Fresh from the Western front, Ella Wicklund arrived in Salt Lake City in May 1916. She was returning from a year's service with the British Expeditionary Force in Etaples, France, where she had treated the wounded only thirty-five miles from the trenches. World War I changed the lives of everyone. Even before the United States declared war in 1917, the Great War touched this brave young nurse from Marysvale, Utah.
While doing post-graduate work in Chicago, she had joined an American volunteer hospital unit bound for France. She sailed for London in June 1915, and by the Fourth of July she was at the front. From then until the next March 13, Wicklund worked day and night at a British hospital with seventy-five American nurses and thirty-two American doctors to save the lives of young men from England, Canada, Australia, Scotland and Ireland.
Every bed was nearly always filled. "When we first reached the hospital a large number of our cases were of soldiers suffering from gas poisoning," Wicklund told The Salt Lake Tribune. "These patients suffered more terribly than any of the others whom we cared for. At first a great many of them died after suffering in terrible agony."
The nurse recalled the interminable stream of wounded. About half the patients were surgical cases with bullet and shrapnel wounds. Medical cases included such diseases as trench foot and gas poisoning. On a bad night, 400 wounded soldiers who had fallen in Flanders fields arrived at the hospital. "Some of them were literally torn to pieces by shrapnel."
As Wicklund treated its casualties, modern warfare was being invented in the trenches and skies of France. The war introduced the widespread use of poison gas, tanks, airplanes, submarines and bombs. To deal with the resulting carnage, modern medicine was being invented on the battlefield.
The wounded were first treated in an emergency field hospital before they went to a clearing station that did basic triage. Since only two percent of the patients at the American hospital died, it appears the English sent the most serious cases to their own surgeons. "I was particularly struck with the bravery and assurance of the British soldiers," the young nurse said. "They bore their suffering without a murmur, and those who died, died bravely."
The lives of thousands of these soldiers were wasted by generals who ordered wave after wave of courageous young men and boys to their deaths in No Man's Land. Somehow, these incompetent officers never realized that Napoleon's tactics were useless in the face of massed machine guns. The nurses were kept so busy that they were oblivious to the danger surrounding them. "One cannot exaggerate the horrors of this terrible war," Wicklund said. "Indeed, one cannot find words to give even remotely a conception of it to one who has not been near the trenches."
Wicklund returned to Salt Lake City to manage the maternity department at Holy Cross Hospital, where she had received her initial medical training. Her hometown newspaper, The Piute Chieftain, later reported that she was one of six nurses selected by the United States to study conditions in France and received "a handsome gold medal by the government in appreciation of her services." She had survived a zeppelin raid on London and had seen the horrors of a war that would haunt the rest of the history of the 20th century. It must have been a joy to bring life into the world instead of seeing it so cruelly wasted.
Historian Ardis Parshall discovered Nurse Wicklund's story and shared it with Will Bagley.