Stories of courage of American citizens in Belgium during WWI

Isabel Anderson

One of the thousands of women who volunteered to help in the war effort was Isabel Anderson. She was the wife of U.S. Ambassador Larz Anderson who was the American envoy to the Kingdom of Belgium from 1911 to 1912.  In the U.S., she raised funds for war-related charities, then volunteered to work for the American Red Cross in field hospitals directly behind the front lines for eight months.  She was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and the Belgian Queen Elisabeth Medal for her work, and wrote Zigzagging, a book about her experience as a nurse on the front lines.

Read “Zigzagging: An American Female Nurse’s Experiences during WWI,” by Isabel Anderson

Ellen Lamotte

Ellen Lamotte was another American volunteer on the front lines in Europe. She was in Belgium in 1915 and worked in a French field hospital. Her 1916 book The Backwash of War presented to international audiences first-hand views of the day-to-day horrors she witnessed. The book, quite explicit for the time, did not reappear at bookstores again until 1934.

The introduction to the book evokes her experience in Belgium:

“This war has been described as “Months of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense fright.” The writer of these sketches has experienced many “months of boredom,” in a French military field hospital, situated ten kilometres behind the lines, in Belgium. During these months, the lines have not moved, either forward or backward, but have remained dead-locked, in one position. Undoubtedly, up and down the long-reaching kilometres of “Front” there has been action, and “moments of intense fright” have produced glorious deeds of valour, courage, devotion, and nobility. But when there is little or no action, there is a stagnant place, and in a stagnant place there is much ugliness. Much ugliness is churned up in the wake of mighty, moving forces. We are witnessing a phase in the evolution of humanity, a phase called War—and the slow, onward progress stirs up the slime in the shallows, and this is the Backwash of War. It is very ugly. There are many little lives foaming up in the backwash. They are loosened by the sweeping current, and float to the surface, detached from their environment, and one glimpses them, weak, hideous, repellent. After the war, they will consolidate again into the condition called Peace.”

Read “The Backwash of War” by Ellen N. La Motte

Harvey Williams Cushing

Harvey Williams Cushing was an American neurosurgeon known as the “father of modern neurosurgery.” When war broke out in Europe, he volunteered with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium until the U.S. entered the war. Dr. Cushing initially served as the head of a surgical unit in a French military hospital outside of Paris. During his time at the French military hospital, he experimented with the use of electromagnets to extract fragments of metallic missile shrapnel from within the brain.

In 1917, he served as an operating surgeon with the British forces before being detached for special duty during the battles for the Messines and Passchendaele ridges where he was a firsthand witness of the Third Battle of Ypres. In 1918, he was made senior consultant in neurological surgery for the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War I. He served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, attaining the rank of Colonel.  Aside from Dr. Cushing’s neurosurgical accomplishments, he developed surgical instruments that are still in use today, including the Cushing Forceps. This instrument is used to grasp the thick tissues of the scalp during cranial surgery.

He published his journal after the war and wrote about daily life on the front lines, including this piece set during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917:

“A busy day. Six only, but one of them required three major operations– -two cranial penetrations, one in the temporal, another in the vertex, and a bad shoulder wound as well. So this should count for our eight. It was not our rotation, but Miller thought I had better take him on. All three were done under local anæsthesia, and during their course I learned from the man, whose name is Atkins, that he is a collier at home– -a stretcherbearer here. He had gone out to get a wounded man they had seen lying out for six days in a bad spot. No one else would go and he finally volunteered, though the man didn’t belong to his Division. That’s all he remembers, though he was quite conscious to-night and can talk, for it’s his right brain that’s damaged. Hero? Not at all. It was only in the day’s work, and probably no one will ever know or care. A simple coal miner.”

The Van den Broeck family

The strong waves of emigration from Europe to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries meant that some families felt the pull of the war early on.

The Van den Broeck family of Sint-Niklaas, Belgium was a family of nine children, seven of whom emigrated to the U.S. before the war. After the invasion of Belgium, two of the brothers came back to Belgium and joined the remaining brothers to fight in the Belgian Army. In 1917, three other brothers and one sister joined the U.S. Army. The three brothers were part of the AEF and the sister was a multilingual telephone operator. Of a family of nine children, eight ended up serving on the front lines, four in a Belgian uniform and four in an American uniform. They all survived the war.