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September 13, 2016

World War I Daybook Preview: A Nurse’s Story

Filed under: Civil War Daybook — Lori Williamson @ 3:44 pm

Hello, my name is Rose Winter, and I was one of two interns working on the World War I Daybook project this summer. I spent my internship going through a variety of smaller manuscript collections in the Gale Family Library, my favorite of which was the Dee Smith collection.

Dee Smith left her clerical job with the Minneapolis Department of Education in June 1918 to go overseas with the Red Cross Department of Personnel in Paris. Her letters home, which are the main component of this collection, were usually addressed to her mother and a woman named Cora who may have been her sister. They are seldom about her work, and instead concerned matters such as going sightseeing, having fun with her friends, and descriptions of wartime Paris.

Letters from July 1918, when Smith was in New York waiting to ship out, reassure her family that she would not be needing a ball gown. This decision was farsighted because in September of that year, when she was in Paris, the American Expeditionary Forces took over the American Red Cross to the extent that Smith was considered service personnel and so wearing her uniform in public became mandatory for the remainder of the war. Smith was not terribly pleased with this decision, especially as it meant she had to wear it to the many dances she attended “to keep morale up.” The uniform also made her instantly recognizable as an American woman overseas.

Although writing of many lighthearted matters, Smith’s letters also directly address the war. Smith visited American troops in hospitals in some of her free time. In January of 1919, after armistice, she visited several battlefields, and that May she used her vacation time to tour Belgium and the defeated Germany. The letters she wrote about this tour show her extreme hatred for Germans, remarking that Germans were ugly, describing American troops stealing cabbage from a German woman for Smith and her friend to eat, and hinting that she thought German prisoners of war were so lazy they ought to be bayoneted. Considering that the application process for overseas Red Cross workers included letters of recommendation proving their loyalty and patriotism for the United States and its allies, this hatred is not entirely surprising. It was only long after armistice that she revealed she had been in Paris while it was being bombed, with bombs falling within blocks of where she was, as censoring had kept her from writing earlier. Other than censoring, her continual fear was that the boats with mail would be torpedoed and her letters would never make it home.

My favorite letter of Smith’s was written on January 23rd, 1919, during the Paris peace talks. While on her lunch break she and a friend went to buy as much jam as they could possibly carry, stuffing their arms and pockets so as to avoid the long lines at the store by reducing their number of trips. While walking back to work in this condition they suddenly realized that the man walking toward them on the street was President Woodrow Wilson, with his secret security agents following behind him. She states in the letter that, “We smiled our best, bowed, and said “Bon Jour” which is good morning in French. He [President Wilson] lifted his high silk hat, bowed and smiled. [...] We were in a perfect misery of indecision afterwards to as whether his affability was due to his delight in seeing us or our most amusing appearance of a grocery delivery wagon.”

See whole letter here: 1-23-19 complete

Look for more of Dee Smith’s letters in the World War I Daybook when it launches in April 2017!

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