One hundred years ago yesterday, January 18, 1918, US Army Reserve Nurse Helen Fairchild passed away while serving with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), one of five American nurses so seconded to die in WW1. Statistical firsts can be hard to verify, but she may have been the first US Army Nurse to die in France in WW1 and she may also have been the first to die as a result of contact with the enemy.
Born in 1884 on a farm near Milton, PA, Helen trained in Philadelphia at The Pennsylvania Hospital (co-founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin), graduating in 1913. She remained on the staff, employed primarily as a surgical nurse.
In 1916 the American Red Cross had proposed Base Hospital units for voluntary service with the BEF. These were designed to fully staff a 500 bed hospital and required 22 doctors, 2 dentists, 65 Red Cross Nurses, 153 aides/orderlies, 6 clericals and a chaplain. Major American hospitals participated, including The Pennsylvania, which formed Base Hospital No. 10 in February, 1917 with Helen as one of the nurses. Shortly after the Declaration of War on April 6th, 1917 several Base Hospitals were mobilized by the Army.
The first six of these to go overseas, which group included No.10, left for Europe on May 12th, 1917. They were assigned to take over the operation of BEF General Hospitals and Helen’s unit took over General Hospital No. 16, which was one of five located near Le Tréport, France (a popular seaside resort in better times) about 45 miles west of Amiens, behind the Somme sector.
Handing over these hospitals to the Americans was problematic since they were too big. Their allocated capacity was between 650 and 1,350 patients, far more than the Red Cross standard of 500, and at peak times they had as many as 2,000. British personnel, particularly Voluntary Aides, had to augment the Americans until February 1918.
Helen’s unit reported for duty on June 12th, 1917. Things were quiet in the Somme sector in the summer of 1917 but not so up in Belgium where the Third Battle of Ypres (best known as Passchendaele), was starting. Volunteering for service, on July 22nd Helen arrived at Casualty Clearing Station No. 4, a complex of tents situated in some muddy fields near Langemarck.
There were three CCS complexes here, playfully named by the soldiers as “Dozinghem, Mendinghem and Bandagehem”. These were in range of German heavy artillery, and Helen was repeatedly exposed to gas, particularly the blister agent called ‘Mustard’, often as residue on the clothing of the wounded. The cumulative effects of gas exposure weren’t known at the time.
There were regular night flyovers by bombers, which required blackouts, with surgery sometimes finished by flashlight. On August 18th bombs hit the CCS, which had to be temporarily closed due to loss of personnel, although Helen escaped injury.
A parenthetical aside of interest to Kansans: 1st Lieut. William Fitzsimons MD was killed 17 days later in a bombing raid on Base Hospital No. 5 at Dannes-Camières, France, about fifty miles from CCS No. 4. Fitzsimons, a Kansas native and a KU and KUMC graduate, was the first American officer killed in action in WW1. You can read more about him here and here.
Helen was at CCS No. 4 for the first phase of the Passchendaele battle, not finally leaving until she was evacuated by ambulance. Her liver was atrophying and physical examinations had not detected that she had a pyloric ulcer.
Emergency surgery was performed on January 15th at the Canadian Stationary Hospital No. 3 in Doullens, France (near Amiens and about fifty miles east of Base Hospital No. 10) but she quickly declined and died three days later of liver failure. Although the ulcer was deemed the proximate cause, gas exposure and too much chloroform during the surgery were precipitating factors.
Helen wrote a lot of letters, and most of these survive. She vividly and thoroughly described her daily life and experiences. She was determined to keep her family from worrying about her. She never wrote a word about her own health problems. Here’s an example:
I am with an operating team about 100 miles from our own base hospital, closer to the fighting lines. I’ll sure have a lot to tell about this experience when I get home. I have been here three weeks and see no signs of going back yet, although when we came we only expected to be here a few days. Of course, I didn’t bring much with me. Had two white dresses and two aprons, and two combinations. Now can you imagine trying to keep decent with that much clothing in a place where it rains nearly every day.
We all live in tents and wade through mud to and from the operating room where we stand in mud higher than our ankles. It was some task, but dear old Major Harte, who I am up here with, got a car and a man; to go down to our hospital and get us some things. He brought me six clean uniforms and aprons, beside heaps of notes from all the nurses, letters from home and all kinds of fruit and cake.
We made the trip up to this place in an auto-ambulance 100 miles through France. Oh I shall have books to tell when I get home.
Julia Stimson, Chief Nurse for the Red Cross in France (who didn’t go with Helen to the Salient), also wrote about the experience that her nurses, including Helen , encountered while at the CCS’s, and unlike Helen, as a professional courtesy her private letters were not censored:
What with the steam, the ether, and the filthy clothes of the men…the odor in the operating room was so terrible that it was all any of them could do to keep from being sick…no mere handling of instruments and sponges, but sewing and tying up and putting in drains while the doctor takes the next piece of shell out of another place. Then after fourteen hours of this with freezing feet, to a meal of tea and bread and jam, then off to rest if you can, in a wet bell tent in a damp bed without sheets, after a wash with a cupful of water…one need never tell me that women can’t do as much, stand as much, and be as brave as men.
Another Base Hospital No. 10 nurse, Ida Downs, eulogized Helen thusly: “Nurse Fairchild represented the truest type of womanhood and stood for the very best in the nursing profession.”
Helen was buried in the British plot at Le Tréport Communal Cemetery with full military honors rendered by the British. Later her remains were moved to the new American Battle Monuments Commission Somme American Military Cemetery near Bony, France and re-interred in Plot A, Row 15, Grave 13.
She never made it home to tell those “books” of stories that she promised. Her letters and other materials were published by her niece Nelle Fairchild Rote in 2002. To read more about Helen click here.
She was commemorated by the planting of an oak at The Pennsylvania Hospital and a highway bridge over the West Branch of the Susquehanna River near Watsontown, PA is named for her.
With special thanks to Michael E. Hanlon.