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.