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.
Pacifists in action
While some Quakers sought to save lives by campaigning against the war, others wanted to help war victims directly. Hilda Clark from Somerset had qualified as a doctor – unusual for a woman at the time. She was 33 when the war started.
In September 1914, Hilda spoke to Meeting for Sufferings, the national committee of British Quakers. She encouraged them to appeal for volunteers to help civilian war victims. The committee agreed and she was soon sending letters home about her work in France (as we shall see next week). Hilda's friend Edith Pye later described the origins of Hilda's vision.
We had thought and talked of little else during those early weeks of the first world war. Hilda Clark had always in her mind the thought of the mothers and children behind the fighting lines in France, in the knowledge that the whole of the country's energy must perforce be taken up on the military side. She had enlisted the interest of T. Edmund Harvey, and between them they had gathered together a group of young people eager to help, some of whom were deeply concerned to express their pacifism by sharing the dangers of the battlefield without bearing arms.
The Society of Friends [Quakers] accepted the concern and made it theirs, and from that moment our whole life and thought were bound up in the work.
I myself was then living with Hilda Clark, who had set up in general practice in London with a view to investigating working class ill-health. As I was at the time occupied with the organisation of trained nurses, it seemed advisable to see what was the situation in France with regard to the need for them, and on September 26th 1914, I went to Paris.
By that time, the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, with headquarters in London, had taken shape and could count on twenty young men, six nurses, some of whom fortunately were midwives also, three motor cars, and about £3,000. Before I left London, Hilda Clark asked me to be sure to find out if there was any opening for this group of pacifists behind the French lines where the Battle of the Marne was raging.
Many more strings were pulled before finally the expedition started for France on November 5th, 1914. No-one knew what work they were to do. Grim tales of the sufferings of women and children behind the lines floated about Paris, most of them exaggerated, but the little band of doctors, nurses and orderlies were prepared for anything and expected the worse.
The head of the expedition was Mr T. Edmund Harvey. There were three doctors, including Dr Hilda Clark, who was responsible for the medical organisation, eleven trained nurses, of whom several were midwives in addition to their training; one medical student, two qualified chemists, one sanitary inspector, and fourteen men with various qualifications as chauffeurs and orderlies. Very few of these were members of the Society of Friends, but all were united in the keen desire to help mitigate the suffering caused by war, and the men at any rate felt themselves debarred by conscience from taking part in any military organisation.
It is clear that Hilda regarded their mission as a pacifist one. People often infer that pacifists are passive. How would you define the word?
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.
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.
Today, many Quakers and other nonviolent activists are following in Hilda's footsteps by travelling to war zones and other areas of conflict to relieve suffering and challenge violence.