Did women have a Great War?

Paper for Legacy of World War I conference, Chestnut Hill College, November 14-15, 2014

Did Women Have A Great War?
Alma. A. Clake's Memories of France 1918

Michelle Moravec, Ph.D.
Rosemont College Student Participants:
Jenna Kaiser, Mary Manfredi, Anna Nuzzolese, Kyle Robinson, Eve Romanowski, Marygrace Urmson.
Villanova University graduate student Christina Virok

All images courtesy Alma A. Clarke papers, 1914-1946, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library.

with gratitude to Holly Mengel and PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project

website: clarke.rdigitalh.org .
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In Women and World War I  Susan Grayzel argues persuasively that historians have not yet answered the question did “Did women have a great war” because they bifurcate the first world war “as either being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for women” rather than portraying “the complexity and diversity of women’s experiences.” As a way of getting at those experiences, this paper explores tropes of sacrifice and sisterliness wrapped up in the ideal of service as they appear in the scrapbook of Alma Adelaide Clarke, an Auxiliary Nurse in American Red Cross Military Hospital No. 1 in Neuilly Sur-Seine from the fall of 1918 to February of 1919.

Born in 1890 in Paris France to the well-known artist Thomas Shields Clarke, Alma Adelaide Clarke led a privileged life. At some point, she became involved in the Froebel League, a progressive organization that offered mother’s classes and sponsored kindergartens, but beyond that I have found little information about her life before the war.

Clarke had been touring the Continent since the May of 1912.  According to one account, she was in Baden Baden when the Great War broke out. Unlike her brother, an art student off sketching in Bordeaux who was held as a potential spy until the American ambassador to France intervened, Alma made her way via Geneva to Paris. Arriving the end of August of 1914, she nursed the wounded for a month  in the American Ambulance Hospital until October of 1914 when she returned to the US.

What she did between the fall of 1914 and the fall of 1917 is unknown, but in November the French American Committee for the Protection of Children accepted her application.  She set sail for France in January of 1918 and for eight months volunteered in various colonies of refuge children.

However, in the fall of 1918 she returned to the hospital she’d nursed in during 1914, now renamed the American Red Cross Military Hospital No1, where she remained until Feb of 1919 when the last patients were evacuated. As she wrote to her brother, a private in the American Expeditionary Force, in January of 1919 “I am rather tired I confess but I do hate to go home till I have done all that I can in France.” Clarke returned to working with refuge children before sailing home to the United States at the end of July 1919.

Although only a few letters from Clarke remain, she left what she described as “a most unique souvenir” a scrapbook.

“[T]he boys have all drawn and written in it till it is almost full – besides which I have a very interesting collection of hosp. photos. …I cherish them, every one and the album is the pride and joy of my life.”

Clarke’s wartime experiences might have faded into obscurity, acknowledged only generally in the lines historians have penned about the thousands of female Red Cross volunteers who served Europe, had she not arranged before her death to have it, along with her wartime papers and a second album documenting her work with refuge children, placed in Bryn Mawr College Special Collections. Clarke’s scrapbooks, and the others like it that I’ve uncovered, reveal a unique source for exploring the ways individual women responded to gendered imagery of the war, particularly the propaganda aimed at them.

Clarke’s Red Cross album consists of photographs, both official but many taken by her, along with magazine and newspaper clippings, and eleven pages of soldiers own accounts detailing where and how they were wounded. She combined these photographs, laboriously annotated by hand, with clippings of illustrations or poems to create coherent narratives. In this sense, her scrapbook functions not only as a record, but also as a testimonial and a memento mori.

The majority of the clippings derive from the Red Cross Magazine, as effective a propaganda organ as you’d find during the war.  Thousands of American women went to France to serve the Red Cross but what that experience meant to them and to histories of gender is still hotly debated by historians.  Jonathan Ebel outlines three “mythic notions” of womanhood at work during the Great War, “war wives and mothers” on the home front and “sisters in arms” and “new women warriors” overseas.

Clarke’s album suggests a combination of these mythic meanings might best characterize her Great War. While the frontispiece of her Red Cross album is annotated “a mother to guide him,” the oversized nurse who looms over the sleeping soldier seems more guardian angel than mother tucking in her child. Paul J. Meylan, as part of a campaign to address the desperate shortage of nurses, created this “protecting angel.”  The rather beatific visage of the nurse was juxtaposed against the slogan “Nurses of America: You are needed over there!” with the invocation of “over there” making an explicit connection between men’s service in the service and women offering service to the armed services.

