Stories from a Photo: Base Hospital No. 65 Nurses

Author: 
Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

Sometimes as archivists and museum curators, we come across items that are significant historically, but are not in that great of shape for one reason or another. After all, many of the items that come to our institutions have survived decades or even centuries, moving with people from place to place, and stored in varying conditions. Often, we do not know the cause of the damage to archival items or artifacts, in order that we can understand how the materials were cared for and who owned them over time. In the case of the following photograph, the damage helps tell a story of a unique group of World War I veterans.

 

Taken 99 years ago this month, this small panoramic photograph of the female nurses of North Carolina-founded U.S. Army Base Hospital Number 65 is the only group photograph of only the women in the hospital held by the State Archives of North Carolina. The photograph was taken at Camp Kerhuon, France, in July 1919. Before we go further, here is some basic information on that camp in WWI.

The hospital center at Kerhuon was situated 4 miles southeast of Brest, France, and about 1½ miles from the railroad station of Kerhuon. The center was planned to consist of 8 military base hospitals, with a total capacity of 8,000 beds, for embarkation purposes; however, only 4,000 beds had been provided when the armistice was signed and further construction was abandoned. The first unit to occupy Camp Keruon was Base Hospital No. 65, which reported to the site on September 16, 1918, and on September 20, 1918, the hospital center was organized. Basically, the hospital was situated near one of the coastal cities of France to treat injured American soldiers before they would be sent by transport ship back to the United States.

 

The Thompson Illustragraph Company of Petersburg, Virginia, took this photograph. In WWI, it was common for photographers and photography companies to travel overseas from the U.S. in order to earn a wartime living of taking the U.S. military units’ numerous group and individual portrait photographs. Photographers from Virginia and South Carolina often traveled to France, and camped out along the ports of embarkation that received and returned American soldiers back to their country.

 

As for the female nurses, many of them were from North Carolina, having joined Base Hospital No. 65 when it was formed in Asheville in early 1918 by North Carolinian Dr. John Wesley Long. When Base Hospital No. 65 was organized by Dr. Long, one of the requirements specified by the U.S. War Department was that the personnel be secured from North Carolina. The base hospital initially enlisted 32 medical officers, 203 enlisted men, and 100 nurses. 90% of the nurses in the unit were North Carolinians. The nurses were then sent in a body to France where they joined Base Hospital 65 in France, where hospital remained from early in September 1918 to August 1919. The hospital was composed of all-male doctors, male nurses and aides, and female nurses.

 

Base Hospital No. 65 handled over 40,000 patients during this period. The hospital eventually had a capacity of 4,000. 100 nurses and 200 enlisted men looked after a large number of sick and dying men. The hospital handled wounded men, cases of influenza, pneumonia, pleurisy, cerebro-spinal menengitis, and insanity. In October 1918, the Chief Surgeon of the American Expeditionary Forces called upon Base Hospital No. 65 for two operating teams to be sent to the front as traveling medical teams. This called for a highly trained operating room nurse for each team--two North Carolina women were chosen for these roles. They went with their teams as assigned and spent many weeks in active duty close to the front lines. Supplies, staffing, beds, and time were always short at Base Hospital No. 65.

 

This is one of the few-known, large photographs of only the women personnel of the hospital. There are so few of them pictured because it was the end of their overseas duty, and many of the other female nurses had returned to the U.S. Many of the other group photographs of the hospital’s personnel feature male nurses or male doctors, with the female nurses posed in supportive-looking positions around their male colleagues within the photographs’ compositions. This photograph was taken just as the last of the Base Hospital No. 65 personnel were preparing to return to the U.S. in August 1919. The image shows the women as they naturally were with each other from available histories of the unit written by female nurses—laughing, smiling, teasing each other, and dressed as professionally as they could with limited availability of new uniforms.

So why the damage in the photograph from the folding creases and punched holes? Well, after the war, the personnel of the hospital formed the Veterans of Base Hospital No. 65. In 1922, former nurse Ione Branch Bain of initially Wilkes County and later Davidson County, N.C., became the nurses’ historian for the veterans’ group. She also assisted in keeping current contact information for all members of the group, so group reunion notices could be received by all of the group’s members. As the years went on, Bain ended up documenting which members were passing away, including keeping newspaper clippings of obituaries of former Base Hospital No. 65 veterans.

 

Ione Bain began sometime in the late 1960s to early 1970s keeping a historical scrapbook—kept in a three-ring binder prior to its coming to the State Archives of North Carolina—of Base Hospital No. 65. The scrapbook used photographs, typed information, newspaper clippings, and other records, arranged beginning with the hospital’s history in the United States through the Veterans of Base Hospital No. 65’s last reunion year of 1966. The scrapbook was never completed, as loose pages for it were kept with the partially-completed scrapbook. In order to fit large items in the scrapbook, Bain punched holes in the items for the three-ring holes and folded oversized items. This July 1919 panorama of the nurses was folded in three places, and punched holes in two places to fit in the binder.

 

Although it was damaged in this way, the photograph is an important testament to the role and dedication of North Carolina women in WWI. It shows from its scars the lengths to which the hospital’s personnel went over more than 45 years to keep in touch and preserve the service memories of their colleagues—from both their WWI service and their post-war lives. A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes only if you know the background behind those words.

 

[Historical information used for this historical note about the hospital's operations in France comes from Chapter 23, History of The Office of Medical History, U.S. Army Medical Department, viewed at http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwi/adminamerexp/chapter23.html].

 

This blog post is part of the State Archives of North Carolina’s World War I Social Media Project, an effort to bring original WWI archival materials to the public through the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ (NCDNCR) various social media platforms, in order to increase access to the items during the WWI centennial celebration by the state of North Carolina.

 

Between February 2017 and June 2019, the State Archives of North Carolina will be posting blog articles, Facebook posts, and Twitter posts, featuring WWI archival materials which are posted on the exact 100th anniversary of their creation during the war. Blog posts will feature interpretations of the content of WWI documents, photographs, diary entries, posters, and other records, including scans of the original archival materials, held by the State Archives of North Carolina, and will be featured in NCDNCR’s WWI centennial blog.