only officers (MDs) and a few wives and the nurses. PM 5-17-17 Up in time to stand on the bridge as we ferried across the Detroit River. Our meals are served table-des-hote and we pay 75 cents and are refunded it in NY. The meals are only fair. At 1 o’clock we passed thru St. Thomas Ontario. A big crowd was down to the station to greet us. They brot us tiny Canadian & English flags, bananas, oranges, ice cream cones. So many asked us to look out for their sons and brothers. They have a population of 19000 and have sent 2000 men to the front.

May 19, 1917

Sat, May 19 1917
May 19 Forgot to write yesterday. We were breakfasted at the terminal on Hoboken Docks yesterday by the Red Cross and it surely was a failure as a breakfast. Then we went to the Red Cross quarters in the Waldorf. There were fitted out c hats soft, velour and other navy blue serge dresses, red cross capes, brassards & caps. I like the brassards caps & capes very much. The latter are navy blue & lined c bright red flannel & a red cross on the front--nifty. We had lunch at the Waldorf & finally escaped & took a bus ride up town. Saw Central Park, Riverside Drive, etc. Was able to recognize a few points from pictures, etc. We went to dinner on the St. Louis. That is another boat that is taking Unit 10 from Philadelphia. Then we were assigned our rooms on the Mongolia. I am with Miss Hostman and Miss Hoffman--neither is very interesting, but I can stand them a while at any rate. Frances is in the next state room and Bess in the next. Emma and Mac are the only two of our bunch together. This morning we were not allowed to go off the boat at all except over to breakfast on the St. Louis. The meal was fair but the service was rotten as most of the waiters were suffering from channell fever. This boat is an old one and has been used as a freight but is fixed up now as a transport. They’re afraid to risk the good boats. This is the boat that sunk a submarine not long ago. I understand that we are to be convoyed across but of course do not know. We don’t even know where we’ll land but our destination is supposed to be France. Later We left the docks at 3 o’clock were towed down the channel & stopped just inside the harbor. The gunners were practicing loading their guns & overheard them say that it was $600 to the man that got a submarine. Also that the Germans were offering 1500 to the man that got us. The boys who had signed in as privates were all shooed off the upper decks & we all so hated to see them go. They are such nice boys & so willing to do anything. While we were at dinner the boat started again and at 8:30 passed the Ambrose Channel Light out into open sea. All the port holes are closed and no lights are allowed anyplace, even in the saloon nor corridors later. We walked in the wind & listened to the boys playing their ukuleles & singing. They are much gayer down below than we are above. The two meals we have had on board have been very good.

May 20, 1917

Sun, May 20 1917
5-20-17 Awakened to find the air so nice & fresh and cool. Went up on deck before breakfast. Was the first lady to breakfast. Pawly and I walked out on foreward deck & talked to the officer who was left behind yesterday & came after us in a tug. He told us several interesting things. Among them is that the gun on the stern is the Teddy Roosevelt and it was the first American gun fired in this war. The guns on the bow are called Martha and George Washington. It is very quiet today--only a few white caps. We’ll be sure to have rough weather before we reach England--so everyone says anyway. 6:30 pm At 2 pm we had target practice. We watched them throw off the target & then the boat turned around. We watched them load and fire & then Emma said “Somebody’s shot!” I turned and saw 2 girls on the deck & blood all around. One was Helen Wood from Evanston. The other was Edith Ayres. Emma had a flesh wound in the hip & one in the arm. Edith was shot in the temple and Miss Wood in the heart. Something was wrong with the gun. We might all have been killed but evidently our time has not yet come. I can’t bear to think of Edith’s people. They have turned the boat & we are headed back for New York.

May 22, 1917

Tue, May 22 1917
5-22-17 Yesterday morning we anchored and a tug met us & took Emma, Dr. Besley and Pawly & Miss Powers ashore. Emma smiled and waved to us. Her wounds will not be serious unless something unexpected developes. Later we were towed up channel & anchored in the middle of the Hudson & no one is allowed shore leave--I suppose to guard against desertions. But I don’t believe there is a nurse or doctor or rookie who would turn back if they could. However, there was some trouble in securing a crew and I suppose the company doesn’t want to risk getting another. The bodies were put in caskets, draped in flags & put on deck for a short service by the chaplin & then lowered over the side to a government tug & taken ashore. Bess and Miss Poole of Evanston were to go along but at the last no one was allowed to accompany them. Polly got back about 5 o’clock. They were brot in the Admiral’s launch. They left Emma in the Naval hospital. The X Ray showed nothing but of course the wound is necrotic. She has been so brave about it all. Everyone speaks of her grit. And we are all so glad that the wounds are no more serious. Today is gray & chilly but we’ve been out on deck most of the time anyway. We’ve walked & talked & watched a bunch play shuffleboard. Then we all wrote letters to Emma. Poor girl, I know she hates to be left behind.

