“I have seen people living in quarries”: Dorothy Cordley, relief worker.

Dorothy Cordley, from her
1918 passport application

New Jersey-born Dorothy Cordley (1892–1976) was one of three children of merchant-inventor Henry Greeley Cordley and his wife Alice. She attended Mount Holyoke College as part of the class of 1914. In November 1918, she sailed for France to take up work in Vic-sur-Aisne with Anne Tracy Morgan and Anne Dike’s American Committee for Devastated France. An extract from a letter by Cordley was published in the 16 March 1919 Lima [OH] Daily News:

If any one thinks this life in the region of the Devastees is an easy one tell them to think it over. From 8 o’clock in the morning until 11 at night every one is working and one feels ashamed to take a half hour for oneself, when there is so much to do. I never felt better in my life. I am a bit thin[n]er but never ate so much. A meat and vegetable dinner both non [sic] and evening for we must stoke up for our work. We live out doors and get more exercise than I ever dreamed of in 24 hours, but I love it and what a work it is.

Saturday morning I had a bitter, cold trip delivering supplies and we did no[t] get back until long after 2 o’clock. I never felt anything so cold as those wind swept plateaus where you feel you are above the world. The thermometer must have registered low and there was no sign of thaw in the brilliant sunshine. Just try five minutes in an open Ford with no windshield, curtains or floor board. Today I had on a heavy sweater, heavy wool underwear, wool undervest, shirt wai[st], sleeveles[s] army sweater, leather coat, and I am almost frozen. I never will complain of my cold bedroom at home.

My room is huge and to be sure has a large fireplace but what good does that do when a long French window refuses to close. I don’t blame anyone for not taking baths; anyone doing so should be awarded a Croix de Guerre. (19)

Cordley’s piece “How the Refugees Live” was originally published in ACDF’s Under Two Flags publication and reprinted in the April 1919 issue of The Anchora of Delta Gamma.

Our little unit in two light trucks in a week took holiday cheer to more than two thousand people in scattered villages although it was bitterly cold and rained every day.

I have seen people living in quarries; people living like rats in cellars. I have seen villages with not one wall standing and not one sign of life, yet, as we approach, there appear shivering, half-starved women and children who have returned to their sacred hearthstones to find—nothing. I have seen people who had no water to drink save a stagnant slimy pool, because the Germans had destroyed the village pump and they can not get another. They have no houses, nothing to build with; no beds; no blankets; no food; no stove, nothing to cook with, yet we were asked to luncheon in a cellar to share a family’s only dish—of lentils.

Why won’t America understand? On every side we hear Americans say “The French don’t want us—they want us to go.” That is a lie; the truth is that these people want to get back to the States, they don’t want to stay here and help. The French need our help—all we can give them.

Never have I wanted money so much, because money actually buys life here for these poor children.

I shall never forget the experience of living in a veritable “House of Mercy” whose doors are literally never closed day or night.

Old men and little children, mothers and soldiers, all come in a stream and are never turned away. (250–51).

Cordley returned to the United States in September 1919. According to the One Hundred Year Biographical Directory of Mount Holyoke College 1837-1937, she attended the Cambridge [MA] School of Domestic and Landscape Architecture from 1920 to 1922. In 1923, she married Richard Lennihan, who later served as an assistant dean of the Harvard Business School. Their three children included surgeon Richard Lennihan. Cordley, who showed early artistic promise, produced designs for toleware trays and document boxes that are now in the Winterthur Library.

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