The mythology of male bonding in wartime, valorized in art and literature, also appears as a dominant trope in contemporary historical accounts. The narrative of diverse individuals forged together, a melting pot writ small, in the service of a greater good has become central to how the US conceptualizes war history, an anti-individualist, yet still collectively heroic narrative. As Megan MacKenzie illustrates, this male cohesiveness has been deemed so crucial to war that it long stood as a powerful counter-argument against women’s participation in combat.
An account of a female band of “buddies,” seven nurses who served with Evacuation Hospital № 5 during World War I, offers insights into the earliest moments women demonstrated, under official circumstances rather than as camp followers, that they could not only function under life-threatening circumstances but also contribute to the survival of soldiers at the front. Women’s military service in the first world war stands as the starting point of an almost century-long transformation that would ultimately result in the end of US combat exclusion policies.
The experiences of these “buddies” would have been lost if not for the scrapbook of Ethel Anderson, which is now held by the New York Public Library. The album combines photographs and lengthy excerpts from Anderson’s wartime diary and offers a means for tracing the buddies from their arrival in France in April 1918 to the end of the war
Viewing the great war through women’s eyes challenges war narratives so central “to national identity and collective historical memory” and replaces that account with to “multifocal, relational narratives that challenge hegemonic gender relations.”
Although the second world war looms much larger in the America imagination, the centennial of the first world war has drawn greater attention to the significance of that conflict. Accounts of women’s wartime service with the AEF are too frequently summed up in a few paragraphs, detailing the women’s ambiguous military status, praising nurses’ crucial role in saving lives, and describing the military accolades awarded to various women. Because of the relatively small number of female nurses who served overseas with the AEF, just over 10,000, their experiences remain embedded in an exceptional history framework, universally lauded, but seldom discussed individually. This band of buddies, in particular, offers insights into the wartime experiences of ordinary American women, rather than well-known leaders or elite figures. The approach taken here is to combine women’s wartime accounts, oral, visual and textual, to create a collective history, a common tactic for writing male military history, but one that has seldom been applied to women.
Under the Red Cross Flag
Ethel Anderson’s scrapbook provides an invaluable record of women’s wartime experiences, a record that is largely absent from the official record. For example, of the thirty-four Camp Upton photographs in the Library Of Congress, not one depicts nurses. The photographs Anderson chose to preserve on the earliest pages of her scrapbook start to tell the story of female camaraderie. With free time stateside, the nurses pose together in uniform and in civilian dress.
In keeping with the images, which show the nurses interacting in groups, Anderson eschewed the first -person voice in her scrapbook; This is an account of “our crowd,” not of an individual.
Of the buddies, Anderson alone went to Camp Upton and was re-united with the nurses of Base Hospital №44 in New York City prior to embarking for Europe. Perhaps it was on the long and fraught journey across the Atlantic that the bonds of friendship began to form among the women or perhaps that time merely cemented the bonds that existed between women that likely included nursing school classmates and former colleagues on the wards.
The Band of Buddies
Like most US army nurses, the seven buddies were unmarried, white, and between 25 and 35 years old. Although the Army Nurse Corps was technically restricted to US citizens waivers were available and we have found evidence of many Canadian nurses who served, including at least one of the buddies. In an era when the average age of first marriage for women was 21 and the vast majority of women married; these women had already chosen an unusual path in training to be nurses.
Of the seven buddies, we have definitely identified Ethel Anderson and Emma S. Vary, who signed her full name to her photo. Maud was identified by pictures in Anderson’s album. As only one Maud served with Base Hospital №44 she is likely Maud J. Caldwell. Peg, a nickname for the very common Margaret proved more difficult to narrow down as three women with that name served with Base Hospital №44, but she is probably Margaret H. Allan, who was sent to Camp Wadsworth with Emma S. Vary, shipped out as part of Base Hospital №44, came home on the same ship as some of the buddies, and served as witness to Vary’s passport application in 1924.
Two women signed nicknames on the photographs. The letter B, Coopie is probably Margaret J. Cooper, identified through the same means as Margaret H. Allan. “Frosty” was serendipitously identified as I searched online for more information about Evacuation Hospital No. 5. I came across a memoir Frost recorded in 1983 for the Women’s Overseas Service League and realized the events she recounted aligned with Anderson’s scrapbook. Her family members confirmed she is depicted in the letter I. One nurse remains unknown, perhaps a Grace who is mentioned by Anderson in one of her diary excerpts. [click here to find downloadable image of pages if you’d like to help try to identify the nurse depicted in letter E].
