A Nurse Hero of WWI: Elma Irene Groves of Lodi Wisconsin (1888-1918)

Photograph of nurse Elma I. Groves who died in France during WWI. Courtesy of her 2nd great-niece, Kathy Steckelberg. Used here with permission.

As my readers know, I rarely write about people who do not have a New Hampshire connection. In this particular case the 2nd great-niece of a nurse who died in service during WWI contacted me, and I agreed to write about Elma Irene Groves of Lodi, Wisconsin.

Nurses “run in my family,” so how could I possibly refuse? I have written stories about several other WWI nurses who made the ultimate sacrifice.  This is also the case in this story.

Elma Irene Groves was born 16 June 1888 in Lodi, Columbia Co., Wisconsin, the daughter of Frank W. & Emma A. (Herr) Groves.  She was a “middle child”– one of 7 born to the Grove family.   She died 101 years ago today (this story being posted 19 October 2019). [Editor’s note: Today also happens to be my mother’s birthday.  She would be 100 years old if she were alive today.]

Photo of Elma I. Groves, American nurse of WWI, died and buried in France. Courtesy of her 2nd great-niece Kathy Steckelberg. Used with permission.

The definition of a hero in most dictionaries, is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” Elma I. Groves fully understood the danger of what she faced, as no doubt it had been explained during her training.  This is one way when she exhibited courage in addition to her noble quality of volunteering for this dangerous work (nurses were not subject to military draft).

The U.S. Army Transport Service records show that Elma Groves was among 100 nurses transported on the ship Megantic that left New York City on 8 September 1918, at the height of the influenza epidemic among military personnel, bound for England. Among the passengers were soldiers of the 172nd Infantry Brigade, officers of the 343rd Infantry 86th Division, and soldiers of the 344th Infantry, 86th Division. There is no doubt that some of these passengers were already carriers of influenza.

Elma’s 2nd great-niece provided me with a few entries from the diary she kept from her days of training, through her trip across the Atlantic and at her hospital station in France.  The first entry was obviously written while above the Megantic /or/ on a ship later  transporting her from England to France.

[Diary entry by Elma I. Groves] Thursday, September 19 [1918]
“Woke up to a terrible pitching and rolling. The old timbers of the boat just creaked. Went up on deck awhile but no breakfast or lunch. Boat got quieter as the day went on. Slept from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 P.M. Went up on deck and had tea. Had my fortune told by Miss Wiest in the P.M. She reads the palm. Serious illness while in France. Will be decorated. Come home & marry.”

Photo: Convalescent soldiers outside of No 8 General Hospital at Rouen in France. 1918. Australian War Memorial. [Note: this is the hospital where Elma Groves died.]

Sadly part of that fortune teller’s prediction would not come true. Her 2nd-great niece stated (and this is corroborated by other documents) that Elma Groves was assigned to Lakeside [Unit] (U.S.A.) General Hospital Number 9, four miles south-east of Rouen, France, arriving there on October 11 [1918]. Elma was suffering from a cold, so she was not permitted to work in the hospital wards. Instead, on October 16, she was sent to General Hospital Number 8 (B. E. F.), where sick nurses were sent to recuperate. She was diagnosed with influenza, but at the time was not considered seriously ill.

Another entry in her diary of Monday, October 14 [1918]: “Another idle day. Miss Folkeuer called us to her office tonight and asked us if we were ready for work. She won’t let me go on duty until I am over my cold. From now on I shall devote my time to getting better. All the girls but Kelly and I are on duty now. Went out for a walk and found the canteen. It’s not like our American ones.

However, Elma’s condition rapidly deteriorated and four days after her last diary entry, she died at the British Expeditionary Force hospital [General Hospital No. 8 near Rouen, France] on October 19, 1918.  She was 30 years old.

Photo: Beds line either side of a ward in No 8 General Hospital (B.E.F.). This is a ward in the hospital where Elma Groves died. Australian War Memorial.

