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Nora Saltonstall to Her Dad in WWI: ‘I’m Staying in the Fight’

The day after her 24th birthday in war-torn France, Nora Saltonstall begged her Brahmin father to let her stay in Europe with her generation -- the Lost Generation.

Nora Saltonstall in her Red Cross uniform.

Nora Saltonstall in her Red Cross uniform.

Richard Middlecott Saltonstall wanted the second of his four children to come home from volunteer service during World War I. Nora had volunteered with the Red Cross in Paris a year earlier, moving up from housekeeper and secretary to chauffeur as part of a mobile hospital unit. Her brother Leverett had enlisted in the U.S. Army and was also serving in France.

She was having the time of her life in France. Even the death of a maid from the Spanish flu epidemic created an opportunity for an adventure:

Leverett and Nora Saltonstall would survive World War I. Nora Saltonstall would earn the Croix de Guerre, but she would die of typhoid at the age of 24 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 Oct. 20, 1918, Nora Saltonstall wrote a letter to her father,

Dear Pa,

I wrote you one letter in reply to your suggestion about coming home but I was afraid you would not appreciate it so I voted it to the board. I just got a letter from Leverett saying that he was on the move -- Surely you would not want me to come home if I could be of any use to him over here.

Setting that reason aside I feel as if I were just coming into my usefulness & that now having learned the ropes I am far more valuable than a year ago. Anyway the war will probably be over soon so let's not worry for a little while yet. Do you mind very much my staying?

If you knew how much I am getting from this Experience I am sure you would let me finish it out. If I had not come over I would have felt not to have belonged to this generation & would have felt all my life as if there were something lacking to make me on a level with all the up & coming crowd of my own age & thereabouts. I have to admit that there is a lot of fun combined to the work -- Simple sort of fun in which Everyone joins because we are all playing the same game & we all look at things in the same way.

Nora Saltonstall

Nora Saltonstall

There is much less worry over here because you are near Enough to action to get the result of all the worries of all those behind the lines. It is much more pleasant to receive orders, [&?] [than?] To do what you are told without thinking much one way or the other than have to decide yourself upon the move. Even at this moment we are awaiting orders & are hoping for a big move forward.

Advancing has none of the Excitement of retreat because you can take your time, which we certainly have to do, because the country is so wrecked that it is no Easy job to install a hospital -- no water, buildings without windows & roofs etc. -- just like the hundreds of pictures you have seen for the last four years.

We have had some gripe here but I should not say as badly as at home. We had a maid die of it & one or two of the others have been sick but not dangerously so, & there has really been no general contagion. The maid had a military funeral & I was responsible for getting some flowers. I never knew before what high wire fences I could climb -- we looted freely & might Easily have been court martialed for our behavior but the final result was worth it, for we made a large wreath of ivy & roses, a bouquet & wreath of dahlias & some white shrubbery & a cross of roses & ivy -- Pretty good for this season in the pouring rain, don't you think so?

Leverett Saltonstall

Leverett Saltonstall, later

You need not worry too much over my nursing because we are short chauffeurs just now so that I cannot leave that service. I am not sure whether you would approve of my doing that work either because it is decidedly unladylike. One cannot stand on ceremony when it comes to oiling & greasing Fiat 1 1/2 ton trucks, changing tires & doing all the rest of it. I am clean once a day & that is immediately after my bath in the rubber foot tub -- the rest of the time I belong in the stable. I have developed a most enormous muscle in my right arm & I am really rather ashamed of it because it literally stands out. I'll have to try to direct it into a tennis stroke after the war.

Much love from

Nora