Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, January 19, 2018

Dorothea and Gladys Cromwell: The Horrors of War

Dorothea and Gladys Cromwell, World War I nurses (died 19 January 1919)


Twins Dorothea and Gladys Cromwell were born in Brooklyn, New York, on 28 November 1886, the daughters of a wealthy businessman, Frederic Cromwell, and his wife, Esther Whitmore Husted. (Frederic had interests in railroad and gas companies "among other corporations"--he also was a trustee and then treasurer for Mutual Life Insurance of New York--while Esther was herself the daughter of a "well-known businessman and street railroad president of Brooklyn.")

Thus born into wealth and privilege, the twin girls were educated at Brearley School, a private school founded by Samuyel A. Brearley  and designed designed to "provide young women with an education comparable to that available to their brothers."

The sisters inherited a fortune after their father's death in 1887, purchasing an apartment in New York on Park Avenue. Gladys also began publishing poetry, despite the objections of her family, who thought that publication violated the family's privacy. Her poems appeared in Poetry magazine (1917, 1918), and she published a collection, The Gates of Utterance and Other Poems, in 1915.

In January 1918, Dorothea and Glady joined the Canteen Service of the Red Cross, sailing for France and the battlefields of the Great War. They were stationed at Chalon-sur-Marne and Verdun, serving in the canteen but also, apparently, as nurses.
American Red Cross canteen workers, 1918
(Gladys Cromwell, second from left; Dorothea, far right)

About their service in France, biographer Anne Dunne wrote:
For eight months they worked under fire on long day and night shifts; their free time was filled with volunteer outside service; they slept in “caves” or under trees in a field; they suffered from the exhaustion that is so acute to those who have never known physical labor; yet no one suspected until the end came that for many months they have believed their work a failure, and their efforts futile.
The inhabitants of Chalons reportedly regarded them as "the saints" and "twin angels," while those who worked with them "loved and admired" the sisters for their bravery and their "tireless and efficient labor." In October, the two requested a transfer to an evacuation hospital, where they would be able to work with American soldiers. Dunne notes that the two had already begun to exhibit "signs of mental breakdown," worn out by their work and shocked by the "horrors" of the conditions of the front.

Nevertheless, they decided to remain in France after the Armistice on 11 November 1918, and they returned to Chalons. But, urged by their brother, Seymour, to return home, they ultimately agreed to back to the United States, sailing on the SS La Lorraine on 19 January 1919, leaving from Bordeaux.

New York Times headline,
reporting deaths of
Cromwell sisters,
25 January 1919
That same night, according to later witnesses, the two went out onto the "windy, cold decks"  and briefly joined hands. They separated, and each climbed on the railing and then slipped off the boat and into the water. 

Although the ship turned around, and those on board searched for the Cromwell sisters, their bodies were not recovered until 20 March. Their brother, Seymour, refused at first to believe that his sisters had committed suicide--he believed that they had had missed the Lorraine and were traveling on another ship--but the Lorraine's captain reported that the two were not on board and that their luggage was in their room, as were suicide notes addressed to their Red Cross supervisor, their brother, their sister-in-law, and a friend. The letters confirmed their shared intention to end their lives.

Dorothea and Glady were buried in the Surennes American Cemetery in France, with the two being awarded the Croix de Guerre on 22 March 1919--the medal was an honor awarded to those who had performed heroic acts during a time of war.

The next year, on 13 March, the sisters were honored with the Médaille de la Reconnaissance française, the Medal of French Gratitude. It was awarded with «gratitude portée à toutes les initiatives individuelles ou collectives, qui se sont manifestées en France, chez les Alliés et dans le monde entier, pour venir en aide aux blessés, aux malades, aux familles de militaires tués au combat, aux mutilés, aux invalides, aux aveugles, aux orphelins et aux populations chassées et ruinées par l’invasion» ("gratitude for all the individual or collective initiatives, for those who have come forward in France, both with the Allies and throughout the world, to come to the aid of the wounded, the sick, the families of soldiers killed in combat, the disabled, the blind, the orphans and the populations driven out and ruined by the invasion").

A second book by Gladys Cromwell, Poems, was published posthumously. Dunne's biographical essay is at the end of this collection.

I first came across a reference to the Cromwell sisters in Vivien Newman's They Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War, a good introduction to the numbers of ways women participated in the war.

In order to commemorate the one-hundredth year anniversary of the First World War, Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery (now a National Historical Landmark), began the publication of biographies those who fought in WWI and who were interred at the cemetery. Although Gladys and Dorothea are not buried there, biographies of both women are included, and a cenotaph erected in their family's lot now commemorates their lives and deaths. To read their entries in the "Biographies of World War W Veterans," click here. An essay by Jeff Richman, "A Twin Tragedy," is also posted at the Green-Wood site (available by clicking here).

If you have access to the New York Times archives, the disappearance and deaths of the Cromwell sisters is widely reported there, useful primary-source accounts of the tragedy. The 1919 Expository Times, while reviewing Gladys Cromwell's posthumous publication, also includes biographical information

Updated 24 October 2018: To remove uncredited images and to add reference to Green-Wood Cemetery project commemorating World War I veterans, including the Cromwell sisters.