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 hundred doubts
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.
I am now trying to organise a convalescent home in this château, that has been lent to us, between Sermaize and Nettancourt. We think that we shall be able to fill it with Reims, Châlons and Bar-le-Duc patients. The difficulty is to know beforehand whether the patients who ought to come will be willing to do so!
I spend a weary time talking and trying to be nice to people. I never see anything of the refugees themselves. It is rather harassing and one can never be the least put out or moody except in the most private moments, which results in great depression sometimes when by oneself. We are all a little too intense. I hope the new people coming the next two weeks will be a help.
It has been the greatest pleasure to have this visit from William Albright, and I feel sure it will be a great help to the work. He has gone into everything so carefully, and though I feel personally that it might in the future be urgent to move more rapidly than he might agree to, and though of course we may yet find ourselves disagreeing, I think we all feel he has a grasp of the situation and that his judgement will be a help.
He spoke to us very beautifully and helpfully on Sunday evening at Sermaize on the difficulties of our path. I do not mean the practical difficulties but the spiritual ones – if one may call them so – making me realise what I had felt vaguely but never fully realised before, that it is the essential spiritual difficulties – the standing up for peace in the midst of the machinery of war, while owing our lives and our scope for work to those who are fighting, the strain of work in the midst of intense personal sorrow and anxiety, of wondering whether it would be better to enlist, of a hundred doubts – it is all this that is at the bottom of difficulties which on the surface appear to be superficial practical ones that someone is to blame for.
It is difficult for most of us to imagine what Hilda and other relief workers were dealing with. It's remarkable that they managed it at all.
Hilda recognises the dilemmas of working to relieve human suffering in the midst of a war zone. Humanitarian relief deals with some of the consequences of war but does not prevent it continuing nor address its causes. Aid workers today also face this dilemma; some remain strictly impartial and neutral in order to work effectively while others speak out about the horrors of war and actively campaign against it. What other difficulties might people face working in conflict zones? Is there only one ‘right’ way to relieve suffering?
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 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 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.
Before the war, the issue of votes for women was one of the hot political topics of the day. When war came, women campaigning for the vote were split over whether to support it. For some women, the struggle for the right to vote and the campaign against the war went hand in hand.