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Smith College Relief Unit records

Identifier: CA-MS-00095

Scope and Contents

The records of the Smith College Relief Unit include directors' reports, financial information, letters, journals, photographs and albums, news clippings, correspondence with the War Service Board and information about the reconstruction.

Dates of Materials

  • 1904-1997


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

Smith College retains copyright of materials created as part of its business operations; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Smith College, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

The Smith College Relief Unit was founded in 1917 by Harriet Boyd Hawes (1892) to bring relief to those areas of France that were most devastated during the first World War. Hawes already had significant experience of relief work when she proposed, at a Boston Smith Club meeting in 1917, to form the unit. She had served as a relief nurse in both the Greco-Turkish war of 1897 and the Spanish American war, and then later in France, when WWI began. Having seen first-hand the effects of the war in Europe, Hawes was dismayed at the apathy expressed towards it by Americans when she returned to the States. When the US finally did join the war, Hawes quickly announced her intentions of starting a relief unit, which she hoped to staff with other Smith graduates. Smith alumnae were eager to lend their services; a Committee of Five was established to manage business in the US, and the necessary money was soon raised. The group attained the recognition of the State Department early on, and an affiliation was established with the American Fund for French Wounded through Harriet's previous connections in France. By 1918 the Red Cross accepted the unit as an affiliate.

That summer, with a pledge of $30,000 from alumnae, Hawes set off with seventeen other Smith graduates for France. Their base was to be in the village of Grecourt in the devastated Somme Valley, chosen by the French government as the area of greatest need. When they arrived in Grecourt, the women of the Unit found that not a single building had been left intact; the Germans bombed everything before they left and deported all the able-bodied youth, leaving only the old and the sick and those children who were too young to work. Any machinery that might have been a help to the villagers had been broken, and once-fertile fields were unrecognizable. The primary interest of the Unit was in helping the villagers to regain self-sufficiency. As much as was possible the Unit bought from the villagers food for themselves and fodder for their livestock, much of which was sold back to the villagers at well below original cost. A store was established from which basic staples and supplies were sold. The Unit also kept a truck which they used as a "traveling store." The SCRU rebuilt St. Matthew's Church and revived services by bringing a minister to the town. They built a school, a library and hospital, planted fruit trees, wheat and vegetables and provided medical services. Sewing was given out to the local women, for which the women were paid according to scales established by the French government. The SCRU taught classes to children, including carpentry, sewing, cooking, music, games and physical education, along with a curriculum of reading and arithmetic.

In March of 1918 a new German offensive forced the evacuation of Grecourt and the surrounding villages. The Unit relocated for a time in Beauvais, where the members worked with the Red Cross to treat the American wounded. Many of the volunteers, having finished their required terms, and having seen more of battle than they bargained for, returned to the States. Among these was Hannah Dunlop Andrews, the director of the Unit, who felt she must give up her position in order to return home with her husband, a Major in the American Army. When the war ended, a new director, Marie Wolfs, was appointed and the Unit returned to Grecourt. The village was even more devastated than at the time of their first arrival, and much of their work had been lost.

The Red Cross began to disband their relief services that November, and the SCRU was an independent organization again. Those who stayed on at Grecourt did so at the request of the French government and out of a sense of commitment to and investment in the project. The last of the Unit's members did not leave France until 1929, by which time they had rebuilt and improved upon all that was lost in the German strike of 1918. The Smith College Relief Unit was the first college women's unit in France and the first to be acknowledged by the Red Cross. Inspired by the Smith Unit, several other colleges followed, including Wellesley and Bryn Mawr.

In 1919 the Union des Femmes de France (a French branch of the Red Cross) awarded the women the Medaille de Guerre in recognition of their work in the evacuation of March 1918, and in 1920 the French government awarded the Unit the silver medal of Reconnaissance. The Croix de Guerre was awarded to those villages that the Unit served, for bravery under German occupation, and at Smith, the Grecourt Gates, a replica of those that stood in front of the Chateau de Robecourt, were erected by the Trustees of the College in front of College Hall.


9.125 linear feet (25 containers)

Language of Materials



The Smith College Relief Unit was founded in 1917 to bring relief to those areas of France that were most devastated during the first World War. The records include letters, journals, photographs and albums, correspondence with the War Service Board and information about the reconstruction.


The files are organized into eight categories: early history, financial records, directors, individuals, photographs, publications, news clippings and reconstruction. Financial records and news clippings are arranged chronologically and the directors' records are arranged in order of their terms of office. All other files are arranged alphabetically by subject.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The materials in the Smith College Relief Unit records came to the College Archives largely as gifts or bequests from the members of the Unit and their families. These donors include Dorothy Ainsworth, Mary Allsebrook, Edith Bannon, Marion Bennet, Eugene and Mary Clapp, Ellen Tucker Emerson, Raymond and Amelia Forbes Emerson, Alice Evans, Louisa Kimball Fast, Harriet Bliss Ford, Ruth Gaines, Ruth Whitney Higgins, Alice Emily Leavens, Georgia W. Read, Mary Stevenson, Frances Wadsworth Valentine and Dorothy Young.

Processing Information

Processed by Elizabeth Kates.

Processing Information

Please note that prior to 2018, folder inventories were not always updated when new material was added to the collection. As a result, folder inventories may not be complete and folder numbers may be incorrect.

Finding aid to Smith College Relief Unit records
Legacy Finding Aid (Updated)
Elizabeth Kates, Ellice Amanna
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: manosca95 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2018-11-20: Finding aid updated with new box numbers, barcodes, locations

Repository Details

Part of the Smith College Archives Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063