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.
Hilda and the other members of the Friends War Victims Relief Committee were soon busy with the refugees' maternity hospital. 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.
There is very heavy firing up this way again. We mostly expect the Germans any day. At night the horizon is very gay with exploding shells and searchlights. Another Taube came very near a few days ago, and we have discovered that very fine big guns have now been mounted close to us for defence against aircraft.
Hilda Cashmore has at last gone to that little string of towns razed to the ground – where we saw the people picking up debris that beautiful, cold, sunny day in November when we went to prospect – a day which has haunted me ever since and made almost all the other suffering we have seen seem almost trivial.
Force of circumstances is making me get quite equable.
Last night poor Margery thought the Germans were here. She appeared at the Abris about 10.30. I had vainly tried to decoy her from case papers to listen to six nightingales, a million frogs, a full moon, a nestle of bird's wings in the undergrowth and an occasional cuckoo – a mad, wild evening – as still as death and as live as a newborn baby – and had at last begun to go to bed outside the hut. Then she appeared and said we were all to dress quickly because the Germans might be there – the bells were ringing and shots had been heard and galloping horses and Andernay was in flames.
On hearing the last in the category I refused to believe in the Germans as it accounted for all the rest. I dressed in stoical calm which I fear she thought slow. Some of us adjourned to Andernay and some prepared cocoa. It was a house on fire – started by a soldier's candle in a stable. Three poor horses were burned. I hate to think of it. The soldier was slightly burned in the face.
It was a fine blaze but the wind was fortunately off the other houses and blew it onto a neighbouring ruin where there was nothing more to burn.
There are several modern equivalents to Hilda’s situation. A group of British women recently travelled to Afghanistan to support nonviolent Afghan activists who oppose both the British army and the Taliban.
How would you behave towards soldiers of a country fighting your own country's army?
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 continued to work with refugee children after her return to France.
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.
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.
Today, as in World War I, pacifists work across the divides created by their governments and armies.