For the past several years, Bernard Wilson has been researching  the history of Quaker relief work in southern France during and after World War II. This article is about an Irishwoman, Mary Elmes, who was not a Friend herself but led Quaker relief efforts in Perpignan on behalf of refugees of the Spanish civil war.

Mary Elmes was born May 5th 1908 as Marie Elisabeth Jean Elmes in Cork. Her parents had a family business in Winthrop Street, J Waters and Sons, Dispensing Chemists, her father being the pharmacist. She was educated at Rochelle School and  Trinity College Dublin where she gained  First Class Honours in Modern Literature (French and Spanish) and the Gold Medal. She went on to the London School of Economics as a scholarship student, where she was awarded the LSE Scholarship in International Studies.


In February 1937, Mary joined the University of London Ambulance Unit in war-torn Spain and worked in a children’s hospital in Almeria. The Friends’ Service Council soon took over the responsibility for this work, and Mary moved to Alicante in charge of the hospital there.


The following January, Mary received news that her father had died but she refused to leave until a replacement could be found. No replacement was forthcoming, and the bombing in Alicante had become unbearable for the children, so she found a refuge in the mountains to which she moved her charges. Despite her mother’s pleas that she should return home, she carried on with her work until the war came to an end with the victory of General Franco. In May of 1939 she, and a few other workers, crossed the border into France bringing with them all the records of their work in Spain.


If conditions had seemed bad in Spain, they were many times worse in France. In the first two weeks of February 1939, half a million Spanish men, women and children had struggled into France, bombed and machine-gunned by  planes, while enduring the hardships of the terrain and the winter weather. The French response was to section off areas of the beaches with barbed wire, and to enclose the refugees between the wire and the sea. They had to scoop depressions in the sand for shelter. There were no toilets, they had to use the sea in full view of everyone. Drinking water was pumped up from underground but rapidly became polluted, bread was tossed over the wire leaving the refugees to fight for food. The French authorities hoped that their unwelcome guests would return to Spain – some did, but most refused knowing what fate might await them there.


By the time Mary arrived in France, things were somewhat more organised, there were now many more camps along the coast and some attempt at shelter and provisions had been made. There was still a pressing need for clothing and food, and conditions were still woefully inadequate. She saw however, that if these camps were to remain for any length of time, there was a  need for schooling, for reading matter suitable for both children and adults, for the means to occupy their time and provide some kind of purpose to their existence.  In July 1939 she was appointed by the International Commission of the American Friends Service Council for cultural work in the camps. She saw the need for books in Spanish, and shortly after her appointment was in Paris buying books for the libraries she was soon to open. She became a familiar figure in the camps, thousands knew her as “Miss Mary” and turned to her for solutions to their problems.


But things were to become worse still. With the outbreak of war in September of that year, German refugees who had sought shelter in France were immediately rounded up as enemy aliens, many of them ending up in the already overcrowded camps on the Spanish border. The following year, with the German invasion of the Low Countries, another tide of refugees poured into the region.. Now everyone was short of food. Mary and her colleagues in Perpignan opened canteens, provided meals in schools throughout the region, while still continuing the work in the camps.


With the fall of France, British workers had to leave, but Mary as an Irish neutral stayed on.  A new camp had opened – Rivesaltes – and many Spaniards were transferred there. They were soon to be joined by thousands of Jews, rounded up and taken from their homes by the Vichy government. Rivesaltes was a permanent camp, it had huts and toilets and the Quakers and other aid organisations established canteens and workshops there. But it was no picnic. It was an immense camp on a bleak open plain, there were rats and lice, there was malnutrition and the bitter wind of winter and the scorching heat of summer made living there intolerable.


Mary opened colonies for the children in private houses and hotels, removing them from the camp with the agreement of the authorities and their parents. But soon the deportations began. Train after train left crammed with Jews for “unknown destinations” Even the children’s colonies were not safe, children had to be spirited away and hidden in more isolated places. Mary concealed some children in the boot of her car and drove them high in the Pyrenees.


In November 1942 the Germans occupied the southern zone. Mary hid papers which would have incriminated her in her bathroom, but eventually she was arrested and taken to Toulouse and then to  Fresnes prison near Paris. She was suspected of assisting escapees but she was never charged, and was released nearly six months later. She later dismissed her imprisonment with the words “Well we all experienced inconveniences in those days, didn’t we?”


Mary refused to accept the salary which had accrued while she was in prison, and likewise the Legion d’Honneur which the French government wanted to bestow on her. She was not a Quaker, though she led the Quaker work in Perpignan throughout the war. When the war ended she married Roger Danjou and had two children who continue to live in the area where their mother worked. Mary Elmes died on the 9th March 2002, aged 92.  A journalist wrote of her in 1947 “Tirelessly, with courage and simplicity, she brought to the most deprived the food and clothing which prolonged their lives and the hope of survival. Her confident, affectionate and smiling presence kept the memory of happiness and liberty alive”.

–Bernard Wilson