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 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.
I must try to get a car permit to go further north than we were able to go today. Most of these villages are entirely destroyed or at any rate more than half; we chatted with people in about half a dozen, and were interested to find a rather different type. They were not at all oncoming at first, so I do not think they will be spongers. They had a poor physique but they said the general health was very good.
Sommeille is one of the worst. It stands on the brow of a hill with a glorious view – a population of about 370 and at first we could not find a home standing – just the church which was little damaged, and we found two or three houses down the hill. There were very few people about and they seemed hopelessly depressed and apathetic. It is very sad to see these poor things for whom nothing has yet been done.
This week we have been out to Nancy to find out if we ought to prepare to work there and decided it would not be necessary for the present, and we have asked for ten more women and thirty more men, and hope to get the work in the Meuse started in a fortnight. The women are already working there as the distribution of garden seeds is very urgent, and I mean to spend next week there to help. We feel that if we have enough men to get this whole district done in two or three months, we shall be ready at a time when one trusts it will be possible to extend further north.
There is no doubt that we have got the district of the greatest distress to work in, and one where French help is least available.
There is a pleasant countess here this afternoon who is having a stolen interview with her son in the army. We invite these people to come and see us and then they can see their sons in peace in our sitting room. Then they send us clothes and subscriptions. Poor things. I must go down and have tea with them.
One gets more and more overwhelmed by the horror of the war. The very success of these little efforts to help the material losses makes the awful suffering that everyone is going through from the loss of their menfolk more emphasised.
One can hardly believe that the graves with which the gardens of many of their ruined villages are filled are those of strangers and that you dear people at home are safe. Some of our people are suffering too. It is impossible to let oneself think of what the forward movement will mean. France is overwhelmingly confident in the final and rapid result.
It's no surprise that Hilda is starting to be so affected by the work. Although she writes of being “overwhelmed by the horror of war”, she still seems able to carry on and bring healing and support where she can. Today as then, those that bring healing in war zones are rarely honoured to the same degree as the troops. Should this change?
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.
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 doctor, Hilda provided healing in a war zone without being attached to an army or government.
Hilda's letters reveal something of her anguish at the suffering she encountered, although she usually doesn't go into detail.