Flag flown over US Capitol hung in Scots church in honour of WW1 nurse

An American flag that was recently flown over the US Capitol building in honour of a Scottish nurse has been sent to her home town to mark Remembrance Sunday.

Helen Burnett Wood, one of the first members of an American unit killed during the First World War, will be commemorated during a special service at Northesk Parish Church in Musselburgh, East Lothian today.

Alastair Knowles
Bugler Alastair Knowles will perform the Last Post and Taps - a call played at US remembrance events - during the service.

She was the daughter of John S and Francis Wood of Mall Avenue and is named on the church's war memorial along with her younger brother, William, who was killed while serving with the 5th Royal Scots at Gallipoli in 1915.

Born in 1888, Helen emigrated to Evanston near Chicago in Illinois in 1909 when she was 21 and worked as a telephone operator for a spell before training to be a nurse.

The eldest of six children, she volunteered to serve with U.S Army Base Hospital Number 12, a unit largely comprised of Northwestern University students, alumni, and faculty staff, and was deployed to France in May, 1917.

 Helen Wood
Helen Burnett Wood was born in Portobello, Edinburgh and raised in nearby Musselburgh. Image courtesy of Evanston History Centre

Helen, who had red golden hair and a cheery smile, was aboard the SS Mongolia along with other American medical personnel when a tragic accident happened the day after it left New York.

One of the ship's guns exploded during a practice drill, sending a shower of shrapnel across the deck which killed the 29-year-old Scot and fellow Army nurse, Edith Ayres.

News of her death on the 20th of May, 1917 was later reported in the Scotsman and her sister Annie, who also emigrated to the US, told a Chicago newspaper: "I didn't want Helen to go, but she said if her brothers could risk their lives for Britain, she could risk hers for America."

Buried in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, Helen's sacrifice and that of all the men named on the church war memorial has been recorded on special cards which will be handed out to people attending the service.

It will be led by US-born Rev Hayley Cohen, minister of Northesk Parish Church, and elder Alastair Knowles, will play the "Last Post" and "Taps" - calls played at British and US military remembrance ceremonies - on the bugle.

The 75-year-old has played the instrument at local Remembrance events since he was 13 years old.

Northesk Parish Church War memorial
Helen Wood's name is the first on Northesk Parish Church's war memorial and her brother's name is the last. Another sibling, Johnson, was badly wounded during the First World War.

Ms Cohen said: "Helen moved to America when she was around the same age that I was when I first moved to Scotland but she left home in a time when a simple FaceTime call wasn't an option.

"I can only imagine the mixture of excitement and trepidation that she felt as she left her family for a new adventure abroad.

"Since she trained as a nurse, I would imagine that Helen had quite a servant heart, a desire to heal and help others so when the war came, it makes sense that she would volunteer her services."


Ms Cohen, who grew up in New Jersey, said the 85 people named on the church's war memorial serve as a reminder of the "sacrificial love" of Jesus, who said there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends.

"In the pandemic, it is perhaps easier for us to identify with the sheer sense of loss and grief that families during World War I, World War II and subsequent conflicts faced," she added.

"We can identify with the concerns over the safety and well-being of loved ones, especially when we think of all those front-line services and key workers who risk their lives for the sake of others.

"I hope that reflecting on our own losses and the sacrifices made in the pandemic give us a greater sense of connection to all those we pause to remember and we recommit ourselves to the work of peace in our world so that no generation experiences such loss again."

Rev Hayley Cohen left the USA to emigrate to Scotland when she was around the same age as Helen Wood who travelled in the opposite direction.

The American flag in memory of Helen Wood was flown above the US Capitol building in Washington DC this autumn at the behest of the Evanston History Centre as part of activity leading up to the centennial of the commemoration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Its director of education is Jenny Thompson who teamed up with Simon Fairnie, a local historian and member of Northesk Parish Church, to arrange for it to be sent to Musselburgh and he sent her a Saltire flag in return.

"As one of the very first American casualties during the First World War, a woman who volunteered to serve and an immigrant to the US, Helen Wood's story resonates more and more each passing year," said Ms Thompson.

"We have been fascinated by her story for many years and we wanted to do more to connect our two towns and explore the history that unites us."

The centre has sent the church a recorded video greeting that will be played during the service.

It includes an account of the locations in Evanston where Helen Wood is honoured, including a war memorial.

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