Soldiers of Peace in Wartime: A Lesson from World War I

Soldiers of Peace in Wartime: A Lesson from World War I

Charles F. Howlett

American Friends Service Committee Bulletin Detailing the First Year of War Relief Service, 1917-1918. Available online.

Humanitarian relief efforts in time of war have their own important message to tell. While so much attention is devoted to soldiers in combat, campaigns, and military victories, students of history are entitled to know more about the other side of the story: heroes who risked their own lives within earshot of cannons to save and assist innocent victims of the horrors of war. It is the other side of history most know little about, but should. Even in the throes of war’s damnation there are humans out there willing to demonstrate why peace should be valued above all else.

Human civilization’s first total war began in 1914 and ended in 1918, barely one hundred and four years ago. That war traversed the globe, ravaged the European landscape, tumbled dynastic empires, and brought death and destruction to millions of people. Some 8.5 million combatants were killed alone, and nearly twice as many casualties. The civilian death toll was even more staggering as disease and starvation, let alone the bombing of cities, sucked the lifeblood from those caught in the crossfire of opposing armies. At that time no one could even imagine such an outcome. But while the war was raging on in the fields and valleys of northern Europe, the Middle East, and on the high seas, the Religious Society of Friends in America (or Quakers as they are more popularly referred to) teamed up with the Red Cross to provide aid and comfort to those directly impacted by the war. American Friends decided to take a more active role by performing noncombatant service in the theater of war. They truly risked their lives in the name of peace.

The establishment of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was inspired by a similar organization in Great Britain, the British Friends Service Committee. The British committee was already performing relief work since the war in Europe had been raging almost three years prior to U.S. military involvement. What is most impressive about the American Friends overseas adventure is how quickly they mobilized their efforts and logistically carried out in impressive fashion their own relief efforts. 

During the war the Committee sent many young men and women to feed and care for refugees, build maternity hospitals, and repair and even rebuild destroyed homes. Reconstruction and medical care highlighted a major part of the Committee’s relief efforts. As religious pacifists many draft-eligible Quaker men refused induction into the military, but were willing to perform alternative civilian service, including dangerous humanitarian work in war zones. Similarly, Quaker women volunteers, although not subject to conscription (draft), willingly enlisted in overseas relief and reconstruction work. In France, in particular, these noncombatant volunteers drove ambulances, rebuilt damaged homes, roadways, and villages; they also were instrumental in assisting refugees fleeing from war zones as well as providing funds to staff and supply maternity hospitals and relief stations.

AFSC Volunteers in France, 1917, AFSC Archives, Philadelphia

All told, close to six hundred, mostly male, volunteers worked endlessly in France where most of the fighting took place within the shadow of aerial bombing and roaring cannons. Even when the war ended the Committee extended its work in Russia where relief workers helped fight famine and disease; in Serbia and Poland where they assisted in agricultural development and constructed orphanages; and, finally, into Austria and Germany where they fed hungry children.

In the spirit of Florence Nightengale, the subject of many biographies for her courage and training of nurses during the Crimean War in the nineteenth century, these relief workers in World War I became notable crusaders for humanitarianism. They worked in combat zones with courage, conviction, and compassion. As soldiers of peace their equipment was first aid kits, shovels, buckets, hammers, and nails.

At the same time, the actions of AFSC highlight as very important distinction between an antiwar movement and a peace movement—a distinction students and scholars should understand. An antiwar movement is a short-lived crusade aimed specifically at ending military hostilities and lasts only as long as the conflict endures. A peace movement, however, is continuous and extends well beyond simply ending the conflict—it seeks social justice and reform as well as calling for war to be abolished. That is why it is ever present and has existed in the United States as an organized endeavor since the early nineteenth century—in fact the first established peace society in  world history was founded in New York City in 1815 by the merchant, David Low Dodge. Indeed, AFSC, is an excellent example of what a peace movement is because its work continued long after the “guns of August” were silenced at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month of 1918.   

The following excerpts from the letters and accounts written by Friends can be used by teachers for Document Based Questions explaining the other side of war. They help demonstrate how humanitarian relief work plays a vital role in restoring the lives and stability of those directly impacted by the horrors and costs of war.