A Wisconsin newspaper article of November 1918 reported: Particulars of Miss Elma Groves’ Death Come From France — Mr. and Mrs. Frank W. Groves have received a letter from France telling them of the illness and death of their daughter, Miss Elma Groves, Red Cross nurse, which occurred on the 19th of October. The Enterprise asked permission to publish the letter as of interest to the many friends of the young woman who sacrificed her life in the interests of humanity. The letter was written Oct. 22d, and mailed from Lakeside (U.S.A.) General Hospital No. 9, in France, and is as follows: “Dear Mr. Groves.–It is with deep regret that I have to write to you of the death of your daughter, Miss Elma Groves, on the 19th of October, at 1 p.m. in the General Hospital No. 8, B.E.F. Miss Groves came to this hospital No. 9 on the 11th of October to be attached here for service. She arrived from Base Hospital No 86, A.E.F., with a detachment of twenty new nurses. She was suffering from a slight cold at the time of her arrival, and was never on duty at the hospital. She reported ill and the medical officer saw her at once and advised that she be sent to No. 8 hospital where all the nurses go who are ill. It is in this area, only the other side of the city. She left on the 16th and after her arrival there her case was diagnosed as influenza. At no time was she considered seriously ill. She seemed to improve after a few days there. On the morning of the 19th the matron of the hospital visited her and she said that she felt dizzy and had a queer feeling in her arm, but she had no fever at that time, and until 12 o’clock seemed in good condition. She suddenly became unconscious and remained so until the time of her death at one o’clock. The cause of her death is unknown, and was unanticipated because of her seemingly good condition.

WWI soldier playing taps; poster from WWI, Library of Congress, Washington DC.

The news came as a great shock to Miss Flockemer, the chief nurse at this hospital, and she wishes me to express her sorrow and deep sympathy, in which all the staff at the hospital share. Miss Groves was buried at two o’clock yesterday afternoon, the 21st, with full military honors, and her funeral was attended by representatives from all the hospitals in this area. No 12 General Hospital is staffed by the St. Louis Unit, and our hospital by the Cleveland Unit. There are many American nurses attached to the British hospitals, and we all felt a desire to pay what tribute we could to a nurse who had died in the service far from home. The English were also most sympathetic in their expression of sorrow and regret for the American nurse who died in their midst. There were about forty nurses gathered about the grave when the cortege approached. Six sergeants from this hospital acted as pall-bearers, carrying the flag-covered casket on their shoulders, eight officers also from this hospital acted as honorary pallbearers. They were preceded by our commanding officer, Major Bunts, the British deputy district medical supervisor, Col. Meek, and Col. Elder. The chaplain, Dr. Van Meter, read the burial service, and Padre Boyce offered a prayer. A detachment of British soldiers fired three rounds, as for an officer, and the bugler blew the “last post” while every man stood at salute. It was a most impressive and touching sight. I stayed until the grave had been filled and the cross with her name and number, 7731, was in place, and the flowers of which there was a profusion, were entirely covering it.

I am enclosing the cards from the different wreaths sent, and have written on the back of each the kind of flowers. Miss Rannie, whose card is among the others, is the assistant principle matron of the British Nursing staff in France. The grave is in Plot 1, Block R, Row J, of the St. Sever cemetery. Miss Flockemer has directed me to say that Miss Groves’ trunk had been lost and did not arrive here with her. It will be traced, and that, with her personal effects here, will be sent to you by the Quartermasters Department. If there is anything further that I can tell you, or find out for you I shall only be too glad to do so. With the expression of my own deep sympathy to you and the other members of your family, I am, Sincerely yours, MARY V. McABEE. Home Communication Service.

