April 17, 1915. Exactly one hundred years ago this month, my grandmother boarded the SS St. Louis in New York harbor, along with 23 other Red Cross nurses. They were bound for L’Hopital de L’Ocean, a field hospital in La Panne, Belgium. World War I, sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in June, 1914, had spread well beyond Europe’s borders, devastating Belgium, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Turkey, parts of Africa. Even so, the worst horrors of the war were yet to come.
In the photograph, my grandmother, Elizabeth Long, is the one holding the enormous bouquet of flowers. She’s wearing a broad-brimmed hat with a wide band tied in a stylish knot at the front, waving enthusiastically—as if she were merely sailing off on holiday.
I suppose men going off to war sport the same eager expressions. Is it bravado? Naiveté?
One week later, the nurses will land in Liverpool and they will be delayed in their travels to La Panne because the Germans have escalated the war with poisonous gas and the sinking of passenger ships. On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania will be torpedoed, losing nearly 1200 of its passengers.
My grandmother, single, and 27 years old at the time, received several telegrams from my grandfather, imploring her to return home. A story in the Saturday Evening Post, that he almost certainly had read, reported on a young nurse killed near the same field hospital in Belgium. Return at once. Will marry. Even in a telegram, his desperation is palpable.
The Red Cross nurses eventually reached La Panne, except for my grandmother who boarded the SS Cymric on April 28, 1915, retracing her steps back to New York. My grandfather met her at the pier, engagement ring in hand. It would, however, be another two years before my grandparents married. I believe they lived a less than happy life together.
I have a stack of letters and postcards from some of the other nurses on the SS St. Louis who befriended my grandmother: Helen Barclay who had been the supervising nurse at Philadelphia General Hospital; Augusta Morse of Syracuse, New York; May Lentell of Newton, Massachusetts; Anna C. Robinson, former Night Superintendent at the Jewish Hospital; and Dorothy M. Ferree, of the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, who served as their general supervisor. They are formal letters, written in the kind of penmanship only found today as a fancy, italicized computer font. But they reveal deep friendships; some of these letters span 40 years. I found a photograph on the internet of Anna Robinson in Belgium, or possibly Savaney, France, circa 1915 (University of Maryland School of Nursing); and some professional writings from Dorothy Ferree.
Why did my grandmother return home? I have some clues, but only clues. Was it merely the marriage proposal? It’s a mystery I’m determined to solve. Even as I begin to write the fictionalized version.