The Scrapbook of an American Army Nurse in the First World War

Edith MacDonald, probably taken shortly before the war.

Edith MacDonald, probably taken shortly before the war.

When Edith Lois MacDonald returned to her home in Columbus, Ohio, in the Summer of 1919, after a ten-month stint of overseas service as a U.S. Army nurse with Base Hospital 115 in Vichy, France, she brought with her a sizeable collection of photographs ranging in size from 9×7 enlargements to tiny shots just 1.5 x 2.5. In addition, there was the usual stack of individual souvenir postcards and postcard booklets  from Vichy and neighboring towns (Dijon, Digne, Monte-Carlo, Nice), and an assortment of other paper ephemera acquired during her overseas service:  ~~a hand-written and signed note from King George to “Soldiers of the United States”, welcoming them on their way through the British Isles to “…take your stand beside the armies of many nations now fighting in the Old World the great battle for human freedom…” ;  ~~a formatted postcard sent by the A.E.F. to the folks back home, informing them that their daughter has arrived safely in France;  ~~a Special Order on onionskin paper granting Nurse MacDonald and her travelling companion, Nurse Elizabeth Payne, permission to visit Nice and the nearby Alps for one week in February of 1919; ~~ a foot-long itemized and illustrated receipt from Hotel Westminster in Nice, filled out on both sides;  and  ~~a French Transport Order permitting Nurse Edith MacDonald to travel by train from Tour to Bordeaux (probably the first leg of her journey back to the States).

But the chief interest lies in the many photographs portraying life in Base Hospital 115, which was housed in the Hotel Ruhl, in Vichy. As explained in the little history of the hospital published for staff members in 1919, Base Hospital 115 was one of three base hospitals and associated organizations forming a “hospital center” in Vichy:

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Hotel Ruhl in Vichy, home of Base Hospital 115


       Upon arrival at Vichy it was found that the hospital was to be a part of what was known as a Hospital Center, which was the usual manner in which the hospitalization of the A. E. F. was handled. There were in Vichy when No. 115 arrived, two Base Hospitals, No. 1, from Bellevue Hospital, New York City, under the command of Major McKee, and No. 19, from Rochester, New York, under the command of Major, afterwards Lieutenant Colonel, John M. Swan. . . . .

       No. 115 was assigned to the Holt! Ruhl, a magnificent concrete building nine stories high, said to be the tallest building in France. The maximum capacity of this building was 1657 beds, and it was said to be one of the largest hospitals under one roof in the world. It had been occupied as a hospital by the French since August, 1914,, but was closed for a while, and had been reopened by Base Hospital No. l a short time before the arrival of No. 115. The building was in charge of Captain Thomas Atkins, of Base Hospital No. l, and he remained in that capacity till No. 115 was ready to take charge, giving valuable and much appreciated assistance, and helping greatly in all matters concerning the transfer. The building was taken over by No. 115 on September 11th, with 822 patients in the wards.

By the opening of the Battle of the Argonne, the carrying capacity of Hotel Ruhl had been more than doubled, to a total of 1657 beds.

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Nurse Edith MacDonald, at Cape May, New Jersey, two months before shipping out for France with BH 115

The photographs of Nurse MacDonald show several of the wards and offices of BH 115 in Hotel Ruhl, and a number of individual physicians, nurses, staff and patients. There is far too much material to fit into a single blog article, even if winnowed down to just the highlights, so throughout the next year or two I intend to post a series of small articles, each featuring one, or several related photographs or other ephemera. Insofar as possible, the individuals in the photographs will be identified.

Although Vichy was relatively distant from the Western Front, the American hospital center in its midst treated thousands of front-line soldiers, from all the major American campaigns, beginning with Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, and ending with the costliest American battle of all, the Argonne.

Photographs of a number of individual soldiers, many of them identified by name, found their way into Nurse MacDonald’s scrapbook, and as I am able to discover something about each of these soldiers—their home addresses, their units, and perhaps what became of them, I will include that information along with their photographs in future installments here.

I will also, of course, include more information about Nurse Edith MacDonald herself.  My sincere thanks to the family of Edith MacDonald for making her scrapbook available to me, and permitting its piecemeal publication here.

See The Scrapbook of an American Army Nurse in the First World War: Part Two.


BJ Omanson


click to enlargeA HISTORY OF UNITED STATES ARMY BASE HOSPITAL No. 19. (Vichy, France: American Expeditionary Force, A.P.O. 781, 1919).



BH115 A HISTORY OF U.S.A. BASE HOSPITAL No. 115. (Vichy, Allier, France: American Expeditionary Force, A.P.O. 761, 1919).



tjom3 Tjomsland, Anne. BELLEVUE IN FRANCE: Anecdotal History of Base Hospital No. 1. (NY: Froben Press, 1941).

Published in: on April 14, 2014 at 9:50 pm  Comments (1)