Content Top Nav Left Nav Utility Nav Site Search
Mobile Menu

Department of English

More Links

War Service at Home by Elizabeth Robins

War Service at Home by Elizabeth Robins

The Ninetenth Century

Vol. 76: 1914. November Issue No. 453 pages 1113-1122


page 1113

The emergency consisted not only in an unprecedented dearth, but in an unprecedented abundance.

We heard of the wide-reaching evil of unemployment among the women, and were told that a Cabinet Minister said in public: 'Generally, unemployment is more prevalent among the women than among men."

The cause behind this state of things was too vividly present to every mind to call for an explanation. But did it call--and loudly--for action.

The most incorrigble optimist must, we think, have been surprised at the way the call was answered. We do not pretend that it was always answered by the expected people, not to the expected extent, considering their resources; considering, too, that no life is left untouched by a public calamity on the colossal scale of the present War. If there cannot be many in the kingdom but have had on occasion during these last weeks to feel the sting of the sore anxiety, neither can there be many but have felt a healing wonder at the resourceful spirit of service exhibited, not solely by this class, or that, but by all sorts of conditions.

Since some concrete instance often best illustrates a force seeking many forms of expression, I have chosen the Women's Emergency Corps as a type and sign of this new extension of the spirit of service.

The Corps [[Hon. Secretaries, the Hon. Mrs. Haverfield, Miss Lena Ashwell; Hon. Treasurer, the Duchess of Marlborough.]] was founded in the first instance to organise and to prevent the overlapping of volunteer aid. It was the fist constituted body to protest publicly agonist flooding the market with amateur, unpaid workers.

Subsequent events proved the need of striking this note, so clearly sounded in one of the earliest Corps leaflets (issued from the first Headquarters at the Little Theatre):

Faced by the upheaval in the labour market and the prospect of wide-spread destitution through lack of work, the Emergency Corps believes that what is wanted by the women of the middle and working classes is not relief, but wages.


page 1114

The timely recognition of this too-little apprehended truth was probably due to the representative character of the committee and the departmental heads. For one of the first acts of the god-mothers of the organisation was to choose out of the army of volunteers precisely those helpers whose exceptional knowledge of social and industrial work gave them a practical understanding of the dangers of undisciplined generosity.

Moreover, when looked into by those experts the public need was found to be not of one kind, nor of a dozen. The peculiar merit of the Corps is to have found, and to have applied, help as various as the need.

Many of us, when in urgent want of something, have been haunted by the conviction: that thing is in the world somewhere, if only I could put my hand on it. SOMEWHERE, it is waiting for a chance to do just this which I so need to have done.

The Emergency Corps seems also to have cherished this conviction. The difference is that the Corps has gone too far towards turning it into triumphant practice by means of an Intelligence Bureau.

Weeks ago the Committee had already received and registered 3000 offered of service; 1500 of these offers were classified and graded as a result of personal interviews. The Corps works in co-operation with the organisers of the Prince of Wales's Fund, Queen Mary's Committee, the Mayors' Distress Committees, the L. C. C. Care Committees, the Red Cross Society, Refugee Assistance Committees, maternity centres, health societies, and all other organisations (to the number of thirty-one) which have been created to deal with the national crisis.

Hundreds of posts have been found for teachers, for accountants, and for the army out-of-work clerks and secretaries. Twenty-five are employed by the Corps itself, and many new openings have been created by the number of organisations called into being by the War.

The Corps has put creche work and service to mothers in the way a number of girls and women, while the range of proffered service on its registers extends from the matronship of a girls' school (two such posts having been found) to any branch of domestic service, as well as outdoor work, from driving a motor-car to taking charge of a remount camp.

Apart from those who follow unusual or specially interesting avocations, let us consider the commonest sufferer from the decrease in shopping and the reduction the clothing-makers' out-put. Take the unemployed needlewoman: what has this organisation done to her?

It has opened fifteen branches in houses lent to the Corps, where work is supplied to neddlewomen of every sort, from skilled


page 1115

hands doing fine embroideries and other works of beauty and art, to the makers of those twenty-four dozen towels and 100 shirts for Dr. Flora Murry's Military Hospital in Paris, and the 168 sheets made by the Kilburn Branch of the Charing Cross Hospital; all the shirts and hospital bed-jackets and apparel of every kind down to the set of baby clothes sent to the wife of a Belgian officer.

