YARDLEY BOROUGH >> On the 100th anniversary of her death, a handful of people gathered in the solitude of the graveyard at St. Andrew’s Church to remember Miriam E. Knowles who died while serving her country during the Great War.
The event was organized by Retired US Army Chief Warrant Officer Mike Werner, the historian for American Legion Post 317 and VFW Post 6393. Werner spent hours researching the background and history of Knowles for Post 317, which was named in her memory after its formation in the 1920s.
Knowles, who grew up on North Main Street and was the daughter of prominent Yardley businessman and banker Thomas C. Knowles, was very popular in town and prominent in the community’s social circles, said Werner. She attended Yardley High School and went on to graduate from George School and then Wellesley College.
“After graduating from Wellesley, she decided to serve humanity as a nurse,” said Werner.
In 1913 she entered the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in Baltimore graduating in 1916. She briefly went into private practice until war broke out on April 4, 1917 between the United States and Germany.
Werner said Knowles was one of the first to answer the call, enlisting in the Johns Hopkins Unit of the US Army Nurse Corps. And on June 14 the 64 member unit under the leadership of Chief Nurse Bessie Baker boarded a transport ship, the USS Finland, bound for France.
Quoting from an article, Werner said, “Miriam was an enthusiastic member of the Johns Hopkins unit interested in her work and devoted to her patients and they to her. Each day in her round of duties she seemed to find another reason why she was glad to be considered among the first on duty in France ready to serve her country.”
Five months after arriving in France Knowles contracted scarlet fever and died on Nov. 12, 1917 at the age of 27, one week short of her 28th birthday.
Quoting Bessie Baker, Werner said, “We had thought her ordinary ill up to the fifth day when we realized she was desperately ill. At 4 p.m. she died. It seemed very hard to us that they should have gone through all these months of pioneer work and be taken just as work commenced,” said Werner, noting that just about the time she passed the real battle casualties were starting to come in. “She was certainly a cheerful willing worker and her patients were all devoted to her and she seemed to enjoy the work so much.”
Knowles was buried in a small cemetery not far from the hospital near the French town of Bazoilles.
“Simple, but impressive ceremonies were conducted,” said Werner. “Every possible honor was shown her as she was laid to rest by those who had learned to know and appreciate her for who she was - a loyal friend, a devoted and conscientious nurse who had given her life for her country.”
Her body was eventually repatriated back to the United States and buried at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Yardley where she now rests next to her parents and her sister, Mary.
Ironically her body was returned home on the same ship that took her to France - the USS Finland. On the same boat was the body of another nurse who served with Knowles, Ginny Bellman, who died exactly one year to the day after Knowles, said Ellouise Schoettler of Chevy Chase, Maryland, who also addressed the gathering.
For the past three years, Schoettler, a professional storyteller has shared the story of the 64 nurses, including Knowles, in a program called “Ready to Serve.”
“I first learned of Miriam through her obituary. I have since come to know her and all of them. They are such women to be proud of,” she said.
Schoettler brought with her a letter from Patricia Davidson, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing, applauding Werner and the local post for remembering and honoring Miriam on the 100th anniversary of her death.
“Miriam Knowles and others like her answered the call from their country to care for the wounded who needed professional nursing,” Davidson wrote. “She reflected the best of what the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing has stood for since it opened before the turn of the 19th century. We’re proud of her and all the nurses who served in the Great War as well as all the men and women who have served and are currently serving to protect our country.”
According to Schoettler, the base hospital in France where Miriam and the other nurses were serving was quite extensive. And it was staffed by the best doctors, surgeons and nurses.
“The nurses were in the Army. They are known today as being the beginning of the military force of women in uniform ... They had no rank. That is something to think about,” she said.
“They were serving, wearing a uniform and they were treated like young foot soldiers,” she said. “They lived a very tough life. They never complained,” she said. “They came to help the boys, not to complain about what they got.
“But as soon as they got back home the letters started flying and they had the support of all the doctors,” she said. “Because In the service, if you don’t have rank you have no authority. They knew that to get better jobs later they would need that rank.”
Schoettler thanked Werner for his research and everyone involved in putting together the event “because now we have more of her story to tell.”
Werner surprised Schoettler with a framed photograph taken of the Johns Hopkins Nursing School Class of 1916 and a photograph of Miriam Knowles.
In the 1920s, Yardley Legionnaires paid Miriam the ultimate tribute, naming their post in her memory. The Knowles-Doyle American Legion Post 317 also bears the name of 22-year-old Corporal Eddie Doyle who was killed in France on Dec. 7, 1918. His remains were never recovered.
The Post is one of only two in the nation named in memory of a U.S. Army nurse.
“This was very meaningful for us as a Legion,” said American Legion Commander Ted Smith. He called it “a once in a lifetime event honoring one of two military heroes whose names are attached to our post.”
Added VFW Post 6393 Commander Russ Davidson, “The thing to understand is how these women went forward with a sense of duty and not knowing the obstacles before them, not knowing the support behind them and certainly not understanding what the demands would be placed upon them.
“But still, like so many, they went forward and like so many Americans today they still go forward,” said Davidson.
“We can all thank people like Miriam, all our foremothers and forefathers, and people who went before us to set the path so that we can continue on and that future generations will understand the legacy that has been written and upheld and celebrate that.”