Patients and staff at Base Hospital 41, Christmas 1918. Prints22143, Historical Collections, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.
Four years after the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, the first post-WWI Christmas was a season of mixed emotion. Coming quickly on the heels of the November 11th Armistice, the holidays of 1918 were a time when relief and celebration for the end of the war were mingled with sorrow from the physical and emotional wounds that remained.
In both World War I and II, the University of Virginia supported the war effort by sponsoring medical units staffed by UVA medical and nursing graduates, faculty, and volunteers from within and outside the University community. The first of these units, Base Hospital 41 stationed in St. Denis, France, arrived only three months before the end of WWI, but stayed in operation through January 1919 as the hospital continued to care for patients and the buildings were gradually converted from hospital wards and operating rooms back into the classrooms and dormitories of a French boarding school.
On Christmas Day 1918, nurses and enlisted personnel entertained patients with a minstrel show that featured comedy skits, music by a seven-piece orchestra, and renditions of songs like “Keep the Home Fires Burning” and “There’s a Lump of Sugar Down in Dixie.” Patient Everett Oertel, an Army Private from Wisconsin, wrote to his parents of the minstrel show, praising the nurses and orderlies for their performances (and the Christmas fudge). Oertel describes holiday decorations of flowers and holly and generous gifts from the Red Cross, including a Christmas tree and for each patient “a sock containing nuts, cigarettes, tobacco, candy, figs, an orange and a mate to the sock.” 
A photograph from the CMHSL Base Hospital 41 Collection shows patients and staff on one of the hospital wards in the midst of holiday festivities. A trombone player and Christmas tree topped with an American flag can be seen in the background of the image, but the contrast of holiday decorations and revelry with the somberness of recovering patients creates a slightly eerie scene. That Christmas the unit was surrounded by reminders of the permanent loss caused by the war, even as they celebrated the holidays and looked forward to their return home in the new year. Base Hospital 41 observed Christmas by “adopting” two local children whose father was killed in combat and collecting donations for Yvonne (6) and Georges (7).  They also remembered the five men from their own unit who lost their lives during the war.
Though their period of service was relatively brief, the men and women of Base Hospital 41 endured hardships, made lifelong friends, and cared for thousands of patients throughout their time overseas. The documents, photographs, and artifacts that make up the Base Hospital 41 Collection offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a military hospital and provide unique reflections of the merriment and grief that were experienced as the hospital observed Christmas following the end of the Great War.
1. Everett Oertel Letters qtd. in Lengel, E.G. (2001). University of Virginia Base Hospital 41. Magazine of Albemarle County History 59, 22.
2. B.H. 41 Becomes Godfather. (1919). Between Convoys 2, 1. Base Hospital 41 Collection MS-17: 02/002.
- Credit: Emily Bowden, CMHSL Historical Collections & Services