Evacuation Hospital №5
The buddies sailed on the Northland departing July 14, 1918, after a train ride from New York City to Philadelphia. Ninety-eight nurses traveled as part of the detachment of Base Hospital №44. Having spent just ten days in France, but already moving from Le Havre to Neuilly to Coulommier and then to Chateau-Thierry, the seven buddies were sent as part of a much smaller group to Evacuation Hospital №5. As part of this mobile medical unit, they spent the remainder of the war deployed close to the front just one stage behind the triage-oriented Casualty Clearing stations. The seven buddies would ultimate travel for two hundred and fifty-five days, serving in twelve locations, including Staden, Belgium.
Assignment to Evacuation Hospital №5 seems to have been arbitrary. Anderson’s diary recounts the confusion that characterized these early days of the AEF in France.
August 01, 1918 Le Havre “Three thousand miles or more now separate us from friends and home”
August 4, 1918 Neuilly-sur-Seine “amid sad adieus from friends a small company of 25 left de la gare (sp) en route to their mysterious destination.”
August 6, 1918 Coulommiers “It was discovered that a mistake had been made in the orders and the twenty-five nurses of our groups were to proceed by ambulances further front. So with some wonder we packed our suitcases…”
August 11, 1918 Château-Thierry “Our little company from Base 44 were destined to be divided once more, and when orders for the twelve nurses … to join Evacuation Hospital No 5. It meant another parting from friends of the unit. So here we are: and what a place.”
Laura Frost recalled that the nurses were simply divided between herself and her friend Marion Jones. This random decision had large ramifications for the two women’s wartime experiences. Jones would remain in relative comfort in Base Hospital №44 located at the large medical complex in Mesves, while Frost would endure the hardships of life on the front.
The band that would become buddies was thus formed during their earliest days in France and would be forged by the intense experiences under very close quarters that the small teams of nurses serving close to the front endured.
After caring for casualties of the Aisne-Marne Operation at Chateau-Thierry from mid to late August, the nurses set up their first hospital at Villers-Cotteret on August 28 to tend to men of the 32nd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Oise-Aisne Operation. It was an endless struggle against the ever- present mud and cold. Laura Frost depicted in the top photo outside the tent, described their living quarters, forty nurses divided into two tents.
“Our lockers fit under each cot, with a box between our beds to keep our things. A cone-shaped stove called a Sibley was in the middle of the tent. It took off some of the chill. A wooden floor kept us out of the mud.”
More serious than these discomforts were the dangers the nurses faced this close to the front. Anderson describes sleeping with helmets at the ready in case they had to take cover during a nighttime German air raid and the frightening experiences when the bombing began.
“Fritz came over last night and bombed the town, killed several civilians. There was nothing for us to do but lie in bed and shiver waiting results. Six searchlights were playing about in the sky in search of the plane. If you ever have heard the motor of a german plane, you are not apt to forget the sound in a hurry, neither the sound of a bomb whizzing through the air. This morning we picked up pieces of shrapnel in the campground.” August 29, 1919
Over a two week period, the nurses cared for “2,170 wounded and gassed men” before they de-camped for their next location.
At this point in Anderson’s narrative, evidence emerges that links the band of buddies of the Massachusetts unit to a second set of female comrades, Helen C. Bulovsky and her friends, nurses from Base Hospital №22 who also were assigned to Evacuation Hospital №5. They are all pictured in the photograph above. Photographs found in Anderson’s scrapbook, such as the nurses’ quarters at Villers-Cotterêts, also appear in Finding Helen: The Letters, Photographs and Diary of a WWI Battlefield Nurse by two of Helen C. Bulovsky’s descendants Brooke Cameron and Janice Collins. Helen C. Bulovksy and her friend Ruth Lamphere were assigned to Evacuation Hospital N. 5 on July 21, which places them in the unit prior to the arrival of the Massachusetts nurses in August. The women served together from Chateau-Thierry on and may appear in the train photographs below, which also appear in Finding Helen.
On Sep 14, 1918 Anderson describes yet another move, this time a multi-day train journey to Souilly. She noted that “the Beantown bunch usually manages” to travel together in one train compartment and recounted the many travails of crowded conditions.
