Base Hospital 27, located at Angers, France, received the first official order dated July 14, 1917, to supply Army nurses for this service. Until this time, the Medical Corps attached to hospital trains were caring for the wounded. Through Miss Blanche Rulon, chief nurse of Base Hospital 27, Edna Cooper, Grace O'Donnell and I were detailed to Hospital Train 57.
When told that we were to leave the next day to board this train which was then stationed at Port Boulet, France, we were certainly filled with a spirit of adventure. We arrived at Port Boulet July 15, found our train and made ourselves known to the commanding officer, Captain Goodwin, who had knowledge of our coming. He received us very kindly and immediately showed us to our quarters.
We were agreeably surprised at the modern equipment. In our coach there were three compartments which consisted of a dining room and two sleeping rooms and a lavatory (tri-angular in shape) containing a small wash bowl and commode. The sleeping rooms were made up of a private room consisting of one berth and a wardrobe and a second room which contained a lower berth and an upper berth. Of course, we all wanted the private room, but since it could not be private among three, we resolved to take "turns about" and rotate from upper berth to private room. The rule was one week in the private room and the next week, in the lower berth and the third week in the upper berth. As we had five months of this life, we had plenty of time for the private room. The dining room, which was also used as a living room, contained a table and two chairs and a side seat fitted to the wall.
The rest of the train consisted of sixteen coaches, including one infectious car which carried eighteen beds; one staff car which carried eight beds; one kitchen and sitting sick officers' car which carried three beds and twenty seats; eight ordinary lying ward cars which carried 288 beds; one pharmacy car; one infectious case sitting car which carried fifty-six seats and fourteen upper berths; one kitchen and mess car with three beds for cooks; one personnel car with thirty beds and one train crew and store car; the total capacity of the train was thus 400 beds.
Each moving hospital was equipped with electric lights, steam heat, electric fans, lavatories and racks for personal belongings and even ash trays for the patients' indulgence. There were eight ordinary ward cars for patients containing thirty-six beds arranged in tiers of three. These could easily be converted into seats to accommodate patients who were able to sit up; they could also be used for stretchers in emergency cases or folded against the sides of the coach when the cars required cleaning.
Our first trip was to evacuate patients from different hospitals who were able to be moved to a point of embarkation for the United States. Since we were the first nurses, Colonel Howard Clark, who was then in charge of the train service, made the first trip to these different hospitals; this was also the first trip for transporting badly wounded patients from the hospitals near the front to the hospitals near the point of embarkation.
We started July 17, passed through Tours, Bourges, Nevers, Dijon, Chaumont, Neufchateau, Contrexville, Toul and Savenay, stopping at several base hospitals and filling our train with wounded who were to be taken to Base Hospital No. 8 at Savenay. After seeing our work, Colonel Clark congratulated us and recommended that all the trains be supplied with three nurses.
We worked day and night with those patients; the pathetic condition of our boys who were very badly wounded made us realize that being wounded was hard enough to bear, without the jolts, noise and dirt connected with traveling on a train. These patients were in our care for two nights and three days before they were loaded at Base hospital No. 8. I remember two patients who had broken backs and had horrible bed sores. You can picture the special care such a case would require, but our time with each patient was limited and we gave the best attention possible. We also had many patients who had amputations of legs, or arms, and many other wounds that caused much pain and constant attention from doctors and nurses.
One of the chief discomforts which we noticed that the patients met was caused by the tightening of bandages due to the restless position of the patient and by the moving and stopping of the train. This condition was also aggravated by the infected wounds and the patients were constantly calling for relief from the bandages.
During the drive at Chateau-Thierry a great number of the hospital trains were mobilized at Pantin, a suburb of Paris, for duty into Chateau-Thierry. From Paris to Chateau-Thierry was about three hours ride and 27 was ordered to make the trip. The train was sent to evacuate patients from hospital No. 7, a mobile unit. These patients had received First Aid; major operations were cared for. Some had hardly reacted from their anesthetic and most of them were in a pitiable state.
In the station and surrounding it were litters covered with boys; mud-splattered and torn were the uniforms they wore. They were patiently waiting to be to be taken, they did not care where but some place where they could be given proper care. After we received our train load, about 400 patients, one of the things that bothered both patients and nurses most were the countless numbers of flies that infested our train. The odors from the wounds that had no care cannot be described but shall live in the memory of the nurses and orderlies. We made three trips to Chateau-Thierry. The third one was to a small town outside of Chateau-Thierry. It was after dark when we got there and we immediately started to load our train with patients that had been gassed. At the height of our work, we had an alarm of the enemy airplanes which meant all lights out and we had to work in the dark getting as many patients under shelter as possible. We loaded our train without keeping count of the patients that could walk. After the train pulled out and we got to a place of safety, the lights were turned on and we found we had patients everywhere, in the berths, on the seats and crowded in the aisle.
To get to a certain base hospital, which was in a mountainous district, the train had to be divided; the engine could not pull the entire train up the mountain. We got no instructions as to the splitting of the train, so it was just luck that all the nurses were not in one part of the train. I found myself on one half of the train, garaged in a railroad yard with about two hundred patients; the other half with two nurses was starting up the hill. While they were gone, an engine was attached by mistake to our train and soon we were rapidly moving away. We traveled about eight hours before we finally found the rest of our train. We were surely happy to see them again, for they happened to have the supply and the kitchen car.
When the train was empty and we were moving, the scenery and the wonderful views of France thrilled us, but when the train stopped, we were garaged in some railroad yard. We might stay there an hour or maybe two days before our train was ordered to move. You can picture the average train yard in America; picture it in France in war times!
When we nurses would get off the train to stretch our leg we were greatly amused at ourselves. We felt like three geese walking along, for we noticed we trailed one another. Did you ever see geese walking, one in the lead and the other following? We used to do that till we realized we were not on the train any longer but out in the street, and then we would chuckle to ourselves. Our reason for doing this was that the aisle in the train was so narrow that we had to walk single file.
Note: Helen T. Burrey, reserve nurse, Army Nurse Corps, a graduate of St. Francis Hospital, Pittsburgh, Pa., and a member of the nursing staff of U. S. Army Base Hospital No. 27, was one of the first three nurses to be assigned to hospital trains of The American Expeditionary Forces.