May 23, 1917

Wed, May 23 1917
5-23-17 Last night we had a party--singing, reading and dancing & flirting. Some were very gay. I drew a mushy one but then it couldn’t be helped. We started at 5 this morning but had to anchor just outside the harbor till the fog cleared. They have heard that a German raider is about & also that a submarine was sighted off the Maine coast. So the guns are trained upon every vessel they see. The raider is supposed to be a boat disguised as a tramp and to look much like the Mongolia. This PM at 4:30 we all put on our life belts & were assigned to the boats. Six women were in ours #3 Miss Cohen, Miss Hoffman, Miss Alexander, Bess, Frances & I. Mac and Pawly are together in 11. We are glad we aren’t all separated any way. There are about 3 men to every woman, besides the crew in the boats. It was quite interesting. Tonight after dinner Pawly and I went up and walked the decks again. One of the sailor lads came & walked & talked & talked. He does enjoy telling us a lot of things but of course we don’t know how true they are. Sailor yarns I suppose. I certainly never thought that I’d be on a tramp steamer running a blockade. It sounds like some story rather than stupid every day life that I’ve usually had. But I certainly cannot complain that the last year has been stupid. It has been full of a little of many things and much of a few ????? But naturally I’ll take what comes and be glad it’s no worse.

May 24, 1917

Thu, May 24 1917
5-24-17 Today has been very quiet. I’ve walked & read a book & watched the water and listened to the waves swishing against the ship’s side. This afternoon the boys boxed & we watched them & then they all came up on the deck & had potato races.

May 25, 1917

Fri, May 25 1917
5-25-17 Today has been beautifully clear and quiet. Nothing happened except a card party this P.M. This evening I watched the sunset and then the moonlight on the water. It is like a beautiful dream.

May 26, 1917

Sat, May 26 1917
5-26-17 Today the sun shone on the white caps but the horizon was misty. I sat and read and dreamed as usual. The sailor lads told me we passed an ice berg last night and also that they found a small fire down in the lower regions of the ship and the fog was so thick they could not see their way about on deck. This evening we are again in fog and the waves are running the highest I’ve seen them. The spray reaches to the top deck and the ship rolls quite a lot. The sailors prefer the fog as it is much safer as far as submarines are concerned and they don’t have to watch so closely.

May 27, 1917

Sun, May 27 1917
5-27-17 Sunday I’m certainly getting lazy. We’ve nothing to do but sleep, eat & walk. Some of the girls have quite a time flirting, but I had a set back and have reformed. Went out in the bow this morning and talked to the sailors. They are on watch all the time even tho we are not yet in the danger zone. We do not enter that till about Wednesday. We had very nice church services at 10:30 A.M. Some of the privates sing well and one plays the violin very well indeed. It is misty in the distance and the sun shines only occasionally. We are certainly having a fine voyage.

May 28, 1917

Mon, May 28 1917
5-28-17 A nice lazy day--foggy but not so that the sun can not get thru. The only event I can remember is washing handkerchiefs & sewing buttons on my coat. Last night Elizabeth Cleveland & I went on the top deck to watch the moonlight on the water. The sailor lad Choice came up to talk to us. He is a funny boy and so perfectly good natured.

May 29, 1917

Tue, May 29 1917
5-29-17 Another long, lazy, lazy day. We are to have our pictures taken the PM. We are to wear our Brassards with our uniforms. We passed two ships this morning but they looked like only a column of smoke on the horizon.

May 30, 1917

Wed, May 30 1917
5-30-17 It began to rain at 11 o’clock so we all had to come down to the lounge or to the hurricane deck. I staid out almost all day and watched the waves and the rain. At noon we passed a British freighter. It was the first ship we had really seen since the day we left New York. We enter the danger zone some time tonight. I do hope it is warmer and not so rough if we have to take to the life boats. Miss Cleveland and I were nearly drowned by the spray from one big wave.

May 31, 1917

Thu, May 31 1917
5-31-17 We’ve been one whole 24 hours in the war zone and so far have sighted nothing more than a tramp steamer, away off on the horizon. The waves have been quite high and as we zig zag every 10 minutes we roll about quite a lot. The water is beautifully blue and tonight the moon is glorious even tho dangerous to us. Elizabeth Cleveland & I went up on deck wrapped up in blankets and just looked and looked. Frances, Mac, Pawly & Bess are out parading with the boys on lower deck. Last night the sailors put up cots out on deck beside their guns. And some special precautions were taken to prevent lights showing when the doors are opened. I’m getting into the card habit again but it is a social thing to do and goodness knows I haven’t many social accomplishments. Last night, Ellen Thomsen, E. Cleveland, Bess & I played 3 games of 500. Bess and I were beaten but it was very close. Later- Have been out on deck watching the waves. We’ve been in war zone since 9 P.M. but there is practically no danger as the waves are too high.

June 1, 1917

Fri, Jun 1 1917

6-1-17 It was midday on the 1st of June On the deep blue ocean That the five blasts then the three Set us all in motion. Tis Ship Line No. 9 cried Howe In his quiet manner I’ll get my life belt Just in time to see her when they land her Port side watch sub ahoy Cried the Lookout Forward Man your guns Damn those Huns Starboard Lifeboat lower A belted fair one wrapped in cork Remarks “We’ve got a whale! But since it must be that He die I hope it is a male!” Then in his wrath the Captain bold Proclaimed aloud “Oh, Pish! I’ll sail no more the war zone sea If that blamed thing is a fish!” However it may seem to you We all agree to this That whether whale or submarine It was, alas, a miss. Now, doctors all, you will admit That in the point of thrills Bagging a school of submarines Is better than peddling pills. --Dr. Marbury About 12:20 pm, I was standing under the bridge watching the rain & clouds when I heard the man on the bridge shout “Port side abeam” and the sailors went tumbling to their guns around. I was so anxious to see that Submarine but just couldn’t see it & then the danger whistle blew and one of the officers grabbed me by the arm & said “Life belts” and we ran down the steps & I didn’t see anything. We all got our belts & came back into the lounge and waited. Not many were frightened but some were excited. The guns went off and we all waited until the mate came in and said “It’s gone and there’s our convoy.” But after the British gun boat had come up, she--the sub--came up again and was fired at. Her torpedoe went astern about 50 yards probably because of the zig zag course we were taking and also because of the rain. But it was a close call. We fired 5 shots but don’t know if any were effective. The British convoy staid with us then racing back and forth across the bow like a puppy.

