Women Filled Key Roles in World War I
When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, women weren’t allowed to serve in combat.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t find ways to go ‘over there’ during World War I. A few donned disguises and made their way to the front lines, but the vast majority served as nurses, cooks, ambulance drivers, couriers, interpreters and in other critical roles to support the Allied efforts.
Many earned medals for their wartime work, and some were killed in war zones and buried in military cemeteries. Here are three stories of Iowa women whose service and sacrifices during the Great War are worth remembering.
Marion Crandell of Cedar Rapids
You might already know that Merle Hay of Glidden, Iowa, was one of the first three American soldiers killed after the United States joined World War I. But did you know that the first U.S. woman killed in active service during the Great War also was an Iowan?
Born in Cedar Rapids in April 1872, Marion Crandell went to high school in Omaha and attended Sorbonne University in Paris before returning to the United States to live in Alameda, Calif.
In 1916, she moved back to Iowa and taught French at Davenport’s St. Katherine’s School (known today as St. Katherine’s-St. Mark’s).
Just before her 46th birthday, she joined the Y.M.C.A’s United States Christian Commission (an agency to support Allied troops) so she could go back to France and teach French to U.S. and Allied soldiers. After several weeks of training, she left the United States in January 1918, arrived in Paris on Feb. 15, and was soon sent to work in a Y.M.C.A canteen in Sainte-Menehould, a northeastern town in the heart of Champagne country (and the birthplace of Dom Perignon).
On March 27, a German artillery shell landed in her room and exploded, according to The Des Moines Daily News (April 14, 1918). She died from her injuries a short time later, was temporarily buried in Sainte-Menehould and then laid to permanent rest nearby in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial.
The director of the canteen recounted the events surrounding Crandell’s burial in a letter:
“The American director of the Foyer at La Grande au Bois arranged for a military carriage to come for her. A chaplain of the army corps held a service in the little hut, as a chapel, draped in black. There was also there the coffin of a soldier who had been killed. Thus Miss Crandell, who came to France to serve the French soldiers, was treated as a soldier, with the same honors as for those who fell fighting. A large flag with the three colors covered her bier, and some friends had brought a crown and flowers. The same carriage and horses which are used for the soldiers, passing by side streets to avoid the shells, took her body to the military cemetery. This was indeed her place, beside six thousand tombs of soldiers ‘dead for the country,’ Miss Crandell had ‘died for France.’ The head doctor tells me that this is the first woman buried in this vast cemetery the very sight of which moves the heart.
“The discourse of the chaplain was punctuated by the cannon. The speaker recalled that the evening before the catastrophe a Catholic aumonier (chaplain) visiting the Foyer asked if she were not afraid. Miss Crandell replied, ‘Oh, no; I pray, and after that I have no more fear.”
Taletta Haraldson Christenson of Royal
Born to Norwegian immigrants in Clay County in 1888, Taletta Haraldson became one of 21,000 volunteers with the Army Nurse Corps during World War I and one of 10,000 who worked in French hospitals.
She volunteered for service in January 1918 as a 30-year-old graduate of the Swedish Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis and was assigned to Fort Des Moines before she was sent to France.
The Fort Des Moines Post (Aug.15, 1918) carried the news of her departure:
With practically the whole Medical Detachment of Fort Des Moines lined up on either side of the main road to the north gate, the men waving hearty goodbyes and with many a spectator forcing back a tear, nineteen members of the Army Nurse Corps at this hospital left here last Thursday evening bound for, well, it’s impossible to say where but someday there’ll be some cards floating back, “Arrived Safely.”
About six hundred strong, members of the Medical Detachment, headed by the band marched from the barracks to the north gate. The band played the whole way and brought to mind the old saying, “Generals send their troops into battle with the band playing to keep up the spirit of the men.” In this instance, however, it was women but nevertheless soldiers, soldiers of mercy who will endanger their lives, go through living hells and suffer untold heartaches as they work with the men to help them overcome the merciless agony caused by the Huns.
Shouts and cheers were few as the ambulances with their precious loads wound their way through the aisle formed by the men. It was too impressive, too deep and too serious to cheer, for the grim realization of war was brought home to those who have as yet seen service in this country, only. Slowly the cars passed out the gate and gradually out of sight. They had gone, leaving heavy hearts behind; gone to cheer those who need it more than we.
