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The Great War’s Forgotten Allies

Published: January 19, 2015

French Refugee Children

While waiting for train, French refugee children were fed with bread and milk from American Red Cross soldiers’ canteen.
(Wikimedia Commons)

London and Paris seemed like separate worlds to Post reporter Corra Harris in early 1915. The French capitol was a somber city of limping soldiers, military funerals, and shop window displays where haute couture had been replaced by mourning suits. Across the English Channel, London still looked bright and prosperous. Spirits were generally high since highly censored news kept Londoners from knowing much about the reality of the war.

Both Allied capitols had one feature in common, according to Harris. Each was neglecting their soldiers’ families.

When war began, the French and British had rallied to provide food, clothing, and medical supplies for their soldiers. But little help was available for French soldiers’ wives and children. In France, many soldiers’ families were left behind on farms that could no longer be worked. Their fields were now taken up with trenches, shell holes, and “graves so shallow that to dig at all is to uncover the dead,” Harris wrote in “A Communiqué from the Allies of the Allied Armies” (The Saturday Evening Post, January 23, 1915).

Of France’s rural communities Harris wrote:

There is no money, scarcely any stock with which to cultivate the remainder. All the horses fit for work have been taken by the French or stolen by the Germans. And many of the peasants in Northern France are in danger of freezing to death, even if they have food, for every blanket, quilt, sheet and mattress has been taken from them, even the straw from which they might make beds. …

War is not the worst thing these people face. Pestilence, that poisoned breath of death, is far more terrible. Lille is closed now like a tomb filled with corruption. No one may enter it, and those who remain there cannot escape. Every hospital and every house is overflowing with victims of the fever scourge.

It is impossible to exaggerate the ravages of disease in many of these towns bombarded by the Germans. There were 1,300 cases of typhoid fever in Senlis and the neighboring villages during the month of October. The germs of every disorder fill the air. … They poison all the milk. To touch one’s lips with bread in these places is to invite death.

The women consider themselves fortunate to escape these horrors by coming to Paris. For Paris is still clean. The water is pure. The great Rothschild depots supply milk which is not tainted. There is still bread enough. …

The war orphans suffered the worst, Harris wrote. War might turn men into “cannon fodder, but it changed children into “gutter straw.”

One of the last things I saw in France was a dozen Red Cross orderlies and nurses having their breakfast in a comfortable hotel. Just inside the door of this room three children stood regarding them with hungry eyes. They were in rags. Their faces were emaciated and they were trembling with cold. They were orphans. Their father had been killed in Alsace-Lorraine. They were not begging; they had not learned how yet. They were just learning how to be hungry, and patient.

In London, Harris found members of the British ruling class still preoccupied with class privileges and dress codes. Members of Parliament were debating whether to deprive the poor children in workhouses of their Christmas morning egg to teach them a lesson about the hardships of war. And they discussed what pensions they should give to soldiers’ widows. One member declared that the officers’ widows should receive enough of a pension that they wouldn’t have to enter the work force. In Harris’ account, Prime Minister Asquith seemed to agree:

He was willing that the officers’ widows should be kept out of the labor market, but he thought there were objections to making a common soldier’s widow independent.

What he meant was that all the working classes ought to work for their living. Still, if anyone has earned the right of choice in her mode of living as is conferred by a pension that will maintain her, it is surely the woman who has made the greatest sacrifice that the state can ask, whether she is the widow of an officer or of a private!

Many women in British society were signing up to nurse wounded soldiers. But what these soldiers really needed were doctors and trained nurses, Harris wrote.

“[The aristocratic lady] would serve better if she spent herself and her money caring for the poor women and children in England who are more and more neglected as the war goes on. … For every wounded soldier there are perhaps 50 women and children suffering for the necessities of life. The war office does not protect them. There is no commissary department to provide them with food or clothes, no surgeons or doctors or nurses to attend them in sickness.

Meanwhile, members of the ruling class were complaining that social standards were slipping in wartime.

It seems that the men are not so particular about putting on their evening clothes when they dine. Lady Somebody has entered a solemn protest in [The London Times] calling attention to this. She adds, referring to a certain fashionable café, that it “looks like an American restaurant at the dinner hour because the men are so awfully dressed!”

The subject of dress codes launched Ms. Harris into a rather heated rant about women’s fashions and effeminate men.

It does give one a start to see at the next table an officer of a Highland regiment, clad in a khaki coat and terrifyingly short kilts, with his legs bare very far up and very far down. But, when you put your whole reasonable mind upon it, why should not a man show his mighty legs in a room filled with women who are exposing their shoulders behind down nearly to the waistline?

Besides, that Highlander looks more the part of what a man should be here now than the perfumed English Lord Dandy at the next table, with his receding chin, his womanish hands, and his pink face that has never been exposed to the disgusting grime of powder smoke.

A woman must hate war; but my idea is that if a nation makes up its mind to fight it should have conscription for the gentlemen dandies, and it should hold in reserve these better, bare-legged, long-chinned men for the sake of preserving the breed in the next generation.


Step into 1915 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post January 23, 1915 issue.

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  • Paulette Porus

    I have a salesman’s advisement package from 1915 with proofs for the baker-v equipment company. It has proofs from Saturday evening post