The First to Answer the Call in the Great War – American Doctors and Nurses

When the United States entered the Great War on April 6, 1917, the nation was hardly prepared to wage war against Germany, the main force on the Western Front from the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria). The US Army was small and after the Selective Service Act of 1917, it drafted 2.8 million men into the service. The men drafted had to be trained before being mobilized to Europe, which didn’t begin to make its impact in Europe until the fall of 1917.

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WWI Red Cross Recruitment Campaign Poster from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) began arriving in France in June of 1917. The first Americans to arrive in Europe to aid the Allies were not our military troops – it was the Doctors and the nurses of the American Red Cross. The doctors and nurses of the American Red Cross began their humanitarian mission as early as 1914 aboard a donated cruise ship painted white with a red cross that was recognized as a “Mercy Ship”.  One Reading nurse, Emma B. Loose of 1442 Spruce Street, made the initial journey.

John Wanamaker donated 2,000 tons of food and clothing that left Philadelphia on the mercy ship “Thelma.” The Reading Times article described Wanamaker “cheering like a schoolboy” at the dock as the “Thelma” left port. By September 1915, public sentiment against the war closed the American hospitals, recalling the personnel back to the States. Some chose to remain and sign on with the countries they supported while in Europe. Once America entered the war, doctors and nurses were once again recalled to the battlefront.

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Nurses from Reading arrived in Great Britain and France in May of 1917. Like the AEF, their impact was immediate and highly appreciated by the French and British. Carrie Albright of Reading wrote in a letter to her mother Mrs. Alfred S. Albright,  of 635 Pear St., received on June 28, 1917 that she did not know her destination and could not reveal her location in subsequent letters for security purposes. Other Reading girls in Carrie’s unit Red Cross #10 were Misses Florence Burkey, Eva Gerhard and Emily Holmes. Three other Reading girls sailed in late June with Army base hospital 34. They were Mary L. Bonawitz, 615 Church St, Amanda I. Heistand and Mary K. Lotz. Misses Bonawitz and Heistand graduated from the Episcopal Hospital training school for nurses in Philadelphia.

Florence Burkey of 152 West Oley St. reported in a letter published in the Reading Eagle on July 10, 1917 of her 100 mile, 9 hour journey to her destination in France. She also reported that as a nurse, under English law, she was unable to give anesthetics to the patients. At the Reading Hospital back home, Florence was an anesthesiologist. On general duty, Florence worked very hard to the point of exhaustion on a daily basis. She was thankful for the opportunity to have close contact with the patients, describing them as brave and uncomplaining. She also described them as terribly wounded. It was her hope that the United States could stop the war so our soldiers can be spared from the horrible slaughter. Burkey served at base hospital #10 on night duty.

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WWI Red Cross War Fund Campaign Poster from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The Red Cross did not see the trenches in the Great War, but they were not far from it. The immediate aid in the trenches was performed by the military medics in the field, who transported the wounded to the front line casualty clearing stations or forward units where the Red Cross took over. Once there, the casualties were prepared for transport to base hospitals in the rear. The clearing stations and base hospitals were subject to enemy air attacks, with nurses suffering over 200 casualties themselves during the course of the war, with most casualties coming from disease. According to the  “The Heroism of Reading & Berks County” published by the Reading Eagle, three Berks County nurses and one doctor died during the war. The casualties included: Nurse Eleanora Cassidy of 1045 N. 4th Street, Nurse Mary J. Scheirer of 1033 N 5th Street, Nurse Marie Hidell, and Dr. Ralph L. Hammond. All three passed on U.S. soil. The Red Cross nurses served in the Great War without rank or commission, something that changed by the next time the United states was involved in a world conflict.

Written and Researched by Richard Polityka

 

WWI: Life in the Trenches for the Berks County Boys

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US Food Adminstration Poster, WWI; BHC Museum Collection

Despite a lack of preparedness, the United States officially entered the Great War in April of 1917, providing support to our allies with troops which were desperately needed at the front lines.

The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), led by General Pershing, desperately needed training before they were deployed to the battlefields of France.  The first wave of the AEF arrived in France by June of 1917, with their first involvement in the conflict occurring late in October 1917.

The first two companies from Reading to answer the call of duty were Company A and Company I, who left the city in late August 1917 to be stationed in France.. However, this Reading contingent did not see France until December 1917 and did not make it to the trenches until March of 1918 as part of the 42 Division (Company I).

