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Despair in War-Torn France Eased After Smith Women Arrived in 1917

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

Tallant gave up a professorship at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania to help give medical care to civilians in the ravaged regions of war-embattled northern France. She also served in a military hospital as an honorary lieutenant of the medical corps of the French army; here she is seen in her uniform in July 1918. Photo courtesy Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

They never intended to be heroines. But to many of the villagers struggling to rebuild lives and destroyed homes in the devastated regions of northern France during World War I, they were exactly that.

Harriet Boyd Hawes, Smith class of 1892, Alice Weld Tallant, class of 1897, and several other Smith graduates arrived in France on August 12, 1917, “fresh from an official farewell where they had been likened to the heroic women of all time,” Ruth Gaines, class of 1901, wrote in her 1920 book, Ladies of Grécourt.

The original Smith College Relief Unit was composed of more than a dozen women, gathered from 14 Smith classes, ranging from 1888 to 1914. Among them were archaeologists, physicians, professors and social workers. But in France, they were simply volunteers who signed on to help with civilian relief work during the “Great War.”

It had been Hawes’ idea to organize the Smith College Relief Unit -- said to be the first unit from a women’s college to affiliate with the American Fund for French Wounded.

Hawes, who was an archeologist and a nurse, had just returned from a year in Corfu where she had established a hospital for the Serbian Army when she addressed an alumnae group gathered on the Smith campus for the 1917 commencement. “In my ears the call to college women rings as clear as ever, perhaps clearer than ever before -- 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.”

Not long afterwards, the Smith Relief Unit had sailed for France and set up camp and living quarters in the bombed-out Chateau de Robecourt in the badly damaged region of Grécourt and the district of Somme. The locals soon referred to them as “les Dames de Grécourt” (Ladies of Grécourt).

Alice Weld Tallant, who held a medical degree from Johns Hopkins Medical School and was then a professor at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, was the unit’s medical director. Her role ultimately became that of a traveling country doctor tending to civilian wartime victims within a 30-mile radius of Grécourt.

In a December 1917 letter to a friend she wrote, “I think I shall never forget the poor old woman, dying in a woolshed, without kith or kin to care for her and talking of her children up to the last minute of her life. There is another old woman whom we sometimes go to see, who is always hoping for news of her son, and the neighbors have not the heart to tell her that there is news of him, that he has died ‘avec les Boches’” (with the Germans).

As the fighting with the German army intensified in the summer of 1918, Tallant and another woman physician offered their medical services to an American military hospital. At the time the U.S. Army legally excluded women from working as physicians overseas, so the hospital politely turned the two away.

The French were not so picky, and especially after the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, their need was great. “They were hit so hard they didn’t care whether we were man, woman or child,” Tallant said. “They welcomed us with open arms.”

She went on to care for wounded soldiers in the French Army Hospital as an honorary lieutenant in the medical corps of the French army. For her service, France decorated Tallant with its highest honor, the Croix de Guerre.

As the women of the Relief Unit finished their work and prepared to return to the United States in 1920, they were inundated with letters and citations from local residents, military commanders and government officials commending their efforts.

“We shall never forget that we owe you most grateful appreciation for all that you have done for us….Our hearts we offer you; they will be the best token of our gratitude,” wrote the students of the School of Hombleux. “When you return to your noble country, the void caused by your departure will be great for us, but in spite of the distance, be sure that we shall never forget ‘the good American ladies of Grécourt.’”

While making her physician’s rounds in northern France, Alice Weld Tallant, Smith class of 1897, often came upon devastation like this farmhouse in Laversine, which was left in ruins in the aftermath by the retreating German armies during World War I, circa 1918. Photo courtesy Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

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