French Refugees

A family portrait
Saint-Paul-aux-Bois, 1919
Modern print of a vintage sulfur-toned silver print
Franco-American Museum, Château de Blérancourt

Returning refugees did their best to establish makeshift homes among the ruins. Some lived in huts built from scrap; others resided in limestone shacks like this one. The pipe emerging from the structure reveals that a furnace provided some heat to the gloomy interior.

“When the Germans themselves were retreating, dynamite was placed in all the buildings and connected by wires with a central battery, the current turned on, and all St. Paul completely demolished. Nothing but fragments of houses remain.”
Marion Bartol, volunteer, 1920

People of Saint-Paul-aux-Bois
Saint-Paul-aux-Bois, 1919
Modern print of a vintage sulfur-toned silver print
Franco-American Museum, Château de Blérancourt

These refugees appeared in The Heritage of France, a motion picture produced by the American Committee in 1919 to dramatize the country’s plight. The filmmakers cast local amateur actors in a fictional depiction of one family’s saga of displacement and renewal.

“With set faces, but cheerful withal, they find some kind of shelter amid Armageddon’s wreckage. Where do they find the courage to face it all?”
Laura A. Smith, volunteer, 1919

Mme Boudoux’s cellar
Besmé, 1919
Modern print of a vintage sulfur-toned silver print
Franco-American Museum, Château de Blérancourt

An elderly refugee and a young girl staked claim to this humble shelter, its cold floor lined with hay, by scrawling a message on the wall: La cave est habitée (This cellar is occupied). The photographer staged this tableau to convey the dignity of the French people in the face of extraordinary deprivation.

“One never ceases to marvel at the courage of these people who are not only willing but determined to recreate some kind of a home for themselves among their own ruins.”
Anne Morgan, 1918

Mme Bazin’s view
Nouvron-Vingré, 1919
Modern print of a vintage sulfur-toned silver print
Franco-American Museum, Château de Blérancourt

One of countless elderly refugee women dressed in black, Mme Bazin looks out over the ruins of her community. Against a backdrop of desolation, the photographer balanced her stoic isolation with an emblem of hope: a truck that brought supplies – and human comfort – from the American Committee.

“You can travel in a motor going forward in a straight line for fifteen hours and see nothing but ruins.”
Anne Murray Dike, 1919

Baking resumes after the war
Mons-en-Laonnois, 1919
Modern print of a vintage sulfur-toned silver print
Franco-American Museum, Château de Blérancourt

The reopening of a shop was a monumental event in the devastated regions. Here, hefty loaves of bread were readied for delivery at a newly operational village bakery. The somber-faced child facing the camera, with her dirt-smeared skin and ragged clothes, was sure to touch the photograph’s American audience, her naked toe perhaps inspiring knitters to contribute new stockings.

“Women and children in devastated France need stockings. Will the knitters vary their work by knitting longer legs and smaller feet so that the little children who are without foot covering, in a country without fuel or shelter, may be saved from the curse of frozen feet?”
Newsletter of the American Committee, November 2, 1918

Life in a quarry
Chavigny, 1919
Modern print of a vintage sulfur-toned silver print
Franco-American Museum, Château de Blérancourt

“One old man, a mason, is living in a quarry with a woman refugee, her daughter, and little grand daughter – you can’t think of worse conditions – but their courage never falters. . . .”
Anne Morgan, 1917