North Dakota Nurses In The Great War

By Barbara Handy-Marchello

Sarah Sand of Grand Forks was one of nearly 300 nurses from North Dakota who volunteered for Army service during World War I.  She had been recruited by the North Dakota Red Cross at the Bismarck hospital where she worked. Sand was an experienced nurse, but received more than four months additional training for duty at the war front.

At Camp Jackson, South Carolina, she supervised the care of 285 patients in the segregated African-American pneumonia ward and did a stint in surgery.  Finally, on September 27, 1918, Sand and other nurses, along with hundreds of soldiers, boarded a transport ship for France.  On board, Spanish influenza sickened many and took the lives of nearly 500 soldiers and two nurses.

Sand was assigned to a hospital called Base 60 in the Meuse-Argonne sector.  She was issued a gas mask and helmet, items she used whenever German airplanes attacked the hospital. Her duties were to distribute medicine, deliver food and water to the wounded and ill soldiers, and complete, if possible, a record of work on her shifts.  Sand noted in her brief memoir that she was often too busy to keep proper records, because, in addition to her other duties, she had to dress the wounds of as many as 60 soldiers a day.

The workload did not let up after the armistice (November 11, 1918).  During the next five months, she treated soldiers with pneumonia and other infectious diseases and wrapped the legs of soldiers suffering from “trench legs,” a condition caused by standing too long in the cold water of the trenches.  She wrote that she had wrapped so many legs that she thought all soldiers had trench legs. Sand’s official duties ended April 10, 1919, almost a year after taking the Oath of Allegiance in Bismarck.

Nationwide, 12,000 nurses served at the front or at stateside military hospitals during the war years. However, by the summer of 1918, the Army asked for 1,000 more nurses every week.  To meet the demand, Harry Curran Wilbur, executive secretary of the North Dakota Red Cross, compiled a list of all the graduate nurses in the state, noting the names of those willing to serve with the Army, and the reasons given by those who did not want to go into the service.  Hospitals were urged to reduce the number of nurses on staff and at the same time sick people were encouraged to go to the hospital rather than stay home with a private duty nurse.

Women who had given up careers in nursing to marry and raise a family were now asked to return to work in order to replace an unmarried nurse who could then volunteer for Army service. The campaign was successful.  Not only did North Dakota fill its quota of graduate nurses, but 370 more young women entered nursing school and enrolled in the student nurse reserve.

The war was an important event in the professionalization of nursing.  The Army demanded nurses who had undergone at least two years of formal training, a requirement which strengthened nursing schools and gave nurses professional standing.

Nurses, however, were not enlisted in the Army or Navy.  They were paid well and received some benefits such as insurance, but did not have rank.  This created problems for them when they encountered officers who disagreed with the care they gave patients.  Nevertheless, nurses commanded their wards and made sure that enlisted orderlies prepared food, chopped wood for heat, and cleaned the wards so that nurses could attend to the medical needs of their patients.

Like many other nurses, Sarah Sand received awards and honors for her service including the Citadel of Verdun and the Victory Medal with the bar of France. The North Dakota chapter of the American Nurses Association presented her with the Citation of Honor in 1952.

Sand’s commitment to her profession was forged and strengthened in the Army hospitals of war-torn France.  A credit to her home state and her profession, she remained a member of the Red Cross Nurse Reserve for 14 years and continued her career as a surgical nurse in North Dakota and California for many years.

(Barbara Handy-Marchello, Ph.D., is a historian and writer for North Dakota Studies who taught Women’s History and the American West at the University of North Dakota for 15 years.)

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