Bringing to Life the Brave Nurses of World War I
By Tracey Enerson Wood
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
After writing about the amazing feats of Emily Warren Roebling in The Engineer’s Wife, (who despite tremendous obstacles and laws against women working, completed the Brooklyn Bridge) I cast about, searching for my next heroine. And indeed, she needed to be a heroine as my goal is to shed light on untold stories of women who accomplished great things, yet are lost to history.
Coming from a multi-generational military family, and having interviewed dozens more for Homefront Cooking, Recipes, Wit, and Wisdom from American Veterans and Their Loved Ones, I thought it was time to explore a woman who served in war time. Although I enjoy WWII stories, it seems there are already many excellent novels to choose from. Much less common are ones set in WWI era, with even fewer featuring women protagonists. As I am a retired registered nurse, I thought my experience could lend insight to the unique challenges my characters would face. It was an easy task to find the perfect fit: Julie Catherine Stimson.
The jacket copy nicely summarizes the story:
“Superintendent of Nurses Julia Stimson is asked to recruit sixty-five nurses to relieve those of the battle-worn British, months before American troops are ready to be deployed. She knows that the young nurses serving near the front lines of WWI would face a challenging situation, but nothing could have prepared her for the chaos that awaits when they arrive at British Base Hospital 12 in Rouen, France. The primitive conditions, a convoluted, ineffective system, and horrific battle wounds are enough to discourage the most hardened nurses, and Julia can do nothing but lead by example—even as the military doctors undermine Julia’s authority and make her question her very place in the hospital tents.
"When trainloads of soldiers stricken by a mysterious respiratory illness arrive one after the other, overwhelming the hospital’s limited resources, and threatening the health of her staff, Julia faces an unthinkable choice—to step outside the bounds of her profession and risk the career she has fought so hard for, or to watch the people she cares for most die in her arms. Based on a true story, THE WAR NURSE is a sweeping historical novel by international bestselling author Tracey Enerson Wood that takes readers on an unforgettable journey through WWI France.”
I was fortunate to be living in Europe while researching the story. I was able to tour battlefields in Belgium and France, and spent time in beautiful Rouen, Monet’s gardens, and other places that became settings in the book. I spoke to farmers, who even today must be careful when plowing their fields, as unexploded ordinance still abounds.
I visited many of the carefully tended military cemeteries that dot the landscape, and was the first family member to visit the final resting place of my great uncle in Meuse-Argonne. While there, I discovered the story of nurse Charlotte Cox, who then became a character in the book.
I learned much about the Spanish Flu pandemic, which has become very relevant in today’s world. I trekked through preserved tunnels and trenches, climbed aboard old ambulances and tanks. The huge Lochnagar mine crater in a Somme battlefield served as inspiration for an important scene in my book.
Another important takeaway was the genius of the American Red Cross in preparing stateside medical organizations to form deployable units. In this way, they had a group of professionals, who already knew each other and worked well together, so critical for quickly creating functional units overseas.
Physically being in the same space, seeing the rows upon rows of white marble crosses and stars, walking the very earth that soldiers died to protect, and seeing the reverence paid today for their sacrifices was an honor and privilege. I endeavored to combine that with my personal experience of the physical and emotional challenges of nursing to bring Julia Stimson and her nurses’ stories to life. I hope I succeeded.