Gender, Humanitarianism and Soft Power

Laure Humbert introduces her research on the ‘public face’ of the international Hadfield Spears and discusses it with Charlotte Faucher, BA postdoctoral fellow (University of Manchester) and specialist of the history of Franco-British cultural policies in the twentieth century.  Charlotte Faucher has recently organized a conference on ‘New approaches to the history of soft-power’ and is publishing an article ‘Restoring the Image of France in Britain, 1944-1947’ in the Historical Journal.

Fig. 1. ‘Un don des Anglais à la France’, Excelsior, journal illustré quotidien, Sunday 11 February 1940. (BNF, Gallica)
Fig. 2. ‘Ving-cinq-voitures… quinze ‘chauffeuses’, Le Petit Parisien : journal quotidien du soir, Wednesday 7 February 1940 ((BNF, Gallica).

As I am progressing in my research on the Hadfield Spears international hospital, I am increasingly more interested in its multi-faceted public face. As Ana Carden-Coyne notes, wartime hospitals were not only spaces of intense and fraught intimate encounters between medical staff and patients, but also objects of public fascination and politicized symbols embedded in war cultures [1]. This is particularly true for the international Hadfield Spears hospital, which made regular appearances in the Allied press throughout the war. Its director – Mary Spears – saw her hospital as an ‘elite’ unit, in the traditions set by Florence Nightingale [2], and a tool of British propaganda.  

At its creation in the spring of 1940, the Hadfield Spears Unit was portrayed in the French newspapers l’Excelsior as a generous ‘British gift to France’, a symbol of long-lived Franco-British medical cooperation (Fig 1). Le Petit Parisien reminded its readers that Mary Spears had effectively run a hospital in France during the First World War (Fig. 2). During the French defeat of June 1940, the British press noted that the hospital shared the hardships French people suffered in their flight from the Germans. On 24 June 1940, the Dundee Courier reported anxiously that ‘no news has been received for more than a week of the whereabouts in France of the Hadfield Spears mobile unit’ (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. ‘Mary Borden Ambulance Mystery’ Dundee Courier, 24 June 1940, p. 2. (British Library Newspapers)
Fig. 4. ‘General de Gaulle inspecting the Hadfield Spears Hospital’, The Illustrated London News, 1 February 1941. (British Library Newsapapers)

Thankfully, on 28 June 1940, the Aberdeen Journal announced that ‘Miss Mary Borden Safe: Home with Unit’: telegrams had reached England that the unit had arrived at an English port [3]. A day later, Mary Spears spoke at the BBC. She told the British public about her determination to continue to help the fighting French: ‘we will renew our equipment; we will rebuild our Unit and we will work again for the French troops who can still fight for France and who will avenge their dead’ [4]. In the winter of 1941, she re-organised the unit and appeared in the Illustrated London News with de Gaulle. The caption read: ‘the Hadfield Spears Hospital Unit… is provided with funds raised by the British War Relief Society in New York’ (Fig. 4). This recuring image of Franco-British cooperation was an official discourse intended to strengthen the alliance between her husband Edward Spears and General de Gaulle, at a time when, at least publicly, Edward Spears took the ‘nascent Free French movement under his wing’ [5]. 

After the joint British-Free French move into Syria and Lebanon in the spring of 1941, however, the hospital rapidly became embroiled in the bitter Franco-British imperial confrontation over Syrian and Lebanese independence. The hospital cared for the wounded of the bloody Free French/British military operations against the Vichy forces. Yet, after this successful military campaign, the hospital’s name became associated with the anti-French policies carried out by Edwards Spears in the Levant mandates. In Syria and Lebanon, the Free French were recognised by the British as ‘inheriting the administrative responsibility for the French mandate’ and General Catroux was appointed délégué general [5]. Yet, as Aviel Roshwald notes, the political authority of the Free French was undermined by the overwhelming presence of British troops in the area and Catroux’ proclamation of June 1941 promising independence to Syria and Lebanon. This promise was guaranteed by the British, with Edward Spears ‘emerging more dominant and the Free French more vulnerable’ in the course of the war [6]. 

