Nurse Helen Fairchild, RN was born on the 21st. November 1885 in Turbot Township, Milton,
in central Pennsylvania and graduated as a nurse from Pennsylvania Hospital in 1913. One
month after America declared war on April 6th. 1917, Helen volunteered to go overseas with 63
other nurses from Pennsylvania Hospital. She was assigned to duty as a Nurse on the 7th. May
1917 and nursed in Flanders during the Battle of Passchendaele (3rd. Ypres).
She had a history of abdominal pain after meals before she left for France and during November 1917 she suffered from a recurrence. By Christmas she was vomiting after every meal and a Barium meal X-Ray revealed a large gastric ulcer obstructing her pylorus. She underwent a gastro-enterostomy operation for the pyloric obstruction on the 13th. January 1918. Initially she did well but she became jaundiced on the third day postoperatively and deteriorated rapidly, dying in a coma at 11.20 AM on the 18th. January 1918.
Nurse Fairchild's cause of death was attributed to acute atrophy of the liver. It is of course
impossible to be sure, eighty years after her death, what caused this but, as her jaundice
occurred only three days postoperatively, it is likely that she died as a result of hepatic
complications of the chloroform used for her general anaesthetic.
She wrote 100 pages of letters during her time in France and her letters home have been collected by her niece, Mrs Nelle Fairchild Rote. A selection of these letters were originally published in an article in the Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine by Mrs Rote and they are reproduced here by kind permission of the author who can be contacted by E-mail at: email@example.com
Dr Geoffrey Miller
REPRINTED FROM DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER 1997, VOL. 131, NO. 9
NURSE HELEN FAIRCHILD
As a little girl I knew how proud my father was of his sister who had been a nurse in World War 1. When the boys in the fourth grade said, "She doesn't count, she's a girl," I was stung by their unfairness. How could anyone say she was not a veteran too?
"Oh the stories I'll tell when I get home" wrote Nurse Helen Fairchild in 1917, while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in France. Aunt Helen, 32, volunteered to be one of the first to go overseas after the United States entered World War 1, April 5th, 1917. She volunteered to go to the "Front," July 31, 1917, to Casualty Clearing Station No. 4. Through her letters written to her family, which have been so lovingly preserved, Nurse Fairchild is at last telling her story:
Heaps of love, and write me right away,
MIDLAND ADELPHI HOTEL, LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND, May 26, 1917
Someday I will write you all that has happened from the time we left New York last Saturday. We sailed at noon and by 6 o'clock pm I felt as if the floors were coming up to meet me, and the whole universe was whirling. You can see I didn't waste much time getting seasick, and I like to die all day Sunday and Monday. Then on Tuesday morn we had to have para-typhoid
vaccine. Everybody had to take it and everybody had quite a reaction. We were on the boat just eight days.
Heaps of love, your very own, Helen.
.I forgot to tell you that we wear uniforms all the time, and our street
uniforms are heavy dark blue serge, made very military, one piece, with
big broad pleats over the shoulders with rows of big, black buttons down
both sides, and swirls, with panels front and back, made quite short little
white bands around the collar and sleeves, and sort blue hats. At first we didn't like the idea of having to wear uniforms all the time, but we have learned the wisdom of it now, for it gives protection, and everywhere we go they leave us in without charges whatever.
Waldorf Hotel, England, June 2, 1917
...in a restaurant the orchestra played the Star Spangled Banner, and maybe we didn't cheer! You never appreciate your own National Air until you hear it in some foreign land. Everyone living in London has been lovely to us, but the Americans living here are particularly so.
On Wednesday we had tea at the Astor country home, and yesterday six of us had tea with Miss Emily Sergeant, a sister of John Sargeant, who is considered America's most famous artist, so you can see we are getting well treated, but at that, I am ready to go back work.
Don't worry if you don't hear from me, for you will be cabled promptly if anything goes wrong.
Heaps of love, your very own, Helen
Base Hospital No. 10, Le Treport, France
The wind is whistling around the hut. I do not mind the rain so much, but the wind makes me cross, and it blows a perfect gale, even in perfect weather. You should see our clothes, no fancy things for us. I have 2 rain hats and 2 raincoats and a pair of rubber boots, so we never stay in on account of rain. One soldier said, "I didn't know American girls were so ugly."
After finding a rickety old Ford to take us, went shopping in Dieppe today on our half day off. I bought a knitted underskirt and a pair of the heaviest shoes l have ever had, great high ones too, cost fifteen dollars.
One has to pay well for everything here, but I am going to keep warm if possible. I had a notion to have you send me some shoes, as it is often impossible to find shoes here that we can wear, as they are such queer shapes.
