The Smith College Relief Unit was founded in 1917 by Harriet Boyd Hawes to bring relief to those areas of France that were most devastated during the first World War. Hawes already had significant experience of relief work when she proposed, at a Boston Smith Club meeting in 1917, to form the SCRU. She had served as a relief nurse in both the Greco-Turkish war of 1897 and the Spanish American war, and then later in France, when WWI began. Having seen first-hand the effects of the war in Europe, Hawes was dismayed at the apathy expressed towards it by Americans when she returned to the States.
When the US finally did join the war, Hawes quickly announced her intentions of starting a relief unit, which she hoped to staff with other Smith graduates. Smith alumnae were eager to lend their services; a Committee of Five was established to manage business in the US, and the necessary money was soon raised. The group attained the recognition of the State Department early on, and an affiliation was established with the American Fund for French Wounded through Harriet’s previous connections in France. By 1918, after the Unit had proven its success, the Red Cross accepted the SCRU as an affiliate as well, granting the Unit another source of aid and support.
That summer, with a pledge of $30,000 from alumnae, Hawes set off with seventeen other Smith graduates for France. Their base was to be in the village of Grecourt in the devastated Somme Valley, chosen by the French government as the area of greatest need. When they arrived in Grecourt, the women of the Unit found that not a single building had been left intact; the Germans bombed everything before they left and deported all the able-bodied youth, leaving only the old and the sick and those children who were too young to work. The SCRU rebuilt St. Matthew’s Church and revived services by bringing a minister to the town. They built a school, a library and hospital, planted fruit trees, wheat and vegetables and provided medical services. Sewing was given out to the local women, for which the women were paid according to scales established by the French government. The SCRU taught classes to children, including carpentry, sewing, cooking, music, games and physical education, along with a curriculum of reading and arithmetic.
In March of 1918 a new German offensive forced the evacuation of Grecourt and the surrounding villages. The Unit relocated for a time in Beauvais, where the members worked with the Red Cross to treat the American wounded. The Smith College Relief Unit was the first college women’s unit in France and the first to be acknowledged by the Red Cross. Inspired by the Smith Unit, several other colleges followed, including Wellesley and Bryn Mawr.