Fig. 5. En route…Bulletin des Français Libres du Moyen-Orient, July 1943. (BNF)
Fig. 6. ‘Mobile Clinic’, Parade, 24 October 1942. (British Newspapers Library)

Historians have argued that Free French power gradually eroded in the Levant, in part due to the activity of the Spears mission, Spears proving himself an astute and effective administrator. [7] They have also shown that Catroux’ wife (Fig. 5), Marguerite, was anti-Gaullist. As Julian Jackson puts it, ‘her ambitions for her husband were a running theme of British reports over the next four years’.[8] The evidence from Mary Spears’ private collections and published writing reveals that she was also deeply involved in this Franco-British conflict of influence.  In May of 1941, Mary Spears wrote in her diary: ‘Madame Catroux is much worth and more dangerous than I expected’.[9] In her memoirs, she commented further ‘[Madame Catroux] was the first lady in Beirut. I appear to be the second. We met constantly on Red Cross committees, and at official dinners and public receptions.'[10] In the summer of 1941, Mary Spears stood against Marguerite Catroux, when the later tried to impose the presence of French nurses in the hospital. In her memoirs, she recalls: ‘[Marguerite Catroux] never returned to the attack but turned her energies into organizing a very excellent field ambulance of her own. We were to meet in the Delta, in Tunisia, Algiers, Italy and at last in France, each with our unit. If we were rivals, it was a friendly rivalry’.[11] 

In addition to standing up against Marguerite Catroux’ involvement in the international field hospital, Mary Spears set up with the Friends Ambulance Unit five ‘Spears Mobile Clinics’ in Syria and Lebanon in the summer of 1941 (Fig. 6) to provide relief to local populations. In her memoirs, she noted that the she was ‘frank’ with the FAU leaders. ‘‘I am interested in these clinics’, I said, ‘primarily because they help us, indirectly, in the war. In peacetime, it would be different, the humanitarian side would be paramount, for as long as the war lasts, nothing else matters’ [12]. Paradoxically, FAU members became involved in a project that was first conceived as a propaganda tool for the British government, a point on which the former FAU Michael Rowntree reflected on later in his life. He admitted that they learnt to live with the fact that they were trading under false pretences.

This ‘Levant crisis’ had repercussion beyond the Franco-British communities in Syria and Lebanon. Edward Spears (and to a lesser extent) Mary Spears turned into bitter enemies of the Free French, who considered that their collapse in the Levant was the result of a preconceived British plan. This directly impacted the ‘public face’ of the hospital in Britain and France. Tellingly, when the international Hadfield Spears was dismantled in June 1945, Mary Spears told the British press that de Gaulle had been angered by the British flags displayed on the cars parading during the victory parade in Paris. The Dundee Courier reported on 25 June 1945 ‘De Gaulle angered by Union Jack. British Hospital Unit ordered home’ (Fig. 6). A year later, her rancor fueled the pages of her memoirs Journey Down a Blind Alley (1946).

Fig. 6. ‘De Gaulle Angered by Union Jack’, Lady Spears, Dundee Courier, 25 June 1945 (British Newspapers Library).

