“I just adore the work I am doing right now. I am on a dressing team with another nurse and a surgeon. We dress wounds almost all day long. Today we did sixty. The horrors of the war are certainly evident around here. Some of the wounds are frightful and some of the poor boys have five and six of them.”1
Otilia Noeckel was not writing in the throes of battle. Rather, she wrote letters home about her experiences following the armistice that ended World War I. Written between December 1918 and the spring of 1919, they reflect the reality that violence and death do not necessarily end with the formal diplomatic end of wars. In fact, historians have argued that the war’s violence and its immediate effects extended well beyond the November 11, 1918 Armistice.2
Noeckel served in the Army Nurse Corps in France, thousands of miles from her home in Albany, New York, when she penned these sentences to her mother. Her letters were written in a time of “peace” yet embody all the elements of war letters, reflecting the hope of adventure, the pride of professionalism, the mundane struggles of camp life, and the horrors of war.3 Additionally, they show that despite formal declarations of peace, the evidence of death and destruction persist.
I first stumbled across Noeckel’s letters as an archival volunteer at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs. Well before I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in history, let alone one focusing on the First World War, this group of letters stashed away in a box waiting to be cataloged and digitized simply called out to me. Knowing the importance of her stories, I digitized the letters and stored a copy on my computer, not knowing what I would do with them. Only after about five years, and deeper study of the subject, did I realize how extraordinary her story was.
Noeckel was born in 1890 and lived her early years on New Scotland Avenue in Albany with her parents, who were German immigrants.4 She joined the Army Nurse Corps in January 1918, along with roughly ten thousand other women sent overseas during the war. While in Europe, she was stationed briefly at a base hospital southeast of Dunkirk, France, before relocating to the busy port station at Brest, a location familiar to many young doughboys and nurses making their way toward the front.5 Wherever she was stationed, Noeckel wrote with eloquent prose and concise detail, depicting both beauty and devastation.
The most fascinating parts of her letters were the descriptions of traveling. Eager to see as much of the old world as she could, Noeckel wrote home about her extensive journey through Europe in mid-March 1919. She first explored Paris, seeing the Eiffel Tower, as well as the well-known painting the Panthéon de la Guerre, which now hangs in Kansas City, Missouri. From Paris, Noeckel engaged in one of the first instances of Great War battlefield tourism, visiting Chateau-Thierry, where American and French troops pushed the German military back in the summer of 1918. The war was still fresh: “All over the evidence of war was very marked, shells, mess kits, pieces of guns, hand grenades…We even stumbled upon a couple of unburied Germans at Belleau Woods.”6
Noeckel remarked on the poor state of infrastructure in the French countryside as well. “We passed through one devastated village after another. In most towns there isn’t even a whole house remaining… The sights at Pheins were even worse. It must have been a beautiful city at one time but it makes your blood curdle to see it now… We passed up one street and down another, over another direction but it is all the same, just one great big ruin.”7
Although the ravages of war were unavoidably obvious to the passerby, she emerged on the other side in paradise, visiting the Mediterranean city of Nice before encountering a large group of American soldiers in the French resort town of Grenoble at the foot of the Alps.
Even when she returned to her duties, Noeckel seemed fated to take part in remarkable activities. On April 22, 1919, Noeckel and ten of her fellow nurses were invited onto the U.S.S. George Washington, the ship that carried President Woodrow Wilson to Europe for the peace conference. Here, she writes, the boat was “a regular floating palace” with “numerous rooms, living room, smoking room, lounging room, bathrooms galore.” She concludes, “I don’t blame the President for riding in that boat.” Yet with all the glitz, glamor, and experiences of travel and riding on the President’s ship, it was almost wholly overshadowed by the staggering amount of death that she faced on a near-daily basis.