As to other sorts of relief work, I collected a sheaf of special cases dealt with, but I shall find space only for a few which reveal the wider range of the spirit of the Corps.

The headquarters of this organisation seems to have been a seed-ground of extraordinary vitality. We first heard of it as offering a field to a glorified housekeeper--the woman who first brought home to many minds the waste of food supplies--waste not merely through carelessness, but waste deliberate, to keep up the prices of perishable commodities.

Weeks ago we heard how the first organisation formed solely to deal with War refugees telephoned to the Emergency Corps (then in its infancy) to say: 'We offered shelter for 100 Belgian arriving to-morrow. Can you feed any of them?" The Emergency Crops housekeeper answered "Ring me up at such an hour and I will tell you.' Then she went to the market. We are not told whether she had more than her omnibus fare in her purse, but we should remember (for this is an essential part of the story) the Emergency Corps neither had, nor has, any great public fund at its back. Its capital in money was very small. But its capital in brains and resource was considerable. So when the housekeeper was rung up at the hour named and asked again: 'Well, how many of the hundred can you feed?' the answer was 'A hundred of them.' This probably emboldened the applicant on the other end of the line, for the voice said 'Oh! but instead of sending 100 they now say that they are sending 300. Could you feed any more?' 'Yes,' was the answer, 'the Emergency Corps will feed 300 till further notice.' And this was done--with food Covent Garden and the great provision dealers supplied for nothing. In large part it was food which the usual course would have been thrown away or turned into manure.

The organised use of waste perishable food, originating with the Emergency Corps, proved such a breath-taking success that that form of activity has been taken over by the Government. The Government has borrowed the idea, and the Government has borrowed the Emergency Corps housekeeper to manage it.

One of the staunchest helpers of the Corps has well said 'It is every bit as important that there should be no waste of energy as it is important there should be no waste of food.' The


page 1115

Emergency Corps has turned the axiom into practice. One of its way of doing so has been paid the compliment of adoption by the Government.

In the days before the Alexandra Palace arrangement, hundreds of even the better-off Belgians and other refugees would have farded very ill but for the inspired service of the Guides and Interpreters' Department of the Corps. This branch of work consisted at first in utilising educated women to receive strangers arriving by Continental trains. Among these interpreters were women who were at home in French, those who were at home in Flemish, in Russian, in Greek, and in four other languages. They were also most particularly 'at home' in London. They came to the various stations armed with lists (compiled with a labour and intelligence beyond praise) containing the addresses of hotels, boarding-houses, and lodgings, from the very plainest to the best equipped, all guaranteed and tabulated, giving the amount and kind of accommodation and the scale of reduced prices.

Out of the pile of the reports from this department take at random these:

Case--. I met four Belgian ladies, mother and three daughters of eighteen to twenty-one years old, who had to flee without even having had time to collect their mother's pension (the mother was an officer's widow). I interpreted for them and took them to Mill's Hotel, where the landlady was most obliging and took all possible care of them, and on most reasonable terms, for the night, and I cannot report highly enough the good treatment at that hotel. The next day I took them and had them duly registered at the home of Refugees' Committee, and they are now comfortably installed in Tavistock Square, University Buildings.

Case--. I was told by one of the committee that about seventeen men and women were on the platform with no knowledge of English. I found they were Greeks. I was at once able to conduct them to a small hotel, where they were comfortable for the night, and the next morning they were met by people who knew and could minister to their wants.

Case--. While at Victoria I was called out by someone to a family of fourteen Belgian persons, who had gone out of the station alone and had wandered to a neighbourhood hotel, where the hotel people had demanded 6s. 6d. for each person for the night, and when they had tried to explain their inability to pay this, were surrounded by a crowd and they could not clearly explain themselves. I at once got into touch with them, and relieved their anxiety by directing them to an hotel under the auspices of the Emergency Corps Committee; but the rude conduct of the hotel people they were leaving was appalling, and really I was fortunate in having the help of a gentleman and a lady of the committee passing at the time to stem their insults.

I am allowed by the writer to quote from a private letter addressed to the head of the Guides and Interpreters' Department:

National Vigilance Association and International Bureau For The Suppression Of The White Slave Traffic.

