100 years ago (June 1921) John Nevin Sayre, a pacifist Anglican priest, wrote the article: “An Adventure in France” in the American religious socialist magazine “The World Tomorrow”. He told the story of the first workcamp in detail, going through the beginning, introducing the people who took part in it, and the development and final cease of the work they were doing.
The article is very interesting and really worth reading. Enjoy it!
An Adventure in France:
Gallant action, even if it does not succeed, sometimes dramatizes and gives power to a subsequently successful ideal. Last winter in the heart of the devastated area in France I saw an adventure for peace wherein there was a kind of heroism worth the telling.
Pierre was a pacifist, but one who realized that besides objecting to war it was necessary to strike at the causes from which wars come. And especially he felt it necessary to attack wrong opinion, misunderstanding, hate, and fear. In the ruined parts of France he knew that feeling was bitter against the Germans. In the popular imagination they were all of them terrible Huns. “These thoughts will make a new war,” said Pierre. “I must teach people to think differently. There must be an object lesson to show that in all nations God has good men, and that there is loss when we do not all live as brothers.”
For a time Pierre pondered over his idea, and then he worked out a plan. It was to be an unspoken dramatization of love and of love’s power, when fairly tried, to conquer hate, using no weapons but love’s very own.
“Men must come from the enemy countries,” thought Pierre, “come to a devastated place in France and settle down and work there. They must come of their own free will and very simply but directly set about repairing the devastation. French peasants need houses, and their fields must be put back in condition that they may have farms and homes again. Germans must come and help this work, not because they are coerced but because they are led by the spirit of penitence, of love; and men from other nations must work with them, acknowledging their share also in the destruction of war and their purpose now to construct and repair. It will strike deeply at hate. It is a good plan, but it is no good unless it gets started by action.”
On November 19, 1920, Pierre and two friends arrived at a demolished village which lies to the north of Verdun. Before the war – if the postal-card pictures of it are true – it was a place with white houses clustered about curving streets and a quaint stone church and orchards on a hillside. Now it is
a rubble of iron junk and stones. None of the former houses are there, the church is gone except for the stump of its tower, and that too is now weathering away. The trees are dead, some standing stark bare but most of them down; the fields are riddled with shell craters and holes, they are littered with refuse, and when the farmer would clear them he must remove brambles of barbed wire and rocks made of explosives and steel. Peasants live here and there in wooden barracks put up after the storm of fire and metal had passed by; but there were many families still needing even such rough shelter on the day that Pierre and his comrades came.
The three newcomers had with them tools for the construction of houses, and a contract from the “Département de Régions Libérées” authorizing them to build four huts.
They had also been given a verbal promise that they should have contracts to build at least sixteen houses more. The French Government had agreed to furnish the lumber; Pierre and his friends were to do the construction; they rejoiced in the thought of hammering nails.
Pierre had been a teacher of mathematics and knew about relativity. He was a Swiss. Hubert was an English Quaker who had volunteered during the war for work with the Friends Mission in France. Kris came from Holland; he had gotten three weeks’ leave of absence from his regular work that he might share at the start in the adventure of peacemaking love.
It was night when the three arrived. They had a load of furniture, but there was no house where they could put it or have a roof over their heads. They found a half finished hut without floor, ceiling, or window panes. Here they spread out their camp beds and slept. When later it came on to rain, big Pierre awoke; silently he arose, took his own heavy blanket, and spread it over Kris as a mother covers her child.
On Christmas day the first ex-enemy comrade appeared. Adalbert, a student of architecture from Buda Pesth and Vienna, had been a war prisoner in France and there had met Hubert building houses. Later he had accidentally seen him on a rail road journey and heard from him of the proposed plan to invade the devastated region with a work of service in love. “It’s the right idea,” said Adalbert; “don’t you want to let me come?” And come he did on Christmas day with his violin and sensitive body and soul. By this time Pierre and the others had put up two houses, in one of which they lived. They were working on a third house, and Marie, a woman from Holland, had arrived to cook and wash and do the great good that a woman can. Marie had sold some of her possessions that the enterprise might have money with which to begin. There was also another woman, Madame B., who at this time was giving aid. Madame B. was from Paris; but representing the Comité de Secours d’Urgence, she had a hut near Pierre’s and a Ford car with a 100-per-cent.- American chauffeuse. Madame B. now and then transported provisions for Pierre, and she arranged that Hubert should teach elementary English to some of the village children.
Before the middle of January Pierre’s group had further accessions. Pierre’s brother, a military colonel, came for a few days, but stayed several weeks and gave most valuable assistance. Three Germans arrived – Boches, whose histories were these:
Karl, a socialist-pacifist working man, came from Dortmund. He had a wife and child to support, but friends were temporarily taking care of them, for they and the wife and Karl were all eager to do real work against war.
Valentin came from Munich; he had fought in the front-line trenches and gone unscratched through four years of it. He had been a sharp-shooter and was credited with having picked off for death forty or more men. Still not thirty years old, he had come back to France, this time to build houses, without wages, for late foes.
Helmut, a pale nineteen-year-old boy who had worked in a printing office at Halle, read there in a newspaper that the Quakers were constructing huts for the homeless in the devastated land. Helmut’s older brother, a soldier in the German army, had been killed in the siege of Verdun. “I will go there,” said Helmut, “I will build huts, conquer enmity with love.” So he had written to Pierre and begged to come, and persuaded his father to let him go, and having started he had lost his way by night on the last stretch of road, and been picked up by Madame B. in the Ford car with the 100-per-cent.-American chaffeuse.
Before this Kris from Holland had been obliged to return home, but the initial unit of workers for which Pierre had planned was now complete. They called themselves the “Groupe de Service International.”
