Diary of an Army Private at a Base Hospital Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Private William Schira was a US Army nurse assigned to Base Hospital Number 53 near Langres, France. His diary, kept during his time working at the hospital, offers a firsthand account of the state of army medicine at the end of World War I and the duties of an enlisted man with minimal medical training. It also describes Schira’s relationship with his fellow nurses, the German prisoners of war he guards, and the physical and psychological toll of the war and its aftermath on the men in his care, as well as on Schira himself. In addition to pneumonia, dysentery, body lice, depression, and the side effects of early inoculations, Schira fell victim to the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 and nearly died. His diary provides a valuable account of life in an army hospital at the end of the war.

Summary Overview

Private William Schira was a US Army nurse assigned to Base Hospital Number 53 near Langres, France. His diary, kept during his time working at the hospital, offers a firsthand account of the state of army medicine at the end of World War I and the duties of an enlisted man with minimal medical training. It also describes Schira’s relationship with his fellow nurses, the German prisoners of war he guards, and the physical and psychological toll of the war and its aftermath on the men in his care, as well as on Schira himself. In addition to pneumonia, dysentery, body lice, depression, and the side effects of early inoculations, Schira fell victim to the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 and nearly died. His diary provides a valuable account of life in an army hospital at the end of the war.

Defining Moment

The United States entered World War I in April 1917 and mobilized more than four million US military personnel. The American Expeditionary Force, which fought alongside British and French forces in Europe, had nearly two million men in the field by the time of the armistice that ended the war on November 11, 1918. Overall, more than two hundred thousand American soldiers were wounded and more than one hundred thousand were killed. The US Army faced a significant shortage of trained nurses at the outset of war, so many medical duties were carried out by men and women without previous experience, as was the case with William Schira.

The base hospital was often the penultimate stage in a lengthy chain of medical services. Stretcher-bearers in the field came into first contact with the wounded and carried them to ambulances, which then transported them to field hospitals or mobile dressing stations that moved with the troops. Base hospitals were located well behind the lines and were generally stationary for the duration of the war. The most severely wounded soldiers or those who required surgery or long recuperation periods were generally brought to base hospitals. There was little distinction made between mental and physical patients, and Schira mentions the “nuts” throughout his diary, referring to soldiers suffering from depression and psychosis who were in his care.

Base hospitals treated a variety of common injuries and ailments during the war. In addition to gunshot and artillery wounds, World War I was the first war to make widespread use of poison gas. In addition to the burns and pneumonia caused by exposure to gas, base hospitals saw many cases of influenza, dysentery, diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever, venereal disease, and infection. Soldiers also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, known then as shell-shock, and hospitals also treated men who were suicidal, violent, had uncontrollable tremors, or had lost the ability to speak.

Female nurses feature prominently in Schira’s diary and were a crucial component of hospital operations. Between 1917 and 1919, the Army Nurse Corps grew from approximately four hundred active-duty nurses to more than twenty-one thousand, of which more than ten thousand served in Europe. Two hundred American nurses died overseas, most from influenza. They were involved in every stage of the military medical process, serving in ambulances, in field and base hospitals, and on transport trains and ships. Medical personnel treated German prisoners of war who were sick or injured, and after the end of the war, German patients outnumbered Americans in some base hospitals, adding to the tension and workload of their exhausted staff.

Author Biography

William J. Schira was born on December 21, 1890, near Tiffin, Ohio. Though he was drafted in Tiffin in 1918, he is listed in the official register of Base Hospital Number 53 as being from Wallaceburg, Ontario. He seems to have been working in Ontario prior to his draft. Schira trained at various camps in the United States for four months before shipping off to Europe in July 1918. In August, Schira began his service at Base Hospital Number 53 in Langres, Haute-Marne, France. Schira was discharged in July 1919 and returned to Ontario and eventually settled in Ohio with his wife, Anna. Schira worked as a machinist at the National Machinery Company for more than twenty years until his retirement in 1955. He died on December 24, 1969, in Tiffin, Ohio.

