Helen Grace McClelland

By MaryKate Wust

“We were asleep in our tents and awakened by the humming of German motors. Then the bombs began to drop. We reached for our ‘tin hats’ that we always kept hanging on our cots along with our gas masks.  Even with my eyes closed, I saw the flashes from the explosion. The concussion was terrific.”

Movies have made us familiar with the scene of the weary but steadfast hero hunkering down in a brief moment of quiet to commit to paper their story. In this case, though, the author of the 1917 wartime diary entry was not clad in olive drab, but in a starched white apron. Helen Grace McClelland went on to become one of the most decorated women of World War I. An Ohio native who graduated from Pennsylvania Hospital’s School of Nursing in 1912, McClelland volunteered alongside colleagues from her alma mater in response to the American Red Cross’s call for nurses to go abroad in 1914.

At this point, the United States still considered the conflict strictly a European affair and sought to maintain a neutral, non-interventionist policy. McClelland was one of thousands of American women—not only trained nurses volunteering with the Red Cross, but also high-society women living in Europe, and women eager to see the world—who felt drawn to support the Allied cause as humanitarian aid workers. But no quantity of enthusiastic volunteers could make up for unsanitary conditions, a dearth of supplies, cramped quarters, and gruesome injuries and infections. This was especially grueling for professional nurses like McClelland whose stations lacked the cleanliness and available resources they were accustomed to.

Helen Grace McClelland

Helen Grace McClelland

Undeterred, McClelland headed overseas again after a brief return to her position at home in Norfolk, Va., this time not as a volunteer, but as a member of the Army Nurse Corps. In 1917, she was deployed near the Belgian front. Between catastrophic gunshot and shell wounds, severe gangrene, devastating chemical burns stemming from the widespread use of mustard and chlorine gases, and rampant viral and bacterial infections, time was of the essence to preserve life and limb. It was clear that more lives could be saved if wounded soldiers were treated at clearing stations on the front lines, rather than transported to faraway base hospitals—but that meant the medical personnel, too, were under the threat of attack.

In August 1917, bombs struck less than 30 feet away from McClelland’s tent. Her diary entry continued:

“Miss Beatrice Mary McDonald was slightly raised on her elbow when the two bombs hit the cookhouse and a piece of shrapnel went in her eye and another in her cheek.”

What McClelland did not record is that rather than seeking shelter for herself, she sprung to action, stopping the hemorrhaging of her tent-mate’s wounds and ultimately saving her life. She also rendered further aid to others, despite continued enemy fire as the base sustained heavy casualties. Her heroism was later recognized with a Distinguished Service Cross—the country’s second-highest combat award—as well as a commendation from General Sir Douglas Haig and the British Royal Red Cross, First Class.

McClelland’s tale is only one story from one front that is told through a new exhibition on display this year at Pennsylvania Hospital. While the contributions of the nurses who served during World War I have been largely unrecognized (or undermined by romanticized propaganda featuring angelic, rosy-cheeked young women) the exhibit throws true experiences like McClelland’s into sharp relief. The collection of photographs, correspondence, artifacts, and mementos focuses on the complex and challenging lives of the nurses grappling with nightmarish trench warfare injuries in France, as well as of those who remained on the home front to face supply shortages, an influx of patients, and a worldwide influenza pandemic that ultimately proved deadlier than the war itself. (See more about the influenza outbreak: Flu Forward[RE1] .)

“When you take in these stories of the part Pennsylvania Hospital’s staff played at home and abroad during this time,” said Stacey C. Peeples, curator and lead archivist of the hospital’s historic collections, “you really get the sense that no matter the crisis, we have historically pulled through and continue to do so.”

The exhibition, “Pennsylvania Hospital and the Great War: Home and Abroad,” will be on display through December 2019 in the hospital’s Historical Library and Portrait Gallery in the Pine Building. Visit at 800 Spruce Street in Philadelphia. To learn more, contact Stacey Peeples at stacey.peeples@uphs.upenn.edu or 215-829-5434.

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