More than sixty years after the Armistice, the private recollections of a Hoosier nurse on the front lines of World War One came to light.
It was only after Maude Frances Essig’s death in a veterans’ retirement home in Dayton, Ohio that her nephew found among her possessions a 68-page document titled “My Trip Abroad with Uncle Sam: 1917-1919”.
Born on a northern Indiana farm in 1884, Essig was the superintendant of nurses at Elkhart General Hospital when invited to join the staff of a medical unit in France, organized by the Indianapolis chapter of the American Red Cross. The bulk of its financing supplied by pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly and Company, Base Hospital 32 was run by staff members of the Indianapolis City Hospital (later Marion County General and Wishard).
After shipping out of New York, Essig arrived in France in December 1917 and reported to the hospital 40 miles southwest of Nancy, where she was one of about sixty nurses employed.
Essig regularly worked 12-hour days at the 1250-bed facility, which she described in her journal as “look [ing] hopeless—no conveniences—Very little equipment and so many patients—everything so dirty—made me think of Florence Nightingale and her experiences at Crimea!”
Treating everything from pneumonia to meningitis, Essig and her co-workers most frequently encountered troops who’d been exposed to mustard or phosgene gas, resulting in severe burns to the throat. Essig treated American soldiers as well as enemy combatants at Base Hospital 32.
Although the work was grueling and the supplies scant, Essig clearly felt appreciated in her work. “Ever since we have been here,” she wrote, “we have had letters and letters telling us what wonderful, unselfish work we are doing. We all have heard this until we are ashamed…. we are getting what I wish many at home who are working quite as hard as we, could have, and that is the privilege of being right here in the midst of things.”
Essig’s journal also recalls the pleasures of a sightseeing trip to Paris and the French Alps—“The nearest Heaven I ever hope to be in this world”.
For several months after the signing of the Armistice, hospital staff stayed on to care for sick or wounded members of the so-called Army of Occupation.
Noting her reluctance to surrender her Red Cross cape upon leaving, Essig returned to the States in March 1919. “DELighted to Be Back Home,” she wrote, resuming her position at Elkhart General Hospital until 1924.
Essig moved on to administrative roles at the Brokaw Hospital School of Nursing in Normal, Illinois and Passavant Memorial Hospital in Chicago, until retiring in 1948. After spending the last three decades of her life at the Veterans Administration Center in Dayton, Ohio, Essig was buried in the adjacent National Military Cemetery when she passed away in 1981.
Topic selection and research for this essay was provided by the Indiana Magazine of History.