By David Laskin
Shortly after the Armistice of November 11, 1918, put an end to the Great War, officials of the American Red Cross issued a report on the organization’s contribution to the U. S. war effort. The document, in the style of the day, is a curious blend of lofty rhetoric and hard numbers. “The American Red Cross has wrought both largely and nobly” to channel an “outpouring of service which it brought forth from all classes of people,” proclaims the foreword. To me, words like large and noble sound a false note in the aftermath of a conflict in which some 9.5 million
people died in battle. More eloquent are the statistics: 24 Red Cross hospitals operating in France during the war; 91,356 patients admitted; 1,726,000 civilian refugees aided in France; 40 million refreshments served by Red Cross canteen workers; 10.9 million knit articles sent to soldiers.
More eloquent still, to my mind, are the words of the 8.1 million men and women active in the American Red Cross during the Great War. People like Sarah Sand, an immigrant from Norway who moved to North Dakota as a child and volunteered to be a Red Cross nurse in 1918. Sand wrote movingly of the staggering number of casualties pouring into her hospital from the Argonne battle field in October, 1918: she and the other nurses barely had time to clean up the “poor maimed bodies” before transferring them to trains to make room for the next group of bleeding arrivals.
I know from researching The Long Way Home, my book about the immigrant experience in the war, that many of the half million foreign born soldiers who fought with U.S. forces got their first taste of American hospitality at Red Cross canteens. These guys had crossed the Atlantic in steerage, worked at back-breaking jobs in mills and mines, and then, when their adopted country called on them to fight in the trenches, they shipped back to Europe in uniform. They were forever grateful for the cups of hot coffee, the packs of smokes, and the bars of chocolate sold for nominal sums at the 130 Red Cross canteens set up in the war zone, some within range of shell fire at the front.
In The Long Way Home, I contend that military service in France was the critical event in the Americanization of the Ellis Island generation. The pride that immigrant soldiers took in serving the United States – pride which quickly extended to their families – sealed their bond with their adopted country. The American Red Cross played a not inconsiderable role in this process. Canteen workers at the front and nurses like Sarah Sand provided a bit of home for immigrants who were just finding out the hard way what home really meant. For this, nearly a century later, we can all be profoundly grateful.
David Laskin is the Seattle-based author of The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, available in paperback this March from Harper Perennial.
This guest post was contributed by the author to Writers for the Red Cross. Writers for the Red Cross is a month-long celebration that brings writers, readers, editors, literary agents and independent bookstores together to raise funds and awareness for the Red Cross during Red Cross Month.