The cards from the different wreathes, referred to above, show the following tributes: The nurses of base hospital 21, Large wreath of white and dark yellow chrysanthemums. From a comrade–Large wreath of violet chrysanthemums. In sorrowful sympathy form the nursing staff 6th general hospital–Cross, white chrysanthemums and pink carnations. From the officers at No. 9 general hospital–Cross of white roses, chrysanthemums and violet chrysanthemums. From the matron and staff of Sick Sisters hospital–Spray of violet and white chrysanthemums. From matron and the sisters No. 9 general hospital–Large wreath of white roses, white chrysanthemums and pansies. From Red Cross at No. 9 general hospital–Bouquet of pink roses and heliotrope, chrysanthemums with tri-colored ribbon. With deep sympathy, Miss Ramile, matron–Spray of violet and white chrysanthemums and oak leaves.” 

[Editor’s Note: Why chrysanthemums? you might be thinking. Not many flowers are still in bloom at this time of year in France, but chrysanthemums are still flowering in autumn.  In 1919 on the first anniversary of the World War armistice, “then-President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau ordered that all graves in France be decorated with flowers” instead of the usual lit candles. In France these flowers are often the floral of choice, now associated with immortality and longevity. ]  Mr. and Mrs. Groves have been greatly comforted by the receipt of letters of condolence from former associates, teachers and patients of their daughter–all testifying to the enthusiasm and ability with which she pursued her work; the cheer she imparted to her patients through the sunshine of her smile; and her ever sacrificing spirit.

Old postcard of Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, WI where Elma Groves attended school.

As for Elma Grove’s education and career prior to her service, a newspaper dated 29 Nov 1918 says this: “After a district school education she entered Wayland Academy at Beaven Dam [Wisconsin] graduating in 1908. In the fall of that year she entered upon a course of training at the Madison general hospital [Madison WI] graduating as a nurse in 1910. She did private nursing for six years. In the spring of 1916 she took a special course at the University of Wisconsin clinic, after which she held the position for one year as physical examiner for the N.W. Electric Co. of Chicago. In June, 1918, she began nursing at Camp Grant, IL where she worked until her departure for France in September last.”

When WWI ended, the United States created several national monuments and cemeteries in Europe, and Elma Groves’ remains were moved from St. Severs at Rouen and interred in Plot A, Row 19, Grave 4 at Somme American Cemetery near Bony (Aisne), France.  In addition, a cenotaph stone was erected to Elma in the Groves family plot at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Lodi, Wisconsin. Her marker reads: “Elma I., Dau. of/F. W. & E. A. Groves/1888-1918/U.S.A. Nurse Corps/Rests in France.”  From 1923-1927 (and perhaps later) a number of books were donated to the Lodi Public Library in Elma’s memory by her family.

Elma is the only woman listed on Lodi’s Veteran’s Memorial Monument. The monument was dedicated on Veteran’s Day in 1999.

*****ADDITIONAL READING*****

Dane County [Wisconsin] in the World War, from Southwestern Wisconsin: A History of Old Crawford County, by John G. Gregory, 1932. Hathi Trust.

===========================================
===PARTIAL GENEALOGY OF ELMA IRENE GROVES===

Samuel [b 1747] & Elizabeth (Fassett) Groves of London & Berkshire Co. England
[see Ancestry tree for details on this family – a paid subscription site]

Francis [b 1774] & Elizabeth (Oaldes) Groves of Berkshire Co. England

William [b 1794] & Mary (Perkins) Groves of Berkshire Co. England

William Groves, son of William & Mary (Perkins) Groves, b. 3 May 1816 Devon, England, baptized 9 June 1816 in Upton Pyne, Devon, England; d. 3 May 1874 in Wisconsin; He m. Susanna “Susan” Stevens, daughter of Charles & Mary Stephens/Stevens. She b. 23 May 1822 in England, christened 23 July 1822 in Arborfield, Berkshire, England; d. 21 June 1887 Wisconsin.  He immigrated with his wife and two children between December of 1848 and June of 1850, residing in Dane, Dane Co. Wisconsin. William’s brother Samuel and family immigrated to the same place.  They were part of the British Temperance Immigration Society.
——
1860 US Census > Wisconsin > Dane > Dane
William Groves 44 b England, Farmer
Susan Groves 38 b England
Elisbath Groves 11
Martha Groves 5
Frank Groves 3
——
Children of William & Susan (Stevens) Groves:
1. John Grove b 28 March 1846 Dorset England, d. 19 June 1850 Lodi, WI
2. Elizabeth Mary “Lizzie” Groves b Dec 1848 England, d. March 1891 South Dakota; m. John L. Boyer
3. William Groves b 1852 d 1852 Lodi WI
4. Martha Jane Groves b 16 Oct 1854 Dane Co. WI; d. 10 July 1922 in Kennewick Washington; m. George P. Chapin
5. +Frank William Groves, b. 1856 Dane Co., Wisconsin
6. Susan Groves b 8 Sep 1860 Dane WI, d. 1902 Lodi WI.

