The Daring Women of Smith College’s Relief Unit

Although Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871-1945) may not be a household name, her contributions to the war effort -- and women’s empowerment -- were nothing short of extraordinary. Carlynn Houghton’s Literature and World War I class learned about this courageous pioneer and the intrepid group she founded during an absorbing presentation by Lauren Willig ’95, a Chapin alumna, current parent and noted author of historical fiction.

Fascinated by Ms. Hawes and her Smith College Relief Unit, Ms. Willig decided to use this remarkable story to inform her forthcoming novel, “Band of Sisters.” With humor, a masterful command of her subject matter and a down-to-earth style, she brought this intriguing narrative to life for the Chapin students one recent afternoon in Room 402. 

“It’s such a treat to talk to you about my research!” she exclaimed, clicking through her slide show and transporting her riveted audience back to 1917. With World War I raging in Europe, Ms. Hawes, a Smith College alumna from the class of 1892, was invited in April of that year to speak about the war’s human toll to alumnae in the Smith College Club. An archeologist and nurse, she had just returned from the Greek island of Corfu where she had set up a hospital for the Serbian Army. 

Referencing her first-hand experiences of the war’s far-flung devastation, Ms. Hawes was said to deliver a “rousing call to arms” to the Smith alumnae. “Harriet tells them about a humanitarian crisis in France,” Ms. Willig explained. “She needed Smith alumnae to go there to help.”

By the end of this historic luncheon, $4,000 had been pledged to send 17 Smith alumnae from the classes of 1888 to 1914 to France to embark on desperately needed civilian relief work in war-torn northern France. Led by Harriet Boyd Hawes, this brave group included Alice Weld Tallant, a trailblazing doctor from the class of 1897, writer Ruth Gaines from 1901, and an assortment of other gutzy volunteers. 

Just four months later, Ms. Willig told the students, the Smith College Relief Unit -- considered the first division from a women’s college to affiliate with the American Fund for French Wounded -- found themselves on a ship bound for Europe. Buoyed by a jubilant send-off, the group vowed to lend support wherever they were needed. “These women were knights going out to do heroic things,” the speaker noted.

Prior to setting sail, the unit members gathered supplies and fortitude, while contemplating their official outfits. After a number of attempts, they ultimately settled on a straightforward grey skirt and jacket with blue accents, she said.

Arriving in Bordeaux, France -- with three trucks, crates of equipment and boundless determination -- the Smith alumnae were shocked and disheartened to discover the deplorable conditions facing the French citizens. “The remaining villagers were old and infirm, very young and women,” Ms. Willig explained, adding that the German occupation had left burned buildings, poisoned wells, and depleted livestock in its wake.

Through candid, often humorous letters sent home, notes submitted to the Smith alumnae magazine, and vivid accounts published in “The Ladies of Grécourt: The Smith College Relief Effort in the Sommes,” a 1920 memoir by Ms. Gaines, a vibrant picture emerged of the Unit’s tremendous efforts to contribute medical aid, social services and agriculture to the vulnerable French residents -- and the myriad challenges these women encountered along the way, from freezing barracks to flagging morale. 

They also experienced good luck, Ms. Willig recounted. “Just when things seemed bleak, someone comes and saves them,” she said.  However, it was through their own ingenuity, intelligence, perseverance and compassion that these fearless volunteers helped the French villagers rebuild their homes and their lives in the aftermath of World War I. 

“These women blundered yet succeeded to triumph over incredible odds,” the speaker stated. She also pointed out that the success of the Smith College Relief Unit spurred other women’s colleges like Wellesley, Vassar and Mount Holyoke to form their own relief units. 

Ms. Willig’s new novel will feature a cast of characters inspired by the unforgettable Smith alumnae who risked everything to help victims of the Great War, and who remain, more than a century later, indelible role models. “I was amazed that no one has written about this before,” she remarked.

“Band of Sisters,” the twenty-second installment of Lauren Willig’s illustrious writing career, will be published next year. As Ms. Houghton’s students discovered through her enthralling talk, it promises to be a page-turner.