Alice Isaacson: France

Her Story

Alice Isaacson was born in Ireland on October 2, 1874. She received her nursing training at St. Luke's, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and completed graduate work at the Chicago Lying-In Hospital.

Alice served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), before reporting to the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) on August 29, 1916. Beginning in September 1916, she served in England and France with the No. 2 Canadian General Hospital.

The Library and Archives Canada fonds contain two of Alice Isaacson's diaries, documenting the years 1917 and 1918. The diaries give insight into Alice's work and the social activities she experienced during these two years.

Throughout these two diaries, Alice closely follows the developments of the war and often mentions different military advancements and how they affect the hospital.

Her interest in American involvement in the war is also well documented. Alice writes beautiful and detailed descriptions of her travels and what she sees.

The following text uses excepts from Alice's diaries to provide an insight into her war experience through her own words.

“So many 'woundeds' are coming in now!”

By March 1917, Alice's diary is filled with descriptions of the hospital and her patients.

She often discusses military advancements in relation to the wounded that enter her hospital.

Alice writes,

"So many 'woundeds' are coming in now! The British lines are very active about [?] — have made splendid advancements in past few days — but of course must pay the toll of death and injury"

Along with their regular medical duties, some nurses like Alice wrote to the families of their patients.

In late March, Alice notes,

"Another tetanus case developed in the wing. No hope for the poor lad — have written to his mother every day — no response"
“Great news today! U.S. has severed diplomatic relations with Germany!”

Throughout her diary, Alice follows American involvement in the war with great interest. Although she served with both the RAMC and the CAMC, Alice had spent many years training as a nurse in the United States.

She is excited when the U.S. enters the war in 1917:

"Great excitement today — American senate has voted for war with Germany!"
"Twas a joy to see the U.S. flag floating everywhere with the Allies' flags!"

Alice again mentions the U.S forces in July 1918:

"The Americans are doing splendidly — and are receiving much praise from all the Allied Armies"
“Convoys are coming down every few hours!”

Many pages of Alice's diary are filled with descriptions of the casualties from gas attacks, a common weapon used in the war by 1917. Alice's descriptions of the patients are both sympathetic and enlightening, as they provide first-hand knowledge of the effects gas had on her patients. For example, in July 1917, Alice writes,

"Big convoy tonight. Many gassed and burned by 'liquid fire' shells. Some are very desperately injured, especially about the eyes. The new gas masks recently provided have proved inadequate, the gas penetrates and burns the mask"

A few days later, Alice continues,

"Convoy tonight. Gassed cases — 300 men burned with [?] a new German gas, which at first is imperceptible — then in a few moments the victim discovers that his nose, throat and eyes are dreadfully burned. In a short time respiration becomes most difficult, the burning extending throughout the entire mucous membrane (pulmonary)"

Later in July she writes,

"Admitted another big gas convoy…. Thirty to forty funerals a day,"

and on July 29 she writes,

"Deaths continue. Relations are arriving from England…"

For the next few months, Alice continues to describe the casualties resulting from the battle at Ypres. She scarcely mentions how the war has affected her, but rather concentrates on describing the patients and their suffering.

One indication about her own condition is given in October 1917 when she writes,

"1795 p[a]t[ient]s in hosp[ital]! Convoys and evacuations every day. Each night we have one or two deaths and several hemorrhages! The sisters are working dreadfully hard, but no one complains at all"

On November 2, 1917, Alice received word that she was to be transferred to No. 6 Canadian General Hospital near Paris, France.

Of the transfer she writes,

"On duty in Salle 31 with sisters Patton and Thompson — well such a change from Le Treport and #2 general!"
“The beginning of another year! Personally have no regrets for the year that has just closed, nor great hope for the year just beginning!”

Alice spends the first section of her second diary describing the places she visited and the sights she saw while on leave at the beginning of January. Her entries then become shorter, concentrating on her work and the hospital.

For example, Alice's only entry on March 21, 1918 reads,

"The Great Offensive is begun! The Germans are making smashing blows! Terrible news from the Western Front"
“The barracks are filling up with refugees from Soissons. Such pitiful things!”

Alice writes with emotion and sympathy about the refugees she sees in France:

"The barracks are filling up with refugees from Soissons. Such pitiful things! Old men, old women, children of all ages from two weeks old, up, and poor distraught mothers! Tired, dirty, hungry and broken-hearted! Four children have lost their mother, and another mother has lost her children — she put them in a wagon to go back for other things, and when she returned they were gone on somewhere"
“Admissions and evacuations are the orders of the day! We are now literally a C.C.S. [casualty clearing station].”

Along with heavy casualties in the hospital, Alice and the other hospital staff had to contend with the threat of enemy raids.

"Our first raid tonight (that is our first in Paris)"

As the raids continue on the city, Alice wonders whether they

"will ever have a quiet night again"
“All the little villages and hamlets in the neighborhood of Amiens presented the same spectacle of destruction and desertion.”

Throughout her diaries Alice mentions places she has seen on her travels and on leave. She delights in nature, remarking on the beauty of the woods and nearby gardens. She enthusiastically describes art, cultural events and visits to cathedrals and other buildings of architectural importance. Her later diary entries demonstrate her regret at the ravages of war on the countryside.

On a voyage back to the hospital after a leave period, Alice travels around the French countryside where she once worked. It gives her the opportunity to see the destruction of the war.

She writes:

Such a conglomerate war scene! In a few months let us hope these scenes may all be in the past, and we may find the French peasant… tilling these fields and raising his little family in peace and quietness!… On our return trip to Paris we passed slowly through poor destroyed Amiens. Such a pitiful scene of destruction and waste! Not a house left whole that we could see — houses cut into two and great gapes in roofs and walls. In some places we could see the furniture still standing in its place, or partially broken and the pictures hanging askew on the walls.
“Many changes in a political and military way have occurred.”

In the last few months of her diary, Alice often writes about the political atmosphere and the direction of the war:

Bulgaria has surrendered to the Allies, and both Germany and Austria have asked for peace terms. Austria is urgently insisting upon an immediate armistice. In the meantime great allied victories are being won. Belgium and France are being evacuated and the cities that have for four years been occupied by German troops, are at last liberated, and the refugees are rapidly returning to their homes.

Near the end of the war Alice writes,

"The Austrian armistice was signed…. Germany has asked for an armistice also…. An armistice of 72 hours was asked for and refused. The Allied armies make rapid progress toward the German frontier and all things point to a speedy termination of the conflict"

Alice describes with joy the official end to the war:

"Today at 11 am the canons announce the signing of the armistice with Germany! La guerre est finis [sic]! All the soldiers are wild with joy! How they cheered in the ward when the guns began to proclaim 'la paix'!"

She writes about the celebrations in the streets and the elation of the people. She also makes an interesting observation about the American troops she often wrote about in her diary. Alice writes,

"Strange to believe, Paris seems to have forgotten that the British soldiers have fought and died for France for four long years and more. Today only the newly arrived American soldier is applauded and fêted. How can they forget so soon? American flags fly side by side with the tricolor of France, but the good old Union Jack is but rarely seen!"
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