American woman helped French troops before the United States joined WWI

By Dan Zumpano and Wes Crowell, SCSU Journalism students

Dan Zumpano and Wes Crowell, journalism students at Southern Connecticut State University, reported this story in 2016 as part of Journalism Capstone coursework on World War I.

New York resident Pauline Sands Lee, despite being an advocate for peace, took her compassion for her fellow man to the World War I battlefield — months before the United States got involved in the conflict.  

Sands Lee traveled to France twice during World War I, with the American Fund for the French Wounded, first from Nov. 11, 1916 to May 27, 1917 and again from Nov. 16, 1917 to April, 1918. The volunteers with the AFFW helped the war effort in France by rolling bandages, collecting clothing and other tasks.

Sands Lee later raised money to purchase a truck she named Magnolia, which AFFW used to distribute thousands of goods and medical supplies sent over by the United States.

“She was intrepid, she spoke the language and she was willing to try anything,” said Lee’s great granddaughter Joan Warren, of Connecticut. 

Sands Lee preached that war was terrible, albeit necessary, in her journals chronicling her involvement and the war, even including pressed flowers from places she visited in France. 

“She very strongly expresses [in the diaries] her feeling that if they didn’t have this war, the Kaiser would take over the world and that would be terrible. Because he was a beast,” said Warren. 

Warren attributes Sands Lee’s point of view to her family’s Quaker roots. Warren, herself, is also a Quaker.

Sands Lee was the daughter of American novelist Edward Payson Rowe (E.P. Rowe), who helped fund her travels all over the world and inspired her love of writing. Sands Lee passed down 38 journals to her grandson, Warren’s father, that included vivid descriptions of her travels to France.

“She writes on her stories back to the states these little personal things to personalize the war,” Warren said, “to drum up donations to support the French people in their time of need and she expressed that she was really frustrated that the U.S. didn’t get into the War until [Woodrow] Wilson finally conceded.”

Warren said despite her own pacifist beliefs, “reading these journals has given me different light on [war].”

Sands Lee’s son also served in France,  at first as part of an ambulance unit, and later in an aeronautical unit, Warren said. Sands Lee went to visit him in the airfield and she saw the airplanes.

Sands Lee wrote about her visits to hospitals, where she helped distribute “surprise bags,” filled with cigarettes, tobacco and little trinkets from home.

“I think many of these were made up in the States and then sent over for this distribution and she made it a point to also distribute these to the German prisoners also,” Warren said. “Because she said that you are a man, and you are wounded in the war. So I think that probably reflects the way many of us would feel about war. I mean there is the enemy, but as soon it becomes very personal then it’s an individual.”

Sands Lee was able to “wangle” a trip to the front after the battle of Verdun had concluded and been labeled one of the most brutal conflicts of WWI. Lee wrote in her journals about the devastation at the front.

In one of her journals, Sands Lee wrote about visiting an infirmary where a German prisoner had hanged himself.

“They found in his pocket a letter from his wife saying that their only child had starved to death and that she was going to kill herself,” said Warren.


Warren said: “She didn’t aspire to [be a part of the military]. I think she really aspired to help France in its time of need. And she was a civilian doing that.”

After returning from France, Sands Lee raised money to continue helping the war effort. 

“She gave talks about it and about her experiences and at that time she was focused more on the French war orphans,” said Warren. 

“She was quite a feisty lady,” said Warren.

Edited by Cindy Simoneau and Jodie Mozdzer Gil, professors of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.