When the cars had passed out of sight, the men scattered into little groups. Some went to the city some stayed at home but in the heart of each man was a vow to avenge that ruthlessness which makes necessary sending the flower of our country into the very jaws of destruction.”
In New York, Haraldson boarded The Aquatania for her epic voyage to France where she was assigned to Base Hospital 88 near Langres.
As an Army Corps nurse, she and her colleagues treated shrapnel wounds, infections, mustard-gas burns, exposure and trauma. It was difficult and uncomfortable work made worse by bad weather, water shortages, long hours and little privacy or time off. Haraldson worked in these conditions for more than a year and earned a French citation.
She returned to the United States in July 1919 and spent 18 more years in the Army Nurse Corps, serving throughout the United States, Guam and the Philippines in addition to traveling through Asia, Europe and Africa during a four-month furlough. Her last post was at Fort Riley, Kan., where she retired in 1937 as a 2nd Lieutenant.
Later that year, she returned to Iowa and married Hans Christenson, a widower with four children. Haraldson died in Spencer on Sept. 20, 1958, and was buried in the Willow Creek Cemetery in Clay County.
Grace Van Evera of Davenport
On May 13, 1926, the Davenport Democrat and Leader reported that a local county nurse had traveled 827 miles in the previous month to visit 25 schools that had a combined enrollment of 455 students.
The nurse’s end-of-the-month report included information about the 128 students she weighed (87 normal, 40 under weight and one overweight) and checked (eyes, ears, throats and such) and the 24 students she treated for impetigo, whooping cough or scarlet fever.
The nurse was Grace Van Evera and her duties at the time were a far cry from the battlefields of France, where she served in Unit R at U.S. Army Base Hospital 32 in Contrexeville during World War I.
Born in Davenport on Jan. 9, 1877, Van Evera received her nurse’s training in Chicago in 1912 and joined Unit R in 1917. In January 1918, she traveled to New York and received additional training at Ellis Island before joining a full contingent of nurses, officers and troops aboard the SS Carmania for their voyage to France.
When she arrived in Contrexeville, she found Base Hospital 32 was growing and expanding beyond expectations. Originally designed to hold 500 beds, it expanded to 1,250 before its first patients arrived and increased to 2,115 beds in September 1918.
In a letter to her mother, Van Evera expressed compassion for the soldiers and confided her longing for a place to keep warm:
“We sent another bunch of boys back to the front this morning. If only they could go once and then home. None of them had seen an American woman since they left the U.S. We have a Y.W.C.A. now, not fully ready to use, however, and we will be so glad when it is. Now we do not have a place to assemble, and chilly rainy afternoons there is no place to keep warm. They plan to have a fire and serve tea. The Y.W.C.A. secretary started a French class so the night nurses could attend. The Red Cross secretary has her French class at 7:30 p.m. just when night nurses go on duty. The Red Cross has gotten a Victrola for each hospital building, and how we enjoy them, especially the boys from the front who have heard no music for so long.”
By the time the hospital was deactivated in February 1919, Van Evera and her colleagues had nursed nearly 10,000 patients from 31 nations, including 189 German prisoners and many more locals. Van Evera worked in the principal surgical hospital with 500 beds and, later, a medical hospital with 125 beds.
She left Contrexeville on Feb. 19, 1919, and came home aboard the USS Louisville, arriving in New York on March 22. Upon her return, she shared her observations about U.S. soldiers in the Davenport Daily Times (April 8, 1919):
“The American soldier on the battle front is wonderful,” said Miss Van Evera. “But the American soldier wounded in the hospital is more than that. I think there is no word. It is not only bravery that I am thinking of. You see at Contrexeville, about 30 miles south of Nancy, it is, we had over 2,000 soldiers who were wounded. And they were all so splendid. When they had recuperated a little, these half-recovered men would turn in to help. There was such cooperation. The hours were long, but we did not mind that. One does not think of time and one forgets all weariness.”
Following her service, Van Evera became the public health nurse in Scott County where she tended to school students and shared information about home economics and nursing in farm homes, county fairs and other locations. In 1934, she was appointed Jackson County nurse in Maquoketa and worked in a federal relief program of the Civil Works Administration.
She died on May 8, 1960, in Davenport and is buried in Summit Cemetery.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs