Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, July 23, 2017

An Earlier Contribution of the AEF: Doctors and Nurses for the Allies

There was an unexpected windfall for the Allies when America joined the war—help with the enormous load of casualties in the 1917 campaign. The first American military installation in France during World War I was Base Hospital No.4 (Cleveland), which arrived to cheering French crowds on 25 May 1917, 19 days ahead of General Pershing and the nucleus of his American Expeditionary Force staff. Also known as the Lakeside Unit, the Cleveland unit served at Rouen throughout the war. American physicians, nurses, and enlisted men such as these would be the earliest AEF participants to face the possibility of death and destruction—actually months before the first American soldiers would see combat. 

The British relied heavily on these American units. By 1917 their Medical Department was having trouble handling the massive numbers of casualties. The numbers of casualties treated by the American base hospitals with the British demonstrates the heavy load of patients. 

Base Hospital No.4 treated 82,179; No. 10 treated 47,811; and No. 21 treated about 60,000. These numbers do not include the numbers of patients the Americans treated at the Casualty Clearing Stations or while working with British units. Overall, a daily average of approximately 800 officers, 600 nurses, and 1,100 soldiers was serving with the British. 

One of the hazards they faced was German night bomber raids, which attacked hospitals despite the Red Cross markings. Tragedy struck 4 September 1917, when the Germans bombed Base Hospital No. 5 at Camiers, killing Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimmons and Privates Oscar C. Tugo, Rudolph Rubino, Jr., and Leslie G. Woods, who became the first AEF casualties by enemy action..

Sources: U.S. Army Surgeon General Reports and Official History


  1. Base Hospital #9, the unit from The New York Hospital and Cornell University Medical Collage, landed in France August 20, 1917 and proceeded to Chateauroux five hours south of Paris by fast train. Throughout the autumn and early winter its surgeons, nurses, and staff were posted to the front on temporary duty to support the French and English units in combat. By January the unit at Chateauroux became a center for extremity wounds growing to a bed census of 2618 in October, 1918.

  2. The American Red Cross had established medical facilities in France long before the U.S. declared war. The AEF either took over or jointly administrated such facilities after declaration of war (as well as adding new base and evacuation hospitals). (ref: "Annual Reports of the War Department, Volume 1, Part 3, Report of the Surgeon General" available online).

  3. Base Hospital 17 from Detroit arrived in July of 1917 in France, it was from Harper Hospital, now part of the Detroit Medical Center.
    Base Hospital 36 was also from Detroit and was the first 1,000 bed hospital of the AEF. It arrived in November of 1917 and was from Detroit College of Medicine & Surgery, now Wayne State Medical School.

  4. Almost 100 African American Doctors arrived in France in 1918 with the AEF 92nd and 93rd Divisions. They treated Americans and some French soldiers as well. Their amazing stories can be found in our book "African American Doctors of World War I: The Lives of 104 Volunteers." It can be previewed on Amazon.

  5. The largest and most comprehensive source of information on WW-I medicine may be found on the website: "Medicine in the First World War" url is This website was favorably reviewed here over a year ago and continues to be expanded. Also there is a new book out about American nurses in WW-I. "North Dakota Nurses Over There" is a collection of the personal stories of 225 registered nurses from North Dakota who served in The Great War. It can be obtained through the American Legion Ausiliary, Department of North Dakota, url is

  6. Mike, i know you folks are gathering in Vienna today. UCSF as a small exhibit going now in its main library regarding UCSF's contribution to Base Hospital#30. Have a great trip. Be safe.

  7. A good account of one doctor's experience is to be found in "The Cellers of Marcelcave" edited by his son, Christopher J Gallagher MD. Caught up in the German offensive of Spring 1917 Bernard Gallagher chose to stay with the wounded rather than retreat. The book has been reprinted (1998, Burd Street Press). An interesting account.

  8. I really enjoyed the series, though I had problems with it. I know there were anti-war movements throughout our time in the war, but I thought they focused more on that than on really anything else (especially given the country mostly rallied behind the flag).

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