On the Western Front: Two Iroquois Nurses in World War I

This is the story of two of these women – Cora Elm, a Wisconsin Oneida, and (Charlotte) Edith Anderson, a Mohawk from the Grand River Reserve, in Ontario, Canada, who endured the horrors of the Western Front. Elm and Anderson were sent to the Western Front in France to care for the medical needs of American “doughboys” as well as wounded French, British and Canadian allied soldiers, and often worked in 14 to 18 hour shifts.

Those who served overseas had to volunteer; none were assigned to the war in Europe against their will. Nurses with specialties in orthopedics and anesthesia were especially sought after. Besides having to accommodate themselves to the ever-present fears of being captured or killed by the enemy, the volunteers often tended to soldiers who had suffered ghastly wounds in trench warfare. Before the discovery and use of antibiotics, they nursed soldiers who were severely wounded, those whose shrapnel wounds became infected and required amputation, and those who were gassed and who suffered long-term physical and psychological effects from its use. It has been estimated that about 30 percent of casualties incurred by the American Expeditionary Force were related to attacks of mustard, phosgene or chlorine gases. Health conditions actually worsened in the fall of 1918, the last months of the war, when the most devastating influenza pandemic of the 20th century hit troops stationed in Europe. This pandemic killed more worldwide than all of the soldiers and civilians who died of gunfire and disease in World War I.

In 1901, the United States Congress created the Nurse Corps within the United States Army Medical Department. Even before American troops reached the battlefields of France, the War Department in May 1917 asked the Red Cross to help mobilize nurses for six base hospitals to serve with the British Expeditionary Forces. The Red Cross worked closely with the Nurse Corps, handling recruitment and training. Although some Red Cross nurses served close to the battlefields where they were under the supervision of the United States Army, most were assigned to base hospitals administered by the French.

Army nurses were appointed by the Surgeon General of the United States with the approval of the Secretary of War. They were not given military rank and were paid $28.75 a month, the same as any enlisted man. The women had to be unmarried and between the ages of 28 and 35 and had to be graduates of training schools of nursing. In the racist climate of the times, the nurses initially had to be white as well as citizens of the United States; later that policy was modified, but African American nurses remained excluded.

Cora Elm

The Episcopal Church established a tradition of training Indian nurses on the Wisconsin Oneida reservation near Green Bay late in the 19th century. Missionary Solomon S. Burleson and Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton founded the Wisconsin Oneidas’ Episcopal Hospital between 1893 and 1898. It employed two Oneidas who were among the first hospital/nursing school trained Indian nurses in the United States, Nancy Cornelius, who attended the United States Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pa., and Lavinia Cornelius who attended Hampton Agricultural and Normal Institute.

Cora Elm, later Mrs. James E. Sinnard, was another Episcopal-sponsored nurse. She was born on the Wisconsin Oneida reservation in 1891. What we know of her childhood was that her grandmother was a midwife and that she grew up on a farm at Oneida. She entered Carlisle on Dec. 23, 1906, and graduated on Sept. 24, 1914.

After excelling in her studies, she was admitted to the Episcopal Hospital School of Nursing in Philadelphia, opened in 1888 to attend to the health needs of the poor in North Philadelphia. The nursing school was later made part of the Temple University Health System. It closed its doors in 2009.

In an interview conducted on Jan. 8, 1942 by the federal government’s Works Projects Administration, Elm discussed how she came to train as a nurse and how it led to her military service in World War I: “I have been asked so many times by some of the Oneidas how I happened to join the Red Cross Army Corps. I try to tell them that I could not have been admitted if I was not a graduate nurse, and then they would give me a surprised look and ask me when and where I trained.”

She continued, “After my graduation at Carlisle I went to Philadelphia, Penn., and started to train. Some wealthy people I worked for helped me, and my father paid my tuition. I came home to visit only once while I was [training] in the hospital.” Elm graduated from nursing school in 1916 and received an appointment as supervisor of wards at the Episcopal Hospital there the following year. A clipping from an unidentified newspaper article from 1917 indicates that she participated as a suffragette in a demonstration in front of the White House.

The United States declared war against the Central Powers that April. Encouraged by the hierarchy of the Protestant Episcopal Church to help in the war effort, nurses from various church-affiliated hospitals volunteered to serve in the Nurse Corps. This was not such an unusual step. Most Wisconsin Oneidas at the time were members of the Episcopal Church. Oneida men had served honorably in the United States military since the American Revolution. In December 1917, Elm and members of Base Hospital 34, the Episcopal Nurse Unit, sailed on the Leviathan for Liverpool. The ship was formerly a German transatlantic luxury passenger liner owned by the Hamburg–American Line and the largest passenger vessel in the world when it was launched in 1913. It had been confiscated by the United States government at the onset of hostilities and converted to an American troopship.

