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.
Stifled by lies and hatred
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. Here she is writing to her friend Edith in May 1915.
We have arranged with the Civil Hospital at Reims to take any women and children (except infectious diseases) that are willing to be sent away from danger of further shells.
There are less than 30,000 people left in the town now out of 120,000 and the whole place is shattered and shuttered–like a city of the dead. Still there is a surprising amount of life here and there–newspaper boys, a few voitures de place, flowers and fruit, a few shops open–some good ones, and prices hardly raised.
We keep very busy at Châlons, but are better staffed now. Getting the Reims children ready for evacuation is a big job. We have had thirty this week, sending twenty-four to Paris today and six to Sermaize and Bettancourt. There will be four more carloads today, tomorrow and Friday, bringing ten each time. They have to be fitted out in clothes, medically examined and allocated to different places.
How stifled by lies and hatred ones feels especially in all the news from England. Here one could easily forget the most trying parts–one lives so much in the present, and the psychology of our lives and those around us seems more simple.
I sometimes wonder if we will have rather a shock when the weather changes. It is still glorious and the country is ablaze with flowers, sometimes, alas, the result of land being uncultivated. The colours are as splendid as in the Alps, and the sweeping lines and queer broad check patterns of the rolling hills are just wonderful, and give one a new and living idea of post-impressionism.
I have been motoring steadily day after day–sometimes in other cars but generally driving myself in the Belsize–rarely less than forty miles a day and often more.
She wrote again in July:
If one did not feel so entirely remote from the earth it would make one very homesick. I sometimes wonder if one will ever really feel anything at all or always be numb. The saving mercy, I find in the companionship of such splendid people as we have working here. It is a peculiarly favoured time, and one longs for others to share it.
Companionship clearly kept Hilda going. As her earlier letters suggest, this was sometimes the friendship of soldiers or patients, not only other relief workers. Yet despite all this, her convictions and faith in God and humanity held out. How far can beliefs and friends help us to remain strong in testing situations?
Hilda highlights some of the challenges faced by those working with civilians displaced by war. How would you feel if you had to evacuate your hometown? What might you have to leave behind? Moving to a new place can be difficult. If you were arriving as a refugee what might you expect to find?
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.
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.
Hilda Clark was not the only one to feel “stifled by lies and hatred”. Revulsion to the war was experienced by people in many different situations on all sides, amongst both civilians and soldiers. Some soldiers came to reject the war even while they were fighting in it.
Ronald Skirth was a teenager when he joined the army in 1916. He believed in the righteousness of the war and strongly espoused values of patriotism and obedience. Going to war, he took with him a photograph of his girlfriend Ella.