Head Office: 2 Grosvenor Mansions, 76 Victoria Street, London, S. W,

INTERNATIONAL GUILD FOR THE SERVICE FOR WOMEN

September 17, 1914.

Dear Miss___, _I have received a letter from the Local Government Board, expressing appreciation of out efforts and asking us to continue to work with the War Refugees' Committee.

As the appreciation of the Local Government Board is as much due to your Corps as to our Association, I hasten to transfer it to you.

* * *

I cannot allow the occasion of this letter to pass without thanking you most sincerely, and through you those ladies who have done such excellent work at the stations in receiving the refugees. As you know, I have been present on most occasions on the arrival of the train, and can speak from experience. I want to express my admiration for the services rendered, and the cheerful and kindly way in which they discharged the difficult and sometimes delicate duties involved in the work at the stations. Their alertness and readiness to do anything, even through the service rendered called the exercise of self-sacrifice and unpleasant duties, was to me an object-lesson in the power of women quickly to grasp a situation, to overcome difficulties, and to meet emergencies, without for one moment thinking of their own personal comfort or convenience. Most of the ladies were personally unknown to me, but their splendid and useful service to the Belgian refugees has made me proud of being associated with them.

I could not help feeling that such women, whose numbers could be multiplied to any extent, would, if well organised, become a great social, moral, and religious factor in the regeneration of our beloved country.

With very kind regards to yourself, and remembrances to those associated with you, I am, yours sincerely.

Wm. Alex. Coote.

Miss__, Women's Energency Corps, Old Bedford College, Baker Street, W.

That letter enables us the better to understand one sent home last month by a Belgian gentleman to one of his own newspapers. He speaks of the astonishment of himself and his fellow-refugees to find awaiting them here, 'malgre l'heure avancee de la nuit, ces braves dames' who helped the mothers with their babies and the men to carry their packages, and conducted them to motorcars which were miraculously in waiting at that unconscionable hour.

The writer of this letter evidently did not know that the Corps was using thirty cars for this branch of their work before the Government took it over; neither did the gentleman know it was no chance that found the indefatigable ladies of the Emergency Corps ready to give the help which was so surprised and touched the Belgians. Trains in those days of disorganised sea and land service arrived at all sorts of hours. If too late to take the refugees to hotels or lodgings, there were addresses, on those wonderful lists, of private houses in London where emergency hospitality was available. The ladies of the Corps had cause to know there was not an hour on the clock-face that would be called an inconvenient one for opening certain doors to those unhappy travellers--many with nerves horribly shaken by days of bombardment; others quite stupefied with grief. One train brought a woman who had given birth to a dead child on the way. Another woman died on the journey. One man had slept four nights in the trenches among the dead.

The letter to the Belgian paper was already mentioned, after speaking of the incredible amount of trouble taken, and the touching solicitude with which the English ladies attended to the wants of the refugees, recommends to his countrypeople that in particular all the young girls sent over should look out on arrival for representatives of the Emergency Corps.

One of the ideas is to create a social centre for Refugees--a place where they can at all events count on hearing their own tongue spoken.

Another of the activities of that department is supplying ladies to teach English soldiers elementary French and German. Many men of the rank and file came to realise what a difference may be made to their efficiency--to their very chance of survival--by even a few words of the language of the country they have to fight it. As a consequence, several weeks ago, the military organiser of this instruction sent post haste to the Woman's Emergency Corps a request that twenty teachers might be at the barracks in Buckingham Palace Roads the following day at four o'clock. Elementary language lessons are now given also to soldiers at Chelsea Barracks; and the same system is being adopted, we are told, at other centres.

In even a rapid and inadequate survey of the field of activity covered by the Women's Emergency Corps, one should not, perhaps, deal only with that side of the work which, being so admirably positive, speaks loudest for itself. At the end of my own visit to headquarters I was conscious of the blessed lack there of, what I may call, machine-made service. I found in every cell of that humming hive an air of serenity quite extraodinary considering the variety and pace of the activities going on. Innumerable as were the duties of each departmental head (notably those involved in the colossal work of organsising the industrial section) these mryiad duties seemed to be carried easily, with minds free enough, in spite of all the burdens they bore, to move triumphantly round each subject; able to regard each application not as one of a rom, or a case going into pigeon-hole A or B, but as an individual needing special aid, or bringing special aid for someone else.

