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Iowa Women in the First World War

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The Red Cross served a vital function during the World War One, both overseas and at home.  It was the primary way for American women to serve their country during the conflict.  Hundreds of thousands of Iowa women supported the war effort by completing millions of hours of volunteer work for the organization.  Iowa had only nine Red Cross chapters in early 1917, but its volunteer ranks swelled quickly after the war began in April.  The organization had more than one million members and 164 chapters in the state by the time the war ended.  A vast amount of labor went into producing supplies for military and humanitarian uses, ranging from surgical dressings to sweaters and socks knitted by volunteers.  Much of this material was made in workrooms set up in city halls, schools, courthouses, and private homes.  One mother of three soldiers said: “It is for me military duty.  It gives me a chance to be a soldier with my sons.” In April 1918, volunteers across the country produced more than 25 million dressings and 400,000 pieces of clothing.  Women in Sioux City made 50,000 surgical dressings and knitted 9,611 items.  One woman—identified only as Mrs. William E. Wilson—volunteered more than 5,000 hours to the Red Cross in Iowa in 1917 and 1918.

            The Red Cross supplied all nurses for the American military during the war, as well as helping with civilian medical care.  Eight hundred and sixty-two Iowa women volunteered to serve as nurses for Red Cross during the war, with possibly one-half serving overseas.  Thirteen nurses from Scott County served in Europe, while 21 more were posted around the country or Puerto Rico.  Nurses in Europe worked on hospital trains, convalescent hospitals, and near combat zones.  Many worked at surgical units immediately behind the front lines, sometimes for 48 hours in a row.  Conditions were often horrific and exhausting, with large numbers of badly wounded men.  Hospital trains came at night, injured men stumbling through the dark, wrote Lois Orr Preach.  She worked at a hospital 25 miles behind the front that cared for 1,000 men.  Preach cleaned up the wounded and dressed burns; men were then sent for medical care farther back.  Merle Wright also volunteered to serve as a nurse in France in March 1918.  She worked in a hospital about fifty miles behind the front lines.  Nursing was so different from the U.S., she recalled, as “we did not have the satisfaction of watching our patients recover.”  Wounded men went back to the front or left for other hospitals after a few days.

            Much of the Red Cross’ time was spent raising money to assist in caring for troops and suffering Europeans.  Iowa chapters were asked to raise one million dollars in the first war fund drive.  Much of this money was earned through auctions of antiques, jewelry, or even horses. One boy gave his puppy for auction and it earned ten dollars for the organization.  The dog was returned to its young owner.  A mock court gave “fines” of one to four dollars to those who violated laws that did not exist to help raise money.  Iowans gave far more than their state quota in the fund drives for the Red Cross, usually exceeding requirements by thirty percent.  There was public pressure to join the Red Cross or to give it money.  Contributions and memberships were solicited by private and public employers, at businesses, at banks, and at clubs.  The Iowa Red Cross did its part to solicit the $400 million that the organization raised during the war.

            Iowa women also volunteered for canteen work, providing refreshments to traveling soldiers, as well as the sick and wounded.  Fifty-seven Iowa cities had canteen stations where local chapters sent volunteers to meet servicemen at railroad stations.  They handed out cigarettes, candy, coffee, fruit, or other items, such as newspapers and magazines.  At some places soldiers could have lunch, while a few had showers, such as Boone, Cedar Rapids, and Council Bluffs.  Some canteens provided easy chairs where soldiers could relax and read or listen to music.  Chapters paid for these services out of the funds they raised locally.  In the first six months of 1919, Iowa canteens helped 311,396 men who were heading home after the end of the war.  At the Des Moines canteen, the Red Cross served 1,844 gallons of coffee and 33,345 sandwiches in the first five months of 1919.  The Sioux City canteen gave out 94,000 doughnuts and more than 559,000 cigarettes in early 1919.

Even before the war ended, an new enemy had emerged—an influenza epidemic that would eventually kill fifty million people worldwide.  The Red Cross gave whatever assistance it could to combat the influenza outbreak.  It sent out 140 nurses in October and November 1918 to help stricken Iowans, both military and civilian.  In Waterloo, 36 women provided 860 hours of service as drivers in late 1918, ferrying people to and from hospitals and homes.  At Camp Dodge, 30 cars driven by female Red Cross volunteers carried 5,000 to 6,000 people a day to hospitals, often working sixteen hours a day.  When a patient died, female volunteers opened their homes to bereaved families, often cooking them meals, as well as arranging for the transfer of remains.  The motor pool helped many parents see their son before he died, ferrying them from hotels to barracks.  Volunteers also made phone calls on behalf of the sick.  Female drivers made thousands of trips in Iowa, bringing blankets, meals, and supplies to suffering men and taking doctors and nurses to patients, even while they were sick themselves.

Iowa women served their state and their country well during the First World War, working as nurses and supporting the war effort in every way they could. 

“Excerpt from a book in progress, published with permission of the author, 27 January 2020.”