A closing note appears on that same letter where she marveled at the beauty of the ship. As if adding a final thought in the evening, by the dim light in the few minutes she may have had to herself, she finished the letter simply: “The patients still keep going and coming in huge numbers. I cannot understand where on earth they all come from. I did not think we had so many men in [the] U.S.”8 This statement suggests just how much bodily trauma and sickness she encountered. Almost at a nonstop pace, she dressed wounds day after day.
Beyond the physical wounds of war, Noeckel references the psychological tolls encountered in so many military hospitals. Filling in at a shell shock ward she “found it very interesting but oh so sad. They treat the patients a little different here than I am accustomed to.”9 And some patients were nearly too much to handle. Noeckel shows evidence of how the nursing profession is not immune to psychological stress and trauma in the war zone.
She writes of a young man, “twenty-three years old” who “has both hands amputated and both eyes out.” Visiting this ward, the one her friend had worked at, took its toll. “I visited there for a few minutes the other day, then came to my room and cried for a half hour.”10 Noeckel provides a subtle reminder that nobody is immune from the destruction of war, even after the peace has come.
While Otilia Noeckel encountered sights that one can only merely imagine in their worst nightmares, she remained resolutely positive and held deep adoration for the work she was doing. She was a nurse doing professional service in Europe. This admiration for her professional life extended into her postwar world. Noeckel returned home to Albany in August 1919, where she worked as a public health nurse at the Albany Guild for Public Health Nursing. Here, she worked on promoting home hygiene within the city.11
Whether she took her war experiences with her is impossible to know, but it seems likely that the sights and sounds of the war after the armistice lingered. As evidenced in her letters home, Otilia Noeckel’s service was marked by adventure and professionalism, but most especially destruction and horror, which were as present in the aftermath of war as they were in the heat of battle.
- File 184.108.40.206: Otilia Noeckel to her mother from U.S. Base Hospital 105, France, December 5, 1918. “Letters Home from Otilia Noeckel, PA.2003.0033, New York State Military Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York. Return to text.
- Robert Gerwarth and Erez Manela, eds., Empires at War, 1911-1923 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015). Thanks to my advisor Rick Fogarty for helping with this part. Return to text.
- Kara Dixon Vuic uses the framework of nurses’ differing identities, experiences, and expectations in the Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam. That framework is used here. Kara Dixon Vuic, Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). Return to text.
- Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives, Washington D.C. Return to text.
- World War I Veterans’ Service Data, 1913-1919, Reel A0412:1, New York State Archives, Albany, New York. Return to text.
- File 93.6.7. 35: Otilia Noeckel to family, April 10, 1919, “Letters Home from Otilia Noeckel, PA.2003.0033, New York State Military Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York. Return to text.
- File 220.127.116.11: Otilia Noeckel to family, April 10, 1919, “Letters Home from Otilia Noeckel, PA.2003.0033, New York State Military Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York. Return to text.
- File 18.104.22.168: Otilia Noeckel to family, April 23, 1919, “Letters Home from Otilia Noeckel, PA.2003.0033, New York State Military Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York. Return to text.
- File 22.214.171.124: Otilia Noeckel to family, January 21, 1919, “Letters Home from Otilia Noeckel, PA.2003.0033, New York State Military Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York. Return to text.
- File 126.96.36.199: Otilia Noeckel to family, January 31, 1919, “Letters Home from Otilia Noeckel, PA.2003.0033, New York State Military Museum, Saratoga Springs, New York. Return to text.
- “Home Hygiene, Sick Classes, To Start” Albany Times Union, January 7, 1927. Return to text.
Thank you for reminding us of the lasting effects of our inhumanity.
Great post – thank you for sharing! I recently transcribed my great grandfather’s journal that he brought with him to WWI. He was from the Watertown, NY area, and served as a nurse/orderly in a sanitary detachment. He was mostly stationed in Angers, France and was moved to a camp hospital up north of there after Armstice Day.
Thank you for reading and for your comments! Shannon, I would be really interested in reading his experiences!