Document 1: Letters from Katherine W. Elkington to Parents (August-September 1917)

[Katherine W. Elkington grew up in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She worked at the hospital at Chalons-sur-Marne, in the Champagne-Ardenne region and wrote these letters from the Mission de la Société des Amis in Chalons-sur-Marne]

August 10, 1917: American nerve should count for something, and as I am the only one in all the town as far as I can make out, and there are 40,000 people here—I will have some responsibility. There are about thirteen workers all together here, counting those in the Maternity Ward, those in the creche, and those with older children. Just at present my work lies with the babies whose mothers are here, or who are refugees or something of that stripe. The oldest is three and the youngest a few months, and so as there are about thirty in between, you can see we have some job to keep all fed and clean….Not far away is a factory that tourns out machine guns, and every hour you can hear the pop, pop, pop of the new ones being tested. Besides this there is the never ending trial of soldiers and camions [trucks] going to the front, so one feels quite in the atmosphere of la guerre.     

August 17, 1917: This morning…for just as we were feeding the kids their dinner we heard the anti-air guns in the field next to us go pop, pop, pop, and as this is the signal to rush the children under cover we were all on the run. As soon as they were safe we flew out…and there way up above the clouds was our “Boche” foiled of his prey, and turned homeward by the quick work of the gunners. The smoke from the bursting shells hung in the air like little white puff-balls, perfectly still, five in a row. This, I am assured, is only a teaser and nothing to what they have had.

August 27, 1917: You can’t imagine the ruin, which after three years is still almost untouched. The little church has been patched up and we struck the 1st Mass held there since the catastrophe in 1914. We took several pictures of the wreck, and one of an old woman standing in the door of a new little shanty that has been raised over the cellar of the old home….{W]e stopped to photo one of the numerous wayside crosses that mark the last resting place of some fleeing Germans, and found near it a hastily dug grave apparently abandoned before their man could be interred. It is a gruesome reminder of the shadow that lies over these bright and sunny fields, and one cannot help but feel suddenly shivery as one turns away.

September 20, 1917: For the past few nights there has been a never ending grumble of cannon just out of sight over the hills, and all night long from the windows. I could see the flashes of light that preceded the boom. Also the star bombs were much in evidence, shooting up to consort with their brothers in the sky….

Boom! There the guns are beginning again—big fellows this time whose reverberations shake these walls fifteen miles away….

Source: American Friends Service Committee Records, Box General Administration 1917: Foreign Country—France, American Friends Service Committee Archives, Philadelphia.


  1. How does Elkington contrast her work in the maternity ward with a nearby factory making guns for the war?
  2. What does she mean by feeling “quite in the atmosphere of las guerre”?
  3.  What do you think her feelings were when coming upon a makeshift grave of German soldiers?
  4. How many miles away were the big guns, which rattled her windows?
  5. Do you think she was proud of the work she was doing and did she feel that her contributions would further the cause of peace?
  6. Who did she refer to as “Boche” and what new weapon of war was first introduced during this conflict?

Document 2: Joseph H. Haines, Letter to his Father (April 6, 1918)

[Joseph Haines, like Elkington was a member of the Germantown Monthly Meeting (Quaker Meeting House) and a graduate of Haverford College in 1898. He served in a Reconstruction Unit at Gruny (Somme), France, where he built and repaired houses and schools and assisted local citizens]

When night came we were naturally tired; so tired that I can hardly remember who was there or what we did. All this time others were securing the country side with automobiles to evacuate threatened villages, and they were often under shell fire. We had to load the trains with old people women and children, decrepit, sick or dying….

I could not think of the loss of our material work that has come but only of the tremendous gain we have made in friendship and goodwill among a people to whom we cannot even yet speak plainly. There is one thought ingrained in every one of us, and that is that we must go back to help them set their homes in order and begin life anew as soon as we can. If the people back of us in America give us half a chance, we can, when we do so, accomplish, I think twice the good that we have in the past….

