Embroidery under fire

By Leah Tams
Two women wearing hats in WWI photo

The scream of incoming shells would send French peasant women dashing to their cellars for safety, but then they would pick their needlework up again.

Here is the full view of this World War I scene, as described in a letter dated June 1916: "The women sit inside their houses under fire constantly, and embroider. When a shell is heard on its way they duck into the cellars until it bursts, and then come out again at once. The cellars are all marked—that is the safe ones, with signs pointing to them and telling their capacity. The women who embroider are those whose men—sons, husbands, and fathers are at the front or wounded or killed…"

Explosion of fire and smoke

An embroidered scene of soldiers on horses and in a line with flags

An embroidered scene of soldiers in a line with flags

This powerful scene of civilian women working tirelessly to embroider household items, close enough to the front to be under constant fire, becomes all the more impressive when you see what the women were making, and we are lucky enough to have an original set in the Armed Forces History collections at the museum. The meticulous needlework represents the main Allied forces of the Great War in extraordinarily detailed cross-stitched tableaux depicting colorful soldier figures, flags, coats of arms, and even an image of Paris with planes flying overhead, protecting the city. The letter detailing the women's working conditions was sent with some of these embroidered items during the war and now accompanies them in our collections.

Paris skyline in grey with yellow airplanes above

So, why did the women risk their lives to embroider these beautiful items? Well, while their fathers, husbands, and sons were fighting for their country, these women were fighting to maintain their livelihoods and rebuild their war-torn communities. The embroidered items were sold in America through the Society for Employment of Women in France, and all of the money from their sale went back to the women and their families in France. In addition to embroidery, which the women typically did during the winter months, they also took to the fields during the summer and tended crops, working until the fields were harvested.

Man regards busy refugee scene of people and animals

While we don't know very much about the Society for Employment of Women in France, other organizations were helping to conduct similar war relief work in different areas of France. One such organization was the American Committee for Devastated France (ACDF), which was headed by two women: Anne Morgan, daughter of financier J. P. Morgan, and Anne Murray Dike, a licensed physician. The ACDF initially formed under the wings of the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW)—another wartime humanitarian organization established by American women. The main focus of the AFFW was caring for wounded French soldiers, but a Civilian Division soon formed with the focus of reconstructing French civilian life. Out of this Civilian Division, headed by the two Annes, the ACDF was born.

Two women in hats and trenchcoats

Women in both the ACDF and the AFFW were middle- to upper-class society ladies who donned uniforms to conduct war work. ACDF volunteers traveled to France, oftentimes paying their own way, and worked to help returning French refugees rebuild their lives in the Aisne district. They solicited many kinds of material donations from Americans to help the reconstructions, including (but not limited to) money, food, livestock, clothing, and household items. The ACDF set up farms, dispensaries, schools for the French children, and sewing workshops for the women to produce bedding and other household items. War relief work in the Aisne continued well after the armistice of 1918, until the organization officially transferred its property and operations to the French in July 1924.

Five embroidered napkins with European coats of arms

The women of the ACDF and AFFW began to break the traditional molds of society with their war work—joining in the work of these wartime organizations, they took on much more active and commanding roles in society and staked their claim for full American citizenship. These middle- and upper-class American women and the French peasant women who embroidered the items now in our collection show some of the different ways in which women, though not traditional soldiers, fought for themselves, for each other, and for their countries during World War I.

Leah Tams is the James Lollar Hagan intern in Armed Forces History. She recommends learning more about Anne Morgan and her work in war-torn France, as well as other American volunteers in France during and after the war.