IT was her 28th birthday and Musselburgh lass Helen Wood was quietly marking the occasion a long way from home.
The dedicated nurse’s parents were back in the Honest Toun. Perhaps as she went about her business on the other side of the Atlantic, her thoughts were with them – after all, she hadn’t seen her sick mother and frail father for eight years.
Maybe as the day wore on, she may have found herself reflecting on her brother William, killed alongside so many others on the cruel sands of Gallipoli. Or her brother Johnson, another victim of the Great War.
At some point, the sharp shrill of the telephone bell interrupted her thoughts, bringing exciting but ominous news that would set in sequence a devastating chain of events.
On one hand news that Helen, who left Musselburgh in search of the American Dream, was being called up to serve for her new country meant she would be one of the few women to take their nursing skills to the front line.
And on the other, it meant she’d be within striking distance of home. Precious leave might mean a chance to return, to walk beside the River Esk trading tales of life in Chicago with her younger brother, Frank, and show off her crisp blue cloth nurse’s cape with its rich scarlet lining.
Fate, though, was not on her side. Indeed, Helen would never even reach the hellish cauldron of the Western Front.
Instead her “homecoming” would be in name only, engraved above all the others at the top of the brass war memorial that pays tribute to the fallen at Northesk Parish Church.
And Helen, who had dedicated her short but full life to healing others, would become the first female member of the American military killed in the line of duty – a tragedy that would create shock waves on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now as attention turns to the centenary of the First World War, Helen’s story is being proudly retold at her home town museum, illustrated, poignantly, using the very Stars and Stripes flag which adorned her coffin as she was laid to rest in a cemetery thousands of miles from home and her Red Cross medal.
They were loaned to Musselburgh Museum by her great nephew, Crighton Wood, 49, who received them from his grandfather, Frank. Helen’s younger brother Frank went on to become an acclaimed architect who helped design the gates at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the only sibling out of six left behind to care for their elderly, frail parents.
“I always felt there was almost a ghost in the family,” says Crighton, also an architect. “I’m sure my grandfather felt all that loss very strongly but had learned to live with it. But how could you get over losing a sister and two brothers – one at Gallipoli who had enlisted and went off to fight even though he was only 16, the other from injuries he sustained in France? I’m sure it had an impact on his life.”
Helen was born in Portobello in 1888, the oldest of three sisters and three brothers. Her father, John, was a butcher. Twenty years older than wife Frances, he would eventually be left frail and sick by heart trouble.
By 1901, the couple and their family – Helen, sisters Annie and Janet, brothers William, Johnson and Frank – along with the children’s two grandmothers were all crammed into 34 Hercus Loan, in the town.
Helen was 12, but would soon follow in her two sisters’ daring steps and pack up for a new life across the Atlantic.
Annie and Janet had gone to Chicago to work in domestic service. But Helen had other plans – she wanted to become a nurse.
She trained in Evanston, Illinois, and worked as night superintendent of the contagious disease section at the Evanston Hospital near Chicago. From there, she watched with concern as war tore through Europe, claiming her own brother, William’s young life and leaving Johnson so weakened from injuries sustained in France, he would not survive.
On May 16, 1917, five weeks after America entered the war and, by chance, Helen’s 28th birthday, the phone call confirmed her acceptance as a member of the United States Army medical unit.
She had hours to pack, take her oath of office and board a train bound for New York for the start of her journey to Europe.
Crighton, of Ecclesmachan in West Lothian, believes she left with a mix of trepidation and excitement. “She missed her family but financially, getting home to Scotland would have been very hard.
“If she served as a nurse on the frontline, she would at some point be entitled to leave and that would mean she could make her way back to Musselburgh to visit.
“I think it all complemented each other – she obviously wanted to serve and she would also have known this was a way of being able to visit her family.”
Helen joined the pioneering medical unit of Chicago’s North Western University Base Hospital #12 on board the troopship USS Mongolia bound for Europe.
