The Smith College Relief Unit (SCRU) was started in 1917 by Harriet Boyd Hawes, a graduate of the Smith class of 1892. She had done relief work in France before the United States entered the war, but at that point, she returned to Smith to form a relief organization of alumnae. She explained the special call to college women as “a call of need for their steadfastness, their moderation, their good sense, their special proficiency, their ‘esprit de corps’, to help actively in this tremendous conflict for the right”. The response from the college community was immediate and enthusiastic, and an organizing committee and unit were soon formed. The latter consisted of 19 women from fourteen different classes, ranging from 1888 to 1914. Most had done previous relief or nursing work; all spoke French, and their numbers included two doctors, a wireless operator, a cobbler, a carpenter and kindergarten teacher, and a farmer. The plan was much as Hawes had originally outlined it: “…three or four cars, eight chauffeurs, eight social workers, a depot of distribution in touch with the French authorities, affiliation with the American Fund for French Wounded…”. They sailed for France on the 29th of July, 1917, just over a month after Hawes’s initial appeal.
With the approval of the French authorities, the Unit made its base in Grécourt, a village in the Somme valley recently evacuated by the German army. Their relief work included eleven neighboring villages, later expanded to fifteen. The Unit set up quarters on the grounds of the Grécourt Chateau, and opened a dispensary and store to distribute medical aid and necessary food and supplies. They had two cars and a truck shipped to them, which they used to bring the supplies around to all the villages. They started running games for the children immediately after their arrival, and soon set up schools, the French government supplying teachers. On September 21, St. Matthew’s Day (patron saint of Grécourt), the Unit found a priest to hold the first church service the village had had in three years.
In March of 1918, the Germans again advanced through Grécourt, and the Unit was forced to evacuate the village. They ended up in Montdidier, where they helped to feed refugees and wounded soldiers. In Beauvais, they served as nurses, and ended up continuing in this role for two major battles in that region: Chateau-Thierry and Verdun.
After the end of the war, the Unit returned to Grécourt, to rebuild its work that had been destroyed by the re-occupation. This work was different, as one of the Unit described, for “By this time the Unit knew that they were not doing relief work only but that they were building for the future…It cannot be too often emphasized that the kind of work the Unit was doing in public health and child welfare was really blazing a trail for all rural France…”. The Unit established a school and a community center, which they called a ‘Foyer’. In the spring of 1920, they turned over their work to a French organization, the Secours d’Urgence, although members of the Unit remained until the latter was firmly established, to ensure that their work would be carried on.
Awards and Recognition:
The Smith College Relief Unit earned much recognition for its long and fruitful service in France. The French government gave them the Silver Medal of the Reconnaissance Française for “spiritual and great material help to the inhabitants of the department of the Somme…”.
The Smith College Board of Trustees under President Nielson built the Grécourt Gates, which still stand outside College Hall, as a memorial to the work of the Unit. They are a replica of the gates of Chateau Grécourt, and were wrought by French ironworkers. The gates were dedicated on October 18, 1924, and ceremonially opened by Harriet Boyd Hawes and Marie Wolfs, two of the directors of the Unit.