When Corsica welcomed thousands of Serb refugees (1916)

Kathleen Courtney in Corsica.

Serb refugees en route to Corsica (1916)

In 1916, around 5,000 Serb refugees were evacuated to Corsica via Salonika, Corfu and the Adriatic coast to escape the conflict in the Balkans. On arrival they were settled in the major towns of Bastia and Ajaccio and further inland in villages such as Piana, Coti Chiavari, Ucciani and Bocognano. Medical, welfare and educational support was provided as well as work opportunities where possible. This major refugee support effort was organised by the Serbian Relief Fund and staffed by the Quaker-run Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee. One of the key co-ordinators of this work was the British suffragist and peace activist Kathleen Courtney who was widely recognised as an exceptional administrator.

The experience of the Serb refugees in Corsica is also the subject of the fascinating book ‘De La Corse aux Balkans’ (2019) by Jacques Casamarta, Guy Lannoy, Pascale Larenaudie, Tanja Milosavljevic, Hadrien Orsini and Zoran Radovanovic.

Kathleen Courtney (1878-1974)

“Women can make their own contribution to the work and ideals of constructive peace”

Kathleen Courtney was born in Gillingham into a wealthy Anglo-Irish military family. She attended the Anglo-French College in Kensington, the Manse boarding school in Malvern and Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University where she studied French and German. She worked at the Lambeth Constitutional Girls’ Club and became active in the women’s suffrage movement, first as Secretary of the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage in Manchester (1908), and then as Secretary of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in London (1911).

In 1912, Herbert Asquith and his Liberal Party government were still refusing to support votes for women. The Labour Party passed a resolution committing itself to supporting women’s suffrage and Kathleen Courtney negotiated with the Labour Party on behalf of NUWSS, leading to their support for Labour candidates in parliamentary by-elections. The NUWSS established an Election Fighting Fund (EFF) to support these Labour candidates and Kathleen Courtney was on the committee which administered this fund.

In July 1914 the NUWSS argued that Asquith’s government should do everything possible to avoid a European war. Two days after the British government declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, Millicent Fawcett declared that it was suspending all political activity until the conflict was over. Although the NUWSS supported the war effort, it did not follow the WSPU strategy of becoming involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces.

Kathleen Courtney in 1915

Despite pressure from members of the NUWSS, Millicent Fawcett refused to argue against the First World War. At a Council in February 1915, she argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: “I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace.”

After a stormy executive meeting in Buxton all but one of the officers of the NUWSS and ten National Executive members, including Kathleen Courtney, resigned over the decision not to support the Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague.

Kathleen Courtney wrote about the rift with the NUWSS:

I feel strongly that the most important thing at the present moment is to work, if possible on international lines, for the right sort of peace settlement after the war. If I could have done this through the National Union, I need hardly say how infinitely I would have preferred it and for the sake of doing so I would gladly have sacrificed a good deal. But the Council made it quite clear that they did not wish the union to work in that way.

In an article in ‘Towards Permanent Peace’ (September 1915) Kathleen wrote:

The Women’s International Congress does not claim to have invented a new means for preventing war; it does not claim to have put forward a startling or original theory. It does claim to have been a gathering of women of many countries, which proved that, even in time of war, the solidarity of women will hold fast; it does claim to have shown that women of different countries can hold out the hand of friendship to each other in spite of the hatred and bloodshed under which most international ties seem submerged. It claims too, to have shown that, while women have a special point of view on the subject of war, and while its wastefulness of human life must appeal to them with particular emphasis, they can, at the same time make their own contribution to the work and ideals of constructive peace.

The Hague Congress, also attended by Jane Addams from Chicago, established the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace and Kathleen Courtney was elected chair of the British Section called the Women’s International League (WIL).

During the First World War, Kathleen Courtney worked with the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee. Janet E. Grenier, her biographer, described this work: “She worked for the Serbian Relief Fund in Salonika, took charge of a temporary Serbian refugee colony in Bastia, Corsica, and was decorated by the Serbian government. Those who knew her during this period described her as full of life and fun and an exceptional administrator. She went on to work for the Friends’ committee in France, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Greece. She was in Vienna for three years where she was horrified by the post-war scenes of starvation, particularly among refugees.”

Courtney also continued her involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage. She helped establish the Adult Suffrage Society in 1916 and as joint-secretary she lobbied members of the House of Commons for extension of the franchise until the Qualification of Women Act was passed in 1918. The following year she became vice-president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. As well as advocating the same voting rights as men, the organisation also campaigned for equal pay, fairer divorce laws and an end to the discrimination against women in the professions.

In the 1920s Kathleen became the President of the British Section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a position that she held until 1933. In addition to her work for WILPF Kathleen was involved in many other peace, arbitration and disarmament campaigns. She was an organiser of the Women’s Pilgrimage for Peace in 1926, and in the international effort that culminated in the presentation of a petition signed by several millions to the 1932 Disarmament Conference. In 1930 Kathleen took part in the Women’s Round Table at the Fifth National Conference on the Cause and Cure of War in Washington.

