Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Friends War Victims Relief Committee in the Franco-Prussian War

The first official Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC) was set up in 1870, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War – seven years after the founding of the Red Cross and six years after the signing of the Geneva Convention.

Through the agency of 41 commissioners (33 men and 8 women), the FWVRC undertook relief work among the civilian population of towns and villages devastated by the war. Many of the commissioners already knew the countryside well – some as scholars, some as members of the Alpine Club - and spoke French or German or both.  They set out to help French and Germans equally – the first occasion this policy of “no discrimination” was formally adopted.

John Bellows, one of the commissioners, wrote of the devastation

'The mirage that men call military glory vanishes, and nothing is left of the war but its cold and mournful reality – long, deep rivers of blood and deep, silent rivers of tears'.

As soon as the first commissioners - William Jones and Henry Allen - began work, it became clear that a recognisable symbol was needed to identify the commissioners, their transport and the goods they carried. The now familiar red and black star of the Quaker relief worker was in fact the symbol of the London Daily News, which was then also funding relief work.  The Quakers applied to share the symbol, and added to it the words Quaker Relief Fund for Distressed Peasantry (in three languages) and later the mottos Fides Spes Caritas (Faith Hope Charity) and Res Non Verba (Deeds not Words).  (These were subsequently dropped.)

This was also the first occasion that women worked alongside men, as opposed to having their own, parallel relief organisations – though that seems to have happened almost by accident, in response to an urgent need to simply roll up their sleeves and get working.

Not all the commissioners were Quakers, and some – like Irish surgeon William Norcott, or James Long, who had been travelling on the Continent ‘for his health’ – had no prior connection with Friends before their involvement with the FWVRC. The committee back in London was run by three energetic Quaker brothers – Joseph, William and Ernest Beck.

The relief efforts were funded through public subscription, with the money raised that way going entirely on relief supplies.  Administrative costs were raised by the Friends themselves through a special ‘War Victims Expenses Fund’. As will so much Quaker relief work, they worked through the local communities.

Their work fell into three phases. Firstly, following the siege of the town of Metz, they provided emergency famine relief, and later experimented with the new-fangled steam ploughing in order to provide urgently needed help with planting the next harvest.

The second, less successful stage was in working class districts of Paris following the armistice in 1871, where they found a similar situation to Metz, but on a much larger scale. Here they had money and food to distribute, but no local organisation to work with.

The final field of operation was in the Loire valley.  Here they became involved with a huge operation to sow 25 thousand hectares of land with oats, barley and potatoes, bringing in 3 thousand tons of seed corn via French ports. Towards the end of this operation, James Long, recognising problems associated with a lack of milk, imported in addition 3 bulls, 235 cows, 152 calves, 37 goats and 13 kids. A bull was provided to each arrondisement and a cow to each commune, their horns branded with the word ‘QUAKRES’. One bull in particular was a Spanish fighting bull, but Long was more than a match for it. When six men struggled to drag it from a railway wagon, Long walked calmly into the wagon, soothed the bull and led it out on a piece of string.

Three of the Quaker commissioners were nominated for France’s Legion d’Honneur.  When one of them – Robert Spence Watson – refused the award, a special medal was struck and sent to him in England.

For a long time, many Quaker Meeting Houses displayed copies of a commemorative map showing the four departments between the rivers Loire and Loir, surrounded by harvest scenes and showing the steam ploughs.

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Further Reading and Credits

Bellows, J. (1871).  The Track of the War Around Metz and the Fund for the Non-Combatant Sufferers. London: Trubner.

Greenwood, J.O. (1975). Friends and Relief Quaker Encounters Vol 1. York: Sessions of York.