The photographs preserved in her album capture the spirit of the nurses determined to make the best of the difficult times. Anderson also notes a happy reunion with the “old crowd” from two other evacuation hospital, no. 7 and no. 8, hinting at still other overlapping groups of nurses still yet to be explored.
On September 15, 1918, Evacuation Hospital №5 set up camp 3 miles outside Souilly and about seven miles from Verdun.
Troop movements were changing frequently at this point in the war, and as Anderson recalled sudden moves, often without warning. In this case, the orders to move out of Souilly to Ville-Sur-Cousances came so suddenly that part of their group, off exploring, was left behind when they were transported to the site of their camp.
We joined our men late last evening. Some of our crowd were awol over night. They left camp in the afternoon and when they came found we had all left. We tried to hold back as long as we could but it was no use. … There are many airplanes going over and for this reason we are not allowed to stand out of doors in groups, or wear any white on our uniforms. Things look suspicious.
In addition to the worrisome German air raids, the nurses constantly feared being separated from their band of buddies. The next day ten of the nurses were sent to assist in the set up of Evacuation Hospital #9 at Vaubecourt, although they were recalled to their unit a week later. The Meuse-Argonne offensive began the next day and the nurses worked around the clock until they had to hastily decamp on October 1. Anderson has no diary entries for almost two weeks, but a history of Evacuation Hospital №5 fills in the details. Within two days they had re-established the hospital in Le Veuve. The wounded soon poured in and over the next forty-eight hours, Evacuation Hospital №5 treated over 1,000 men.
On October 22, 1918, Evacuation Hospital No. 5 followed the 37th division headed towards the Flanders front. They established a hospital in Staden, Belgium, approximately 24 miles behind lines. Here they were reunited with some of the staff, like Helen Bulovsky, who had been sent temporarily to Evacuation Hospital no. 10. Following two days of rough travel, the hospital was barely prepared to treat the wounded who began to arrive. At its peak, when trains could not move the casualties out, the hospital held over 1400 men. In total, they cared for almost four thousand men, 103 of whom died.
When we left Le Veuve as usual we had not the slightest idea where we were bound for … When we found we … were in Belgium, our eagerness to see the country increased. But Belgium — Where was she? Nothing to see but ruins. … whole cities were buried beneath the debris. Many of these cities had been burned to the ground. .. [Staden] was well filled with troops on their way to the front, these were men of the 37th and 91st Division.
Anderson’s lament for Belgium was echoed in Bulovsky’s letter home “this is an awful place. There is nothing here but ruins.” In the end, their surroundings hardly mattered; Evacuation Hospital №5 would treat over 3,000 men during the few remaining weeks of the war.
Frost recalled the hardships of those final days.
We soon learned the sound of the German Foker planes. It didn’t have the same droning sound of the allied ones we hardly awaited the sound of the alarm to take cover in.. it seemed cruel to leave the bed patients but reasonable that someone should be left to take care of them in case the hospital was bombed.
Anderson rarely wrote about particular patients, but Frost included details of a gassed soldier that she and Margaret [Cooper?] cared for.
Margaret and I became very fond of one of our patients. … He was only about 18 years old. All he would say was ‘glass’ and had a bullet hole right in the middle of his forehead. … One day Margaret sang Over There to him and he followed along saying all the words. That was a great day for us.
When the Armistice went into effect, the nurses found themselves appropriately in the province of West Flanders, not far from Ypres where the poem In Flanders Field was set.
Ethel Anderson wrote in her diary that although the nurses heard rumors of an armistice“we hardly could believe it was true” and continued tending their patients. However, in the evening, they witnessed the improvised fireworks being lit by soldiers at the nearby front and realized the rumors must be true. An impromptu celebration ensued, that while Anderson notes was not likely to rival that found in Paris, still resulted in “a strange feeling of happiness” and thoughts of the “folks at home.” In a letter headed “Flanders, Belgium” Helen Bulovsky relayed that “everything seems relieved of a heavy pressure. We are all as happy as the day we drooped anchor in the harbor of Liverpool.” Bulovsky’s thoughts turned to life after the war, longing both to “tramp around Europe” but also to get home as quickly as possible.