Trouble, however, was in store. Letters from the Groupe dated January 20 and 22 show the situation: “The immediate future of our work is rendered very uncertain as a result of the recent action of the French Govern ment in reducing materially the credits for the Régions Libérées… At the moment of writing we have as yet had no official intimation of any reduction in the number of baraques which we were definitely led to expect would be entrusted to us to build. On the other hand, our first contract expires with the house on which we are at present working, and the official responsible for its renewal persistently omits to visit us…
“We are looking about for other work. There is plenty to do, of course, in this country; the difficulty is only to find the work by which we can make a living. The fields are still miserably torn by trenches and shell holes. The peasants are very anxious to get them filled, but this work, as well as the first ultivation of the fields, should be done or paid for by the government; at least such was the promise of the government, and the government does nothing and pays nothing because it is unable to do so. The peasants, as a very few did, should go ahead and repair their fields without waiting for the help of the government, but if they do so, and fill a hole which has not been officially controlled by special government agents, they lose their right to get an indemnity for the said hole…
“Among certain people here there is a very strong feeling against the presence of Germans among us. The people of the village themselves – they are about eighty – seem not to have any serious objection against them… But there is here a lady from Paris who has been very kind to us – and is still – as far as we are non-Germans… This Madame B. considers the presence of the German friends as an ‘insult to the dead’ and does much to persuade the village people that they think as she does… Madame B. said she has not much to say against Germans coming in France for business; but this service of reconciliation is supremely irritating to her, because it threatens the persistence of hatred… She said in a very characteristic way: ‘Religion can be of no serious value to the French people of the present time, at any rate; if you are weakening now their patriotism, what is going to be left to them?’…
“We are all far from being ideal reconciliation workers, and yet it is deeply impressing to see how well everything is going in our circle. We read and half translate into German every evening a few pages from the life of Francis of Assisi (by Sabatier) and it is a great help.”
It was on an evening in February after the reading from St. Francis that an English visitor and I sat about an oilcloth covered table discussing with Pierre and Hubert how the Groupe was to be carried on. Some days before, with the completion of the last hut, an arrangement had been made with the Maire of the village that the Groupe should fill shell holes and do spade work in a field which he personally owned. If the Groupe could make a garden here it was to have for itself the vegetables raised. That evening a letter had come from England with a gift of £100. “That will keep us for a while,” said Pierre, “and there is no end of work that needs to be done. We might, as a gift to the village, repair the main road.”
“And if you can keep going until the summer,” said one of the visitors, “won’t there be farmers who will need special labor to help with their crops at that time ?”
“Yes, there are farmers in the district who will need such help a good deal.”
“Well, then, can’t you get board if you work for them, and if we can get college students to come over from England and America and give their labor for two months, won’t that help, and can’t we in that way extend and continue the usefulness of the Groupe de Service International”
The upshot of the discussion was that we would try. Fresh hope and courage had come to us all.
On the thirteenth of March – about the time, as I remember of Caesar’s “Ides” – Hubert wrote a report which indicated that disaster to the Groupe was hovering near. After telling of the welcome that three or four adjacent villages had said they could give to an extension of the Groupe’s activity in agricultural and other lines, and that arrangements had been practically completed for the commencement of operations in one of these communities, the report stated that on the evening before this work was to begin, word came that the Prefet had ordered that no more work, paid or unpaid, was under any circumstances to be given to the Groupe by the commune. No reason accompanied this unexpected order.
Seventeen days later Hubert wrote a final letter, from which I quote in part:
“You will have gathered from my previous report that our position here was pretty critical, and now the blow has fallen. We have been formally notified by the Maire at the Mairie in the presence of several witnesses that he will not tolerate our presence any longer and that we must clear out of the commune within forty-eight hours.
“The actual occasion of this outburst was unfortunate enough. We had two schoolboys from Switzerland, distant relatives of Pierre, who had come to spend their Easter holidays with us. The younger of these last Monday seems to have allowed his morbid curiosity to lead him to handle two cows belonging to local farmers in such a way as to give rise to suspicion that he wanted to damage them. One of the owners complained to the Maire who at once got in a rage, arrested the boy, making a big scene at which most of the neighbours assisted, and all the old tales of the infamies of the ‘Boches’ and the dangers of allowing such people to come back into those regions were fished up for the general edification… The Maire ‘phoned for the Gendarmes, who came the next day, and the fact of irregular handling being admitted, though not the suggestion of evil intent, the Gendarmes decided to let the boy off with a caution, provided that Pierre would deposit a sum to guarantee the owners against loss in the event of ill results to the cows. (The veterinary on his subsequent visit found that no harm whatever had been done and the owners have since told Pierre that they don’t wish him to trouble to deposit the money.) The Maire, however, took the occasion of the investigation as giving him the chance, for which he has evidently long been watching, to please certain influential persons here and rid the village of the Groupe.
“It seems quite probable that he has overstepped the bounds of legal right, but as we have no wish to claim our rights nor in any way to impose ourselves on an unwilling community, we decided as far as possible to comply with these rather unreasonable conditions. We had at first the hope that we could remove at once to A., but unfortunately in the absence of the Secretary to the Maine (our best friend at A.) the Maire and council had not the courage to accept as residents a group which had been expelled from a neighbouring commune.
“Karl and Helmut left this morning to seek their fortunes in Metz until we shall have clearer light on the possibilities of further work as a group, which seem at the moment extremely dubious… Valentin and Adalbert had already left us some days previously, the one for home in Munich and the other to try and find congenial and useful work elsewhere in France if possible. Pierre and I, therefore, with Marie, are staying to wind up affairs…”
Philipp Rodriguez has compiled an extensive collection of original documents in French, German and English on the Esnes project which can be downloaded in pdf format here.