To illuatrate the sympathetic divination at work: there was an applicant very difficult, I imagine, to 'place,' whether by reason of weak health, or age, or lack of faculty--an officer's widow, at all events, and destitute. In these later days she would, I suppose, be referred to Lady Lansdowne's Committee, but her need could not wait on committees yet to be formed.

Now, among the not easily classifiable offers of help had been one from the widow of a naval officer. To some genius at the Corps' headquarters occurred the idea of invoking the Navy in support of the Army. Result: Naval widow invites Army widow to come and stay with her. Each one of the services delighted wit the other. They strike up a friendship. The exigency, at all events, is met; and, who knows but two lives are enriched? The most jealous critic will hardly say THAT kind of voluntary service in unsettling to the market. There is no danger of a glut of inspires kindness.

Another shining instance was the case of an English girl from Paris. If I remember, this was an orphan whose father had been a Civil Servant. One can imagine her diversifying the usual life of a girl of her class possessing no outstanding talents by doing a little fancy work--the well-known sort intended only for the indulgent eyes, and therefore exclusively for private consumption. Still, she showed some little skill, could do 'French Knots,' and must have loved children, or some child, as seems to appear in the sequel.

This girl arrived in her native country with a few shillings, and tried to find work. Day after day found her still trying, still failing. She walked into the Emergency Corps' offices one afternoon, white and footsore, and said she did not know why she had come, for she had no talents, and had not, she now realised, been taught to do anything that anybody wanted.

She was talked to as people are at the Emergency Corps, and presently something was said about girls being taught toy-making. Upon that the young refugee plucked up courage to say she could make a toy. She could make a practically indestructable golly-wog; out of stockinet; with hair warranted not to come off, because it was crocheted stoutly into his head; eyes not to be plucked out because they were made of French knots.

Personally, I am no friend to gollywogs. I cannot think it fair, in a world so full of beauty, to invite a child to fix its young affections upon a thing of nightmare. I make an exception to the Emergency Corps' gollywog, and not out of love for the Emergency Corps. One reason of thinking the toy made by the English girl in Paris was devised for love of some particular child is that he is so cheerful an apparition; pleasantly humorous, clearly a most good-humoured monster, come to make you merry.

The Emergency Corps saw, moreover, that he was so ingeniously and honestly put together that he would hold his own against the most remorseless tug-of-war. So they set the girl in making gollywogs, and instructing others to do the same. That was some weeks ago. She has now been promoted to be a teacher of learning more polite. Her gollywog is a registered patent; and fifty other hard-up girls are making a livelyhood while they make gollywogs for the Emergency Corps' toy department. So far from taking the bread out of other mouths, that friendless, despairing English girl is keeping half a hundred other girls to make uses of her idea.

Now, in the this toy idea the Emergency Corps seems once more, in the words of the gold miners, 'to have struck it rich.' The public has been told of the extent to which the British market depends on foreign toy-makers. This country does not even make skipping-rope handles, or did not when the War broke out. Christmas on the way, and a woeful shortage of toys! In England you are told the proper kind of porcelian or whatnot for dolls' heads cannot be made. The unnumbered thousands played with by British babies have been imported.

Some of us would think that, having neither the hair which the deer in the German forests rub off in spring on the bark of trees, nor the pleasant children to gather it, there is nothing throughout the length and breadth of England to stuff dolls' bodies with. Tell that to the Marines of the Emergency Corps!

They are making toys hand over fist at Old Bedford College. Sixty girls in bright, airy rooms are cutting and fitting, sawing and hammering, painting and enamelling, after designs supplies by well known artists. They carry on this work under competent instruction, which I believe is given to the Corps--and a very handsome present if so. While the sixty toy-makers, unemployed a little while ago, are being taught this new English industry, we hear they are paid trade-union wages.

Some of the toys are done in character. There is a Tipperary Tommy, the Khaki Boy, Jack Tar, and there is an imposing cock-hatted Kitchener.

The moment toy-making was in full swing, out went the organiser of the industrial section to secure orders from the great firms. They, in their turn, offer to instruct the organiser as to the kind of toy she would get the larger orders for. They show her a specimen--a nondescript wooden animal--which she is to take as her guide. A thing sharp toes and a fearsome pointed nose. One hastily hands over to professors of zoology classification of the beast, but I think the organiser's word may be taken, it was a thing of peril, as little to be trusted in the society of the precious baby as a live lion or two pairs of scissors. The organiser remonstrated with the salesman: 'This kind of sharp-nosed toy is made,' she said 'for men to buy, not for children to play with. Children like a cuddly toy.'

