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'There would be no waving of flags for us' — Fort McHenry's chief nurse from World War I honored

They danced all around the hospital at Fort McHenry when the armistice ending World War I was declared. Emily Raine Williams, the chief nurse, recalled singing, too: “War is over.”

On Saturday, the eve of the armistice’s centenary, staff and volunteers from Fort McHenry came to Williams’ gravesite at the Baltimore National Cemetery to remember her service as one of the small number of female veterans of the war.

Bright sun lit the ranks of white gravestones, but in the shade of a large oak with leaves turned brown, the wind bit at the small group there to honor Williams.

She is not a famous figure, her grave doesn’t occupy any particular place of honor and no members of the public came to honor her. But organizers of the ceremony said Williams’ service captures the work of members of the military who served on the home front as millions were killed and wounded on European battlefields — work that Williams recognized in her own lifetime had gone unheralded.

“There would be no waving of flags for us,” Williams wrote in a memoir. “No sense of danger faced in common by comradeship of Americans together on foreign soil, the uplifting spirit of the crusade for a great cause.

“But it was we who had to re-create out of the wreckage of war clean and useful men fit to fight or live in a better world we intended to have after the fight was ended.”

For Williams and the other nurses and doctors at the fort, the armistice didn’t mean the war was truly done. They still had the job of caring for men who had fallen victim to the new ways of war — machine guns, poison gas and fortified trenches.

Williams was born in Baltimore in 1879 and trained at St. Mary’s School of Nursing. She served as the chief nurse at Fort McHenry’s General Hospital #2 between 1917 — the year the United States entered the conflict — and 1919.

New buildings were put up around the old star fort to create a 3,000-bed hospital with 1,000 medical staff. At first its role was treating the wounded being brought back from Europe, but over time the mission evolved. The hospital turned to physical therapy and vocational training, preparing veterans to return to peacetime lives.

In her memoir, read aloud by Parks Service volunteer Norah Worthington at Saturday’s ceremony, Williams recalled the image of a silhouetted bugler sounding out taps as the flag that had once inspired the national anthem was lowered.

“Every able-bodied person stood at attention,” Williams wrote. “The stillness created reverence and awe.”

Then Stephen Dale, a ranger at Fort McHenry, sang — the Chesapeake Bay and the Francis Scott Key Bridge just visible in the distance — and bugler Jari Villanueva played.

Williams, writing less than two decades after the end of the war, described a new generation of Americans who regarded Armistice Day as a “legendary holiday.” Those who were involved in the war, she wrote, had a duty to remind those younger than them of its meaning.

“We must see that our youth comes to learn two things: The cost of Armistice Day and the glory of it,” she wrote.

“They should learn the cost that they may not lightly engage their country in war that may honorably be avoided. They should learn the glory of it that they may never be overcome by an excess of pacifism that they cannot distinguish right and wrong.”


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