Nora Saltonstall: ‘Send cigarettes for the wounded’

Nora Saltonstall, a 23-year-old heiress, was part of the Lost Generation that flocked to Europe during World War I out of a sense of patriotism and adventure.

Nora Saltonstall in her Red Cross uniform

Nora Saltonstall in her Red Cross uniform

Eleanor ‘Nora’ Saltonstall came from a well-to-do Boston Brahmin family that traced its lineage to the Mayflower. She was the second of the four children of Richard and Eleanor Brooks Saltonstall. Her brother Leverett, who served in World War I, would be elected governor of Massachusetts and then U.S. senator.

Nora Saltonstall went to Paris in October 1917 to volunteer with the American Red Cross helping refugees.  In November she transferred to an American Red Cross dispensary in Paris; then to a Red Cross hospital unit attached to the French army.  Nora served as the unit’s secretary and housekeeper in charge of supplies and accounts. In the spring of 1918, she volunteered as the mobile unit’s chauffeur along the western front in France when the Germans launched their offensive. For that, Nora Saltonstall earned the Croix de Guerre.

After the war, Nora Saltonstall took a trip to the West Coast with friends. She contracted typhoid fever in Portland, Ore., and died on Aug. 2, 1919 at the age of 24.

On May 10, 1918, she wrote a letter to her sister Muriel  from Royallieu, France:

I received your Easter present the other day; thanks ever so much; the chocolate was a bit squashed but otherwise very good. It is nice to taste American chocolate because the French is so horrid.

Work is not so hectic as a few weeks ago but there is still plenty to do. I ought to be able to write home more often but I get very lazy about it, especially as I have no fountain pen and I always seem to be short of paper — not very businesslike for a “gestionnaire” — they all love to joke me on my job and the doctors all salute me with a flourishing bow. It is quite unknown in the history of French hospitals to have a person quite like me, but as this equipe is different from any other in France, self-supporting and self-transporting, it needs a business manager. After the war I will be fit for either a cook or chauffeur, all of you at home will be much more educated. Nevertheless I love my job because I am really more independent than anyone else here. I act as a sort of agent to Mrs. Daly so that I am on the inside of everything that goes on. I am acquiring the eyes of a cat; I feel as if they were bulging out all over my head and I find myself noticing all kinds of things that before I never noticed. I have been going around the hospital lately with Mrs. Daly on her inspections and we root around and pull things apart in great shape. I know just what a ward should look like now.

Last week Leslie Pell, Mrs. Daly’s son, was here and we grew quite demoralized. He is 19 years old and in the English army. Of course he wanted to be amused so we had to play baseball, dance and roughhouse with him. It reminded me quite of home especially when Agnes and I stole his cap and tried to keep it away from him; we had a free fight and I thought surely that I would have a black eye the next day.

Some American ambulance drivers, friends of Mrs. Daly, came over another day which happened to be her birthday and we had a grand party. Mimi Scott cooked the supper; we had hors d’oeuvre, wonderful soup, chops, peas, asparagus and pineapple — it does not sound like life at the front, does it, plus white wine and champagne. I no longer believe in prohibition and probably by the time I get home I shall smoke and drink as well as any sport from New York. The beauty about being here is that we work hard but in our off hours we enjoy our play, while at home you are always feeling conscience stricken and think that you must not do or eat this or that for fear of depriving others. We take everything that we can get and a little more besides. Don’t let Pa worry about me because there is nothing to worry about. He need not fear about my nursing because I think it is generally conceded that there is too much else for me to do; nevertheless I would not a bit mind having a whack at it if they would give me a chance. I am not breaking any promises because I have not done any nursing yet, but I hate to see the others working themselves to death when I might be able to come in and lighten up their hours by helping clear up. Beatrice Ecclesine always does 12 hours a day — pretty long hours, so you can understand why I who feel as hearty as a horse would like to help her out…

Tell Gussy his money is going into champagne, lemons, oranges and cigarettes for the wounded. I think it a most appropriate use and in the case of champagne it has probably savedsome lives …P.S. If you want to send me anything chocoate, Educators or Huntley Palmers (biscuits), chewing gum, peppermint, or sugar candy is always appreciated.

With thanks to “Out Here at the Front”: The World War I Letters of Nora Saltonstall, edited by Judith S. Graham. 

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