About Hilda Clark
Hilda Clark grew up in an affluent Quaker family in the village of Street in Somerset. Her family had founded Clarks' Shoes in the nineteenth century. In the face of prejudice against working women, Hilda qualified as a doctor.
Hilda was 33 when war broke out. A strong pacifist, she was firmly opposed to the war and appalled by the suffering it caused. She was instrumental in setting up the Friends War Victims Relief Committee and provided humanitarian assistance to civilians caught up in the war.
A feast of music
Hilda continued to work with refugee children after her return to France. As this letter to her friend Edith suggests, she was gradually recovering from the depression that had earlier caused her to take a break and return home to Britain.
Friends War Victims Relief volunteers prepare to deliver mattresses to people devastated by war. © 2016 The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain
We are in a spell of gorgeous weather. At least it turned suddenly fine and hot again yesterday and looks like remaining so. One gives up trying to sleep soundly and lies peacefully all night sleeping and waking through the chorus of nightingales and frogs, and cuckoos in our fairyland field under the full moon. It is very restful and peaceful with a background of rumbling guns.
By day we have a feast of music now. There is a very good band which spends all its spare time practising in the woods by La Source, and the chef de musique has found in the regiment quartered in the next village a celebrated pianist of the Paris Conservatoire who is a simple soldat and washes a motor lorry all day and sometimes has to go to Verdun with it at night, but their captain gets him leave occasionally and brings him to play on our piano. He plays wonderful music and gets a marvellous tone out of our plain piano – you can imagine how deeply affecting it is.
I have got Sermaize hospital very full now – it is a most invaluable place, and it is a wonderful pleasure to be able to take these delicate children straight out of their wretched lodgings to the country they love so dearly and have missed so greatly since the emigration. We are going to add another hut to it as we are really too crowded. I hope very much we shall be able to extend the Samoëns place to take boys. Bettancourt also is very full.
We are trying to get the parents of the Reims children who are placed where we have to pay for them, to allow them to go on to free places which have been offered in Switzerland. A few have not settled well and are glad to change.
Several of Hilda's letters show the importance of music in her life and it seems to have helped her emotionally. Whereas earlier letters are full of descriptions of Hilda's work, this one also shows signs of Hilda looking after her own health as well as other people's.
How do we strike a balance between serving others and taking care of ourselves?
Copyright: This is an extract from a letter from Hilda Clark to Edith Pye. It can be found in War and its Aftermath: Letters from Hilda Clark (Friends' Book Centre, 1956), edited by Edith Pye.
As Quaker relief work in France extended, Hilda chose to move from where she had been working to Sermaize, where life was slightly calmer but facilities more basic despite increasing levels of illness in the area. In one of her last surviving letters from the war years, she said that some things are too complicated to explain in writing.
As the year went on Hilda found herself in open conflict with the people administering the Friends War Victims Relief Committee at the Quaker central offices in London.
Hilda was busy working with refugee mothers and children in France. In July she wrote to her parents in Somerset to congratulate them on their golden wedding anniversary. She apologised for not being there in person and for seeing them so rarely.
Hilda saw her work as a form of pacifism in action but was concerned about the situation of pacifists in Britain facing conscription.
Despite rejoicing in aspects of her work, Hilda's letters from France in 1915 make several references to struggling with negative emotions. It's not only the suffering around her that gets her down – she also seems dismayed with the pro-war sentiments coming from Britain.
Hilda's letters from France contain almost no reference to the reactions she received as a female doctor, despite this being unusual at the time. At a time when most people had never travelled in a car, Hilda further challenged gender roles by regularly driving one. Here's one letter from May 1915, sent to her friend Edith in London.
Hilda, a Quaker doctor from Somerset, was working in France with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. She had re-established the group to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in the war. This humanitarian response unit worked with civilians close to the front line, offering practical support on the basis of a common humanity.
In the spring of 1915 she wrote home to her friend Edith Pye.
Hilda was seeing extreme suffering in France. Continuing to work as a doctor and to organise other pacifist volunteers, she expressed her feelings in another letter to her friend Edith.
Amidst fears of German troops reaching the town, Hilda's tasks seem to have included keeping everyone calm, as shown by an early letter to her friend Edith.
It was October before Hilda and her comrades obtained permission from the French and British authorities to travel to France to support civilian victims of war.