Heaps and heaps of love, your very own,
THIRD BATTLE OF YPRES - PAASCHENDAELE, WORLD WAR I
The casualty clearing stations were frequently the scene of the most distressing sight which human eye can witness, that is the re-wounding and killing of already wounded men by an enemy's bomb dropped suddenly in the dead of night. There was hardly a moonlight night that the Hun did not visit our neighborhood and drop bombs. We dug below the level of the ground to form shallow graves, two by six, by eighteen inches deep, which were dug through the floor of our tents, and when the anti-aircraft guns were shooting and particles of the exploded shells were falling, we partly closed over a section of the floor of the tent which was hinged and which
had a piece of sheet iron nailed on the underside.
I was impressed with the bravery and fortitude of the women nurses. Night bombing is a
terrifying thing, and those who are not disturbed by it possess unusual qualities. I believe the
nurses showed less fear than anyone. In 1920 I had the opportunity to visit this casualty
clearing station area again, where I found only a few of the metal huts standing, but was able
to locate the nurses dug-out, and the holes in the ground where they slept,
Nurse Fairchild represented the truest type of womanhood and stood for the very best in the nursing profession.
Ida Downs, Pennsylvania Hospital, U.S.A.
"Upon their arrival, sixty four American nurses were faced with a 2,000 bed hospital. The first hard experience came when an exceedingly large convoy of patients, overwhelmed by Mustard gas, and the picture of intense suffering, poured in on them in great numbers... 600 in less than 48 hours, and it was repeated for many a night.
...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, altho 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.
Chief Nurse Julia Stimson was concerned for the nurses she sent for temporary duty at the casualty clearing stations.
Nurse Stimson wrote:
"...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 I women can't do as much, stand as much, and be as brave as men."
I hope by next summer I can be home to help eat the peaches Irma tells me you are putting up. One of the girls brought me some great big, dandy ones a day or two ago, but they were so bitter I couldn't eat them.
Just as soon as I get home I am going to get dresses all colors of the rainbow, but never again blue serge or a blue felt hat. Gee, now I know how the kids in orphan asylums must feel when they all have to wear the same kind of clothes.
Another of our operating team left for a place further up the lines this am. They went to relieve Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Packard and Miss McClelland, who have been up there since July 21st, and who are tired out. This team will take their place so they can come home.
Rained some last night and is frightfully windy and cold. I put on some woolen clothing for we do not have any fires in the hut yet, but in spite of two pairs of stockings my feet are cold. Right now I stopped writing and got two hot water bottles and have my feet on one and the other in my lap.
Please write letters often, they mean more to me than a package, for I get a little homesick sometimes.
Heaps and heaps of love and a big kiss to every one,
your very own, Helen.
THE LAST LETTER SENT HOME
Base Hospital No. 10, December 28, 1917
Had a letter from the States this week and was glad, for being sick this far from home is no fun, but everyone has been fine to me. My room is filled with flowers they bring me, and fruit galore. Miss Dunlop does everything she can to make me comfortable and came in and talked with me every couple of hours. She wanted me to come up in the cot in her sitting room, but I did not want to do that, for Wagner wanted me to stay in our own room where she could do things for me. Wagner sure is a friend indeed.
Dr. Norris was just in to see me and told me I could stop some of my medicine. He said my throat looked much better but I still can't go on duty "till I eat and get some color, so I see my finish, for as usual, I look like the wrath of Kingdom come, but I'll make them let me go back soon, for it's too lonesome here to be off duty.
Gee but I'll be glad to see you all by the time this war is over, but at the same time I am glad to be here to help take care of these poor men, and I'll be doubly glad when our own U.S. boys will be [in this part of France] with us, for they will be so far from home, and they will have no one but us American nurses to really take any genuine interest in them, for their own friends will not be able to reach them.
What the Red Cross and the YMCAs are doing for us here means so much to us. Really, it would be awful to get along without the things they send us. Most of the pleasure that the troops get are the ones provided by the YMCA.
If you could only see what the boys here have to go through sometimes, you would see they need all the comfort possible. Without the supplies sent to us by the Red Cross Society, we could not do half as much for them as we are.
Please tell me what it was that everyone seems to have heard concerning me at home. Of course, whatever it was, as you know, is not correct, for as I have told you often, anytime anything should happen, you would be notified.
Heaps of love, your very own, Helen.
Office of the Surgeon General
January 24, 1918
Mr. Ambrose Fairchild
Allenwood, Union County, Pennsylvania
Dear Mr. Fairchild,
It is with regret that I have to inform you of the death of your daughter, Miss Helen Fairchild, RN, on January 18, 1918, while on duty with Base Hospital #10, American Expeditionary Forces, France.
