A Nurse on the Front Lines

By Erika Janik | November 7, 2014


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Helen Bulovsky was a young Madison nurse who went to France in 1918. Working at evacuation hospitals, she served as close to the front lines as a nurse could get, tending to the injured before sending them back to the front lines. She describes her days in letters home to her sister Bess and her mother read by WPR’s Michele Good.

Bulovsky’s papers and photographs are at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. This story is part of the Wisconsin Life series, “Wisconsin in the First World War.”

Helen Bulovsky was born in Madison in 1895. She trained at Madison General Hospital, and after her graduation in October of 1917 practiced as a registered nurse. Bulovsky had a heart defect, which it seems she was aware of, at the point of her enlistment in April 1918. She was assigned to Base Hospital 22 in France. One month later, she transferred to Evacuation Hospital 5, a move that put her as close to the front as a nurse could get.

Helen Bulovsky returned to Madison on March 15, 1919. In 1922 she married Walter Lawrence, but died nine months later, on February 16, 1923.

Letter to her sister Bess, July 1, 1918

Dear Bess,

I can’t see why you have not written to me for such a long time… I know you are busy but now you have not your schoolwork to bother you… I can picture you and mother, sipping coffee and wondering just what I am going and just where I am. Every night before I go to sleep I take an imaginary walk thru our house and I always picture mother and father playing “66” at the kitchen table….

I wish you would send me my big Wisconsin pennant. I think you can put it in a manila envelope and it will go through okay. We want something to make our room look cozy. I wish we had a few pictures to put up. Four bare walls in the woods make one feel blue, worst that ails me.

August 7, 1918, France

Dear Mother,

We are advancing toward the front with the boys and each day and night seem more like hell. I am getting tired and lonely and there seems to be no one to tell my troubles to and the only answer to my weariness is the groan of the wounded boys around me…. We are living in an awful mess, we are surrounded by mud and water….. I wish you could see me now. You wouldn’t want to claim me…

I am still on night duty …Last night they operated on sixty-five so you see we are busy… There isn’t much we can do for the boys here except keep their dressings clean, keep them warm and give them hypodermics. They stay here only 24 hrs or less and they move on and we get new ones….

Sept 3, 1918, near the front

Dear Bess,

We are following the 32nd division, which has all our Wisconsin boys in it. I ask all the nurses if any of their patients are from Madison. One said she had one and I went to see and it was Ralph Tracy. He has a sore finger and that was all…

We are always moved to devastated villages or out in the woods…I have watched a few air battles during the day. I am on day duty and all I get a chance to do is order supplies and do dressings. You can’t imagine what awful dressings we have to do. Yesterday I worked so hard that after the doctors’ left I cried – I really don’t know what for, but I couldn’t help it…. There is nothing but ruins and patients to see by day and listen to the banging of the guns of the heavy artillery by night. I have gotten so that I can sleep through it all. I am trying to write this letter in the ward and believe me, it’s a job. I write one word and give a hypodermic and write another and someone wants a drink….

October 16, 1918

Dear Mother,

Madison certainly must be a blue place now that they are notified of the mortalities. We all sympathize with them but the Lord knows we are doing all there is. …The most pathetic thing I hurry against is when the boys wake up from ether and find that an arm or leg has been amputated but like soldiers they bear it bravely.

Erika Janik

Erika Janik

Erika Janik is the co-creator and former executive director of Wisconsin Life. She is the author of six books, including Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, Apple: A Global History, and  Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. She’s currently the executive...

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