Women in the FAU
During the First World War, women served as nurses in the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Dunkirk and also with the Anglo-Italian Ambulance Service, making up ten percent of the total FAU personnel. Nevertheless, at the start of WWII, there was resistance to the idea women joining the unit. By October 1940, however, it was clear that women were needed to support the air raid relief work in British cities suffering from the Blitz.
Tessa Rowntree and Gwendy Knight were asked to set up a women’s training camp in Barmoor in Yorkshire. The first eleven women began training in January 1941. A total of 97 women were trained (one woman to every 14 men). Of these, 57 saw service abroad, in India, China, the Middle East and north-west Europe.
To begin with they were considered a separate organisation – the Women’s Friends Ambulance Unit (WFAU) – but in the summer of 1941 the distinction was dropped, and from then onwards they were simply female members of the FAU. Their first work was in hospitals, shelters, rest centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux of the bombed cities in Britain. Two worked as mechanics in the garage and others as unpaid secretaries for various voluntary organisations.
The first two women to serve abroad with the FAU in WWII went to India with Horace Alexander in 1942. The majority of women in Bengal, where the FAU were providing air raid relief, still led segregated lives, so the need for women workers was clear. Pamela Bankart organized the Women's Emergency Volunteers, enrolling local women to help in First-Aid Posts, Relief Centres and Information Bureaux, where they would provide support for their fellow-women during and after raids. When floods devastated Bengal in 1943, to be followed by acute famine, Bankart and the Women's Emergency Volunteers helped to set up feeding stations providing food for undernourished children.
In 1943, the Unit, along with the Friends Relief Service and the Friends Service Council, began preparing for Civilian Relief work in areas of Europe liberated from German occupation. An Emergency Relief Training Centre trained groups of thirty men and women at a time, providing instruction on medical subjects, nutrition, child welfare, languages, and the political and social background of the countries where they might be working.
Those trained in this way went on to work in Displaced Persons camps in North Africa, Italy, Greece, the Balkans and Northwest Europe. Women members worked with mothers and babies. In Greece, they acted as inspectors in women prisons, where political prisoners had been herded together in appalling conditions.
In June 1944 four women of the FAU arrived in China, one to act as a secretary at the headquarters in Kunming, and the other three as nurses. Tegla Davis recalled that “‘Women for China’ had been as much, and as long, a matter of controversy as the original admission of women into the Unit ... When they took their place alongside the rest, they too faced the same hardships and gave invaluable service.” Altogether, 18 women served with the FAU in China: 1 American, 10 Chinese, 6 British and 1 Canadian.
Up until 1945, no women had served in northwest Europe. But in June 1945, as the FAU’s numbers in German were being rapidly increased, women joined the men in some of the many Displaced Persons camps. They provided welfare support and organised activities such as gardening, sewing, dramatics, and schooling for the children.