Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Friends War Victims Relief Committee in WWI

The Friends War Victims Relief Committee (FWVRC), first set up in response to the Franco-Prussian War, was revived at the outbreak of the First World War.

The FWVRC was different in character to the Friends Ambulance Unit.  Unlike the FAU, it was an official arm of the Society of Friends in Britain. Far more women served with the FWVRC than in the FAU. (156 women served abroad during the War and 880 in the aftermath.) It was also, according to John Ormerod Greenwood, a more utopian organisation, dreaming of radical social change.

At the start of the War, two groups headed to France more or less spontaneously, providing medical and surgical support in field hospitals as well as civilian relief in villages devastated by the First Battle of the Marne. No one knew what help was needed at this stage – Ruth Fry described it as ‘an atmosphere of bewildering novelty, uncertainty and horror’  - but these early groups were desperate to do something to help.

Meanwhile, more organised training began back in England under Roderick Clark. Ruth Fry – who had worked as Treasurer of Boer Home Industries during the Boer War, was appointed secretary.

From 1915 until after the armistice, Quakers from the FWVRC worked in the Netherlands in crude internment camps set up for Belgian refugees and other civilians. As well as providing occupation for the internees, Quakers introduced pre-fabricated single-storey bungalows that could be assembled by ten men in as little as three hours. In one camp, a ‘village’ made up of these bungalows grew to house one thousand refugees.

In France, the FWVRC took charge of hospitals and convalescent homes and provided district nursing care as well.  Two hospitals were set up in Sermaize, in a district almost razed to the ground following the first German offensive. Pre-fabricated houses were again used, this time to replace homes that had been destroyed.  As in the Franco-Prussian War, the FWVRC helped to bring in harvests that would otherwise have been lost. In Chalons sur Marnes, Hilda Clark and Edith Pye set up an urgently needed maternity hospital in one wing of an old people’s home.

In 1917, the United States entered the War.  This led to the establishment of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), to provide alternative service for young Friends. Officially recognised by Red Cross, the AFSC was also joined by members of other Historic Peace Churches such as the Mennonites and the United Brethren. For the remainder of the War, Quaker relief efforts would be a joint effort of the FWVRC and the AFSC.

Together they took responsibility for the reconstruction of a 200 square mile area of Lorraine, near Verdun, where only five percent of the houses remained standing and very few of the original population were left. As well as rebuilding homes, they set up shops providing everything from bread to mattresses, and turned vans into mobile shops to carry goods to more remote areas.

Early on in the War, Quakers had worked with refugees in Serbia.  Following the Armistice, the FWVRC returned to what was now Yugoslavia. The Quaker team in Peć rebuilt two villages, an orphanage, a hospital and two dispensaries.  Margaret McFie, a Scottish doctor, built the first school for the blind in Yugoslavia, while another Scottish doctor, Katherine McPhail, opened a children’s hospital, initially in a military hut, which she then ran until 1934.

During the war, thousands of Polish and Belarusian refugees were driven over two thousand miles into Siberia and Turkestan and then back again to the Volga, an area the Quakers had worked in during the famines of the 19th century.  Operating in an area the size of Belgium, with 34 thousand refugees swelling the population, the FWVRC set up three centres to try and combat famine in the Volga area.  Following the revolution of 1917, the situation became increasingly chaotic. A few isolated individuals continued to work with refugees in remote places, including Buzuluk in the Ural mountains, the last returning to England in 1919.

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Further Reading and Credits

Fry, A. Ruth (1927). Quaker Adventure: the story of nine years' relief and reconstruction. New York: Frank-Maurice.

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

Photograph showing relief work in Austria in 1919  reoproduced by kind permission of the copyright holders the Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London