June 2, 1917

Sat, Jun 2 1917

6-2 -17 My but everyone was excited and kept watching all afternoon & evening and no one went to bed till terribly late and many not at all. Miss C. and I sat on top deck after the Dr’s entertainment & watched the moonlight & talked. We got to bed about 1 and then had the watch call us at 3:30 to see the sun rise. It was very beautiful. And we could see the British boats coming out--counted eight against the horizon. We reached the harbor at Falmouth at 6:30. The hills are beautiful. Just like patchwork quilts--the green fields with hedges and then the shrubbery and the little houses nestling down among the trees. Pembroke castle was very plain from the mouth of the harbor. It is high on the hill above the village. Afterwards we were towed around a headland and anchored outside Falmouth. We’re now waiting to be inspected and taken ashore. We hear that two boats were torpedoed or mined last night--one in front and one behind us. Evidently we have work to do or we wouldn’t have escaped. Evening, 10 o’clock. At noon we watched the boys go on the launch & take their departure for Black Pool. Then at 2:30 the officers and nurses went ashore. We are put up at 3 different hotels. Ours is the smallest and is a delightful place. It is so clean and white & wholesome. About 5 we walked up to Castle Pendennis & looked it over. It was built in 1542 and was quite interesting even tho it has some modern additions. Soldiers are quartered there now and it really is a fort. The privilege of seeing it was an honor. It has not been open to visitors since the war began. The walk up was beautiful and so sweet from the Hawthorne. Many wild flowers are everywhere but they aren’t much like ours. After dinner we drove through the better part of town & out into the country. The hedges and the walls and the narrow lanes and the wild flowers & ivy and everything is certainly a treat. It is like a dream rather than reality. The houses are very picturesque and exclusive--mostly walled in--but their cottages or flats or whatever they call them are hideous. But we’re all just wild about the place.

June 4, 1917

Mon, Jun 4 1917
6-4-17 We came up to London by train yesterday. We left at 11:30 and were about 8 1/2 hours coming the 140 miles. The English country is beautiful but before we reached London I began to wish I could see something besides hedges and tiny fields and stone houses. We saw Windsor Castle at a distance. It was quite imposing. We were sent up to the Hotel York in big busses. We have heard that there was more than one submarine after us and what we had taken for whales were really torpedoes. We evidently were just fortunate, as everything ahead and behind us was torpedoed & sunk. This morning Elizabeth & I came over to the other part of the hotel for a shampoo. We first made the mistake of going to the “hair dresser” and found it to be a barber shop. We aren’t at all delighted with London so far but I think it’s because we are tired. I was all in but my shoestrings last night. We hear that the King and Queen have been receiving the various American units very informally and we hope that we also will see them. Everyone has been delightfully friendly and we think English people are not all snobbish. Their accent is so funny but they seem to have more difficulty in understanding us than we them.

June 5, 1917

Tue, Jun 5 1917
6-5-17 Yesterday PM we saw Madam Bassard’s Wax figures and the Tower. I was very enthusiastic about the Tower. It was so full of historic interest. But I do think London is an ugly place. We went to the American Embassy to sign up for passports and to have our pictures taken this morning. This afternoon we will go to the House of Parliament. We have just learned that the Mongolia was reported sunk a week ago or more so our people have probably been notified. It is a mystery how such a thing was started.

June 6, 1917

Wed, Jun 6 1917
6-6-17 We did not get into the House of Parliament as no one is admitted while they are in session except men, so we went across the way to West Minster Abbey & I surely did enjoy that. In the evening we went to Queen’s Theater to the Third Floor Back--admitted free on our uniforms. Didn’t care especially for it. This morning we saw the armed guard change at Whitehall — Knights of Pythias Parade -– had pay day at 12 and this afternoon went to St. Paul’s and to Kensington Gardens.

June 9, 1917

Sat, Jun 9 1917
6-9-17 For three days I’ve had no time to write so I haven’t. Day before yesterday we took our London guides in hand and went exploring. We saw lots of little things, such as the statue of Queen Elizabeth that used to be over the old Ludgate, the Old Curiosity Shop (not authentic), a house where David Garrick had lived, the Savoy Chapel (very interesting) and the law courts, The Temple with its interesting banqueting hall and funny old round church with the crusaders tombs. Then we found the old inn where Benjamin Johnson used to go, “The Cheshire Cheese.” It is on one of those queer little courts off the Strand. Then we went across London Bridge and saw the old inn where Charles Dickens used to stop. It is “Ye George’s Inn.” We visited the site of the old Tabard Inn and the old Southwark Church. Then we came home by the Tube which I loathe and had dinner and went to see Aida at Drury Lane. Yesterday, nine of us went out to Ipswich to Stoke Park, Lady Henneker Heaton’s country home, or rather, one of her homes. It was delightful. Lady Heaton was very pleasant and not at all snobbish. Seemed just a real person. In the evening we went to His Majesty’s Theater to “Chu Chin Chow.” It was very beautifully staged. Today we went shopping and to the House of Parliament and also to West Minster Abbey. Did I say before that the most precious things, such as the tombs of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, and Edward the Confessor and Henry VII are protected from bombs by bags of sand. And the real coronation chair has been removed. Tonight we are all tired and a trifle homesick. We are so sick of English cooking.

