If you go
What: "American Women Rebuilding France" exhibition
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. March 16 to March 29
Where: Arsenault Gallery, 764 12th Ave. S., Naples
Admission: Free Information on the exhibit: 239-263-1214; www.americanfriendsofblerancourt.org
Few people in the United States know about the hundreds of American women who left privileged lives to help rebuild France, driving trucks and building schools, during and after World War I.
But a photo and film exhibit is coming to Southwest Florida to help spread the story.
The Arsenault Gallery in Old Naples is hosting “American Women Rebuilding France,” a silent film and a collection of historic photographs highlighting the humanitarian efforts made by a group of female volunteers who risked everything to help.
The material is from the Anne Morgan Archives of the Franco-American Museum at Château Blérancourt in France. The Alliance Franaise of Bonita Springs and the American Friends of Blérancourt partnered to bring the exhibit to the Arsenault Gallery.
Millions of people died in World War I, a deadly and lengthy conflict between the Central Powers — Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey — and the Allied Powers — the British empire, France the Russian empire — that lasted from 1914 to 1918.
The female volunteers, known as the American Committee for Devastated France, ventured there to lend a hand around the time the United States entered the war in 1917.
The women of the committee, who came from mansion life, lived in wooden barracks in France, at times just miles from the dangerous front lines of the war. They drove trucks and performed manual labor to help the lives of rural French children, women and elderly.
Mimi Gregory, president of Alliance Franaise of Bonita Springs, said she feels “particularly good” about the fact that the exhibit is being shown during March, which is Women’s History Month.
“I think the coincidence of it is perfect,” Gregory said.
She said World War I is not as prominent as World War II or the Vietnam War in the American zeitgeist because of the passage of time. The 100-year anniversary of the start of the “Great War,” as it was known, in Europe is in 2014.
“There are no enduring veterans or people to tell the tales,” Gregory said.
Gregory said the groups brought the exhibit to Southwest Florida to show the enduring friendship between France and the United States, show the difficulty people faced to reconstruct their villages and to call attention to that generation of heroic women.
Paul Arsenault, the Naples artist who owns the gallery, said he was among those who did not know this part of American history. He said he is excited to share the exhibit with others in Southwest Florida.
“I think it’s a great and inspirational story,” he said. “These were the women of strength.”
The central figure in all of this is Anne Morgan, the youngest daughter of financier J.P. Morgan.
Anne Morgan, remembered as an organizer, started the American Committee for Devastated France in 1917 after learning about the plight of the French people.
And it’s because of her foresight and before-her-time media savvy that the photographs and film reels chronicling those efforts exist, according to Elaine Uzan Leary, executive director of the American Friends of the Blérancourt (pronounced blay-HAHN-COOR).
“She harnessed the power of documentary photography — to foster a humanitarian response to the plight of French refugees,” Uzan Leary said.
Morgan, who was already an immigrants’ rights activist in New York City, decided that the best way to raise money and spread awareness back in the United States was through photography and silent film.
Morgan commissioned photographers and filmmakers to capture what was going on in France and what the committee was accomplishing. Some of that material is what is being displayed at the Arsenault Gallery exhibit.
The images show the devastation done to the region by the war. People in Picardy lived and worked around crumbled buildings brought down by the continued fighting. Many children had little food and access to medical care.
“When you see a child hugging a loaf of bread — it’s very moving,” Gregory said.
“Malnutrition and illness were everywhere. So, (Morgan’s) committee was to rebuild the whole region for the civilian population,” Uzan Leary said.
Morgan and her volunteers directed the reconstruction of buildings, helped with agricultural production, created a network of visiting nurses and started libraries, health clinics and schools.
The unique nature of the work required the women to do lots of manual labor. But they also had to know French, hold a driver license and had to be able to pay for their own trips.
This meant many of the volunteers came from the upper echelons of society, according to Uzan Leary.
“These women were all elite,” Uzan Leary said. Still, she added, “They were not satisfied just staying home getting pampered. They wanted to do something.”
And they did. Volunteers helped with reconstruction for years after the war ended. They might be unknown here, but the women’s efforts are immortalized throughout Picardy. There also are many homages to Anne Morgan.
“When you go there in Picardy, her name is everywhere,” Uzan Leary said. “She basically rebuilt the whole infrastructure of these villages and reached over 800 families.”
Anne Morgan bought the Chateau Blérancourt after the war and lived in part of it when she was in France. She used the other part of the home to found a museum about the relationship between France and the United States.
Chateau Blérancourt is now a national museum in France that still serves that purpose.
Gregory believes the French-American friendship still exists, despite the fact that there may have been politically related low points along the way.
“But it has always come back,” she said. “I think that truly people have a long and enduring love of France and foster that friendship no matter what.”