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.
Don't help the war
There was debate amongst pacifists over whether they should accept ‘alternative’ service. Some were prepared to do ‘work of national importance’ as long as it did not help the prosecution of the war. Of course, there was disagreement about what counted as helping the war.
Hilda Clark, a Quaker doctor working with refugees in France, saw her medical work as a form of pacifism in action, supporting civilians directly affected by the war. While dealing with distressing situations every day, she remained concerned about the situation of pacifists in Britain facing conscription. She wrote to her friend Edith Pye in April 1916.
The maternity ward on the Quaker-run hospital at Châlons-sur-Marne, where Hilda worked for much of the war. © The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 2016.
This question of alternative service is a very difficult one, but the strength of the conviction of so many young men that they cannot touch it in any way that can help the prosecution of the war is very convincing.
I think I have been very slow in seeing what line should be taken, but I am quite convinced now that those who do not enlist should stand out altogether and be most chary in accepting alternative service.
Fortunately our work avoids some of the pitfalls of the latter, as it does not in any way help the prosecution of the war, not even here, much less in our own country for whose government we are responsible, and men who get exemption conditional on remaining in it can at any time face the music again if their consciences wish to do something different.
Hilda had become depressed while working in France, and this was made worse by the sudden death of a close colleague. She returned to Britain to recover. Shortly afterwards, she wrote about her progress.
I have had such a good time and am miles further on than this morning. Can face anything now. Oh, dear! It is good to feel better.
M. and Miss P. played divinely, the Brahms G. Major, it made me feel a footing again. I can't describe it exactly but you must know how Brahms gets hold and takes you right on to the road that you know will lead some way to the Peace of God. Well, don't let me go back on this. I am wondering whether I can possibly be away another week to complete the cure. I got a bit pulled down by that abscess last week and feel that this would get my courage and power of decision back.
As a woman, Hilda did not face conscription. Nonetheless, she wrestled with questions and dilemmas similar to those faced by potential conscripts. Many debated what form of work they could do that would not support the prosecution of the war.
Are there equivalent dilemmas we face today, if we seek to live and work in a way that has a positive effect on the world?
Copyright: These are extracts from letters from Hilda Clark to Edith Pye. They 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.
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.
As a unit of the army, the NCC was seen by many conscientious objectors as supporting the war. The No-Conscription Fellowship and the Friends Service Committee wrote to the Prime Minister raising their concerns.