By April 1918, the Episcopal Unit had established its base hospital in the Grand Seminaire at Nantes in Brittany, 35 miles from France’s Atlantic coast. Over a nine-month period, the makeshift hospital provided medical care for more than 9,000 patients. Elm later recounted the psychological toll she faced in nursing so many soldiers. In the 1942 WPA interview, she said, “Life overseas was not very easy. Although I was in a base hospital [not at a field hospital at the front], I saw a lot of the horrors of war. I nursed many a soldier with a leg cut off, or an arm.”

After the war, she temporarily served as an army nurse in the Baltic States and even during the Allies’ intervention in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution from 1918 to 1920. She returned to the United States, and in 1922 married James E. Sinnard. She later worked in several hospitals, including at Wood Veterans Hospital in Milwaukee, before her death in 1949.

(Charlotte) Edith Anderson

(Charlotte) Edith Anderson was born on the Six Nations Reserve in 1891. She was the youngest of eight children of Mary Thomas and John Anderson. Known to her Mohawk people as Emily and later to her nursing colleagues as “Andy,” she attended the day school on the reserve and later Brantford Collegiate Academy. Interested in a career in the health sciences, she applied for admission to nursing programs in Ontario, but was turned down because of her race. Determined to pursue her dream and overcome roadblocks caused by discrimination, she applied and was admitted to the nursing school at New Rochelle Hospital in Westchester County, just outside of New York City. The nursing program there had been founded in 1892. Today this health facility is the Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital affiliated with Albert Einstein College of Medicine. After completing her training there, she secured a position at a private school in New Rochelle in 1914.

When the United States entered the war in April 1917, Anderson volunteered in the local American Red Cross Nursing Service, which later was merged into the Westchester County Unit B of the American Expeditionary Force. (Nearly 300 men from the Six Nations Reserve also enlisted, many in the famous, highly decorated 114th Battalion of the Haldimand Rifles in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.) Anderson’s unit included 12 doctors, 50 corps men and 20 nurses, 15 of whom were Canadians. In preparation for overseas service, “Andy” and the other nurses trained in classes in hygiene and surgical procedures at Fort Slocum on David’s Island in Long Island Sound across from Rye, N.Y. They were subsequently transferred to Ellis Island. Later, they were combined with nurses from the General Hospital at Buffalo who had been mobilized, trained and equipped at Fort Porter in that city.

The unit sailed for Liverpool on February 16, arriving on March 4. They then made their way by ship from Southampton across the English Channel to Le Havre, France, and subsequently boarded a train for Vittel, reaching the city on March 10. Vittel, situated in the northeast region of France, had been known for its mineral water and mineral baths. Now its famous hotels were to serve as hospitals for the Allies. The nurses were assigned to the 23 Buffalo Unit and housed in one of the villas confiscated for the war effort by French authorities. This base hospital contained 21 buildings, comprising hotels, villas and garages with a bed capacity for 1,800 patients at a time. The medical facility had opened in January 1918 and ceased operations in February 1919, after treating more than 11,000 patients.

Unlike Cora Elm, Anderson left behind a diary, recording her experiences as a nurse from late January through the end of July 1918.

Although much of her entries were of her travels to Vittel and residence in the city and not hospital related, the reader is able to get a feel for wartime France, where life went on while death was all around. At a dance on April 6, Anderson indicates that a fear of a gas attack was imminent during the festivities. On June 6, she records that she saw 57 patients that day as well as three German prisoners of war. Sadly on June 16, she notes that a young American soldier, who “adopted” her as an older sister while apparently recovering, had hemorrhaged and died; she cried all night. In a later newspaper interview, she said that to deal with her own grief, she wrote a personal note to the soldier’s mother.

Her diary entries in July 1918 are more detailed. On July 4, French and British convalescent soldiers with heads bandaged and arms in slings honored their American comrades in arms by holding a parade to celebrate Independence Day. On July 6, the unit performed 50 operations. Three weeks later, Anderson was in the operating room all day. On July 14, Bastille Day, the Medical Department participated in decorating French and American soldiers’ graves. Anderson wrote that the nurses also visited the major German POW camp housed in the city, although she did not indicate if they were there to provide medical services. In a later interview in the 1980s, she reflected on the aftermath of war – the “awful sight of buildings in rubble, trees burnt, spent shells all over the place, whole towns blown up.”

After the war, Anderson returned to the Six Nations Reserve and married Claybran Monture in 1919. They raised four children. Until the mid-1950s, she continued her work as a nurse and as a midwife on the reserve and at the Lady Willington Hospital in Brantford. Aged well over 100, she died in 1996. She received a military funeral as the last surviving Six Nations veteran of World War I on the reserve. Today a street and park in the City of Brantford are named after her. Her extraordinary role in World War I is also highlighted in a permanent exhibit in the First Peoples’ Hall in the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History).

Although Native women’s roles often get buried in the overwhelming amount of writings on male warriors, they also distinguished themselves during wartime. There are no better examples than the contributions of two Iroquois nurses – Cora Elm and Edith Anderson.