June 10, 1917

Sun, Jun 10 1917
6-10-17 This morning we took a ride out to Richmond and back. This P.M. we went out to Sir Thos. Lipton’s in four busses. We surely had a good time. Red, white & blue bouquets, American flags, lemonade, ice cream, speeches, music, readings, moving pictures & a box of candy each for the girls & cigarettes for the men. He certainly knows how to entertain. Tomorrow we start to France.

June 11, 1917

Mon, Jun 11 1917
June 11, 1917 11 P.M. We took the train at 3:15 pm and arrived at Folkstone at 5:15 went right onto the boat and crossed the Channel. We all had to wear life belts and we with a troop ship and a hospital ship were convoyed by a torpedoe boat and air ship, a “blimp.” We were put into big automobile busses and brot out to our happy home. We got here at 9 or 9:30 and were half starved. The nurses fed us bully beef, bread, butter and coffee and then showed us our “huts.” They are very nice but of course very bare. We have board beds with straw on top.

June 13, 1917

Wed, Jun 13 1917
6-13-17 Yesterday we were assigned our wards. I drew one that usually has minor cases. Miss Behler is my assistant. Our ward is practically empty tonight. I understand that we are to get no convoys till the hospital is almost empty. Then the English will depart and leave us in peace. War is a dreadful thing. I only hope that it will not last long. I can’t bear to think of our boys being mixed up in such frightfulness. The English nurses are not keen about us and we are equally not so about most of their methods.

Diary Note


This was Laura’s final diary entry. We don’t know why she didn’t keep it up afterwards--perhaps just too busy nursing. But it is significant that she saved it for the rest of her life and, here, even into her afterlife. Ninety-odd years later we can wonder whether, upon discovering the terrible carnage of the battlefield, she had not wondered just how she got there.



I. HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION Nearly a century after what was variously known as The Great War, The World War and--after 1939--World War I or the First World War, first-hand memory of the 1914-1918 conflict is long-gone. Because of that, it may be helpful to put that conflict in perspective for 21st century readers. Origins of The Great War date back to nation formation, particularly that of Germany, in the 19th Century, followed by a rush of the new major powers--not just European but the United States in North America and Japan in the Far East--to join old empires in building networks of overseas lands. It was also a time when nations formed alliances with other nations, ostensibly for defensive purposes. And it was a period in which centuries-old monarchies were gradually giving way to representative democracies or being threatened with the rise of totalitarian dictatorships. Some historians argue that the key influence was simply newly found national pride superceding centuries of religious, regional and minor principality identification. Although the immediate trigger for World War I was assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s crown prince, the network of alliances actually forced the conflict. The chain went like this: Austria made demands on Serbia, where the murder of its monarch-to-be took place. But Serbia was formally allied with Czarist Russia, in turn allied with France. France was allied with Great Britain. The Kasiser’s Imperial Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary and Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. When Austria attacked Serbia, Russia attacked the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany came to Austria’s defense against Russia. This brought France and Britain, the Allies, into the conflict against the Germanic Central Powers and Turkey. Italy and Japan joined the Allies. The United States and many peripheral European states including Scandinavia, Holland, Switzerland and Spain stayed neutral. All the powers thought the conflict would be over in short order, but in a few months it had spread from the Balkans to Belgium and France, across Poland, the Middle East, and where there were German colonies in East and South Africa, China and Pacific islands, truly a World War. Moreover, modern armaments, especially the machine gun, obliterated traditional means of fighting like cavalry charges and mass infantry attacks. On the Western Front across northern France and the Belgian border, the war bogged down to hopeless, bloody trench warfare. On the high seas, the potent utilization of another new weapon of war, the submarine, eventually drew America into the war after American civilian lives were lost when the Germans sank merchant ships. The Americans arrived in Europe just as the Soviet revolution in Russia enabled Germany to concentrate all its forces against Britain and France. In recent years, historians have revived considerable literary and scholarly interest in this early 20th Century war. Most recently, some scholars and historical journalists acknowledge that the seeds of the West’s continuing conflicts in the Middle East were sown after World War I in the forced dissolution of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Yet most public attention has been focused on the 1939-45 World War II, both because of popular entertainment--movies (“Saving Private Ryan”), television series (“Band of Brothers”) and frequent re-airing of Pearl Harbor attack epics--and because veterans of the Second World War are rapidly dying off. Nevertheless, this account of Northwestern University’s U. S. Army Base Hospital 12 in the First World War is important history because it was arguably the most distinguished such American outfit in the “War to End All Wars.” The Northwestern unit was overseas longer than any other American unit of any kind, suffered the first casualties and treated more patients in France--over 60,000--than any other American hospital with the possible exception of its neighboring Harvard Unit. Moreover, it became the first adventure to the Old World, the land of their forefathers, for hundreds of thousands of energized, proudly democratic ordinary Americans. Cultural differences seemed inevitably to clash but instead, as the distinctly modern Chicago personnel of the Northwestern Unit found, instead were accommodated. Nurse Laura Huckleberry’s saga, told through the initial diary and some 155 letters over a 23-month period to her sweetheart, Chicago journalist John Erle Davis, has been augmented by official reports, newspaper stories, correspondence, and contemporary accounts and memoirs from other Unit 12 members. Moreover, the letters that form the core of the narrative reveal a gentle, suspenseful, true-to-the-era love story. Reminiscences of pre-war activities in Chicago and small-town Indiana provide a window into the social life of the times. One unusual facet of this collection is that it was the man who saved the woman’s letters. Conventional wisdom long held that only sentimental women saved such correspondence. Unfortunately, none of Erle’s letters to Laura survive, although a few of his war letters to his own family are included. Today we enjoy instant, real-time communications across continents and around the world by Internet and the email; but during World War I and until the advent of airmail, a complete exchange of letters--and answers to questions--took six to eight weeks or longer for forwarded mail, by ship and train. The memoirs of Pvt. George R. Baker—edited and published by his son George R. Baker Jr. in 1999 under the title Heroes and Angels—are especially noteworthy. Not being created under censorship, they portray an entirely different and often harrowing experience than Laura was able to relate in her letters, which had to pass under the censor’s eye. Excerpts from Pvt. Baker’s memoir included in this volume also provide the perspective of both an enlisted man and a “university man”—and avid athlete to boot. Finally, the chronological progression of these letters, memoirs and other documents also provides an unexpected window to the typical American’s ready adaptation to other’s languages and expressions--in the preserved, often contemporary words of those who were there. Over the months, “trucks” osmosed to “lorries” and “very good” became “tres bien.”



