This week marks the end of National Women’s History Month. I know some folks are pretty tired of designated days and months for every group, but I am enjoying thinking and reading about special women. Those who fought for the right to vote, advocated for the disabled, pioneered in science and education, and the ones I have known.
Many Red Cross nurses and volunteers were already serving in military hospitals in Europe before the American Army Nurse
arrived. (Army nurses did not actually have officer status, but had “relative rank” during WWI. For perspective, women would not be allowed to vote until 1920!).
Nearly one hundred years ago, a newly commissioned officer and registered nurse boarded a ship amid a convoy of ocean liners converted to troop ships and crossed with the American
Expeditionary Forces to arrive on the shores of Brest, France. A year of service, especially the six weeks of intense fighting along the Western Front, would mark her for the remainder
of her life. She is not on the roster of honorees recognized as women in history this month. Nonetheless, she is a pivotal person in my life.
The nurse was my grandmother, Edith Amy Hollindale, and I remember stories I heard as a little girl about that time, as Lieutenant Hollindale cared for wounded soldiers in the tents of Evacuation Hospital 6 during WWI.
It was the screaming of the dying horses that she could never forget. The screeching mortar fire could be heard amid the groans of the wounded men. Amy went from cot to cot to ensure the morphine dose was repeated when needed, the fluid
replacement was infusing as it should, and the Dakin’s solution was bathing the wounds that quickly became gangrenous from the muddy trenches. Her “boys” as she called them, (indeed, so
many of them were still in their teens), watched as she walked among the cots, and the lights were extinguished due to the enemy fire. Her watch glowed, and she would tell them “Don’t be afraid, I’m right here”; they could see her watch, she was not
leaving them. Some begged her to go with the others to the dugouts, and be safe. “No, I am staying here”. (She was
heard many years later to say “I would not hug the turf”.) During the heavy artillery shelling, some would beg her to get under their cot. She was there to celebrate when her patients healed and moved on, and held the hands of those who died. Amy remained with her wounded and dying patients through many air raids in the battlefields of France.
The citation of merit from General Pershing hangs on my wall, as does her purple heart. She was one of three female nurses to receive the purple heart in WWI, not for being wounded, but for “brave and meritorious services”.
My grandmother never considered that anything she did was heroic, and explained, “The opportunity was there, and I took it”. I think of so many friends and coworkers-nurses often unheralded, and brave in all kinds of circumstances. And I am grateful to them all; but in particular to my grandmother, who paved the way for the generations of nurses yet to come.