In December, Evacuation Hospital №5 was sent to Malo-Les-Bains in the suburbs of Dunkirk. The nurses tended patients in the Hotel Casino, converted to a wartime hospital. They also had time to explore the beaches and to socialize with officers from nearby units. Moving toward the coast, they were reunited with Base Hospital №44 in Mesves, and then on to Toul. Following a two week leave in which they toured the south of France, Monaco and the French Alps, Anderson was finally separated from her buddies. She shipped home first, departing from Brest April 13, 1919, on the S.S. Mobile. Why she left first when the others remained until June is not clear.
After the War
Evidence of the buddies after the war is sparse. Some evidence exists to show connections between the women enduring in the years immediately following the war. The 1920 census reports Laura Frost, Margaret H. Allan, thought to be Peg, and Marion Jones shared lodgings in Massachusetts. When Emma Vary applied for a passport in 1924, Maud J. Caudwell served as one of two individuals who attested to her identity. Similarly, when Coopie, aka Margaret Jane Cooper, a Canadian by birth, applied for naturalization in 1926, Margaret H. Allan served as a witness. Beyond that though, we can find no links between the women. Perhaps they stayed in touch via letters that were discarded. Lacking the context of war, who would have thought them to be historically significant?
Laura Frost lived to 103 making her a likely candidate for the longest living US woman to have served with the AEF. In the 1980s she began to receive the acclaim seldom offered to female nurses so many decades before. Her memoir of the 1980s frankly addresses the difficulties she faced demobilizing, experiences she compared to those of Vietnam veterans returning home.
Frost was featured in an episode of the American Experience, The Great War: 1918 (1989). American Women In World War I a popular history published in 1997 also drew on her memoirs and conversations with the author, newspaper woman Lettie Gavin. Shortly before her death in 1998, her granddaughter, a journalist, published a lengthy article about her.
Emma S. Vary, in a widely reprinted newspaper article of 1921, was lauded as one of the few nurses to receive a victory medal with five battle clasps. Since her buddies appear to have been with her for the duration, it is unclear why she was singled out for this publicity. In 1931, Vary married Julian Larcombe Schley who became governor of the Panama Canal Zone the following year.
The remaining buddies have proved more difficult to trace, leaving only the slightest records. Census records show they supported themselves as nurses, living for the most part until the late 1970s and early 1980s, not long enough to see the shifting tides of history take into account their participation of the great war, although several are buried in Veterans’ Cemeteries, a belated recognition of their service.
Their mementos of the war, the countless other diaries, letters, and albums lost now, remained as reminders of life over there. For the “buddies” a heartfelt letter from the commanding officer of Evacuation Hospital №5, preserved by Helen Bulovsky and pasted into Anderson’s scrapbook, offered a framework for understanding their service.
“I trust that as the years slip by, you will look back with increasing pleasures on your work, so well done at Chateau Thierry, Villers-Cotterets, Ville-sur-Cousances, Le Veuve, Staden, and Dunkerque.”
In this brief overview of the band of buddies we attempted to convey the esprit de corp that characterized the close-knit group that together faced circumstances that would perhaps have thwarted them individually. Laura Frost recalled crying all throughout her first day of duty on the amputation ward of the American Ambulance Hospital. Over the next six months, the band of buddies endured German air raids and long work hours treating thousands of wounded. The buddies laughed their way through uncomfortable train rides and weeks spent ankle-deep in mud. In the words of Elsie Janis, “Sweetheart of the A.E.F” whose poem Lest We Forget appears in many women’s wartime scrapbooks, the buddies’ service was “life’s finest hours.”
- Work on the band of buddies began with Rosemont College students Elizabeth Bolton, Kyah Hawkins, Sabrina Heggan, Jeel Rao, and Hope Smalley. See our collectively authored piece The Great War through Women’s Eyes.
2. Although Frost mentions Emma, Maud, and Margaret in her memoir, she never names Ethel Anderson. Likewise, Anderson’s album contains no mention of Laura although she appears in photographs.
3. Anderson alone went to Camp Upton on Long Island, NY, which fortuitously allowed us to use those photographs to identify her as she did not label herself in the “buddies” photos.
4. Although not incorporated in this account here, one of the nurses from Base Hospital no. 22 who also served at Evacuation Hospital №5 have left an account of their camaraderie. The wartime letters and diary of Helen C. Bulovsky offers yet another perspective on the events depicted by Anderson. Some of the same photographs of Bulovksy and her friend Ruth Lamphere appear in Anderson’s scrapbook and all the women are in larger group photographs of Evacuation Hospital №5. Bulovosky never mentions Anderson by name.