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Friends Ambulance Unit, 1914-1919


The Library of the Society of Friends holds the official archives of the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), an independent Quaker body, for the First and Second World Wars. The library also holds many personal papers and artifacts of members of the Unit in both wars, including diaries, letters, photos, uniform etc.

The FAU was founded soon after the outbreak of war, and sprung from the desire of a group of individual Quakers to care for the victims of war, both civilian and military. Quakers are historically pacifist and had a history of speaking out against war. They had aided and spoken for war victims for example, in the Franco-Prussian war and the Boer war. However the scale of the First World War, the whipping up of jingoistic militarism, and especially the introduction of conscription, would bring great challenges to Quaker belief and action.

The FAU attracted a mainly Quaker membership, although this changed after the introduction of conscription (some tribunals used the FAU as an avenue for alternative service for conscientious objectors of all persuasions). Conscription also complicated matters for some pacifists who had joined the FAU voluntarily before 1916, but resigned membership to object to conscripted service, and in many cases went on to be imprisoned as absolutist objectors.

As well as domestic duties including hospital work and a general service section that did agricultural work etc in Britain, the main function of the FAU was to provide ambulance cars and trains to clear the wounded from the battlefields of Belgium and France. Certainly this was the area of the Unit’s work that required most engineering or mechanical activity.

For anyone interested in the engineering aspect of the activities of the Unit there are various sources of information. While the main repair work of the ambulance trains was initially done by the Army en repos, the men of the Unit had to do temporary and responsive maintenance to keep the cars and trains operational, and seem gradually to have taken on more serious repair jobs as the war went on. One Unit magazine stated:

"Repair work has occupied the usual attention, and there are now thirteen unskilled workmen to each car." 1


Ambulance car in ditch (Paul Cadbury papers)
Ambulance car in ditch (Paul Cadbury papers).
Personnel card for Lewis Fry Richardson (http://fau.quaker.org.uk)
Personnel card for Lewis Fry Richardson.

Personnel

From comparisons of the personnel records of the men (including the digitised personnel cards), and the lists of their occupations, we can see that those with ‘mechanical’ experience worked in roles which involved managing the motor stores and repairing the cars and trains. However ‘mechanical experience’ could range from working as a mechanic or engineer before the war, to simply owning and maintaining a motorcycle or preparing for an RAC certificate. Some men would certainly have been thrown in at the deep end working on the ambulance cars and helping to maintain trains!

The pre-war occupations of mechanics or drivers on the ambulances and ambulance trains, show this diversity. Cotterell, Stapledon and Richardson are all well known:

  • James H Baker -carriage builder
  • Samuel H Campion -brush maker, also previously fireman and boiler maker
  • William E Clark -audit clerk
  • Edgar P Faux -no previous occupation on card but ‘drives motor cycle’ in skills
  • Henry Fenton -clog maker, ‘good knowledge’ under motors
  • George Fidler -grocers clerk, ‘experience driving’ under motors
  • John Genders -pattern maker, ‘repairs motor cycles’ under skills
  • George Haward -cabinet maker, ‘motor mechanic’
  • Arthur Oakes -architect, under ‘motors: inst school exam 82%
  • Arthur Cotterell -wallpaper manufacturer and artist
  • Olaf Stapledon -lecturer and science fiction writer
  • Lewis Fry Richardson –physicist, mathematician and Royal Society Fellow
  • Colin Priestman -spinner, killed on service with SSA13, aged 24 among the drivers2
From the official records of the Unit, you can gather lovely details about the workings of the Motor Store.
Requisitions book, Motor Store Records (TEMP MSS 881)
Requisitions book, Motor Store Records (TEMP MSS 881)

Perceptions


Information about the work of the Unit and the men’s perception of the work emerges from the records. Across the various Unit publications, post-war souvenir publications, and diaries and letters there is a pre-occupation with the day to day logistics and mechanics that can seem somewhat irrelevant to the reader looking for information about the war from their perspective.

The Unit sent regular articles to the Quaker weekly magazine The Friend. Surprisingly one of these articles starts in the tone you would expect from an army recruitment brochure:

“On the rails of France is to be found an Ambulance Train, shining as if newly painted, with every brass glistening and without a smear on its windows, - A Great Western Railway train finished in khaki. Its length is 970 feet, its Commanding Officer, Captain Walker RAMC, its personnel, members of the Friends Ambulance Unit, and its record, one that compares with any.”


