WWI, Quakers and the enemy

By Neil Snarr - Contributing columnist

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and joined France and Britain in an effort to stop German aggression in France.

On Friday, July 27, 1917 the “Final and Official List of the First Two 97s” appeared in The Wilmington Daily News — 97 was the number of local men who were listed for recruitment by the Local Exemption Board.

The list included the names of any Quakers who would seek status as conscientious objectors, and on this list there was only one who fit that category — Luther E. Warren. Luther was probably the last recruit to pass away who went through the local board for WWI — he died in 1997 at the age of 106.

There were 14 local Quakers who ultimately did alternative service during WWI. Two of them had served in the regular army, and after completing their military service they, with the other 12, went to Europe for non-combatant work.

Twelve joined the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and were sent to France, and the other two worked with the Young Men’s Christian Association (one in France and one in Britain). Those working with the AFSC were under the direction of the American Red Cross and worked alongside British Quakers.

The AFSC is a Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) relief and social justice organization that was founded in 1917 to institutionalize their relief and justice work. Because of their relief work in WWII, they received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, the only religious group to ever receive the award.

In researching these 14 men I ran across a story concerning the treatment of German prisoners by these Quakers which I found inspiring and hopeful.

I have been an observer of religious/Christian behavior most of my life and consider myself a follower of Jesus. The story that follows comes from letters written in the spring of 1919 from Germany.

The AFSC learned that the US military would be selling the contents of five large Engineer Corps dumps near Verdun at a fraction of their value. Being able to afford the reduced price and motivated by the French Army’s offer to provide railway connections linking rails to Paris, they purchased the dumps.

At the same time, there were some 400,000 German prisoners-of-war in France and available for work with the mission.

With permission from the French military some 570 German prisoners volunteered to work with the Quakers. Soon the two groups began to “move selected tools, building materials, implements, and machinery convertible to farm use, as well as tractors, trucks, automobiles, motorcycles, spare parts, and sundries large and small.” The materials were either given away or sold for enough to replace the purchase price.

To justify this “free labor” the Quakers devised a way for the prisoners to be compensated, but the French would not permit direct payment. The solution was to locate the families of the prisoners in Germany, and then the British and US volunteers would deliver the compensation by hand with a photo and a note from the prisoner.

The families, living in misery, were elated. In a letter from one of the Quakers distributing the benefits to the families comes the observation that the German prisoners in France fare better than the German civilians in Germany.

He goes on, “These are such good, simple folk; and their sufferings have been, and are, still, so out of portion to their responsibility in the war! … The worst sufferers are always the children. For five years in most cases, they have been chronically underfed. They are, in Berlin, a pitiful mass of scarecrows and dwarfs, who will never be able to develop into men and women, even if they had the best of foods, milk, from this day on. The harm is permanent.”

And again, “We are received with joy and tremendous thankfulness in all the homes. The longing to have their men back is deep and anguished – few letters are received and these few must pass the military sensor; and they fear that their men dare not write of their sufferings. They fear the worst … And then! The great reward! How the faces light up as we tell them of their husbands, sons and fathers, show them ‘the latest photograph’ and finally bring forth money that they can accept with self-respect. We also have opportunities without number of explaining our ideals, Friends’ work; and of bridging over the gulf between peoples. The whole community seems to know all about us at once, and throngs in to welcome the Mission der Freunden!”

Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.

By Neil Snarr

Contributing columnist