Photo Essay: Vanderbilt Hospital Unit ‘S’ in World War I

One of the deadliest conflicts in human history ignited 100 years ago during the summer of 1914 when Austria–Hungary declared war on Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Virtually all of Europe was soon embroiled in what came to be known as World War I, eventually involving more than 70 million military personnel.

Although the United States did not enter the conflict until 1917 and the war ended the following year, more than 2,500 Vanderbilt men served in the war. The pages of The Vanderbilt Alumnus (precursor to Vanderbilt Magazine) during that era are filled with dispatches under the heading “SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE,” a country that saw some of the fiercest fighting and where many Vanderbilt men served.

Vanderbilt sent a dozen of its medical doctors, aided by enlisted men and nurses recruited from the Nashville area, to operate Vanderbilt Hospital Unit “S,” based in Nevers in the Bourgogne region of central France.

Vanderbilt Magazine thanks the Special Collections department of the Annette and Irwin Eskind Biomedical Library at Vanderbilt for use of these U.S. Army Signal Corps photographs.

“Some of our men were sick with a contagious disease, and to impress us with British thoroughness, we had all been quarantined. Bag, baggage and dog, we had been wheeled away to the Isolation Hospital and assigned to Hospital Hut No. 13—the west half of it. … In front of us, across the road, was mumps. Eleven of us occupied a ward 60 by 30, in which we slept, ate, played solitaire, worked puzzles and argued, for nine days, the exact time it takes a new pup to get his eyes open.”
—Dr. William Henry Witt, BA 1887, MA 1888, MD 1894
Vanderbilt Alumnus, May 1918
“I can only say that wherever one went in the service, one saw Vanderbilt men. On this side in every camp, at the port of debarkation, on the transports, on the firing line, in the hospitals, and even back in the quiet zones of the S.O.S., eating their hearts out to get up to the front.
“You do not need to be reminded that out of the medical faculty there was organized our splendid Vanderbilt Unit “S,” which so successfully conducted Camp Hospital 28 at Nevers. … Every one of these officers was proud to be a Vanderbilt man, and proud to be a member of the Medical Corps—almost as proud as if he were a marine. When the wounded men were brought into the operating room without their uniforms, one couldn’t tell whether they were Americans, French or English.
“We had over 17,000 shattered bones to mend, over 3,500 arms and legs to amputate, and 20 times that many to save.”
—Lt. Col. W.D. Haggard, February 1919 address to the Vanderbilt Club of Nashville
“A recent cable has brought the news that the members of the Vanderbilt Hospital Unit (S) are all well and expect to be together again soon. The officers were temporarily separated from each other, and were sent to the front lines.”
Vanderbilt Alumnus, April 1918

Learn more and see additional photos.