A World at War

US Declares War on Germany

(San Bernardino News)

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The Red Cross embarked on an ambitious campaign to recruit graduate nurses as the possibility of the United States joining World War I became a reality. (National Library of Medicine)

On December 26, 1917, Mayme Williamson enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps. During the First World War, Williamson would serve with Base Hospital No. 30 in Royat, France. The following spring in May 1918, she published an essay in the American Journal of Nursing encouraging her fellow nurses to volunteer for service, writing,

“Every woman who is not a nurse envies us. The society ladies and women of position and affluence would love to take our place and nurse their loved ones, only they do not know how. We know how and it is great to fill the most important position, an aid to humanity, in a hospital ward of the upside-down world of today. I would not be anywhere else.”

When the United States entered the First World War on April 6, 1917, the process of mobilization was already well underway. As early as 1916, American citizens had volunteered through religious and humanitarian organizations to lend aid to British, French Italian, Russian, and Belgian nurses already embroiled in caring for the wounded of the world war. Despite President Woodrow Wilson’s official policy of neutrality, entry into the war seemed to be inevitable. Behind the scenes, the U.S. military and the American Red cross began preparing for the coming of war as best they could.

Nurses of Base Hospital 30

Nurses of Base Hospital 30 stand in front of a partially constructed barracks building. (American Journal of Nursing)

Army Nurse Girl

"Army Nurse Girl", illustrated by Gene Kessler. (National Library of Medicine)

The U.S. Army Nurse Corps, established in 1901, worked in close collaboration with the American Red Cross, which acted as a reserve of nurses for the Army. Whether as volunteers or as military nurses, nearly every woman who served abroad in the First World War did so under the mantle of the Red Cross. In the spring of 1917, the Red Cross worked to organize base hospitals at major hospitals and medical schools across the country. These base hospitals, each comprised of 27 medical officers, 60 nurses, and 153 enlisted men, were designed to be mobilized at a moment’s notice. Once mobilized, the base hospital’s connection to the Red Cross ended, with all hospital staff now serving under Army leadership.       

In California, the Red Cross established three base hospitals. Base Hospital No. 30 and Base Hospital No. 47 were organized early in 1917 in San Francisco. Base Hospital 30 was established at the medical school of the University of California San Francisco in March 1917 and mobilized in November of that same year. Base Hospital No. 47, organized at the San Francisco Hospital, was established in June 1917. In Los Angeles, Base Hospital No. 35 was organized at the Good Samaritan Hospital and was mobilized in March 1918.       

America’s nurses responded eagerly. At the outset of World War I, the Army Nurse Corps had only 408 nurses serving on active duty, with an additional 8,000 reserve nurses. At its peak in November 1918, the Army Nurse Corps boasted a total strength of 21,480 nurses.

Each of California’s three Red Cross hospitals would all serve abroad before the war’s end. Women from all across the West Coast volunteered for service over the course of 1917, and by the following summer had all boarded ships bound for the battlefront. They each answered the call to serve - a call which Mayme Williamson felt deeply. In her 1918 essay, she proclaimed,

"Your country calls you. That is the cry, and are we going to be less ready to answer than the men, our brothers, are to answer the bugle call? Of course not, we are going to do our share.”

A World at War