We found the town we were to help clear up entirely deserted—I mean this literally. There were perhaps half a dozen civilians left and the Red Cross was in possession of the Hotel which they were running for themselves. I set to the next morning—after the town had been shelled and we had all taken refuge in the wine cellar down fifty steps and cut out of solid rock where most of the hotel (it was full of Red Cross workers) slept. But I went back to bed after having helped fit up a camion as ambulance to carry the dead and wounded from the shelling….

Source: American Friends Service Committee Records, Box General Administration 1918: Foreign Service Country—France Individuals: Joseph Haines to L. Ralston, American Friends Service Committee Archives, Philadelphia.


  1. How did Haines demonstrate his courage under fire? As a noncombatant did he see himself as a brave soldier without arms?
  2. Did he believe that his example would inspire Americans critical of those who were conscientious objectors to reconsider their opinion?
  3. Why did he want the people back in America to give him half a chance when it came to accomplishing good over evil?
  4. What was the one thought ingrained in each and every one of these volunteers?

Document 3: Edward C.M. Richards, “Reminiscences of Wartime Relief Work in Persia [n.d.]

[During World War I Richards performed missionary and relief work in Persia (now Iran). In 1923, he published a longer account of his experiences; this excerpt is from his unpublished reflections]

At that time, April 1917, many sincere men believed that the most Christian thing to do was to give their lives in the front trenches, believing that in that way they were helping to do away with the evil of war. To hold my position honestly, and meet such men face to face, it was necessary for me to be willing to do something at least as disagreeable and dangerous, and to do it with the motive of keeping people alive, of bringing reconciliation and good will between hostile factions, and to do it using only methods which were uplifting and helpful and beneficial to everybody concerned. I had to be willing to get killed, but to do so living everybody and trying to help everybody, including the Germans and the Turks, and all other people….

At that time, 1917, there was in West Persia a combination of war, racial antipathies and religious fanaticism which had come down through hundreds of years. That area had been the fighting ground of the Turkish and Russian armies since the beginning of the war. Massacres and flights of people had taken place, and were liable to occur at any time….There were only a few hospitals run by American missionary doctors, and most of the worst diseases were continually present: smallpox, cholera, typhoid, typhus, malaria, etc…

In July I arrived in Urumia (now Rezaiah) West Persia, where I was made secretary of the Relief Committee. During the summer , autumn, and early winter, I was busy riding from village to village over the plains, visiting, classifying, and arranging for feeding, clothing, and general care of the 500 odd orphans scattered through this stricken area. I organized some of the refugee Assyrians into a cloth-industry, giving several hundred women work weaving the native cloth which for countless generations had been an important material for men’s clothing in the high mountains of Kurdistan….

Later on, I took charge of cleaning up the streets of the city of Urumia. This included one very unpleasant task; namely, the collecting and reburying of bodies dug up by the dogs in the graveyards, and partly eaten. The cleaning-up and keeping clean…of the yards filled with refugees also fell on my shoulders, as did the care of the relief-transportation equipment of autos, horses, carts, harness, and the rest….

Source: American Friends Service Committee, Collected Records, CDG-A, Box 1, Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, PA.


  1. What position did Richards take that he believed was honest and “unpleasant”?
  2. Why were the Turks fighting the Russians when most of the battles took place in northern Europe?
  3. What do you think was Richards’ most difficult assignment?
  4. In terms of history, did Richards’ work also highlight the tragedy associated with the Armenian genocide that occurred as a result of World War I?

Document 4: Ruth Rose Hoffman, “Report to the Friends Committee of the Year’s Work Done in Siberia under the American Red Cross {July 1919]

[During the Russian Civil War Siberia was a battle zone between Bolshevik and anti-Red forces. The United States, Japan, and several European nations sent troops to support the anti-Bolshevik forces. Hoffman , a nurse working with the American Red Cross, apparently with Friends Committee support, reported on her work in public health and with refugees in the Siberian port city of Vladivostok]

As there were no available doctors in the unit at that time for giving medical assistance, I began to visit these barracks, August 15, 1918; I had done as much as I could in the way of making the lives of these refugees healthier, mostly first aid treatment and taking the very sick into the hospitals….

My work was very difficult but most interesting….All the temporary lodging houses and prisons had to be investigated periodically. We had the most sick cases in the poorest Russian, Chinese and Korean sections of the city….