Laura Gertrude Huckleberry

Laura Gertrude Huckleberry was born January 11 during the Great Blizzard of 1888. The place was the farm her grandfather, Capt. Silas D. Huckleberry, had established in Jennings County, Southern Indiana, in 1834, a few miles east of North Vernon, a town that was to become an important rail center in the latter part of the 19th century.

Her family name might seem to brand her as the quintessential American. But Huckleberry was actually an Anglicization of the German name Hagelberger. Silas's great-grandfather Benjamin Hagelberger had emigrated with his children to Pennsylvania in 1752 from the Palatine village of Rott on the west bank of the Rhine River near Strasbourg, now part of the French province of Alsace.

Laura's other forbears were Scots-Irish, Welsh and English Protestants who'd migrated from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to the middle Ohio valley either down the river or across the Appalachian mountains through Kentucky. Her father, a Union veteran like Laura's grandfather, had been a farmer, schoolteacher, deputy sheriff and county clerk, and was now a rural mail carrier. She was the youngest of five, her siblings being brothers Warren, Will and Silas, and sister Bertha.

Laura graduated from North Vernon High School in 1906 and spent the next two years teaching at a rural, one-room schoolhouse to save enough money to attend Indiana University for a year. Then she heard about nursing, the new profession for women. A professional nursing education was available through the three-year co-op program at the Illinois Training School for Nurses, associated with Cook County Hospital in Chicago. She had been raised as a Methodist. At the time of her enlistment in the Red Cross Reserve in early 1917, she was a nurse at Children's Isolation Hospital, also associated with Cook County Hospital.

John Erle Davis

John Erle Davis, the recipient of Laura's letters recorded in this narrative, was also 29 years old when the U.S. declared war April 6, 1917. Like Laura, his roots were deep in Jennings County, Indiana. His Scots-Irish great-grandfather Phanuel Davis, who'd served as an Ohio Militia sergeant in Detroit in the War of 1812, had established a farm in the county's Campbell Township by 1819. Phanuel's wife was descended from English, Scottish and Protestant-Irish stock who were among the earliest pioneers on the Virginia frontier in the 1700s. Davis's Presbyterian grandfather married an Irish immigrant in 1843, and thereafter that branch of the family was Roman Catholic.

The Davis and Huckleberry farms at one time adjoined at one corner, but in rural Indiana a century ago, Protestants and Catholics scarcely spoke to one another, let alone socialized. Nevertheless, as Laura's wartime letters reveal, she and Erle had been interested in one another since high school days, a relationship growing when they both worked in Chicago in the immediate pre-war years.

Erle's father had been a stonemason and foreman of stone-worker crews building roadbeds and bridges for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and was now a clerk in the State government in Indianapolis. Erle was the oldest of three, his siblings being sisters Audrey Elizabeth (Betsy) and Harriet (Hettie). Because he had lived for years with his aunt. Mrs. John N. Rees, her sons Jack and Billy, midshipmen at the U. S. Naval Academy during the war, were like brothers to him.

In 1917, Erle was a journalist who'd dropped out of high school in the 11th grade to learn the printing trade, later becoming a reporter and editor in Louisville, Kansas City and now Chicago. At the time his Illinois State Guard unit was federalized in May 1917, he was an editor with the Western Newspaper Union in Chicago, a syndicated news service for weekly newspapers.