In this sense then the image also evokes the other mythic notion that seemed to resonate for Clarke, that of “sisters in arms.”   Indeed Clarke, almost a decade older than the youngest of soldiers, was more older sister than to a mother. The one extant letter from a soldier in her care lauds her as mother, sister and good pal, effectively conflating them all.  In the one letter we have to Clarke from a soldier she nurse, Reginald McClurg writes “you were mother, sister and a jolly good friend to everybody.”   However, echoing the notion of “to guide him” in Clarke’s epigraph, his letter stresses the “reminders of sisterly virtue” that Ebel identifies as part of the “moral suasion” provided by the “sisters in arms” (133). Many a soldier according to McClurg “resisted the pit falls in the “Battle of Paris” on account of coming into contact with such noble good women.”

An article, Sister to a Million Men, that Clarke pasted into her scrapbook in its four page entirety, offers perhaps the greatest insights into how she understood her contribution to the war.

You used to see scores of girls like her on country club porches when the late brilliant sun was slanting in your face as you walked up from the eighteenth green … You thought she didn t have a thought in her head But she had a very definite thought and it’s taken her to France To day you see her against a very different back ground You see her walking very lightly around a hospital ward She has a blue veil on her head now instead of a floppy hat She has a pile of bandages or clean sheets in her hands instead of the parasol Perhaps she went to France with false notions of sentimentality or with an absurd impulsive offer of service which seemed very immature and impractical … but watch her now in the where she rules over a score and a half of wounded men in her own right.

The Sister here of course refers not only to the Anglophone practice of referring to nurses as Sisters, a practice not adopted by American Red Cross workers, but also to the easy familiarity with which the socialite turned nurse jokes with the men on her ward.  “[T]his girl who wouldn’t have washed her own hair before the war” now blithely inquires “feel well enough for that long-promised bath?” and without flinching distracts a young soldier from the pain of having his wounds re-dressed. When at the end of the day, this dedicated volunteer is asked, “Say, sister, was you ever on a farm” and she responds in the affirmative, accidentally betraying herself as “unmarried” yet owning a large farm “all by herself,” the men are momentarily stunned into silence realizing that their handmaiden is an heiress. Little matter though to the selfless auxiliary who continues her rounds.

Minnie Goodnow in War Nursing. A textbook for Auxiliary Nurses explained for the benefit of the society ladies who invaded the profession that “nursing involves a certain amount of mothering, if you will, of handling the person, of a peculiar sort of intimacy” and indeed the idea of single women of a certain social standing bathing men would have been unthinkable before the war. That the sole metaphor Goodnow can invoke is maternal reveals more about mythic womanhood than the lives of women of Clarke’s status, who as the author of a Sister to a Million Men notes, would likely have had a maid or hairdresser to wash her hair before the war, and thus servant might be the more apt comparison. The material sacrifices of women of Clarke’s class were often emphasized, stressing the discomforts they endured and the privilege they voluntarily gave up on behalf of the soldiers. Writing in the Red Cross Magazine about the hospital where Clarke served, a representative of the Women’s Bureau of the American Red Cross observed “the women who work in hospitals these days are saints of the first order. I cannot see how any one can have her feelings torn constantly like that and not go crazy.”

At least some of Clarke’s patients were, like those in the story, made aware of her social standing. Patient Reginald McClurg wrote that all the men knew she was “quite set apart from the regular R.C. nurses” and that “you came over for the real love of the work and prompted by the highest kind of patriotism without any regard to pay.”

McClurg’s remarks highlight the complex class dynamics that existed between trained nurses, largely middle class women, and those who populated the ‘auxiliaries” from “a more elite socioeconomic background.”  If the famed American Friends Ambulance corp drivers attached to the hospital where Clark nursed were known as the Gentlemen Volunteers, then the female volunteers were just as much the heiress corp from the Vanderbilt who endowed the hospital through the society ladies who sponsored individual beds or even entire wards and finally to the women who volunteered there, first expatriate Americans, and then women like Clarke who traveled explicitly to serve, at her own expense, first class of course.

The class based distinctions between the lofty service of auxiliary workers and trained nurses who worked for pay with all the pecuniary imprecations the word work could carry appears repeatedly in documents sent to Clarke by various organizations, all of which lauded her service. It is only the French, perhaps less conversant with the American war rhetoric, that invoked work in her correspondence.

Clarke seems to have understood her service as a combination of sacrifice and sisterliness. Janet Watson has argued that “women’s war work” existed in tension with notions of “service” implicit in the voluntary nature of most women’s participation  “a double meaning of service – both philanthropically to those in need and patriotically to the country in its crisis.” This dual notion is perhaps best seen in a page Clarke created with an image drawn by Charles Dana Gibson for the Red Cross. In Columbia’s Greater Task Columbia as a Red Cross nurse supports a wounded soldier as she escorts him from the battlefield. The image was annotated by a short verse that drew together religious sacrifice and patriotic service.

