Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The First to Die

There is an old church located in Musselburgh, Scotland, that was opened in 1838. It is a simple building designed by William Burn. Inside, there is an “all round horseshoe gallery under a high vaulted ceiling.” The church has seven stained glass windows, and a brass eagle lectern. It also contains an Abbott and Smith two-manual pipe organ from 1904. This is the Northesk Church located on Bridge Street in Musselburgh.

I am particularly interested in a World War One Memorial plaque located at the entrance of the church. The first name on this Roll of Honor is Nurse Helen B. Wood and the last name is PTE. William Wood. In the 1901 census the Wood family lived at 34 Hircus Loan, Musselburgh. Nellie (whom I will assume is Helen) was 12. Her mother, Frances, is 33 years old and her father, John, is 52.

Sometime after the 1901 census, Helen emigrated to Evanston, Illinois with her sisters: Annie, Janet, and Mary. William was 4 at the time of the census and would later die as a member of the Royal Scots on June 28, 1915, fighting at Gallipoli. Frank was only 1 and he would be seriously wounded fighting in France. In total there were 7 children, 4 girls and 3 boys ranging in age from 1 to 12. All of the girls came to America - all the boys remained in Scotland.

The girl’s life in Evanston is somewhat unclear but we know that Helen attended nursing school at Northwestern and became a nurse at Evanston hospital. In Evanston, Helen and her sister Janet lived with Mr. and Mrs. James Hall at 2044 Sheridan Rd. Mrs. Mary B. Miller, a great aunt lived at 1578 Sherman Avenue in Evanston.

While working at Evanston hospital, Janet met and cared for Mrs. James A. Patten. They became personal friends and after Janet’s death, Mrs. Patten gave an address at the First Methodist Episcopal church about Janet’s life and work. Mrs. Patten was so affected by her death that she refused to allow newspaper men into the hall where she spoke.

As America drew closer to war in 1916, medical units were formed across the country. Northwestern University Medical School formed what officially was known as U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 12 (Chicago Unit.) The unit was composed of 23 doctors, 2 dentists, 65 nurses and 153 enlisted men. Northwestern students formed 75% of the enlisted men. After the war, most of the Northwestern students returned to the University. Some were pre-med students who would later graduate from the University’s Medical School. “Two of the unit’s commanding officers became Surgeon General of the U. S. Army.” Base Hospital #12 would form again for World War II.

Unit 12 left Evanston for New York City on May 16, 1917. The Tribune reports that “The enlisted men marched away from Patten Gym with baggage, suitcases and all kinds of bundles, amid great singing, Rah! Rah’s and goodbyes from the students. They all piled on the Evanston El and got off at Union Station and then headed by train to New York and the SS Mongolia.” On May 19, 1917, the SS Mongolia sailed for Europe, “so quickly and secretly that the enlisted men boarded the transport ship in civilian clothing. Uniforms were issued at sea.”

When they were 100 miles at sea a tragedy happened that would make Miss Helen B. Wood the first American casualty of the war. Helen and her friend Edith Ayers, along with many others, were seated on the upper deck watching the gun crews practice firing. One of the guns exploded and Helen and her friend Edith were instantly killed. The ship returned to New York.

At Union Station in Chicago, her body was met with a delegation and she was escorted to her home in Evanston. (Edith Ayers was taken to her home in Attica, Ohio.) “Friends requested that rather than flowers donations be sent to her aging parents in Scotland.”

On May 26, 1917, the body was escorted to the church by the Navy band, 50 blue jackets from the Great Lakes training Center and 50 automobiles. (I don’t know the significance of the number fifty.) Services were held in the First Presbyterian church in Evanston. Outside the church stood an honor guard of 50 nurses dressed in white, 50 students from Northwestern University wearing black gowns and black caps, 50 nurses from Evanston hospital and 25 uniformed members of the Grand Army of the Republic. (These veterans of the Civil War would be getting quite elderly by 1917.)

After an impressive service, her body was escorted to Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago for burial. The procession contained 50 automobiles. She is buried not far from The Rock of Chickamauga Memorial which some of you may remember from our history tours. There is a small marker on her site. A distant cousin who lives in the U.K. has recently contacted us about his desire to raise money for a monument to Helen B. Wood. There is no known evidence that Miss Wood was a citizen of the U.S. A

A Scottish girl, serving from America, becomes the first official member of the military killed in the line of duty in World War I. Rest in Peace.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society

Next meeting of the Scottish American History Club is November 3, 2012.

The Scottish American History Club is part of the Arts and Culture Division of the Illinois Saint Andrew’s Society/Chicago Scots. Click here for more Society information.


  1. Thank you for sharing this moving moment in history. May Miss Wood rest in peace and I am thankful for her contribution during difficult war.

  2. What a dreadful accident. Next time I am passing Northesk Church I will think of Helen. Jo