It seems her mother Frances had begged her not to go, however letters to her sisters confirmed her mind was made up.
USS Mongolia had regularly crossed the Atlantic transporting food and munitions – later troops – between New York and London. Armed with three six inch guns, and crewed by one officer and 22 enlisted men, she had fired America’s first shot during the First World War on the high seas after a U-boat confrontation in the Channel a few weeks earlier.
Sadly the very same gun would soon fire another shot, one which would have terrible consequences.
A day into their journey, May 20, and the beautiful, calm weather meant it was perfect for the gunners to attempt some target practice.
Helen and around 60 fellow medical personnel gathered on deck to watch, some just feet away from the gun that was waiting to be fired.
Two shots rang out but the third went disastrously wrong. The brass cup of the gun powder container shattered, strafing the deck of the ship with razor sharp metal.
Helen slid out of her chair and collapsed on the deck. First it seemed she may have fainted, closer inspection revealed horrifying wounds to her chest caused by flying shrapnel.
Helen and a fellow nurse were killed instantly, the first official American female military personnel in the history of the United States to be killed while on duty. Another nurse was critically injured.
Word of Helen’s death plunged sisters Annie and Janet into deep grief. “I didn’t want Helen to go, but she said if her brothers could risk their lives for Britain, she could risk hers for America,” Annie told the Chicago Tribune at the time.
The accident sparked anger and outrage in America, where questions were asked over why nurses were allowed to view the target practice and how the shell could have exploded with such devastating consequences.
New Jersey Senator Joseph Frelinghuysen told the US Senate: “It will, Mr President, ever be a cause of unspeakable regret that the first American victims of this war were women, accidentally killed by the firing of guns on an American ship by American gunners”.
And at her lavish funeral at Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery, mourners were invited to contribute money to a fund to help her parents back at 24 High Street, Musselburgh, now deprived of support from the daughter who, of all their children at the time, was the chief wage earner.
Today a small tribute marks Helen’s grave, although efforts have been made by local dignitaries for a grander, military memorial.
While closer to home, Helen’s unusual story is at the heart of a new exhibition at her town museum, The Great War – Musselburgh Remembers – which features various items, pictures and stories about the impact the war had on local families.
A Heritage Lottery Fund grant has enabled a memorial book to be published, containing the name of the 600 fallen of Musselburgh and District.
All have their own tragic story but Helen’s name, says Simon Fairnie of Musselburgh Museum and Heritage Group, stands out, for obvious reasons.
“There are 599 men and one woman – naturally you wonder who this woman was and what was her story.
“Her name is at the top of the war memorial plaque at Northesk Parish Church, the only woman out of around 80 men. Her brother William’s name is the very last name.
“What happened was tragic. Although she was Scottish, she was considered to be an American citizen – and therefore the first American woman to be killed in the First World War. She was given a hero’s burial.
“It’s a fascinating story.”
• The Great War – Musselburgh Remembers at Musselburgh Museum features letters, telegrams, photos and various other material linked to local families affected by First World War. It runs until the beginning of December.
‘It could only have been a dreadful loss’
Times were hard in Musselburgh in the early 1900s. Although there was work in the wire, paper and net mills, on the fishing boats, farms and down the pits, it was still difficult for young women to find work.
And America, the land of opportunity, was tempting.
Helen and her two sisters emigrated. Brothers William and Johnson stayed at home, eventually answering the call to arms with tragic consequences.
After the war, Annie and Janet both remained abroad, leaving just Frank at home to support his aging parents.
He went on to study architecture at Heriot-Watt University and worked with Sir George Washington Browne, whose buildings include the Caledonian Hotel and the Sick Kids hospital. Frank worked with him designing the gates at Holyroodhouse before taking over his own practice.
“Being the one who was left at home may have pushed him on to do well,” says Crighton, whose sister is former GMTV presenter Kathleen Wood and whose brother, Ian, lives in Portobello.
“He never spoke much about his brothers and sisters. However, it could only have been a dreadful loss.”