WWI Base Hospital’s Post-War Newsletters Now Available Online

Base Hospital 21 – the World War I U.S. military hospital base in Rouen, France that was staffed by doctors and nurses of the Washington University Medical Center and civilian volunteers from the St. Louis area – served with distinction during the war and after.

Members of Base Hospital 21 celebrating the anniversary of their unit’s arrival in France, June 1918.

Following the armistice ending the war on Nov. 11, 1918, the 21st continued to care for the wounded, the sick, and repatriated prisoners of war. In the final months of 1918, the 21st treated nearly 18,000 patients, including 1,700 cases of influenza. Not until Jan. 22, 1919, was the hospital demobilized and the last of the patients discharged or transferred. Finally, after several months of incidental duties and awaiting orders, the officers and enlisted men sailed to the U.S. on April 7, 1919, while the nurses sailed on May 12. In 23 1/2 months of active service, the unit spent 23 months overseas.

The homecoming was bittersweet as not all of the 21st came home. Three members of the 21st died in France. The first was Sgt. Humphrey Leighton Evatt, who passed away from pneumonia on Nov. 20, 1917. After the unit returned home, others died early deaths. Harlan Marshall, a nurse with the 21st, became ill while serving in France. She was sent home to recuperate but died of meningitis in May 1919. Fred B. Abbott, an orthopedic surgeon with the unit, was gassed during his time with the 21st and was also sent home. He succumbed to his injuries in 1920.

Sketch of ambulances unloading new patients at Base Hospital 21, by Arthur Proetz, circa 1918.

As more troops returned home, the need for an organization providing support and camaraderie for veterans was apparent. In early 1919, Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., eldest son of the 26th president, and a National Guard officer named George A. White pushed for the establishment of a servicemen’s organization and the American Legion was born. By late 1919, dozens of American Legion posts were created in cities throughout the United States. On Christmas Eve of 1919, the American Legion Post in Collinsville, Illinois was named for the 21st’s Sgt. Evatt, who was the first person from Collinsville to die in the war.

In 1936, former members of the 21st asked the American Legion for permission to create a Legion post specifically for the members of the 21st. Named the Rouen Post, it was a rare American Legion post established not by where veterans lived, but by their unit affiliation. One of the first duties of the post was to help its members secure the U.S. Treasury bonds, to which former service members were entitled because of the 1936 Bonus Act. The post also continued to honor fellow members of the 21st who had died. Charles Jablonsky, with help from the rest of the post members, diligently tracked down the grave of nurse Harlan Marshall, whose family had been unable to pay for a grave marker.

The post’s members also tried to keep the unit’s unique history alive. First published in May 1936, The Rouen Post was the post’s official newsletter. Many issues included stories and memories of the 21st’s members, including a series titled “Recollections of a World War Nurse” penned by Retta Snyder, a St. Luke’s School of Nursing graduate who joined the unit in France. William Stack served as the editor and illustrator of The Rouen Post for most of its history.

Cartoon of soldiers reading postings on the N.C.O. duty bulletin board, by Bill Stack, c. 1936.

Former commanding officer of the 21st, James D. Fife, wrote to the editors of The Rouen Post when he received a copy.

“The Rouen Post was indeed a pleasant surprise … [and] takes me back to the war days when we were of some importance in the cause of humanity or at least we believed we were. … I think you have done wisely in establishing an independent post with membership limited to members of Base Hospital No. 21. Their interests will always be the same and as years go by the affection for the old unit will grow stronger. When we consider the unique experience that Base Hospital No. 21 had, the early entrance into the war, the rare opportunity to serve on the British Front, the isolation from the rest of our Army and the brilliant record of accomplishment, we could hardly be asked to share the recollection of these with others whose services in the war were so entirely different. So! I say all power to the Rouen Post! Long may it survive to remind us of the part we played in a noble adventure.”

The newsletter was published monthly in the 1930s, but its frequency became more sporadic in the 1940s, apparently ceasing publication in the 1950s. Surviving issues have recently been digitized and are available online.