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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Eleanor Donaldson, R.N.: The Base Hospital 46 Nurses Club Part II -- "The Second [Road Outside our Doorway] Was The Railroad On Which Our Boys Went To The Battlefields, Singing, Waving, and Cheering; and On Which They Returned To Us, Silent, Broken, But Undaunted"

Eleanor Donaldson, in "The Nurses Club," her essay for Otis Wight's On Active Service with Base Hospital 46 (Portland, OR: Arcady Press, 1920), 151-153, noted the care with which nurses and Base Hospital 46 staff decorated their two nurses clubs on the base. Perhaps a key reason it was so important to furnish the club with every possible comfort and color was that it provided a physical and psychological buffer from the difficult and often horrible work of military medicine and the war outside their gates.

Donaldson wrote with understated power about that outside world by describing the three roads that came together at Base Hospital 46 at Bazoilles-sur-Meuse, France:

"One of our doorways faced a panorama of wood-crowned hills, a river and three of the most noted roads in France. One road was tree-bordered, a silver line where trucks and motors passed up and down endlessly. The second was the railroad on which our boys went to the battlefields, singing, waving, and cheering; and on which they returned to us, silent, broken, but undaunted. There was a special train known as 'old 56,' and when it was missing from the tracks we knew the errand on which it had gone and unconsciously watched for its return. It used to come around the hill so slowly that one could scarcely see it move or be sure it halted until the three short whistles that meant 'a convoy is in' called us to our posts in the wards."(152)

Many other writers and artists dealing with the subject of war have focused on this moment of a convoy's arrival -- or in the case of films and television representations of the Korean and Vietnam eras and beyond such as M*A*S*H* and China Beach, the arrival of the helicopters. Here Donaldson suggests the closing of the devastating circle and cycle of war -- the soldiers leaving for the front "singing, waving, and cheering," and returning "silent, broken, but undaunted." In some ways the nurses and other medical personnel were outsiders to war, but in many other ways they were in its very midst. They had the devastating knowledge that 'old 56' would be coming again and again with its wounded and dying occupants. And they used their training, skill, and each day's energy to try to save them.

There was a third and last road, Donaldson wrote. "The third road ran just a few yards from our tent door, with the river beyond--the last road of all, for the boys we left in France. It was a short road, ending in a plot at the foot of the hill where the sun's light touched the white crosses 'row on row.'" (152)
"American Cemetery at Bazoilles," Otis Wight et al., On Active Service With Base Hospital 46 (Portland, OR: Arcady Press, 1920), 9.
Wartime service brought Donaldson and her colleagues to these three roads, which symbolized the "business" and consequences of war for soldiers and medical personnel. Donaldson's "three roads" description was so moving that Otis Wight and the editors of On Active Service selected it for specific inclusion in their history of the unit. It is also significant, I think, that Lavinia Dock and the editors of The History of American Red Cross Nursing chose Donaldson's three roads as their entry for Base Hospital 46 in the First World War:
Lavinia Dock, et al., History of American Red Cross Nursing (New York: MacMillan, 1922), 508.

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