Knox Women in the War

Helen Painter

Helen Painter, Knox Faculty 1914-1918

"Miss Retta Snyder, ex ’09, Red Cross nurse in France, writes that she is getting nearer to the front every day. She says she will not be content until she is given first aid work to do on the front line. She now has a bicycle, and has interesting rides in the country. Miss Snyder recently visited Paris, and saw all the beauties of the French capital, but now she is hard at work with 20 hours of duty a day." -- The Knox Alumnus, August 1918

Knox women's patriotism struck many onlookers as remarkable during the war. Knox College had 100% Red Cross participation from its female students during the conflict, and female graduates from Knox were eager to support the war effort in any way they could. 

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It has been my privilege since June to talk with more than 1000 women who have offered themselves for overseas service.

I say privilege because it has been a privilege to meet so many women in the act of offering themselves for a great patriotic service.

Of course among these there were some who had no real serious purpose; some who had [no] real conception of the task; some who had not the slightest understanding of or sympathy with the YMCA, its traditions and its ideals, but wanted to use its uniform in order to have the notoriety and the adventure of a trip to France; but there were very few; the great body have been fine, earnest, devoted, patriotic women engaged in making a serious sacrifice.

Especially fine have been those who when the qualifications required have been pointed out, have said: "I am not specially fitted for this work, and much as I would like to go, I have no right to take space on ship or make another mouth to feed abroad."

Many have come from small towns and some of these have lacked the social graces and assurance which a wider contact with the world produces. But we have tried not to be unmindful that there are two kinds of provincialism: the one the accident of training and environment, and the other that narrowness and meaness of the soul which neither money, nor social position, not travel nor city life can remove; and some of the very choisest [sic] spirits who have come to us are those who lived lives of hard work and daily usefulness in a smaller community and there grown to splendid womanhood.

Some one, you know, have said that the people of the West wear last years clothes, read last years books and formulate next years ideas.... it has seemed to me that in sending these capable, simple, genuine women of the Middle West, we were giving to our sister France the very heart of the American people.

We appreciate fully the tragedy which results, particularly when a women [sic] from a small town where the fact that she is making application is known to everybody is refused. But of course we have no option. If the applicant does not measure up to the standard - and we have tried to set it high - it is our duty to the YMCA and to the boys over there to refuse her.

To those of us who have been interviewing these applicants and trying to determine their fitness, the task and responsibility has loomed rather large... we are counting on your cooperation to send to Europe a group of women from the middle West who will be of real help, and who every hour will be true and loyal to its ideals. 

 -- found in the Janet Greig Post Manuscript Collection, Knox College Special Collections & Archives

"Our carol singing was simply beautiful. About fifty nurses started out with lanterns, coming across the snow under a clear starry sky, the air just biting enough to make us frisk along. It was a beautiful sight, just like myriads of fireflies dancing along. We went clear down to the first line of tents where the up-patients stay. A number of the officers joined us and the blue boys (up-patients wear blue suits) wanted to come but hesitated. We said 'come on boys,' so we gathered a crowd as we went. We sang at eight points and when we were through there must have been 250 in the crowd. The men's voices helped wonderfully and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We had a busy week with the stockings. By Christmas eve we had enough filled for all the patients and 50 over when word came that 200 more would be in at midnight. Fortunately 100 came at midnight and 100 at nearly noon. So we donated everything we could, soap, nuts, candy, anything we could spare. Had we had our packages, we could have had much more. But the officers sent over all they could gather together and one sister went to the city in the morning to buy more presents. We had many extra stockings unfilled but event hose were not enough so they pieced out with boxes, treasure bags, and so on. Everyone had something and last night in the night the men woke up and tole me the sisters had done too much! We had greenery on the poles in the tents and Christmas trees on the big tables where the food is served. The boys trimmed the trees and just enjoyed themselves so much. I must go on duty now. Night duty is not at all hard but busy! Working fast and furiously in the morning, it takes me three and one-half solid hours to take the morning temperatures. I have only one hundred and twenty patients!" 


-- an excerpt from a letter home from Retta L. Snyder, a Red Cross nurse serving in France, published in The Knox Alumnus 1:4 (Apr., 1918): 109. 

Knox Women in the War