Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a three-part column series about World War I nurse Gena Jonette Smith. (Click here to read Part 1; click here to read Part 2). She served as a volunteer in the Army Nurse Corps in France during 1918 and 1919. It was there she met her future husband, Iver Iverson. Following their marriage, they moved to Hutchinson.
It was late in 1918, and the Great War would soon be over, yet the war still raged during the fall of 1918.
The influx of fresh-faced American soldiers earlier in the year had turned the tide and was winning the war. In an effort to consolidate its military strength, the German Army withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, the last line of German defense on the Western Front.
On Sept. 29, the same day nurse Gena Jonette Smith boarded a troop carrier to Europe, Allied forces pierced the Hindenburg Line after a 56-hour long bombardment. On that same day, the Kingdom of Bulgaria, a German ally, signed an armistice with the Allies and effectively ended their role in the Great War.
Defeat of the Central Powers was imminent, but the war was not yet over.
At Base Hospital 18 in Bazoilles-sur-Meuse, France, Smith and the rest of the medical staff were subject to air-raid alarms and forced to keep all the lights out while trying to treat severe wounds to the sounds of airplanes whizzing overhead.
Wounded soldiers were brought in on Red Cross trains by the hundreds. Those who were slightly wounded were taken into the wards and made comfortable on beds. The severely wounded were given X-rays and then taken to the operating rooms to remove bullets and shrapnel. When excessive bleeding was involved, rubber tubes were inserted into the wound and a solution was pumped into them, which kept the wound in a constant bath of antiseptic.
On Nov. 11, 1918, the Great War ended. In Bazoilles-sur-Meuse, as well as across the world, church bells rang and people sang in celebration. It was a great victory and the American soldiers were now safe from further attacks, yet work in the hospitals was far from over.
Battle wounds were still in need of treatment, as well as acute diseases such as pneumonia, mumps and the dreaded Spanish Flu. It was not until the following spring that the patients could be evacuated to the United States, and Smith would be relieved.
In the time between Armistice Day and spring, the nurses did what they could to make the hospital a cheerful place for recovering soldiers. They held parties, attended Sunday services, staged plays and celebrated holidays.
On Thanksgiving, nurses wore white uniforms and served turkey to the men at their tables. For Christmas, the ward was decorated with ivy, evergreens and mistletoe. On Christmas Eve, Smith went to the ward to light the candles on the Christmas tree where she was greeted with a heartwarming sight — the patients in her ward were gathered around the tree with a pile of presents meant for her.
During this time, the nurses went sightseeing to the battlefields near Verdun and witnessed the waste and wreckage from the war. In Smith’s own words, “visions of waste and wreckage of war, of desolate homes and shattered villages, of beautiful lands plowed by cannon balls, harrowed with bullets and sown with dead men’s paraphernalia, of long endless trenches and dugouts, of barbed wire and entanglements, of underground ditches and forts, rubbish around everywhere, and of refugees coming back to their wrecked and ruined homes, penniless and homeless.”
Another trip brought Smith to an American cemetery where she witnessed a sight that stayed with her for the rest of her life, and inspired her to write a poem. She saw thousands of white crosses laid out, row on row over the side of a hill, and in the center was an American flag.
The little wooden crosses upon a sloping hill,
There where autumn leaves drift down and all is strangely still,
The old, old church that broods over them,
Has seen no fairer sight in all the years,
Than those who gave their youth and life and light,
To sleep beneath the wooden cross, yet sweet must be their rest,
Who made themselves a sacrifice, that all man might be free.
While in France, Smith met a Hutchinson man named Iver Iverson. They would later marry and move to Hutchinson. She lived for 96 years and passed away in 1985. Her story of a woman in the Great War is one not often told, yet one that reveals a role and an experience that played an important part for winning a war so horrifying that it is still referred to as “The Great War” a century since its ending.
Members and those who want to be members of the McLeod County Historical Society are welcome at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, for the monthly Breakfast Club. This month’s program is a roundtable discussion focusing on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.