From January 1st up to July 26 I had located and admitted to the hospital five hundred (500) patient of whom two hundred and seventy-six (276) were Typhus fever cases. Nine hundred and seventy-five visits were made, mostly with the ambulance; six hundred (600) were instructed in the prevention and isolation of disease; four hundred and sixty-seven (467) patients were sent to clinics; clothing given to one hundred and fifty-five (155) bedridden patients, the other being referred to the city office. Medications, eggs and milk were taken to the home of one hundred and seventy-six (176). I also visited many city institutions, which asked for help and made recommendations as to what they really needed.

AFSC Volunteers in France, 1917, AFSC Archives, Philadelphia

As I did not have a physician in my work I had to diagnose and treat some quite serious patients.

In the Spring epidemic of measles, I had a small isolation war of eight (8) beds with a Russian girl in charge of it, whom I trained for the work. We had about thirty (30) cases of measles. The Russian girl proved to be very good along this line and she obtained work after the clinic was closed in the American Red Cross Hospital. Right along in my work I tried to teach child Hygiene to the Russian mothers, who listened to me eagerly but in their everyday struggle for existence they could not remember it very long….

Source: American Friends Service Committee Records, Box General Administration 1919: Foreign Service Country—Germany to Russia, American Friends Service Committee Archives, Philadelphia]


  1. How did Hoffman feel about her work in Russia?
  2. How difficult was it for her to communicate with so many patients speaking different languages?
  3. Did she mind assuming the role of physician under most difficult circumstance and why was she willing to do so?
  4. Why did she feel so compelled to try to teach Russian mothers the importance of child hygiene?
  5. What happened to cause Russia to leave the war and how did this impact the Allied war effort against the Central Powers.

Document 5: Carlton McDowell, Motives of Humanitarian Service (1918)

[McDowell, a Quaker zoologist and relief worker explains his reasons why he and his companions sought to promote understanding, reconciliation, and peace through humanitarian service]       

We went to mend houses; but the reason we wanted to mend houses was that it would give us a chance to try to mend hearts. Much of our work on houses has been lost; but I do not believe that any amount of cannonading will break down whatever influence we had on these people’s hearts. We cannot say how much cheerfulness, hope and love we brought them—surely some reached them. I believe it possible that even now, when their troubles are keener than ever, their experience with us boys may somehow be giving them a little mental comfort. However that may be, the whole perplexing question of our coming will remain in the back of their minds. From time to time it will claim attention until finally a light dawns, until they finally realize why we came—why we crossed the ocean voluntarily, why we worked without pay, why in order to do this we were willing to leave our homes and our professionals and take up jobs we never tried before. And when this answer comes to them it will never be forgotten; in the intimate traditions of these families will be handed down the account of the little group of men who worked for strangers because of their belief in the Great Brotherhood.

Source: Rufus Jones, A Service of Love in War Time: American Friends Relief Work in Europe, 1917-1919. New York: Macmillan Co., 1920, p. 226


  1. What did McDowell consider the greater good to civilization? 
  2.  What did he hope his service without pay would eventually accomplish?
  3. What did he mean by the Great Brotherhood?
  4. What legacy did McDowell wish to convey to those who question his true motivations?

Essay Question

Based on your knowledge of history and events surrounding World War I, what lessons can be learned from the role that noncombatant humanitarian relief workers played when assessing the consequences of war on innocent civilians? How important is humanitarian relief efforts in times of war? Cite specific examples from the documents above where heroes of peace risked their lives to help others.

Further Reading

Bennett, S.H. and Howlett, C.F.(2014). Antiwar dissent and peace activism in World War 1 America: A documentary reader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Chatfield, C. For peace and justice: Pacifism in America, 1914-1941. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971.

Hirst, M. E. (1923). The Quakers in peace and war. London: The Swarthmore Press.

Jones, M. H. (1937). Swords into ploughshares: An account of the American Friends Service Committee, 1917-1937. New York: Macmillan & Co.

 Jones, R.(1920).  A service of love in war time: American Friends relief work in Europe, 1917-1919. New York: Macmillan Co.

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