Nora Saltonstall defied her family’s wishes when she volunteered for the American Red Cross in France during World War I.
Her father told her he did not want her to take up nursing. In her letters home from the front, she reassured him she was working as housekeeper, chauffeur and secretary. She was assistant to Mrs. Charles Daly, head of a mobile hospital unit attached to the French army.
Nora Saltonstall was born Oct. 19, 1894, a descendant of Sir Richard Saltonstall, a Puritan who sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony with John Winthrop on the Arbella. She was just 23 when she signed up. Her older brother Leverett enlisted a year later. In the fall of 1918 she was stationed on the western front, where the most decisive battles of the year were fought .
Leverett and Nora Saltonstall would survive World War I. Nora Saltonstall would earn the Croix de Guerre, which she called ‘tommyrot.’ She died of typhoid on Aug. 2, 1919, while on a trip to the West Coast. Leverett would have a successful political career as U.S. senator from Massachusetts and governor of the state.
On Aug. 21, 1918, Nora Saltonstall wrote a letter to her family.
It has been some time since I wrote you because I have been quite busy lately. I don’t know what you will say but as we have had a terrible dearth of nurses owing to sickness, vacations & a rush of wounded I have been helping for the last week with the nursing. I think it is a very good Experience for me although quite terrifying at times if I happen to find myself alone with a very sick man, & you may be sure that I never do a thing to him before first rushing for advice or assistance. It is really a most interesting work but I hate to be so ignorant. So much depends upon the life of a man if a nurse is a good judge of his condition — don’t think for a minute that I am put in responsible positions because I am not, but I would be much more useful as an aide if I knew more. I don’t think I would like nursing as a steady diet but the way I feel about it is that I ought to know something so that in rush moments I can be of use. There do come times when Every hand helps & at those times it is only right that Each person gives what assistance that she can. I know that Pa disapproves but if my having an auxiliaire’s knowledge of nursing is going to save lives it does seem worth while to go into it to that extent, doesn’t it?
The first day I was on 3 American ambulance boys came in, 2 pretty badly wounded, & it made a great difference to them having me there to interpret & to see them under Ether. I saw their operations & strange to say it did not Effect me in the least — one had a finger amputated & a hole 13 centimeters deep cut in his back in search of an éclat which the doctor never found. I do believe I am getting hardened which rather pleases me.
I have not seen Leverett yet but we have had a certain amount of correspondence. He is so vague about where he is that I cannot just start out and go to see him. I hope I get more explicit directions & then in the next lull I will go on a trip in search of him. Much love, & please forgive any disobedience caused by stress of circumstances. Nora
With thanks to “Out Here at the Front”: The World War I Letters of Nora Saltonstall, edited by Judith S. Graham and the Massachusetts Historical Society, Saltonstall Family Papers. Photos courtesy Eleanor Saltonstall papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
I’ve always had great respect for Senator Saltonstall.
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