This story of betrayed friendship is, of course, more complicated than these few snapshots gleaned in the French and British press would suggest. It raises important questions about the links between humanitarianism and soft-power; the role of higher echelon society women in wartime diplomacy and the ‘intimate’ politics of French and British policies in the Levant. In her work on de Gaulle’s wife and niece, Frédérique Neau-Dufour develops the concept of ‘gaulliste de l’intimité’ [13]. To be sure, Yvonne de Gaulle’s public face was radically different from that of Mary Spears and Marguerite Catroux. Unlike both, Yvonne de Gaulle retreated in the ‘private’ and ‘familial’ sphere during the Second World War. Further, as mentioned earlier, Madame Catroux was famously anti-Gaullist. But reading Neau-Dufour’s work and thinking about the broader role of women within the Free French movement, led me to wonder: what did Mary Spears and Margueritte Catroux know of/ think of the policies of their husbands? Was there some convergence in the ways they conceived women’s public role in war? Was there anything distinctively ‘American’ about the ways in which Mary Spears attempted to represent British interests and build prestige? How far were they able to ‘convey’ their messages to different audiences? And, finally and more broadly, what can the concept of ‘soft power’ offer to gender histories of humanitarianism?

Charlotte Faucher kindly considers these questions with me.

Laure Humbert: What is Soft Power? How useful do you find this concept?

Charlotte Faucher: ‘Soft power’ is a concept invented by the American political scientist Joseph Nye at the end of the Cold War. He defines it as an ‘indirect way to exercise power’ that allows communities and states to control the behaviour of others and shape what people want through incentive rather than coercion.[14] In the 1990s and 2000s, this concept was tremendously important because it offered a methodology to integrate the role of public diplomacy, prestige and influence in studies of international relations. More recently, soft power has been critiqued because it suggests too strict a division with hard power; for a growing number of historians, the dichotomy between hard and soft power is unhelpful since one cannot write a history of international relations without considering a variety of elements.

Laure Humbert: You have recently organized a workshop on the history of Soft Power. Could you tell us more about your take on the state of the field? What has emerged during this workshop? 

I co-organised this 2-day workshop with my Chilean colleagues from the Universidad Católica de Chile, Dr Sylvia Dummer Scheel and Dr Camila Gatica Mizala. We received many excellent proposals – which is always a good sign for the health of the field! The workshop was bilingual Spanish-English and we hired a team of interpreters during the two days. For me it was a real treat to be able to access and understand the research of Spanish and Latin American colleagues. While research on the Cold War still dominates the field of soft power, we had specifically encouraged proposals to encompass research from the late eighteenth century to the present day. We were therefore delighted to welcome researchers whose work encompassed diverse topics, ranging from the 18th century Ottoman Empire, to 19th century transnational networks of US and European scientists, to interwar internationalism, to name but a few. Some participants also showed the value of looking at individual trajectories for our understanding of soft power – this is very much in line with the approach that you took in your introduction to Lady Spears actually! Finally, I am really excited to see that the field is integrating questions of racial and gendered identities and not solely national and international allegiances that were already important in the work of Nye. The presentation of Kelly Colvin, who is working on a book about at the gendering of French soft power after the Second World War was particularly excellent in this respect.

Laure Humbert: What can historians of the French external resistance gain by looking at questions of gender and soft-power?

Charlotte Faucher: I think strategies of public diplomacy, and of promotion of the French external resistance were vital to the movement. Considering that de Gaulle was relatively unknown in 1940, lacked support from many French individuals, and seeing that the allies never recognized his movement Free France as a government-in-exile, de Gaulle was keen to convince audiences in Britain, France, the empire and beyond that his efforts were worthwhile and successful. A number of historians such as Rachel ChinJanet Horne and myself also show that the British government had a stake in the promotion of Free France. In part, the British government designed cultural strategies to justify to the British public why it was investing so much money and energy in supporting Free France, and in welcoming French exiles and refugees.

In its strategies of soft power, Free France insisted on the masculinity of military activities; but feminine images of elegance and sophistication disseminated by women such as Eve Curie (who largely erased her maternal Polish origins) or Elisabeth de Miribel also helped to create a link between pre-war ideas of feminine Frenchness with images of women in the war period.Maintaining a sense of continuity between some pre-war values and wartime was important in the Free French strategy of legitimising the political role of the movement. As I show in my book (in progress), both Curie and de Miribel struggled to think about themselves outside of a masculine military rhetoric.