Frank William Groves, son of William and Susan (Stevens) Groves, b 9 November 1856 in Dane, Dane Co. Wisconsin, d 3 November 1931 in Madison WI; He m. 1 March 1879 in Roxbury WI to Emma Amelia Herr, daughter of Martin & Emma Herr. She b. 5 June 1859 in Roxbury, Dane Co. WI., d 1923 in Lodi WI. They are buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Lodi WI.
—–
1900 US Census > Wisconsin > Columbia > Lodi
Frank W Groves 43
Emma Groves 41
Vera B Groves 19
Raymond W Groves 17
Susie A Groves 13
*Elma I Groves 12
Lerna M Groves 9
William F Groves 5
Harold Groves 2
—–
Children of Frank & Emma (Herr) Groves
1. Vera B. Groves, b June 1880 Wisconsin; m. 15 June 1909 in Lamar, Prowers, Colorado to William D. O’Neil; She d. 21 Feb 1959 in Madison, Wisconsin.
2. Raymond Wayland Groves, b 27 Aug 1887 Lodi. Wisconsin, d. 10 Dec 1963 in Oneonta NY. He married Bertha A. Licht. Buried Oneonta Plains Cemetery, Oneonta, Otsego Co. NY
3. Susan A. “Susie” Groves, b 23 Dec 1886, died 12 September 1974 Madison Wisconsin
4. Elma I. Groves — this story is about her.  See top of page.
5. Leona/Lerna M. Groves, b 17 Aug 1890 Lodi WI, d. 4 May 1972 Prairie du Sak WI; She m. Albert Steckelberg. Buried Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Lodi, Columbia Co. Wisconsin
6. William F. Groves, b. 1893, d. 1963; married Amy Loper. Buried Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Lodi, WI
7. Harold Martin Groves, b. 3 Oct 1897 Lodi, Columbia WI; d. 1969. He married Helen Hoopes. Buried Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Lodi, WI.

[end]

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6 Responses to A Nurse Hero of WWI: Elma Irene Groves of Lodi Wisconsin (1888-1918)

  1. Kathy Steckelberg says:

    Thank you for writing about my great-great aunt! My family has always been very proud of Elma and her service to her country. I appreciate the new details and photographs you found in your research.

  2. Pingback: 100 Years Ago: “Gold Star Women” Nurses of World War I | Cow Hampshire

  3. Theodore Groves says:

    I also thank you for writing about my great-aunt. Growing up in Madison, I was always intrigued seeing her memorial stone in the Lodi cemetery. In 2016 I visited the Somme American Cemetery and saw her grave. The cemetery superintendent had placed a large framed picture at her grave site and we decorated the grave with red poppies. The superintendent told me they were accumulating the life stories of the soldiers (and four nurses, I believe) who were buried there and was very pleased to receive a copy of Elma’s diary (that Kathy had transcribed), photos, and other writings about Elma in the Groves family archives that I gave him. I’m sure he (or his successor) would be happy to include your lovely blog post about Elma, especially as it contains a lot of details that I had never heard before. Thank you!

  4. Amy says:

    Such a very sad story, made sadder after hearing her voice through her diary.

  5. Vera Barnes Knoll says:

    What a wonderful and detailed story. We here at home really have no idea of the situation back then, and this history is so useful!!

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