Units: Base Hospital No. 18; US Army Hospital No. 2
Branch of Service: Army Nurse Corps
Rank: Nurse (no rank assigned)
"Over and over have I heard officers and men comment upon our bravery…we tell them it is our duty and our country just as it is theirs, but they fail to see it. Always it goes back to, 'But you are women, it takes more heroism for you to do this.' It does not." (Letter to "Folks, All," September 9, 1917)
Born January 30, 1889, Maryland native Nettie Eurith Trax was a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University nursing program, and departed for France in the summer of 1917. Stationed at Base Hospital 18, a field hospital located in Bazoilles-sur-Meuse in northeastern France, she wrote weekly letters to her family back home in Baltimore. The group of letters in her VHP collection spans just over a year, from early August 1917 to September 1918, and chronicles her interactions with and dedication to her patients, her adjustment to field hospital conditions, and her travels within France.
Though her Veterans History Project (VHP) collection does not include any photographs of Trax herself—only a group photograph of the Army nurses at Base Hospital 18—the 55 letters in her collection paint a portrait of a plucky nurse who found a strong sense of purpose and satisfaction in her military service.
Though working and living conditions at Base Hospital 18 were often harsh, Trax seemed to draw strength from facing these challenges, explaining in her letter of October 12, 1917 that she and her fellow nurses “do lots of impossible things now.” Her correspondence conveys that she thrived in France from the beginning of her time there. In a letter written on September 22, 1917, she commented about her work, “Never have I felt a sense of achievement nor felt that my own bit of work was worth something to somebody. But it is here."
Trax’s connection to her patients was perhaps the primary reason why she found her time in France to be so meaningful. In a letter to her mother on November 4, she explains,
“You ask when I am coming back. I don’t know. We can resign the service any time after a year, so there is always a chance to get out if things don’t go right. But I can truthfully say, I have never been happier in my work. I seem to have found my niche, and for once I feel that I am doing something useful.”
She goes on to say, “My boys adore me and I reciprocate heartily.” Throughout her letters, she speaks warmly of “my boys”; as she remarked on May 4, 1918, “They do seem actually to belong to us after we have cared for them a while.” She consistently comments on their courage, patriotism and manners:
“I certainly never had an idea that the ordinary boy whom I passed on the street back home had such latent powers and qualities of heroism. We shall never have cause to be other than proud of our Army.” (Letter to Mother, August 2, 1918)
As a nurse, Trax took great pride in providing comfort to her patients, and easing both their physical and mental anguish:
“Sometimes it worries me to think that I am, at 29, so unreasonably, so horribly old. But age has its compensations. Here the nursing care which we give our boys is only a part of what we can do for them, and we old timers can do things more gracefully and with more freedom than can the young and giddy. As—one night recently I went in and found one of my boys awake and very miserable at 1:00 A.M. I knew what was the matter with him, so I sat on the edge of his bed and held his hand just a minute. Then it all came out, the homesickness, the mother, the girl, everything. I stayed with him about a half hour and then he went to sleep refreshed in mind and body. Had I been younger, that might have been a questionable thing to do…. Again, I found a precious 18 year old baby weeping in the dark, with never a thought of the looks of the thing, I put both arms around the child and pulled him close to me and administered comfort. Poor kidlet, he had no mother, no father, nor anybody in the whole world and had gone into the Army for a “home.” Poor little soldier crying in my arms did him more good than any treatment he received. He asked if he might write me a letter as there was not one person in the whole world to whom he could write.”
As fulfilling as she found combat nursing, she occasionally commented on the emotional energy it took to care for patients, noting in a January 22, 1918 letter: “This morning the whole world was wrong, nothing particular the matter, only an emotional reaction from having spent the night in futile attempt to relieve the pain for some of my precious boys.”
This was particularly the case as the war dragged on, and American forces saw increasing casualties in the spring and summer of 1918, during battles such as Belleau Wood and Chateau Thierry, and including those from Edgar Andrews' unit wounded during the Battle of Seicheprey. Still, she continued to be deeply impressed by her patients’ fortitude:
“We’ve always thought the boys had grit, but the ones who have been fighting for months are even more so than the new ones. I had a little chap who was wounded in Belleau Wood, backbone broken, paralyzed below the waist. The little tyke lay on the field for three days without food or water, before he was found. Think you would ever hear a word of complaint from that lad? I’ve never even heard him peevish.” (August 14, 1918)
In addition to the satisfaction she found through her nursing work, Trax's letter evidence great joy at the opportunities she found to travel throughout France and to experience local life and customs. Her correspondence is filled with descriptions of local people she encountered, shopping expeditions to town, and occasionally accounts of trips farther afield. In December 1917, she traveled to Paris, and in the spring of 1918, to the French Riviera. Both locations left her awestruck; as she wrote to her mother on March 18, 1918: "This surely can't be Nettie Trax, she never had any hopes of seeing places such as this."