PREFACE

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