WWI Archives: Christmas at the Base Hospital

As the holiday season approaches, we are wrapping up our year of remembrance of WWI with a look at life in the trenches at Christmas time with photographs and letters from the collection of Washington University alum Arthur W. Proetz in the University Archives.

Staff at Base Hospital 21, c. 1917-18. From the Arthur Proetz Papers, Series 3.

About Arthur Proetz and the Base Hospital

Arthur W. Proetz was a graduate of both Washington University in St Louis (1910) and the Wash U Medical School (1912), and during WWI was a doctor traveling with Base Hospital 21. The hospital was set up on a racetrack near Rouen and contained 1300 beds set up in a series of tents. Over the 18 months it was in operation, it handled over 60,000 patients.

A Christmas Card drawn by Arthur Proetz, c. November 1918. From The Arthur Proetz Papers, Series 6.

Holiday Letters Home

Proetz was a talented sketch artist and his collection contains a number of sketches of the base hospital, which you can view in our previous blog post about the collection. Above is a Christmas card Proetz sketched for his fiance Erma Bird Perham, which consists of a series of ten drawings elaborating how much he is looking forward to seeing her when he goes on leave in November of 1918. The enthusiasm it displays for seeing her after “sixteen more days of isolation” illustrate how lonely the holiday season could be for service men and women.

A letter from Arthur Proetz to his mother regarding holiday presents, Nov. 25, 1917. From the Arthur Proetz Papers.

Packages from home were especially meaningful to service men during the holidays. In the letter above from November 2017, Proetz writes to his mother to let her know that the packages she sent him have arrived early. A later letter makes it clear that some of the items she sent him were for his patients, and that they were all opened with great enthusiasm.

Sitting down to a meal in Base Camp 21. Photograph from the Arthur Proetz Papers, Series 3. c. 1917-8.

Creating Cheer Among the Patients

As difficult as the holidays could be for the staff of the Base Hospital, it was even more difficult for their injured patients. In his letters home, Arthur Proetz writes that the nurses tried to bring their patients some holiday cheer by giving each of them a Christmas stocking full of nuts, fruit, and tobacco. Proetz also notes how all of the staff pitched in for an elaborate holiday meal for the men.

A Dec 26th, 1917 letter Proetz wrote to his family about Christmas on the Base. From the Arthur W. Proetz Papers.

Another way the hospital tried to create some holiday cheer for their first Christmas in France was through putting on a “half-impromptu show for the officers and nurses” (see letter above). Hardly any traveling entertainment groups made it as far as the Base Hospital, but the staff frequently put on amateur theatrical shows in the concert and theater huts of the hospital camp. The photo below shows some of the performers and band players for one such performance.

A photo of theater performers at Base Hospital 21. From the Arthur Proetz Papers, Series 3.

Further Resources on WWI

Materials from Washington University’s WWI collections, including elements of the Proetz collection, are now available digitally through the Missouri Digital Heritage project, “Missouri Over There: Missouri and the Great War,” a project to digitize collections of Missouri’s participation in the First World War. You can check out the project at http://missourioverthere.org/. Patrons interested in researching more about WWI can also view the library’s WWI Archival Sources Research Guide to discover other related University collections.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.