Helen Fairchild

Helen Fairchild

Helen Fairchild was born in Milton, Pennsylvania, November 21, 1884. She graduated as a nurse from Pennsylvania Hospital in 1913.

On the outbreak of the First World War President Woodrow Wilson declared a policy of strict neutrality. However, on 31st January, 1917, Germany announced a new submarine offensive against countries supplying goods to the Allies. Wilson responded by breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany.

The publication of the Zimmerman Telegram, a document that suggested that Germany was willing to help Mexico regain territory in Texas and Arizona, intensified popular opinion against the Central Powers. On 6th April, America declared war on Germany on 6th April, 1917. A few weeks later Fairchild and 63 other nurses from Pennsylvania Hospital volunteered to serve in Europe.

After arriving on the Western Front Fairchild was sent to Casualty Clearing Station No. 4 at Passchendaele on 22nd July, 1917. Exposed to mustard gas during November 1917, Fairchild began suffering from severe abdominal pains. Fairchild continued to work and it was not until just before Christmas that a Barium meal X-Ray revealed that a large gastric ulcer was obstructing her pylorus. Doctors suggested that this had probably been worse by the poisonous gases used against the Allies.

Fairchild underwent a gastro-enterostomy operation on 13th January 1918. Initially Helen Fairchild did well but on the third day she began to deteriorate and after going into a coma she died on 18th January 1918.

Primary Sources

(1) Helen Fairchild, letter to her mother while in Liverpool waiting to be sent to France (26th May 1917)

I forgot to tell you that we wear uniforms all the time, and our street uniforms are heavy dark blue serge, made very military, one piece, with big broad pleats over the shoulders with rows of big, black buttons down both sides, and swirls, with panels front and back, made quite short little white bands around the collar and sleeves, and sort blue hats. At first we didn't like the idea of having to wear uniforms all the time, but we have learned the wisdom of it now, for it gives protection, and everywhere we go they leave us in without charges whatever.

(2) Helen Fairchild, letter to her mother from her Casualty Clearing Station (August 1917)

I am with an operating team about 100 miles from our own Base Hospital, closer to the fighting lines. I'll sure have a lot to tell about this experience when I get home. I have been here three weeks and see no signs of going back yet, although when we came we only expected to be here a few days. Of course, I didn't bring much with me. Had two white dresses and two aprons, and two combinations. Now can you imagine trying to keep decent with that much clothing in a place where it rains nearly every day.

We all live in tents and wade through mud to and from the operating room where we stand in mud higher than our ankles. It was some task, but dear old Major Harte, who I am up here with, got a car and a man; to go down to our hospital and get us some things. He brought me six clean uniforms and aprons, beside heaps of notes from all the nurses, letters from home and all kinds of fruit and cake.

We made the trip up to this place in an auto-ambulance 100 miles through France. Oh I shall have books to tell when I get home.

(3) Helen Fairchild, letter to her mother from Base Hospital (10th October, 1917)

Just as soon as I get home I am going to get dresses all colors of the rainbow, but never again blue serge or a blue felt hat. Gee, now I know how the kids in orphan asylums must feel when they all have to wear the same kind of clothes.

Another of our operating team left for a place further up the lines this am. They went to relieve Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Packard and Miss McClelland, who have been up there since July 21st, and who are tired out. This team will take their place so they can come home.

Rained some last night and is frightfully windy and cold. I put on some woolen clothing for we do not have any fires in the hut yet, but in spite of two pairs of stockings my feet are cold. Right now I stopped writing and got two hot water bottles and have my feet on one and the other in my lap.

Please write letters often, they mean more to me than a package, for I get a little homesick sometimes.

(4) Last letter from Helen Fairchild to her mother (28th December, 1917)

Had a letter from the States this week and was glad, for being sick this far from home is no fun, but everyone has been fine to me. My room is filled with flowers they bring me, and fruit galore. Miss Dunlop does everything she can to make me comfortable and came in and talked with me every couple of hours. She wanted me to come up in the cot in her sitting room, but I did not want to do that, for Wagner wanted me to stay in our own room where she could do things for me. Wagner sure is a friend indeed.

Dr. Norris was just in to see me and told me I could stop some of my medicine. He said my throat looked much better but I still can't go on duty "till I eat and get some color, so I see my finish, for as usual, I look like the wrath of Kingdom come, but I'll make them let me go back soon, for it's too lonesome here to be off duty.

Gee but I'll be glad to see you all by the time this war is over, but at the same time I am glad to be here to help take care of these poor men, and I'll be doubly glad when our own U.S. boys will be [in this part of France] with us, for they will be so far from home, and they will have no one but us American nurses to really take any genuine interest in them, for their own friends will not be able to reach them.

What the Red Cross and the YMCAs are doing for us here means so much to us. Really, it would be awful to get along without the things they send us. Most of the pleasure that the troops get are the ones provided by the YMCA.

If you could only see what the boys here have to go through sometimes, you would see they need all the comfort possible. Without the supplies sent to us by the Red Cross Society, we could not do half as much for them as we are.

Please tell me what it was that everyone seems to have heard concerning me at home. Of course, whatever it was, as you know, is not correct, for as I have told you often, anytime anything should happen, you would be notified.

Heaps of love, your very own, Helen.