Other key persons in the narrative

Other key persons in the narrative, arranged alphabetically:

Ayres, Mrs. Edith, Reserve Nurse, U. S. Army Base Hospital (BH 12), one of Laura’s Chicago roommates; all of the Chicago roommates as well as Miss Urch and Miss Spencer were graduates of Illinois Training School for Nurses

Baker, George R., Private, BH 12

Besley, Frederick A., M.D., Reserve Major who organized BH 12

Cleveland, Elizabeth T., Reserve Nurse, BH 12, Laura’s roommate in France

Collins, Christopher C., Major, U. S. Army, BH 12’s original commanding officer

Connard, May (Conny), Reserve Nurse, BH 12 replacement, one of Laura’s Chicago roommates

Dancey, Jesse S., The Rev., Methodist Chaplain of BH 12

Gambee, Bess, Reserve Nurse, BH 12, one of Laura’s Chicago roommates

Glaspel, Cyril. J., M.D. Lieutenant, BH 12

Hall, Arthur R., Private, BH 12, former Northwestern University law student

Hampton, Frances B., Reserve Nurse, BH 12, one of Laura’s Chicago roommates

Horowitz, Gabrielle, Reserve Nurse, BH 12 replacement

Lyon, Elizabeth C., Reserve Nurse, BH 12

Krost, Gerard N., M.D., First Lieutenant, BH 12

Krost, Carrie G., Reserve Nurse, BH 12, Dr. Krost’s wife

Mandel, Milton, M.D., Captain, BH 12

Matzen, Emma, Reserve Nurse, BH 12, one of Laura’s Chicago roommates

McCosh, Duncan, Lieutenant, Canadian Army

McMillin, Edith (Mac), Reserve Nurse, BH 12, one of Laura’s Chicago roommates

Murray, Robert, Lieutenant, His Majesty’s Imperial Army

Nadler, Walter H., M.D., Captain, BH 12

Neal. M. Pinson, M.D., First Lieutenant, BH 12

Nussbaum, Payson L., M.D., Captain, BH 12

Pawlisch, Ella R. (Pawley or Polly), Reserve Nurse, BH 12, one of Laura’s Chicago roommates

Speed, Kellogg, M. D., Captain, BH 12

Spencer, Ruth, Reserve Nurse, BH 12

Urch, Daisy Dean, Chief Nurse, BH 12


All the Northwestern Unit’s original personnel were native-born Americans except for Moses Blumenthal, the pharmacist, born in Russia.





U.S. Declaration of War and Base Hospitals


When the United States declared war on Germany on April 9, 1917, there were only 403 nurses on active duty, including 170 reserve nurses who had been ordered to duty in twelve Army hospitals in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico as a result of incidents on the Mexican border.  By the end of June 1917, there were 1,176 nurses on duty. One year later, 12,186 nurses were on active duty serving at 198 stations worldwide, recruited almost entirely from the ranks of “reserve” American Red Cross nurses.

Immediately after America’s declaration of war in 1917, British representatives rushed to Washington to explain that the Allied war effort’s most pressing need was for hospital services in France, to relieve British units exhausted by two-and-a-half years of brutal casualties.  Thus in May 1917 America dispatched six base (general) hospitals to France with more than four hundred nurses. 

In staffing up Base Hospital (BH) 12, the Northwestern Unit, with volunteers before America entered the war, Dr. Frederic A. Besley of Northwestern University Medical School relied on professional colleagues from the school, nurses and other personnel from Cooke County and Evanston hospitals, and young enlisted men principally recruited from the Chicago area’s college campuses or from the ranks of recent graduates.  When Unit 12 departed from Chicago on May 16, 1917, it consisted of 26 officers, 65 nurses, four civilians and 153 enlisted personnel--including a small cadre of Regular Army officers and non-commissioned officers.  They were joined later by reinforcements.  A number of the original personnel were promoted or transferred to other units as America’s contribution to the war effort built up.

In addition to the Northwestern unit, other pathfinder units which sailed for France for service with the British Expeditionary Forces included Presbyterian Hospital BH 2 from New York City, Lakeside BH 4 from Cleveland, “Harvard Unit” BH 5 from Boston, Philadelphia BH 10 from Pennsylvania Hospital, and Washington University Medical School BH 21 from St. Louis.  Together, these were the first major U.S. Army units sent overseas in the First World War.

In the case of BH 12, the Chicago branch of the Red Cross paid for supplies, equipment and some salaries when the unit went overseas.  In 1916, the Chicago branch raised $243,000 to supply and equip military hospitals, later allocating $25,000 to equip BH 12.  In preparation for 12’s departure for France, on May 3, 1917, the chapter pledged $3,000 per month for salaries and supplies for the chaplain, dieticians and other civilian support personnel.  And in August 1917, the Chicago Red Cross expended $6,000 for uniforms and equipment contracted for before the unit embarked, and later appropriated $30,000 for the Northwestern Unit’s X-ray, surgical, kitchen and laundry equipment, mess gear, a truck and an ambulance.  In December, Chicago sent $3,000 for a portable electric generator to power BH 12’s X-ray equipment.

The first indication that American nurses were forsaken came with their official status and pay.  According to a September 4, 1917, report by E. Percy Noel, Chicago Daily News staff war correspondent, “The Canadians give army nurses the rank of captain, entitling them to a salute from the men.”  In 1917, a U. S. Army captain on duty overseas was paid a mere $200 a month.  But the Army paid an American Red Cross/U.S. Army Reserve Nurse, who had officer status but no commission, only $60 a month while overseas--the equivalent of slightly over $1,000 a month in 2005, or $12,000 annually.  As an indication of progress, today’s Army nurses with training and experience comparable to most of those in 1917’s Base Hospital 12 earn around $40,000 annually in base pay plus overseas, hazardous duty and other allowances.






