Skip to content

The First to the Front — World War I

A YEAR ago it would have been impossible to send across the Atlantic Ocean any part of the American Army within thirty days after a declaration of war. This year it was not only possible, but it was done, for the Army, in one respect at least, was ready-that part of it enlisted organized, equipped, and trained for the Army by the Red Cross.

Medical Company Preparing For Overseas Movement
Medical Company Preparing For Overseas Movement

The first six American base hospitals have been ordered to the front. They are the van of the might of America to be thrown, if need be, to the last ounce into this struggle. They are the best we have, and America can he proud of them.

Six of the leading hospitals and medical colleges of the nation-Harvard, at Cambridge; the Presbyterian Hospital, at New York; Lakeside Hospital, at Cleveland; Pennsylvania Hospital, at Philadelphia; Washington University, at St. Louis; and Northwestern University, at Chicago- -furnished the personnel for these pioneer units. The surgeon-directors are all men eminent in their profession, some of them internationally famous-Dr. Harvey Cushing, of Harvard; Dr. George E. Brewer, of New York; Dr. George W. Crile, of Cleveland; Dr. Richard F. Harte, of Philadelphia; Dr. Frederick T. Murphy, of St. Louis; and Dr. Frederick Besley, of Chicago.

The officers chosen to link these staffs to the Army, to take military command of the six hospitals, are all majors in the Army Medical Corps. The War Department came to the Red Cross itself and took Major Robert U. Patterson, who has rendered excellent service as director of the Red Cross Bureau of Medical Service, to be commander of Hospital No.5, the Harvard unit. Major Elbert E. Persons is in command of Hospital No.2, from New York; Major Harry L. Gilchrist is commanding the Cleveland Hospital, No.4; Major Matthew A. Delaney, No.10, from Philadelphia; Major James D. Fife, No.21, organized in St, Louis: and Major Christopher C. Collins is the officer in charge of the Chicago Base Hospital No. 12.

The dispatch of these units illustrates tor the first time the relation of the Red Cross to the organized military forces of the United States, a relation not clearly understood by the public. The moment these six hospitals were order out for service and their military officers were appointed, that moment the command of them passed from the Red Cross to the War Department. The hospitals, while still bearing the Red Cross appellation, became in reality Army hospitals, their personnel being augmented from the Sanitary Service of the Army.

Yet, while the Red Cross lost its parental direction of these hospitals, it did not lose the obligation to continue its fostering care of them. Volunteer funds contributed to the Red Cross had organized and equipped these units; the same volunteer aid must now continue to keep its enlisted creations at the top notch of efficiency by providing the funds for incidentals and the little comforts which the hospitals need hut which are not supplied by the Government.

Medical officers of Base Hospital No. 5, commanded by Major Robert U. Patterson, front center, sailed for Europe May 11, 1917.
Medical officers of Base Hospital No. 5, commanded by Major Robert U. Patterson, front center, sailed for Europe May 11, 1917.

Not understanding this point in the technique of waging war, the richer chapters which have given the thousands of dollars necessary for equipping base hospitals have sometimes felt that they should have a controlling voice in the management of them, even to the point of selecting the officers. Now that war has come it must be obvious that the Government cannot tolerate the slightest invasion of its authority from the outside in its unified machine.

Does the public realize what an achievement it was to be able to send these hospitals to war almost on the instant there was the demand for them? That they were ready to go on time was due to the organization about a year ago of the Red Cross Department of Military Relief followed by a year of unremitting work on the part of Col. Jefferson R. Kean, the director general of the department, and his aids. Had it not been for that forethought at the Red Cross headquarters, we could not for several months yet have complied with the request of the British Commission for the six base hospitals.

When the Surgeons General of the Army and Navy last year made the request that the Red Cross organize a number of base hospitals, at top speed in peace time in New York where transportation and commercial factors all favored dispatch, it took four months to get together the equipment of two hospitals. Had this work been attempted in the confusion of war, not only would it have been much costlier, but it could not have been accomplished in anywhere near four months.

As it is, we have to show for Col. Kean’s year of preparation thirty army and five navy base hospitals equipped and ready, while others are in process of formation. The declaration of war threw Washington into a tumult of war preparation. The bustle spread to the Red Cross Building, too, but there it was not a bustle of preparation but the hurry of organizing the supply service for a service already prepared.

The units ordered to Europe did not take their equipment with them. That at first will be supplied by our Allies, the dark age practice of the German submarines of sinking English hospital ships in the channel making it necessary to enlarge the surgical and nursing facilities in France as rapidly as possible. Yet these hospitals could have shipped their equipment, bulky as it is, with but little delay, as the mobilization of the Cleveland base hospital, No.4, at Philadelphia last October showed. There for the first time the public was shown concretely the extent of a modern war hospital-eleven acres, an area 1,000 feet long and 500 feet wide, being covered with the tentage. The freight cost on the equipment, which was sent from New York, amounted to $355.15, while the total cost of the mobilization was $5,035.75.