The cuddly toys are being made at Old Bedford College. New delights are fashioned there along with those of perennial joy. Noah's Arks may be seen in all stages up to gay completion; ships, convoys, go-carts, motors, and many other toys calculated to tempt the Christmas shopper.

If the public supports this work, many other fields will be opened. The girls now being taught the new industry will be available later as instructors in rural districts, so that in this country, as elsewhere, toy-making may (if desirable) become a start, never again need so much of this world-wide trade be in foreign hands. Her majesty the Queen has inspected these toys and has ordered a consignment to be sent to Buckingham Palace. Queen Alexandra has sent a subscription to the general work of the Corps.

I have left myself no time to deal with the scheme with, QUA scheme, interests some of us more than any other--the Land Scheme. If has for its object the training of middle-class women in market gardening, dairy work, and poultry keeping. They would thus, as the circular sets forth, not only have a new means of livelihood open to them, but also materially serve the State by increasing the home produce of the country. Inturning their attention to these pursuits, Englishwomen would only be doing what women of Denmark and Germany have been doing so long and so well the England has learned to look to foreign lands for commodities that should be produced at home.

Apart from this aspect of the question, some people see in the Land Scheme not merely the capturing of new trades for this country. They see a far greater gain, fundamental to the race--a gain which will have much to say to the credit and power of the Empire in days to come. The theme is too great, too many-sided for me to do more than say 'There it is!'.....and to hope that many will find out more about it at headquarters [[Old Bedford College, 8 York Place, W.]]. Already help is offered to the Corps on a large scale; ninety-two acres of land near Bournemouth, for instance, and in Hertfordshire an extensive poultry farm, where men and women may be trained and yet be self-supporting at once.

Beyond a doubt there are first-rate recruits for the Land Corps beyond the handful, here and there, already trained or in process of training. I myself have seen the least likely material indoors turn trumps in the open.

The great majority of young women applying for work will continue to ask for sewing, or, like the rosy-cheeked applicant of the other day, will say, in common with hundreds and thousands: 'I could take care of my babies."

My point is, recruits will be found for other departments often where least looked for. Perhaps the day on which the country-bred girl in question applied for a baby to take care of, the stock babies in Old Bedford College was low. Or, may be, behind the girl's gentleness was some look of firmness that caught the eye of the Commandant of the Women's Volunteer Defence Corps. Rumour says that she looked at this girl who had come to take care of babies, and said 'Can you ride?' 'Yes,' says the nurse-girl. 'Can you ride bare-back?' It must have seemed an odd qualification for the care of babies! But, 'Yes,' she could ride bareback. 'Can you take a horse to water?' says the Commandant. 'Can you take five horses to water?' 'Fifteen, if you like.' 'Can you shoot?'

The first doubtful look. 'Well...I've never shot a man. But I've shot partridges, and little things like that.'

From which we may deduce that those of us who have not the divining eye may not always know what we have under our hand besides a neddlewoman or a nurse-girl.

In conclusion, the Women's Emergency Corps lives up to its mane. It is here and there about the home field with intelligent and timely succour. Much of its short history puts us in mind that of that feature of the Great War which stands out to fair against the horror of its blackness. We are told that in no other war ever waged have soldiers' wounds healed so cleanly and quickly. The reason is found in the knowledge of First Aid and in the care given on the battlefield by comrades of the fallen.

Those women whom the Emergency Corps is out to help belong--in vat majority--to the army of workers who have had their means of defence wrested from them, and have been more or less disabled in the conflict.

There is a battlefield in Britain, as well as in Belgium and France. If help is not delayed here, if the remedies are applied with skill, we shall see these hard-hit thousands of their hurts and drafted back into the workers' army.

Among the multitude of volunteers for this work, the members of the Women's Emergency Corps have reminded us that we at home, with all the comforts and resources of civilisation at our call, must not show less skill, less kindness, less mercy to comrades than do those war-worn soldiers at the Front.

Elizabeth Robins


Page editor: jgates@jsu.edu
Back to Elizabeth Robins Home
Back to English Home

Back to Top