D.E. Thompson, Superintendent Army Nurse Corps
Upon the organization of the Nurses' Post of the American Legion at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 14, 1919, it was named the Helen Fairchild Nurses' Post 412, of the American Legion.
Helen Fairchild is registered in Women In Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington Cemetery, Virginia. Helen's sister, Christine McFarland, at 92, had the pleasure of registering her in the Memorial. Aunt Chris died in 1993. She was grateful that the stories of all women veterans would be preserved, upon the completion of this great Museum and Memorial.
The Women In Military Service for America Museum and Memorial, WIMSA, planned to display Nurse Fairchild's artifacts in their World War I display, but World War II has been given priority for the opening in October. As funds become available, the World War I exhibit will be completed.
Anyone may register the name of any woman veteran or veteran health caregiver, and is urged to do so. Contributions are also needed to reach the goal. The address is: WIMSA, Dept. 560., Washington, D.C. 20042-0560.
Fairchild, Helen, RN; letters to her family - 1917; collection of Nelle F. Rote and Women In The Military Service For America, Washington, D.C.
Hoeber, Paul B.; Pennsylvania Hospital Unit in the Great War, Paul B. Hoeber, Newark,1921.
McClelland, Helen Grace RN; letters referred to in Pennsylvania Hospital Unit in the Great War, Paul B. Hoeber, New York, 1921.
Piemonte, Robert V.,Col., ANC, USAR, and Gurney, Cindy, Major ANC, Highlights in The History The Army Nurse Corps, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, DC. 1987
Simonds, Frank H.; History of the World War: Vol. I, Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, 1917; photo by Underwood & Underwood, nurses aboard ship.
Somme American Cemetery and Memorial; lithograph, courtesy of Somme Cemetery Commission, Bony' France, and The American Battle Monuments Commission, Washington, D.C. 20314-1110; collection of Nelle F. Rote.
Stallings, Lawrence; The First World War. A Photographic History, New York, Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1933; photo of a casualty clearing station (p.248)
Stimson, Julia, RN; Finding Themselves. New York, The Macmillan Co. 1918.
West, Roberta Mayhew, RN; History of Nursing In Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State Nursing Association; drawing of WWI nurses' uniforms.
Women In The Military Service of America, Washington, D.C.; portrait of Helen Fairchild donated by Sue Ann McFarland, Philadelphia, PA; copies in collection of Nelle F. Rote, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
In case you do not get it, I will tell the details as far as possible again; The latter part of
November Miss Fairchild had an attack of tonsillitis which was about the same as she had last
spring at home, she got over that but her stomach kept on acting as it used to do, having pain
after eating and considerable gas, the Doctor tried medication and certain dieting, for a time she
seemed to be feeling better, I did not allow her to be on duty though she kept coaxing me to let
her. Just after Christmas, it became much worse and she began to vomit all her food. The Xray
picture of her stomach was taken and it was found to be a large ulcer at the end of her stomach
which was shutting off the contents of the stomach from the bowel. She was not strong enough to
be sent home and was anxious to have Dr. Mitchell do the operation.
She was operated on the Morning of the 13th she stood the operation well and for three days was doing very well, on Wednesday she took a turn for the worse, became jaundiced and fell into an unconscious condition, rapidly growing worse till Friday morning at 11,20 A.M. she passed away.
She had everything done for her that we could do, she had all that would even be possible at home, She had her best friends with her day and night, the doctors stayed at the hospitalall of the time, and I scarcely left her. It was a frightful tragedy to us all as she was one of my most beloved of nurses.
The trouble was the rapid setting in of acute atrophy of the liver.
She was buried in her uniform of the American Army and given most honored military funeral,. The whole garrison English, Canadian French and American Officers, nurses and troops attending.
The Authorities have given us part of the British Cemetery and Miss Fairchild is resting there in the American side, her grave is No 756 Huon Cemetery, (P)adre Jeffreys and I have made arrangements for its upkeep and have the grave planted over with bulbs and we will always whether here or sent elsewhere see that the grave is well kept up.
We have no power to do anything about sending Miss Fairchild home , as the arrangement is a governmental one and would have to come through them.
Extract from DC Medical Records:
died Jan. 18, 1918, Base Hospital No. 19 died at No. 3 British General Hospital of Gastroenterostomy operation
Assigned to duty May 7, 1917
Father; Ambrose Fairchild, Watsontown, PA.
In handwriting below is written:
U. S. Cemetery, Bony (Somme)
BH 10 stationed at Le Treport, France.