Wed, May 2 1917


The Northwestern University hospital unit No. 12, which was organized under the direction of the Red Cross several months ago, yesterday received orders from Surgeon General Gorgas of the United States army to prepare to leave Chicago for the east at a moment’s notice. Twenty-three doctors, two dentists and fifty graduate nurses have already been sworn into service of the United States army. The remainder of the 196 which make up a complete unit will take the oath immediately, according to Dr. Frederic A. Besley, who is the director of the unit. The nurses’ aides, orderlies, sergeants, and privates have been notified and are making ready for duty. Dr. Besley’s personal staff consists of Dr. Kellogg Speed, surgeon; Dr. Milton Mandel, chief medical officer, and Miss Daisy Urch, chief nurse . . .


It is expected that the unit will be ordered to leave for France within a very short time to take charge of a base hospital containing 500 beds.


One purpose in sending the unit abroad is to enable the doctors to study the newest methods of treating wounds and diseases for the benefit of the prospective American expeditionary force.




The Chicago Herald, Thursday, May 17, 1917


Base Hospital No. 12 Leaves for Eastern Port,

Bound for the Front

Bound for “somewhere in France,” its exact destination unknown even to its commanding officer, Chicago’s first army unit--base hospital No. 12--left last night for an eastern port.  It will embark for Europe within ten days.

Tears, laughter and a shouted chorus of good-bys marked the departure of the special train.  There was no music and no public demonstration of any kind.  The train’s route, time of departure and expected arrival are withheld by the Herald at the request of Dr. Frederic A. Besley, director of the unit.

The personnel of the unit comprise 247 persons, of whom twenty-four are physicians, sixty-five trained nurses, two dentists and 153 enlisted men*.  Seventy-five per cent of the enlisted men are college students, about one-third being from Northwestern University.

Just before the train departed Dr. Besley secured long-distance telephonic communication with his mother, Mrs. W. B. Besley, at San Diego, Cal.  Her answer to her son’s announcement that he was leaving for Europe was:

“I’m awfully sorry, Fred, that you’re going, but I’d be sorrier still if you weren’t.”

Major C. C. Collins and Captain A. E. Magee of the U. S. Army are in military charge of the unit.  Captain John A. Porter, U.S.A., will act as quartermaster.


*There are discrepancies from one source to another, even in “official” rosters, as to the number and distribution of BH 12 personnel.  Beginning and ending rosters are included in the appendix.  In addition to Regular Army Major Collins and Captains Magee and Porter, there was a cadre of five regular Army sergeants whose task it would be to provide basic training in military matters for the unit, especially the 150 or so privates.  Within a few months, several of the doctors had been promoted from their original commissions, 9 of the privates had been promoted to sergeant first class, 16 to sergeant, 9 to corporal and 45 to private first class.  By the time they returned to Chicago in 1919, many more had been promoted in both officer and enlisted ranks.

The Nurses

Excerpt from Memoir of Reserve Nurse Elizabeth Lyon, prepared in 1975 for alumnae of the Illinois Training School for Nurses:

In the Spring of 1916 there was much discussion about the proposed plan of organizing Base Hospitals under the Red Cross to be called into active service in case of war of other great need: the plan being to select doctors, nurses and orderlies from one hospital--people who were accustomed to working together, knew each other’s ways and thus could do good team work.

It seemed that the great number of doctors and nurses who had training at Cook County Hospital should certainly furnish enough for at least one or two such units. About this time Dr. Frederick Besley, attending surgeon at Cook County Hospital asked Miss Daisy D. Urch if she would be willing to undertake the interesting task of organizing the nursing service for such a unit.

She began at once to stimulate enrollment in the Red Cross as a preliminary measure so that by February 1917 when authority to organize Base Hospital 12 was finally given, a large number of nurses were enrolled and some had even taken the required prophylactic smallpox and typhoid vaccine. However, people were loathe to believe that America would declare war and even if she did that soldiers would be sent overseas and that there would be many nurses needed. So it required considerable stimulation to arouse any enthusiasm. Still we kept steadily adding to our numbers . . . according to the plan outlined by the Red Cross. The nurses selected were either graduates of the Illinois Training School for Nurses or affiliated schools with about a dozen from Evanston Hospital. The officers were ex-interns from Cook County Hospital.

America’s declaration of war was a salutary stimulant to get our unit in order but even then very few believed we would ever be called into service. However, on Monday morning May 1st, 1917, out of a clear sky came a telegram from Miss Noyes at Washington to mobilize at once for service in France followed by another with instructions to take sixty-five nurses instead of the original number, fifty. Some readjustments had to be made for we had nurses fitted for home duty but not for “overseas” duty.

On Wednesday evening, May 16th, 1917 the entire unit--officers 27, nurses 64, and men 147--assembled at Polk St. Station, took the oath of office and boarded a special train for New York.

The University Men

Memoir of Private George Baker:

At the time America entered the war with Germany, I was attending the Young Men’s Christian Association College in Chicago.

When President Wilson declared war, I investigated the various branches of services carefully before enlisting. I wanted to get into an outfit that would go overseas at once because we all thought that the war would last but two or three months.

About May 1, 1917, three weeks after the U.S.A. declared war, I heard of the hospital outfit at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, which was ready to leave for France to join the British Army. I decided right then to try to get in.

