Thursday, June 12, 2014

Harriet Boyd Hawes and the Smith College Relief Unit

The Smith College Relief Unit, Harriet Boyd Hawes in front, 2nd from left.
Sophie Smith Collection, Smith College

Word counts being what they are, I had to exclude a few great stories from Women Heroes of World War I. Harriet Boyd Hawes was an exceptional American who, before the U.S. entry into World War I, worked tirelessly to save the lives of survivors of the Great Serbian retreat. She then returned to the United States to organize what became known as the Smith College Relief Unit, pictured above. The following is an excerpt from the unpublished chapter:

...Harriet was very pleased when President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Central Powers in the spring of 1917. In April 1917, she spoke by invitation at a luncheon of the Smith College Club of Boston. She used her opportunity to suggest a new idea: sending a privately-funded relief unit to France composed of Smith College alumnae. She praised Smith College for having many notable traditions but added that “no tradition can be better than that of united public service.”

What would be the purpose of the Smith College Relief Unit? Harriet was still in touch with French relief organizations who alerted her to recent occurrences in the north of France, in the areas of the Oise, Ainse, and the Somme. A few months earlier in February, 1917, the Germans, who had been occupying those areas for two and one-half years, suddenly decided to retreat. But before doing so, they forced most able-bodied French people to evacuate with them, destroying as much as possible beforehand and leaving only the elderly and the women with small children. Why? One German explained it this way to one of the people they were forcing to march with them: “You are to work. The aged, the women, and the children are to be an embarrassment to the French who are coming and will encounter nothing but ruins and people incapable of doing anything for their own nourishment. For nothing will remain of your houses; they will be blown up.”

The Smith College Relief Unit would take money and supplies to the devastated areas and provide food, supplies, and materials with which to help the locals to rebuild their lives. Although the Germans were gone, the Smith College Unit would still be taking quite a risk. France and Germany were still at war and the Grécourt area was considered a war zone: the Germans might return at any moment.

But thoughts of danger were far from the minds of those who had just heard Harriet speak. By the end of the luncheon Harriet had raised $4,000 dollars. She continued to raise money – eventually totaling more than 30,000 -- for the unit that was soon officially affiliated with the American Fund for the French Wounded. She was hesitant to become the unit’s first director, as she felt that perhaps a younger woman should do that, but agreed in the end.

They were to be assigned as a relief center for approximately 11 villages adjoining the area of Grécourt – the name of an ancient French estate that was now a village where they would set up their base. The French army and the government had requested this site for the Smith Unit because it was one of the most devastated areas and also because it had been the best wheat-growing district in France; the government hoped to get the wheat fields back in working conditions in order to relief the current French bread shortage. Their mission would be to assist the civilians who had been devastated by the occupation and destructive retreat of the Germans.

In August, 1917, 17 volunteers -- representing 14 different graduating classes of Smith College -- sailed for France. While waiting in Paris, finalizing arrangements for their trip to Grécourt, they noticed that the men in Paris were either missing limbs or wearing military uniforms. Most of the women wore mourning clothes. A completely depressed attitude hung over the city and the general attitude of the Parisians was that it was just a matter of time before Germany won the war; that America had joined too late.

Six of the initial 17 unit members reached Grécourt in September, settled themselves into what remained of the old chateau, and got to work. They visited families in the various destroyed villages, listened to their sad stories of dead and lost sons and daughters, helping the villagers build temporary housing while distributing food, clothing, and furniture, some of it provided by outside sources and some of it what they had personally gathered...

Quoted excerpts from The Ladies of Grécourt.

More on the Smith College Relief Unit: 


  1. I just found your site and the work you've been doing on women heroes of war. My particular interest is American women who served overseas during WW1 but were not in the military. Thank you for your articles on Harriet Boyd Hawes and Madeleine Zabriskie Doty. I found them very helpful. Eventually, I will have theatrical plays featuring as many of the women as I can manage and based on such criteria as when they were overseas, what type of service they provided and where they hailed from in th US.
    Rosemary Teetor
    Executive Producer
    World War 1 Commemorative Revues
    1916 Commemorative Revue
    Portland, OR

    1. So good to hear these women will be getting some deserved attention!