Those that step up to the plate
Updated: Mar 8
With the world situation as it is now, we are watching the bombing and indiscriminate destruction in Ukraine’s cities, towns and civilians on our televisions. It is shocking. The horror that an over reaching blood-thirsty Politian can do this again in Europe, have we learned nothing? Everyone suffers while they sit in their mansions giving orders that kill innocents and they, in their own minds, are a Hero.
I have always subscribed to those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. I have been to the regions of France where both WWI and WWII felt the ravage and death. Walked along those rows and rows of graves of the fallen. I have seen the huge cavities where bombs fell, trenches that have been left to remind us life is fragile. To this day, up to 50 tons of armaments are collected each year found in the fields by farmers and left by the road side for pick up. I found that astounding, we are talking 80 years later.
But I am reminded of those who stepped up to the plate in both the first and second world wars. A woman who truly made a difference was Anne Morgan, the youngest daughter of JP Morgan, the famous banker and it was not just about her money but, her gumption and her actions. Anne Morgan was wealthy beyond our dreams but was always a non-conformer. What she saw traversing France was the complete destruction and devastation to the civilian population and actually did something about it.
Anne Morgan was living in France at the time when war was declared in 1914 and immediately turned her Villa Trianon into a hospital. She saw the damage of Picardy first hand, 139 villages that were completely destroyed and another 461 were more than 50% ravaged due to the scorched policy of the Germans. She returned to America only to rally support and funds for AFFW (American Fund for French Wounded) when our President refused to send any humanitarian aid. In 1917 Anne Morgan, Dr. Anne Murray Dike and six other of her friends embarked back to France committed to a mission to save the families of hardest hit Picardy.
General Philippe Petain requisitioned a ravaged 17th century chateau as her headquarters that was only a dozen miles from the front lines. With only one pavilion inhabitable they set up building a clinic dispensary, dormitory for workers and dairy farm. The real key to the success was her energetic recruitment of helpers from her American social circles. The coordination of 350 volunteers who had to fit her profile; speak French, be able to drive, have a skill like nursing, and pay their own way. If you think about it, how many women knew how to drive in that era let alone mechanically service their vehicles. They were truly dedicated to the protection of civilians, they opened offices for the refugees and evacuated families within hearing distance of the war and for a while, they themselves had to leave Blérancourt for safety. For the next seven years they and a total of 2500 volunteers changed the lives that survived in the region.
I learned about Ms. Morgan’s contribution at a luncheon in Atlanta with French and American colleagues. I had the pleasure of sitting next to the President of Franco-American National Museum of Blérancourt, which at the time was traveling around the US, as the Chateau was completing renovations. I was astounded to learn this story and disappointed that I was never taught about this famous woman in history classes in school. Then a kismet moment came to me in Miami just weeks later, as I left a shop and looked up to see a banner announcing American Friends of Blérancourt was currently in the Coral Gables Museum. I immediately went in to see it.
This group of women restored homes, shops, churches, and monuments devastated by the war. They built barracks for the homeless; provided seed and livestock; established dispensaries, clinics, rest houses, and traveling canteens for soldiers; and provided training for the disabled, along with schools, libraries, camps. The bought and distributed rabbits, goats and calves to give the farmers a leg up to help themselves. Also they funded planting 3000 fruit trees. To carry out these actions, the CARD (American Committee for Devastated Regions as the organization came to be known) was able to hire workers on the spot. The volunteers were housed in wooden barracks, characteristic of the reconstruction. I was lucky to visit some of these sparse rustic barracks that remain today close to Blérancourt. To travel through the region they could not do without cars. Thus a total of 63 Ford cars and small Dodge trucks were purchased to handle this work thanks to donations collected in the United States.
Anne Morgan changed the way funds were raised for their efforts; she hired young photographers and film makers to document the work and the horrors to show Americans what was really happening. Then she traveled around the US fundraising, creating an active network to help. This documentation is a living legacy today at the Museum at Blérancourt.
They closed Blérancourt in July 30, 1924 and returned home at the end of the war. But they left a legacy of libraries, nurseries, schools for vocational training, and economic skills for farming and home life.
But, on September 4, 1939, when a new war had just been declared, Anne Morgan formed the American Civil Relief Committee, which relied on the old structures that CARD had left in France. From their former center at Blérancourt, the Americans organized rescue teams and prepared plans for the evacuation of civilians from villages in the northern Aisne and Ardennes. During the exodus of 1940, they help the refugees. Again, she steps up to the plate to assist.
I was so intrigued by how the accomplishments of this woman from such an infamous family remained under the radar. Thus the following year I took time from my travels to drive north of Paris to go to the Meuse and L’Aisne. I was assisted by Christelle Clement and Christel Rigolot from the tourism boards who knew every nook and cranny of the region, I am very grateful to them both. I wanted not just to visit Blérancourt, but also the both the WWI sites, the towns, trenches, cemeteries and the WWII sites. To say this had a profound effect on me was an understatement. I embarked on a journey that is ingrained in my heart and mind.
Soissons is a town that was part of the CARD mission and when I was visiting the town in 2019, a car drove by me with the CARD organization logo on it….ONE HUNDRED years later this organization that Anne Morgan started carries on its civilian duties today, focusing mostly on the elderly population. That to me is extraordinary!! Hats off to Anne Morgan her vision and her tenacity. I would have loved to have met this amazing woman.