The Great Forgotten, New Play about American Nurses in WWI
Article By Kacie Devaney (Play written by Kacie and Karen Devaney)
I had the vision to write The Great Forgotten, a play about World War I nurses, while living and studying in Paris, France. While visiting military museums and war memorials including Les Invalides, the Memorial de Caen, and the Museum of the Great War in Peronne, I was always disheartened by the lack of information regarding the women who were at the soldiers’ sides and who played a key role in the success of the Allies. While there were areas dedicated to the bravery of the nurses and the women’s efforts, they were paltry in comparison to those of their male counterparts. As a student, I was fascinated by history but learned very little about World War I. The focus in school was always the Second World War. This seemed a bit paradoxical to me, since the Second World War would never have happened had it not been for “the war to end all wars.” I was drawn to the history of World War I by the simple fact that I knew very little about it compared to World War II. Moreover, history books have always lent themselves to men and the male story, especially in relation to World War I. I was determined to discover more about the women who served and I was particularly interested in the nurses’ stories.
As a playwright, I wanted to tell the story of the American nurses who served in France during the Great War. Additionally, I wanted to expose these brave nurses who returned home to a new era, the Roaring Twenties, and were never recognized for their work in helping to win the war. Many of the American nurses who served in France mended thousands of soldiers back to health who would have died had it not been for their courageous aid. A play like The Great Forgotten would not only entertain, but also raise awareness and educate audiences about these unsung heroes. As I soon realized that this would be a huge undertaking, I decided to reach out to the person I admire most, my mother, a fellow writer and a registered nurse for much of my upbringing. When I asked my mother if she was interested in writing this play with me, I knew I had made the right decision when the first word out of her mouth was a strong and eager “yes!”
Together, my mother and I set out on a journey to tell the stories of the American nurses who served from 1917 to the end of the war, many of them staying years after to help mend Europe back together and assist during the wretched Spanish Flu epidemic that killed more individuals than the war had done. We quickly realized that the literature on World War I nurses, particularly the American ones, was difficult to find. The majority of World War I literature is about the soldiers. One has to dig deep to find stories about the nurses, and often when one does find them, they will be from the same short and recycled articles about their bravery that one has already found elsewhere.
When we finally stumbled upon the Bernard Becker Medical Library Digital Collection of Julia Stimson’s Letters Home, we felt it was our first real nugget of an authentic account. Julia Stimson was born in Massachusetts in 1881 and became superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps during World War I. She would eventually become the first woman to attain the rank of Major in The United States Army. Her letters to her family home while serving in France give us tremendous insight into the lives of American nurses. They describe the long journey by ship, initially to London for training, and then to France, where the nurses were inundated with soldiers dying of gangrene, shrapnel wounds, and the dreaded mustard gas.
Another valuable source, a book that we turned to time and time again for our research, was American Women in World War I, They Also Served, by Lettie Gavin. Gavin’s insights include information not only about the nurses who served during the Great War, but also about the Hello Girls who worked the French telephone systems, often forwarding top secret information that helped win the war. The Red Cross Volunteers and the first women in the navy were an excellent source for understanding what these women were up against during a time when sexism was paramount and a woman’s role was in the home.
Veiled Warriors by Christine E. Hallett was another remarkable book that we used for researching The Great Forgotten. Not only does this work of fiction account for the American nurses who served during World War I, but also includes facts about other groups of nurses who worked for the allied forces, including French, British, and Russian nurses.
While online literature and books fed much of our research about World War I nurses, we also viewed films and documentaries on the subject. The BBC had a handful of wonderful documentaries about the nurses who served. Additionally, the French documentary Apocalypse is a suburb account of World War I, indeed in my opinion one of the best. And we highly recommend The Great War produced by PBS, premiered in April 2017, which tells the complex stories of nurses, including some of their unpublished memoirs, diaries, and letters.
While watching a documentary late one night, I heard a name that was unfamiliar to me: the Harlem Hell Fighters. The Harlem Hell Fighters were the African-American regiment who fought alongside the French during the Great War. The American army would not allow them to fight alongside their Caucasian counterparts. The Harlem Hell Fighters served their country well and never lost a man to the enemy by capture, and yet, when they returned home from the atrocities of war, they were once again pushed backed to the role of second-class citizens. In our play, we not only tell the stories of the American nurses who served during World War I, but one of our leading characters is a Harlem Hell Fighter.
In addition to the war, The Great Forgotten deals with the women of the Lost Generation and their struggle to be heard as they demanded equality, not simply by achieving the 19th amendment, but by setting new norms to be sewn into the fabric of society. The women of the 1920’s, many of whom had worked for the war effort at home and abroad, paved the way for the liberation movement of the sixties. The Lost Generation slogged through barriers and worked towards change in women’s influence on society. My mother and I felt their history so closely linked to the Great War that combining them was a crucial part of the story we set out to tell.
With women’s stories on the rise, we hope that as a collective (both women and men) we can begin to dig deeper for the forgotten stories that are not only important to honor, but are also just as much a part of America and American history as are those that are rehashed time and again.
***Kacie Devaney and Karen Devaney are the authors of The Great Forgotten, which had a sold-out run in the 2015 New York City International Fringe Festival. With the November 2018 centennial commemoration of the end of the Great War, Kacie and Karen hope to bring their play to a larger audience with a longer run. If you are interested in supporting The Great Forgotten, please contact Kacie and Karen at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can like The Great Forgotten on our Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/Thegreatforgotten/