Document Analysis

This excerpt from William Schira’s diary begins with his description of the German prisoners in his care. During this time–from December 1918 to January 1919–Schira consistently has more German prisoners to care for than American soldiers, sometimes his entire ward, and he complains that he is “tired of nursing Germans.” He is also understandably suspicious of his charges, and when he takes a group to bathe, he writes that he will shoot them “if they get smart.” Later, when he hears two German prisoners whispering, he says that he wishes they would start trouble so he can “try out my new gun on them.” Schira mentions numerous times that the guards are drunk or asleep, and he is clearly nervous that they are outnumbered by their German charges.

Adding to the anxiety caused by having charge of a number of potentially hostile prisoners is the disruption caused by soldiers who are often “stewed,” “drunk,” or “blankeyed.” Schira himself drinks regularly and takes opium to sleep. He is tired and depressed and admits to getting “the blues” and being “disgusted with this life.” Schira also has charge of a number of patients suffering from severe depressive or psychotic episodes, who are violent to themselves and others. On Christmas Eve, one of his patients attempts suicide and Schira is blamed for failing to prevent it. He is concerned that the man will die, primarily because he does not want to be blamed. When the patient is sent to another hospital, the patient says that he is sorry “but will do it again.” One of Schira’s patients jumps out a window. Later, he receives a patient whose record is marked “insanity, violent,” and he wears his gun in the ward because the man has “whipped 10 men.” Schira’s attitude toward his patients with mental illness is typical of his time, and he calls them “crazy” and “nuts.” The majority of the nurses were at a loss for how to care for patients suffering from psychosis or delirium, and these patients were often forcibly restrained. Schira writes of one patient who is delirious with fever and raving, explaining how he “sent for another man and two of us fought him twelve hours all night to keep him in his bed. My arms are sore and so are his from fighting with him.” Schira repeatedly mentions how the ward is understaffed and the orderlies are untrained, noting, “I have some very sick men tonight. I wish I had a nurse.” At one point, he remarks that he has “a new orderly who has never seen a hospital.”

In addition to the strain of monitoring the German prisoners and caring for seriously ill patients, Schira is alternately amused by and frustrated with the female nurses of the ward. He works closely with nurses and develops close relationships with them, noting with sadness when one leaves his ward and remarking that another is like a mother to him. When one of the nurses incorrectly doses a patient, he is worried and checks on the man for her. He does, however, mention repeatedly how the presence of nurses causes disruption among the men, who often try to romance the nurses. He complains that his “ward is like a nut house. Always a bunch of men sneaking around and coming in to spoon with the nurses.” He feels guilty after he scolds a nurse in his ward for fraternizing with the soldiers and causes her to cry, but he emphasizes that he is “tired with their love affairs.” Still, he seems to be genuinely fond of the nurses, noting, “Miss Prince is full of fun tonight,” and how “Brownie nearly laughed her head off.” The good humor and companionship provided by the nurses seems to be one bright spot in Schira’s experience. However, Schira’s mind was often on his sweetheart and future wife, Anna (“Snookie”), who was at home in Canada. Speaking of the nurses, Schira writes, “They are nice girls but I wouldn’t give my little Canadian Darling for the whole bunch.”

Essential Themes

The primary theme in William Schira’s diary is the difficulty faced by medical staff at the end of the war. Schira was not involved in fighting, but he dealt directly with its aftereffects. His experience was a complex one–he was often frustrated and impatient with his fellow soldiers and nurses but nevertheless expresses great affection for them. His descriptions of his fellow staff members’ behavior underscore their youth and inexperience. Many of his patients, in addition to being critically ill, were unpredictable and often violent, and Schira and his fellow staff members were often unprepared to properly care for them. The stresses of overseeing the ward certainly took a toll on Schira himself, who was frequently ill, overwhelmed, and homesick. Schira’s diary offers a personalized account of war and its aftermath, revealing the overwhelming responsibilities placed on young and inexperienced soldiers and nurses such as himself.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Military Nurses in World War I.” Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
  • Siler, Joseph F. The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War. Washington, DC: GPO, 1928. Print.
  • Weintraub, Stanley. A Stillness Heard round the World: The End of the Great War–November 1918. New York: Talley, 1985. Print.
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