The Cross a small neat stain where blood has been.
The Cross that whispers hope to fighting men.


The Red Red Cross that bears its simple grace


in colors of the heart within a firm embrace.

Alongside Columbia aiding the fallen man, Clarke pasted four photographs of the men she nursed, including a group shot of her first ward. On the adjoining page the men in the images have explained where they were wounded, mostly in the battle of the Argonne. A French Soldier includes a not of thanks to Clarke for the care she gave him. On this page is also a photograph of one of the men Clarke cared for the longest.  Frank R. Neidert, son of a meat cutter from a small town near Rochester NY, was just 17 when he was wounded in September of 1918. Severely hurt, he remained at the hospital until it closed, not returning to the US until late February 1919 where he was discharged with a 75% disability.   It is clear Clarke felt particularly protective of him as she noted his age in another photograph of her sitting alongside his bed.

Just as soldiers would sacrifice their lives for comrades in arms, nurses stood ready to do the same for those in their charge. Next to an article praising the bravery of the American soldiers, Clarke has placed a protecting angel image Won’t you help yet another poster created for the Red Cross.  In this example, the nurse fends off the angel of death while using her body to shield a fallen soldier.

The protecting angel as the female equivalent to the Christ like soldier is evident as well in a page that functions as a memento mori. Next to the poem We Shall Not Sleep, illustrated by a lithograph of painting by Philip Lyford that depicts the fallen soldier as a resurrected Christ, Clarke wrote the names of four deceased men, at least one of whom died in her hospital.   She details their burials and notes the location of the gravesites for two of them. Alongside are a photograph of a cross marking a grave that echoes the cross imagery in Lyford’s image, and a clipping of Taps.  The effect is chilling even decades later and it is clear that Clarke felt loss ever bit as much as McCree.

In this sense then, the philanthropic service of the protecting angel overlapped the patriotic service of the sister in arms.  Yet as Janet Watson has argued that while “volunteer nurses … saw themselves as the female counterparts to soldiers”  their service was socially acceptable because it did not challenge “gender hierarchies” and because their role “was both self-sacrificial and explicitly temporary.” 

Yet for Clarke the new role proved anything but temporary. Once she returned home, Clarke threw herself into work on behalf of the Red Cross Speakers Bureau and joined a host of organizations from the Overseas League to the Alliance Francaise which extended recognition in light of “the very great services which you have rendered to the allied cause during the World War.” The parallels between service to the service and service in the service are echoed throughout the correspondence Clarke received from the Red Cross in the years immediately following the war, and its clear that she accepted the parallels drawn between female volunteers and male soldiers. Her hand written notes for speeches about the Red Cross stressed not only the contributions made by the overseas volunteers, but also that while the fighting men may have returned to civilian life,  the Red Cross was “not demobilized” and continued as the “only org[anization] always mobilized.”

The direction of Clarke’s life in the decades after the armistice reveals complexities that any bifurcated analysis of the Great War cannot contain. To to say that Clarke’s life was not transformed by her participation would be absurd. 1923 found Clarke back in France, with the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion, working in their school for children of American servicemen who married French women and serving as chairman of the Volunteer Interpreter’s Service during Legion Convention week held to mark the 5th anniversary of the armistice. By 1928 Clarke had become “indispensible in the success of the Paris Posts’ poppy sale.” In the 1930s Clarke, now president of the Paris Post, became a vocal advocate for French wives and children of demobilized soldiers who had abandoned by them. She herself adopted three girls, remaining in France until the mid 1930s, when the winds of war again swept through the continent.

These activities with their strong maternalist overtones are difficult to place on a conservative to liberation spectrum and there are many more “hidden collections” of women like Clarke that provide an intimate glimpse into these women’s Great War. While I initially thought her scrapbook to be a unique archival find, I’ve come to discover, through the internet, at least three more that are quite similar, including the soldiers accounts. I just recently found, by tracing the life of one of the soldiers in her album, that letters to a sister auxiliary nurse, Elizabeth Deeble are archived, which may offer insights into not only another woman’s Great War, but how the service of overseas volunteers was understood by friends and family.

Because of the open and ongoing nature of this research, my history of Alma Clark’s scrapbooks is taking a digital format in which we invite others to remix the scrapbook pages, annotating their finds, and creating multiple narratives of gender in the great war.

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