An American base hospital with its 500 beds is regarded as sufficient to care for the sick and wounded of one of our army divisions of about twenty thousand men. Each unit ordered to the front consists of 23 doctors, 2 dentists, 65 nurses, and 150 enlisted men from the Sanitary Service, and in addition a reserve Quartermaster and two officers of the regular medical corps. The seniors of these will exercise military command of the units and the juniors will be the adjutants and act as Company Commanders of the 150 enlisted men in each hospital.


MILLIONS of years ago our beast ancestors went out to struggle with teeth and claws; thousands of years ago ape-men went out to fight with clubs and slings; hundreds of years ago Greeks and Romans, Franks and Iberians, negroes and yellow men, Malays and red Indians went out in battle-ranks with arrows, pikes, and swords; yesterday hordes of men poured out of Germany and Austria, and to meet them other millions mobilized in Russia, France, Italy, Belgium, Great Britain, and Japan to fight in Europe, Asia, Africa; and to-day I have seen our first contingents off to play their part in this aeon-old drama of war. But women were among them as well as men. For the first time in history a nation’s first levies were made up largely of women. And the men and women were not armed. For the first time in history a nation sent its first forces to battle without sword or shield, without armor or guns. For the first time in history a nation sent out the first of its sons and daughters with empty hands and defenseless breasts to risk the attack of submarines and airplanes and Zeppelins arid gas arid curtains of fire, and all the mechanical pestilences and machine-made plagues which are the weapons of modern warfare. There was never such a call to the colors as this; there may never be such another again.

We visitors from Washington stood on the deck of the Cunarder Saxonia. She was in her war-paint, steel gray and cold and business like as she lay alongside of the high ugly pier. The May winds whistled over us from the restless Hudson, heavy with dust and grit, rattling and snapping the few gay flags which waved above us on the pier. It was a day like many other spring days-a day when sunshine seemed superfluous and the air seemed steel-colored like the ship on which we stood.

Medical Recruits from Cambridge, Mass., preparing to leave for Fort Totten, New York.
Medical Recruits from Cambridge, Mass., preparing to leave for Fort Totten, New York.

A very boyish replica of the boyish Prince of Wales in the blue uniform and brass buttons of a British steward glanced out of a gangway and disappeared below. Other stewards walked slowly down the gangplank with luggage on their backs and in their hands; quiet, unemotional, efficient, inspiring confidence. The captain, a big Briton, with every purple vein of his cheeks, jaws, and neck showing as if painted on him, came down the ladder from the bridge and saluted. He wore a dark blue cap with a white top, and four gold service stripes showed on his sleeve.

“I’ve been across, back and forth, ever since the war began, and the submarines haven’t got me yet. They won’t get us this time, Madame,” he said quietly to one of the nurses, with that bluff unimaginative assurance, that passionate stupidity which has made the Island Race rulers of the sea and arbiters of half the globe.

Red Cross Base Hospital No.5 was sailing in an hour, as No.4 had sailed two days before, and as Nos. 2, 12, 21 and 10 sailed at the appointed time.

Fifty nurses, four stenographers, one hundred and thirty-nine enlisted men who are to act as orderlies and clerks; a chaplain and twenty-seven doctors-these made up the Unit. The staff was composed almost wholly of Harvard men. The commanding officer was Robert U. Patterson, Major, Medical Corps, U.S. Army, who has been detailed for the past four years for duty at the national headquarters of the Red Cross in Washington. Dr. Harvey Cushing of Boston was director.

I wish the whole United States could have seen their going. There on board the Saxonia this war seemed immediate and personal, distances dropped away and the end of their journey seemed as near as the beginning. Across the Hudson we could see the vast inert hulk of the Vaterland; in happier days the Lusitania had been warped into the very slip where our ship lay. And smaller things than these made the war real and persona1–the wife of a young doctor saying goodbye to him, her stiff mouth moving, her eyes dead as glass; and a mother on the pier staring at her son with a helplessness, a hopelessness unforgettable.

For in those swift minutes before their departure the war seemed to reach out and touch the coasts of America, and those of us who stood with them like sponsors at a baptism assumed a promise in their name. Whether they or we live or die, whether this war ends as we wish it to end or ends in defeat and shame for our nation, whether new wars come in our day worse than this that we are in, or whether-as some think-this is the end of war, our first thought must be to save and not to destroy; to mend and not to break; to build up and not to tear down.

Up to the time of the break with Germany, our greatest contribution to suffering Europe was the great humanitarian work of the Commission for Relief in Belgium: it is a mighty omen that our first contribution as belligerents consisted of men and women from the American Red Cross who are ready to give their lives that others-friends or foe-may live.

Final Inspection prior to boarding steamers for Europe
Final Inspection prior to boarding steamers for Europe