When Abyssinia was invaded by Italy in October 1935, she mobilized British and European women’s organizations in the campaign to prevent civilian bombing. During the Second World War she worked for the Ministry of Information. In 1945 she attended the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations. Soon afterwards she became deputy chairman of the United Nations Association.

Kathleen was always a strong supporter of the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations, and her speeches in 1945 were influential in persuading Americans of the value of the United Nations. Kathleen became Vice-Chair of the League of Nations in 1939, and in 1949 Chair and Joint President of the United Nations Association. Work in connection with these organisations involved her in extensive travelling abroad and many speaking engagements.

Although Kathleen Courtney decided to retire from her formal position in the United Nations Association in 1951, she continued to be active with the organisation, and to work for peace throughout her remaining years.

Based on the blog by John Simkin on the brilliant Spartacus Educational site john@spartacus-educational.com and the chapter on Kathleen Courtney by Helen Kay and Pat Pleasance in the WILPF publication ‘These Dangerous Women’.

Sending volunteers to support Serb refugees in Corsica

This extract from the “Third Report of The War Victims’ Relief Committee of The Society of Friends, October, 1915 to September, 1916” provides background to the Serb relief operation in Corsica (full document available here).

“The possibility of such work (helping with the assistance of distressed Serbian refugees) was investigated by several representatives of the committee, who visited Salonica, Monastir and Ghevgeli, then threatened by the attacking armies. These inquiries made it clear that we could best work in close co-operation with the influential Serbian Relief Fund, with its headquarters at 5, Cromwell Road, London, S.W., rather than attempting to do so independently; and all that has since been done has followed these lines, with the happiest results.

We have contributed many of the workers who have assisted to distribute the relief and to administer the operations of Serbian aid; and the value of this to the larger body has been repeatedly and warmly acknowledged.

The stream of refugees from Serbia took two directions, that flowing south being mainly composed of civilians, who escaped the worst horrors of the retreat. Some of our workers thereupon helped to organise the refugee camp already started outside Salonica. This was a notable achievement in improvisation, and, with an average population of seven hundred, acted for two months as an important stage in the long emigration from Serbia to Corsica, the latter island having been thrown open by the French Government for the reception of the refugees. On each transport that left for Ajaccio two or three relief workers or nurses travelled to accompany the refugees, to give them confidence and to attend to their comfort on the journey. The camp was finally evacuated and all our workers left Salonica, with the exception of one who remained for some months to care for numbers of Greek refugees who had taken refuge in the city.

The other stream of refugees, composed of the remnants of the Serbian armies, and a number of civilians, mostly men and boys, who were anxious to throw themselves upon the goodwill of the Allies, wandered over primitive roads and inaccessible mountain passes to Scutari and the Adriatic coast. Two of our workers spent the months of December and January in this desolate and distracted country, and in spite of the utmost disorganisation, and in face of difficulties second to none that have faced our workers in any of our fields of work, succeeded in finding food and organising relief for some ten thousand civilian refugees. Their perseverance and ingenuity must have saved many hundreds of lives. The story of the conditions they had to face and of the work they performed is as striking as any to be found in the annals of relief work during the progress of the great war.

The refugees who survived the horrors of those black weeks were at length safely transported to Corfu, and subsequently to Marseille. En route for Corsica, refugee camps were organised in Corfu, where employment was provided for the men, and they were reclothed, housed, and fed.

From thence… other parties of refugees were taken to Algiers and to Corsica. In the latter case, in several instances, serious hardship from lack of food and adequate arrangements had to be faced by the refugees on shipboard; and had it not been for the presence with them of representatives of our work, intolerable suffering and literal starvation would have been their lot.”

Much also was done in Corsica amongst the successive shiploads which reached Ajaccio. The French Government undertook to pay a small quota per head for maintenance, but looked to the Serbian Relief Fund to distribute clothing, to organise medical assistance, and to suggest means of employment. Our workers gave special attention to those of better standing than the great mass of the refugees, and many of them were comfortably settled out in little colonies at such mountain health resorts as Bocognano, or in big villas round Ajaccio, where a genial family life is maintained.

No time was lost in starting work to occupy the time of the refugees and to add to their efficiency. A women’s workroom was commenced at Ajaccio for the making of clothes for the refugees. A loom also was set up for making Pirot carpets, which are now being regularly exported to England. At Ucciani, another of the settlements, a number of men and boys have been occupied in growing vegetables, which help to supply the needs of the various institutions. In these and other ways we have been able to lessen the hardships and privations of a painful migration, and at the same time to aim to help the refugees to fit themselves for the task of restoring their national life.”

The archive

The Imperial War Museum in London has records of Kathleen Courtney’s work for the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe between 1915 and 1916 and from 1919 to 1927, her work for Serbian refugees in the Salonika transit camp (January 1916), the journey from Salonika to Corsica and her work at the Serbian refugee camp at Bastia in 1916, together with a small collection of contemporary photographs from the refugee camps in Greece and Corsica.

See also:

Posts on Corsican themes (August 2022)

London’s Francophone refugees (September 2016)

Instinct, heart and reason – Daniel Pennac on the refugee crisis (August 2016)

Four cousins went to war (December 2016)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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