YON 2020 Day 316: The Nurses of the Lakeside Unit During World War I

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Today, as we celebrate Veterans Day, we recall the origin of this holiday and honor the service of the nurses from Cleveland who made such contributions to our country and profession. A bit of history is included to provide context and highlight the dedication these courageous nurses and the sacrifices they made.

A black and white photo of a group of nurses from the early 1900s in front of a brick building with windows.
Group photo of the Lakeside Unit nurses.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Ferdinand and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo. Due to a number of interlocking alliances between the various powers in Europe at that time, by the end of July, Great Britain, France, and Russia were at war with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in what was then called “The Great War,” or “The War to End All Wars.” Later, it would be known as World War I. Neither side was able to advance on the Western Front in Belgium, and the war rather quickly bogged down into trench warfare, with continued heavy casualties on both sides. As a result, a number of new hospitals were quickly set up at many locations in France to care for the large number of wounded. The United States initially proclaimed neutrality in the European war. In December 1914, Dr. George Crile, then Chief of Surgery at Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, took a number of surgeons and nurses from Lakeside Hospital with him to France to care for the wounded at the American Ambulance Hospital in Paris. After their return home in April 1915, Dr. Crile worked with the American Red Cross to make plans for American Base Hospital Units in case America was to be drawn into the war. Base Hospital Unit #4 was the team from Lakeside Hospital, now called the Lakeside Unit. The theory behind the Base Hospital Units was that they would be made up of doctors and nurses who were used to working with each other, so that they would instantly form a cohesive team if they were mobilized to Europe. The nurses in the Base Hospital Units were to be graduates of nurse training schools, female, U.S. citizens, unmarried, and between the ages of 25 and 35.

View of Base Hospital Unit #4 in France during WWI.
Base Hospital #4

Due to continued German submarine attacks on American merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean, the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Six of the Base Hospital Units, including the Lakeside Unit and its 64 nurses, were instructed on April 28 to prepare to leave for Europe. A rapid succession of events followed. The Lakeside Unit mobilized on May 5, left Cleveland on May 6, boarded a ship in New York on May 7, sailed for Europe on May 8, and arrived in Liverpool, England on May 17. King George V and Queen Mary of England received them at Buckingham Palace on May 23. The unit sailed from Southampton on May 24, and arrived in Rouen, France on May 25, 1917, only twenty days after the unit was mobilized in Cleveland. The Lakeside Unit became the first unit of the American Expeditionary Forces to arrive in France. In contrast, the first soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces did not arrive in Europe until June. Dr. George Crile was the Director of the Lakeside Unit and Grace Allison, who was in charge of the Lakeside Hospital School of Nursing, was the Chief Nurse.

Portrait of Grace Allison, who served as Chief Nurse of the Lakeside Unit, in her uniform.
Grace Allison, Chief Nurse of the Lakeside Unit

After disembarking at the harbor in Rouen, the group marched for two miles before reaching the ambulances that would take them to the #9 General British Expeditionary Force Hospital. It was located, along with four other Expeditionary Force Hospitals, three miles south of the center of the city, in the Madrillet neighborhood of the suburb of Saint-Éitenne-du-Rouvray. The #9 General Hospital had been hastily but sturdily built in the fall of 1914 by the British. It consisted of 20 to 30 long single-story wooden buildings, called huts. The huts contained 1240 beds and were heated by coal-burning stoves. The nurses’ quarters were heated by coal oil Princess Stoves, which also provided heat for sterilization and brewing tea. Madrillet was a convenient location for the hospitals because it was near a major railway and train station. Wounded soldiers were brought from the Front to Rouen by train, and then were taken from the train station to the General Hospitals by ambulance. The administration of the #9 General Hospital was transferred from the British to the Americans in June 1917. Eighteen reinforcement nurses arrived at the #9 General Hospital from Texas and Maryland on July 21, 1917, seventeen more arrived from Cleveland on September 17, 1917, and ten more arrived from New York and New Jersey on April 5, 1918.

Lakeside Unit Nurses with a patient in July of 1918.
Lakeside Unit Nurses with a patient in July of 1918

For the 20 months that the Lakeside Unit ran the #9 General Hospital, they cared for 82,179 patients. They frequently admitted over 700 patients per day and performed about 100 operations per day. During the March 1918 German Offensive, the number of daily admissions swelled to over 1,000. Nurses typically worked 16-hour shifts. Sand bags were piled up around many of the huts for protection against German air raids, and nurses at times slept with a helmet covering their head and an enamel basin covering their stomach, for the same reason. Clean hot water was often scarce, the mud outside during the winter was plentiful, and sufficient lighting was difficult to obtain because of frequent enforced blackouts.

The guns finally fell silent, and the Great War ended at 11:00 am on November 11, 1918—“the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”

The #9 General Hospital closed and lowered its flag for the last time on January 23, 1919. Beginning on February 17, the nurses started leaving for temporary duty at other hospitals. The following month, the Lakeside Unit nurses regrouped and sailed for America on March 22, arriving in New Jersey on April 3. On April 10, 1919, in New York, they were discharged from military service and then returned to their nursing work at Lakeside Hospital.

In 1919, one year after the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day, which was renamed Veterans Day after WWII.

Grace Allison in her office at Lakeside Hospital in the 1920s.
Grace Allison in her office at Lakeside Hospital in the 1920s. The photo of Base Hospital #4 rests above the fireplace.

As an interesting side note, the Lakeside nurses, along with all other American women, were finally given the right to vote a year later, in August 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified.

About five years later, a plaque was erected near the harbor of Rouen that read

MAY 25, 1917 - MARCH 31, 1919














The plaque was destroyed in World War II, and a replacement plaque was made and placed in the Hôtel de Ville, the City Hall of Rouen on May 28, 1978. The Madrillet neighborhood is quite built up today, more than a century after it had been the site of a number of British Expeditionary Forces General Hospitals, including the Lakeside Unit’s #9 General Hospital. However, as a silent remembrance of those former times, the St. Sever Cemetery in Madrillet contains the graves of 11,436 soldiers, most of them British, who died in World War I.

List of Lakeside Unit women who served in WWI

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Written by James and Vida Lock. The photographs accompanying this story were provided courtesy of the Stanley A. Ferguson Archives at University Hospitals (UH). Sincere appreciation to Margaret Burzynski-Bays, UH Archivist, for her generous assistance.

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