‘People and Ideas: Mlle. Eve Curie’ Vogue, vol. 97, Iss. 4, (15 February 1941): 40-41.

Laure Humbert: Were women’s efforts constitutive to strategies of prestige-building in the French external Resistance? Can you tell us more about your forthcoming article in HJ?

Absolutely, and the women who contributed to the promotion of France after the liberation of Paris in late 1944 employed shifting gender identities. In my recent Historical Journal piece, I consider how French diplomatic strategies in post-war Britain relied on the gender, age, and bodily appearance of female members of the French resistance who visited Britain in late 1944. These women appeared to be familiar figures of French middle-class femininity to British audiences. Thus, they disrupted conventional images of the masculine, military, or political resistance which existed in Britain. Their femininity and their relationship to a fighting movement turned out to be a unique mobilizing force that diplomats used in their efforts to restore the prestige of France in 1944.

Laure Humbert: What do you find particularly intriguing/fascinating in this story of the Hadfield Spears hospital? 

Charlotte Faucher: It is such a rich case study and I look forward to seeing how the project develops! I want to know more about these women’s takes on their husbands’ policies. I know that General Catroux was very aware that Free France lacked soft power: in particular, he considered that the French Institute in London and the Ecole du Droit in Cairo were untapped reserves of prestige for Free France. I’d also love to know how Lady Spears navigated the post-war period – was the publication of her memoirs her final word on the matter? Did she remain in the public spotlight up until the late 1940s, and if so, did she comment on the provisional government and the French politics in general? Or was the war her “moment of fame”? Many of the women who worked for Free French propaganda and whose life trajectories I look at in my book did not keep the prominent positions they had occupied during the war after the conflict had ended.

Sources and further readings:

[1] Ana Carden-Coyne The Politics of Wounds. Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[2] Christine Hallett, Nurse writers of the Great War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 52; Jane Conway A woman of Two Wars (London: Munday Books, 2009), p. 277.

[3] ‘Miss Mary Borden Safe: Home with Unit’, Aberdeen Journal, 28 June 1940, p. 6. 

[4] Churchill Archives Centre, SPEARS 11/2/3, BBC at 5.00 on 29 June 1940 – ‘Empire News Broadcast by Miss Mary Borden’.

[5] Aviel Roshwald ‘The Spears Mission in the Levant, 1941-1944’, the Historical Journal, vol. 29, No. 4 (1986), p. 898; For a different interpretation on the role of Edward Spears in the summer of 1940, see Clotilde de Fouchécour ‘Le Comité Vansittart et les débuts de la France libre’, Guerres Mondiales et Conflits contemporains, Vol. 2 (2020), pp. 23-41.

[6] Aviel Roshwald ‘The Spears Mission in the Levant, 1941-1944’.

[7] Meir Zamir ‘An intimate alliance: The joint struggle of General Edward Spears and Riad al-Sulh to oust France from Lebanon, 1942-1944’, Vol. 41, No. 6 (2005), pp. 811-832; Aviel Roshwald Estranged Bedfellows. Britain and France in the Middle East during the Second World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[8] Julian Jackson A certain idea of France. The Life of Charles de Gaulle (London: Penguin books, 2018), p. 153.

[9] Churchill Archives Centre, Spears 11/3/2, Manuscript diary by Mary Spears, 11 May 1941.

[10] Mary Borden published a memoir of her work during the Second World War. Journey Down a Blind Alley (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1946), p. 181.

[11] Ibidp. 184.

[12] Ibidp. 184.

[13] Frédérique Neau-Dufour ‘Yvonne de Gaulle, Geneviève de Gaulle, deux gaullistes de l’intimité’, Histoire et Politique, Vol. 2, No. 17 (2012), pp. 3-13.

[14] Joseph S. Nye, Bound to lead: the changing nature of American power (New York: Basic Books, 1990), chapter 1

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