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Whatever training our boys received prior to embarking to France could have hardly prepared them for the horrors that trench warfare presented to the soldiers. The Berks History Center’s Museum collection helps to tell the story of their challenging experiences.  Pictured above, these artifacts were some of the basic necessities of life in the trenches including: a complete mess kit with the name “Marks” carved into each utensil and the lid, a gas mask in a canvas bag, a gas mask container, a complete shaving kit and a trench checkers kit. Looking at each item paints a picture of life fighting in the Great War.

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Reading Times, November 28, 1917.

The first Reading casualty in the Great War occurred on November 20th, when Charles S Rissmiller, of 1321 Moss Street, who served in the field artillery with the AEF in France under General Pershing, was killed when a shell exploded near his station. When news reached his mother Clara Rissmiller at her residence at 1240 Clover Street on November 27th, Mayor Edward H Filbert ordered all flags to be flown at half mast for ten days in honor of the city’s first casualty.

Article Written and Researched by Richard Polityka

War Bonds for Liberty: WWI Collection

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WWI Era Advertisement for Liberty Bonds from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

During the Great War, or the “War to End All Wars,” public support at home was crucial to the success of our troops overseas.

The Liberty Loan drive was devised to help cover the expenses of the United States war effort. There were five loan drives in total during the Great War, the last ending in 1919. The poster shown is by Joseph Pennell from the fourth loan drive, depicting what would happen to the home front if the civilian population did not buy war bonds. New York harbor is ablaze, German air fighters rule the sky, Lady Liberty’s head has been severed and lays in the harbor, with the German Eagle standing proudly at her feet, and a U-boat patroling the harbor. If this horrific scene didn’t make the public buy war bonds, what would?

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Victory Liberty Loan Medallion from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The fourth Liberty Bond ultimately wound up defaulting, as the terms of the bond were payable in U.S. gold coin at maturity in 1938. Unfotunately for bond holders, Franklin Roosevelt eliminated the gold market in 1933. Bond holders wound up losing approximately 41% of the bonds principal.

The U.S. Treasury commissioned the Victory Liberty Loan Medallion shown above in conjunction with the 5th loan drive of 1919. The medallion was made from a German cannon captured at Chateau-Thierry in north west France. The medal was awarded by the Department of Treasury to victory Liberty Loan campaign volunteers.

Researched & Written by Richard M. Polityka

Remembering the Great War and Its Effects on Berks County

 

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Photographs from BHC’s Research Library Photograph Collection

This week, many across the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. On April 6, 1917, Congress voted to declare war on Germany after it became apparent we could not avoid the conflict in Europe. Unfortunately though, “the war to end all wars” often takes a back seat in our collective memory. As the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, writes:

“In the shadow of World War II, the deeds and sacrifices of Americans in the Great War have sometimes been overlooked. This centennial commemoration encourages us to remember and rediscover their stores through the records they left behind.”

Archival Outlook, March/April 2017, page 13

To highlight the War’s effect on Berks County, we will be sharing stories and items from our collection each month on BHC’s social media and blog. Also stay tuned over the next nineteen months as we plan special programming at the BHC Museum and Research Library leading up the the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day in November 2018. To get things started we asked one of our Library Volunteers, Ruth Shaffer, to research the first few weeks of WWI and the effect it had on Berks County.

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Front page of the The Reading Eagle, April 6, 1917 –  Reproduced from The Reading Eagle/Reading Times Microfilm Collection at BHC’s Research Library

U.S. WAR WITH GERMANY BEGINS TODAY declared Reading Eagle headlines on Friday April 6, 1917. By the next day Reading was ablaze with red, white and blue banners and flags on street cars, automobiles, industrial plants, business houses and homes. War was the all-consuming topic of discussion. The Eagle bulletin board, outside its 6th and Penn Streets office building, which gave information on every new move, was the destination of crowds of people and hundreds called the newspaper daily. Thousands signed petitions pledging loyalty to President Wilson and the United States, and men in every walk of life expressed their willingness to serve in any capacity. Naturalized citizens stood ready to prove their love for the country of their adoption.

Even before the official declaration of war on April 6, soldiers were stationed at various points along the Reading Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad systems. They arrived in this area on April 3 and erected their tents at Peacock’s bridge north of Tuckerton. Guards were posted at both ends of the bridge. No one was permitted to pass over except railroad employees. Another group of soldiers were taken to the Lebanon Valley bridge. Their presence excited curiosity and hundreds congregated within sight of the camps, but were not permitted to get near the soldiers. Visiting was not encouraged. Residents were warned to avoid the bridges, since the orders were to shoot to kill anyone approaching and failing to halt on the sentry’s second challenge. Nevertheless, two young women managed to get arrested in the camp, claiming that they had been summoned by one of the privates. They were fined and jailed. They might have been shot as spies.

Researched & Written by Ruth Shaffer