I called up Chaplain Dancey, who was Pastor of the First Methodist Church in Englewood, Illinois--"my own church"-- about enlisting in this special outfit. He gave me the recommendation and I went out to Evanston on May 8 and talked to doctors and some of the officers and they told me to come back next day, May 9. This I did and was examined and signed up for immediate service.

I then went home to Rock Island for a day or two and on Monday, May 14, 1917, the whole outfit took the oath of enlistment in the regular U. S. Army for three years, and four years in the Reserve. My unit was Base Hospital #12, Red Unit.

It all seemed so strange-- one day in school and the next day in the Army ready for a 4,500 mile journey to get to a war that had gone on for two years and nine months already. We thought we would have a nice long trip and the war would be over, but we found out later we were mistaken.

Troop Train to New York

Pvt. Baker’s memoir:

At 8:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 16,1917, the 147 enlisted men in our unit marched away from Patten Gym at Northwestern University with our baggage, suitcases and all kinds of bundles, amid great shouting, singing, Rah! Rah's! and good-byes from the students. We all piled on the Evanston "L" and got off at Union Station.

We left Chicago at 11:00 p.m. on the Wabash Railroad on a special train that had regular sleepers and meals. In Canada, at St. Thomas and Hamilton, the people greeted us. We had written in chalk on the side of the cars, "BERLIN OR BUST". The Canadian people were doubtful about our getting to Berlin.

We arrived in New York at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, May 18, 1917 after thirty-one hours of steady riding. After being told not to tell anyone where we were going and not to send any information through the mails, we were given the whole day in New York.

The “University Men” in fact reported in civilian clothes with suitcases, musical instruments and sports equipment. Totally untrained in Army ways, they were not issued uniforms or equipment until they were on shipboard. Such was the poor state of American preparedness when it entered the First World War--as in other foreign wars over into the next century.

May 17, 1917

Thu, May 17 1917

Laura’s first of 155 letters saved by her sweetheart over the next 23 months was dispatched even before the troop train reached New York City. The envelope was marked in Laura’s handwriting Special Delivery, postmarked Buffalo, NY, May 17 11 PM, and addressed to:

Mr. Jerle Davis

210 S. Desplaines St.

Western Newspaper Union

Chicago, Ill.


Letter #1, Reserve Nurse Laura Huckleberry

to John Erle Davis:

On the train

Somewhere in Canada

Thursday 1:30 PM


Dear Buddy: --

I want to call you that, too--All right?? I dreamed and dreamed and dreamed about you last night--always walking along just touching your hand. I wonder if you dreamed also.

We were assigned our berths and I drew Upper 9. Frances is in upper 7 but Bess & Mac were fortunate enough to be together in upper & lower 6. The other girls are in the other cars but none alone.

- - - - - - -

Just at that moment we pulled into St. Thomas & such an ovation!! There was almost the whole populace down to greet us. They passed us Canadian & British flags*, ice cream cones, oranges, bananas and addresses galore. Sons, brothers & husbands to look up or look out for. One old gentleman told us they have sent 2000 soldiers & their population being only 19,000 you may see how much it meant to them. It was all quite wonderful but made swallowing a bit difficult for a while.

We don't know when we'll get to N.Y. nor when we leave there. If any one knows they keep it to themselves. But anything addressed to the Red Cross Headquarters at N.Y. will reach me. (Hint ??? Oh no, my dear!)

It's almost time for lunch so I'll stop now and see what is on the menu. Please excuse the scribble--it's partly due to the train's wriggling.

Try not to be lonely and write often and come soon.

Yours as ever


* A tiny red Canadian flag on a hatpin was fastened to the page.

May 18, 1917

Fri, May 18 1917
Fri, May 18 1917

Letter from Erle to Laura’s sister, Bertha Huckleberry, a schoolteacher in North Vernon, Indiana:

Editorial Rooms

Western Newspaper Union

Newspaper Service

210 So. Desplaines St.

Chicago, May 18, 1917

My dear Miss Huckleberry, --

Laura and her hospital unit left Chicago for France at 11 o'clock Wednesday night. She thought you might be interested in the newspaper accounts of the departure, so I am sending those which appeared yesterday morning.

As departures go, this event was an unintentional comedy of high quality. The unit was composed of about 350 persons, and think each had a separate following of, say, 500 friends, relatives and enemies on hand to perform the ceremonies of farewell. When all were assembled it made quite a considerable foregathering, and it sounded like the bird house at the zoo.

Too, there were among those present a number of kind old ladies who went thither and yon distributing to the brave Red Cross lassies little bunches of wilted flowers, small flags and books. Laura received her volume just as she squeezed through the gate to the train shed. It was really handsomely bound and led to great expectations. After she had reached the coach and found her berth, she turned eagerly to an examination of the tome. All was revealed in the title page; it said: “Rob Roy.” Ever hear of the story? Neither did we. But you never can tell what kind old ladies will do.

One of my kinswomen sent me a clipping about myself which she had lifted from the North Vernon Plaindealer. It was certainly a monument of misinformation and a vast libel on my patriotism. I am not going any where as a special correspondent; but I hope to start for France soon with my hospital unit and I trust I shall be given an opportunity to perform as a private. I believe I'd do any thing to get into this fight. It is unlikely, though, that unit eleven, of which I am a member, will leave Chicago before the latter part of June.

Surely you will forgive the commercial aspect of this letter when I tell you I was unable to find a single sheet of polite stationery in the whole works.

Sincerely –

J Erle Davis