The article goes on to describe the logistics of their work loading and unloading casualties, preferring a mathematical, rather than emotional, analysis of the work, which for today’s reader seems somewhat trivial, given the situation:

“600 brasses to be polished…one mile of enamel…700 windows to be cleaned…14, 464 square feet of outside paint to be polished” 3

Statistics from Two years with the French Army
Statistics from 2 years with the French Army


Magazines


Several of the ambulance trains and Section Sanitaire Anglaise (SSA) produced their own magazines during the war, or souvenir magazines afterwards. They tend to be in Boy’s Own spirit, to concentrate on the logistics of the operation and tales of derring-do.

For anyone expecting either spiritual, political or pacifist content, as you find in the prison samizdat of  conscientious objectors, you will be disappointed! For example, the following extract from Two years with the French army, the souvenir magazine of SSA19:

“The Germans finding they could not advance, got busy with their artillery, and two of the cars had to be towed in from Nieuport-Bains, one with a large hole in the petrol tank, and the other with the bodywork completely destroyed by a shell which exploded on the chassis. The driver, A. Henderson, had a miraculous escape having only left the driving seat a few seconds previously.”4

And a truly mundane extract, this time with the full benefit of hindsight, comparing the mechanical failings of the different vehicles used, from the SSA14 history Section Sanitaire Anglaise Quatorze, 1915-1919: an account of the activities in Belgium & Northern France of a section of the Friends' Ambulance Unit in the chapter ‘A Mechanical Medley’:

“Altogether the Buicks (the last model of ambulance they used, presumably supplied by the Americans) gave good service, but I shudder to think what would have happened had the war lasted another year. Two years would seem to be about the maximum with an American chassis over war time roads." 5

Rather than contemplating the human loss another year of war would have incurred, as one might expect from a pacifistic outlook, the concern is for the mechanical strain. However, there are some insights into the suffering of war throughout the accounts. There is also, in a similar vein to many of the accounts of imprisoned conscientious objectors, a desire not to equate their ordeal with that of the common soldier who faced the worst hardship.

The war has dealt leniently with the Section: it is not impossible that the pages which follow may leave the impression that it was a “jolly old war” after all – so merciful and deceptive is memory. Those who have seen it know it for what it is….an evil and abhorrent thing." 6

One of the FAU magazines during the war describes how the ambulance trains function, giving an insight into the conditions:

Walk up the train from one end to the other, and there will seem to be not a corner that has not its occupant; everywhere the same inert shapes under the dark, rough blankets; everywhere the same all-pervading smell, thick sickening." 7

And so, perhaps, this preoccupation with the minutiae of repair work, and accounts of throttles jamming, axles breaking, and failing gear-boxes was a means of distraction from the immense difficulties they faced. From talking to relatives in our Library, Quakers and other pacifists seem to have been no different to those who fought, in not wanting to discuss the harrowing aspects of their wartime experience.

And of course many of the men from the FAU did use their experiences to inspire lifetimes of pacifist activity and anti-war campaigning, least of all in the lead up to the next World War.

Inside title page of Two years with the French Army : Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19
Illustration inside cover of The little grey book (being a souvenir volume of the S.S.A. 13).
Illustration inside cover of The little grey book (being a souvenir volume of the S.S.A. 13)
Inside title page of Two years with the French Army : Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19.
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Credits/footnotes:

1. Friends Ambulance Unit (monthly) magazine, Friends Ambulance Unit (1914-1919), bound set, p.19
2.‘Life on an ambulance train in France’,The Friend, 1917  p.720
3.‘On board No. 16 Ambulance Train’, The Friend, 1915, p.833
4. Two years with the French Army : Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19 : an account of the work of a motor ambulance convoy of the Friends' Ambulance Unit, B.R.C.S., 1916-1918, Friends Ambulance Unit(1914-1919), Pelican Press, 1919, p.16
5. Section Sanitaire Anglaise Quatorze, 1915-1919 : an account of the activities in Belgium & Northern France of a section of the Friends' Ambulance Unit, H. Martin Lidbetter & Norman Monk-Jones, J. Ellis Benson printers, 1919, p.215
6. Two years with the French Army, foreword
7. Friends Ambulance Unit (monthly) magazine, Friends Ambulance Unit (1914-1919), bound set, p.33