January 3

This Day in History

World War I

Jan 3, 1917:

British nurse Marion Rice writes from a hospital on the Western Front

You never know what is going to happen from one day to the next, nurse Marion Rice writes on this day in 1917, from an army hospital in Caux Seine Auf, France. Her brief Christmas leave to Paris had just been cut short by an influx of wounded soldiers that forced her and her fellow nurses to return to work.

Rice begins her letter by expressing how much she yearned to be sitting down with the family to eat some home food; she continued with an account of her recent trip to Paris with other nurses from her hospital. She had enjoyed a trip to the cinema—a new invention at the time—and a shopping excursion before receiving a telegram from the hospital telling her to return at once, as wounded were arriving.

After a difficult train voyage, Rice was faced with a scene at the hospital unlike any she had experienced before. She wrote: Now we have been put into a different class instead of receiving the more lightly wounded like all the other hospitals in the war zone we get heavy ones particularly bone cases such being Dr. Fitell's specialty. Also we draw from three distributing stations instead of oneIn this lot there were one hundred and you never smelled such smells or saw such sights. I can't tell you how many amputations there were almost all of which will have to be done over. One man has both legs gone, he lay in a shell hole six days, there was nothing to eat but the hole was filled with water and in that water lay decaying the body of his best friend. And he had to drink that water to keep alive. Pleasant isn't it.

Rice's letter, with its observations of both the commonplace and the horrifying, reflects not only the unique reality of life in the army hospitals on the Western Front during the long and grueling conflict, but also the devastating human toll of the war.

To read Rice's letter in its entirety or to read other letters written from the front during World War I, visit HistoryChannel.com's Dear Home: Letters from World War I exhibit.

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