The letters of World War I nurse Henrietta Curtis

One of the more interesting aspects when researching the history of a particular war can often be found in the letters that those people serving in said war would write back home to their loved ones. While subjective, these letters are often more profound than reading someone else (present writer included) paraphrase what was happening in history at that particular point in time.

A World War I propaganda poster shows the need for nurses in caring for sick and wounded soldiers. Manistee native, Henrietta Curtis was a nurse in Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service in Wales beginning in March, 1917.

A World War I propaganda poster shows the need for nurses in caring for sick and wounded soldiers. Manistee native, Henrietta Curtis was a nurse in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service in Wales beginning in March, 1917.

In 1917, the first nurse from Manistee to go abroad and serve in World War I wrote letters back home to her parents which were published in the local newspaper. The letters provide a fascinating first-person point of view of the overlooked role that women played in caring for sick and wounded soldiers during “The Great War” while also detailing what Europe was like during the war.

Henrietta Curtis was born on November 7, 1891 in Manistee to the parents of James and Mary Curtis. Growing up as one of the three Curtis daughters, Henrietta received her education in the local elementary schools and upon her graduation enrolled in nursing classes at Mercy Hospital in Manistee. She would go on to graduate from Mercy as a trained nurse and eventually move to Rochester, Minnesota to work at the Mayo Brothers Hospital.

Although war had broken out in Europe several years earlier, the United States did not officially enter the war until April, 1917. However, with Great Britain needing nurses, Henrietta enlisted as a trained nurse in the British Army in 1917 and by March of that year, she was sent to England where she became a member of Queen Alexandra’s Nursing Service eventually ending up at Kimmel Military Hospital in Abergale, Wales.

Upon her arrival overseas, she wrote a letter to her parents in Manistee, describing her journey thus far. Her first letter was published in the Manistee News Advocate on March 26, 1917. Portions of the original letter follow:

“Dear Father and Mother:

“Well, here I am in London. I wish you could be here to see the sights. The country is beautiful. There is no snow – it is very damp here and I feel cold. When we reached here we reported at the war office and then went down to be fitted out. I am to wear a gray suit with a shoulder cape trimmed in scarlet and a sailor hat. I liked Liverpool very much.

“The trains are funny – a small funny looking engine and coaches to accommodate five people. They call them carriages. They remind me of a lot of cabs attached together. They have a door on each side. The street cars are also peculiar – they are two story, people ride on both stories. Women are doing all kinds of work, from driving motor trucks to janitor work. We were going down Piccadilly – just ahead of us were two women carrying step-ladders and paint pails. It looks strange, but I admire them for it as there is no one else left to do it. Every man you meet is dressed in uniform, either home from the front or prepared to go.

“England is very level. As we came into Wales, the country was more rolling and the scenery was perfectly wonderful.

“I am at a place called Kimmel Military Hospital, located at the camp We have about 40,000 soldiers so you see we are kept busy attending the returned soldiers. Most of my men have been to the front.

“Ford cars every place you go.

“I am a member of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service of the imperial staff and it is considered quite an honor to belong to it. We expect to go to France, but I don’t know when.”

Within 10 days, the United States would officially enter the war. Several weeks later, Henrietta, at this time more active in the war effort, would write another letter home which was again published in the Manistee News Advocate:

“I like Wales. It is a beautiful country. Except for censor, I could tell you lots about war but all I can say is I am well and happy and like my work. I am not a Red Cross nurse. I am a member of the Queen’s Imperial Nursing service. Red Cross nurses over here are undergraduates or first aid women.

“Before U.S. declared war it was not safe to mention U.S. in any form but now it is different. It does seem as though peace must soon be declared but nothing favorable in sight yet. There is a large training camp on the grounds. They drill, have sham battles, bomb throwing and Zeppelin practice. It is very interesting to anyone unaccustomed to military life.

“When we go to a tea shop for teas we are allowed two ounces of bread weighed to us. No fancy cakes or cookies.

“Another sister and I were isolated in a hut with 11 spinal meningitis cases. It is one-half a mile from the hospital. They are trying to stamp out the epidemic. I am very unhappy tonight – the little sister is contracting the disease and in the morning she is going to be taken to Chester, England to an isolated hospital for women. I am going with her in the ambulance 60 miles.

“I like the sister very much. We have had many good times together such as you can have in a military hospital. Our men are getting along fine, and don’t worry about me. I am immune from the disease. We take every precaution. Old Glory is waving over every building and it looks good to me I assure you.

“My boys are improving slowly. I have a new case which is very bad.

“You ought to have seen the deer this morning. You see they practice bomb throwing and it nearly frightens the poor things to death. They look and look and then run for shelter. They have about 50 head in the park and they do look pretty. It would seem a sin to shoot them. I am writing by lantern light.

“Good night, with heaps of love to you both.”

Altogether, Ms. Curtis served in the British Army for 13 months as a nurse not only in Wales but also in England and Canada. Upon her return to the United States she served as a nurse until the end of the war some several months later. She subsequently returned to Manistee where she lived with her parents at their home at 318 First St.

In the early 1920s, her father purchased the former William Wente home located at 212 Oak St. The home was later remodeled by her parents and turned into a hotel called The Hotel Curtis where Henrietta resided for a period of time.

By the 1930s, Henrietta had moved to California to be near her sister who was listed as living there. While in California, records show that Henrietta worked at St. Luke’s Hospital as a nurse. Several years later, with an undisclosed lingering illness, Henrietta was admitted to the Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles and it was there that on Dec. 2, 1943 she passed away at the age 52. She was survived by her father and two sisters.

Upon her death, her body was brought back to Manistee where she laid in state at the Hotel Curtis until her funeral service at Guardian Angels Church. Afterward, the first woman from Manistee to serve as a nurse in World War I, was laid to rest in Mt. Carmel Cemetery.

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