Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in WWI

World War 1 began on August 4th, 1914. Meeting for Sufferings met in London three days later and considered their response. Outside the official sessions, a group of Young Friends worked on the idea of an ambulance unit. They were convinced that ambulance services would be woefully inadequate, so that offering such services could save many lives. It would also enable conscientious objectors to make a vital contribution. There was no conscription then, so none of them had to get involved – their response came from their commitment to participating in a nonviolent way.

Philip (Noel) Baker appealed for volunteers in a letter to the Friend of August 21st.  Early in September the first training camp took place at Jordans, in Buckinghamshire, for about 60 young men. Initially neither the British Red Cross nor the army wanted to involve a group of independent and pacifist volunteers, but the situation changed dramatically when the Belgian army collapsed in late October. The FAU was provided with equipment and supplies, and a party of 43, led by Philip Baker, and including Corder Catchpool, left for Belgium.

A few miles out they met a torpedoed and sinking cruiser, rescued the victims, and carried them back to Dover.  Setting out again, they came to Dunkirk, and worked for three weeks in the military evacuation sheds, looking after several thousand wounded soldiers until they could be evacuated on hospital ships.  The Unit set up their administrative headquarters nearby, at Malo les Bains. There was a terrible typhoid epidemic that winter, and this led to the establishment of the first of four hospitals, the Queen Alexandra, at Dunkirk.

The FAU expanded as the needs grew, and many non-Quakers joined.  There were two sections:  the Foreign Service and the Home Service.  After the initial emergency at Dunkirk, the Foreign Service started on a programme of civilian relief in France; they were soon noticed by the French army medical headquarters, and this led to the staffing and running of French ambulance convoys (Sections Sanitaires Anglaises), and helping in both civilian and military hospitals.  In 1915, they started running ambulance trains, and in early 1916 they had two hospital ships.

The Home Service set up and/or helped to run four hospitals in England. Two were in Quaker premises – one in part of the Rowntree factory in York, and the other in a Cadbury house in Birmingham; the other two were in London. They had an office in London, a clothing department, and ran training camps, mostly at Jordans.

Late in 1915 the Anglo-Italian Ambulance Unit was set up separately, when Italy came into the war. Several FAU members, including Philip Baker and his wife, nurse Irene Noel, worked in Italy for the rest of the war.

In August 1916 the Military Conscription Act provided a sudden influx of conscientious objectors, and a General Service section was started to offer them alternative training, if required.  In 1917, when the US came into the war, and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was set up, several Americans joined FAU, while many others were involved in similar work with the Red Cross.

FAU continued with these many different kinds of work, both in England and on the European mainland. There were eventually at least eight hospitals in France and Belgium staffed by the FAU.  At the end of the war in 1918, there were 640 men working on the European mainland, and 720 men were working in Britain. 21 died in action, and a further 420 were involved at some stage during the war. They had driven over two million miles and had transported 277,000 sick and injured people. If the work of the Italian unit is included, these figures increase by about 50%.  Their funding (about £140,000 in total) had come from Quakers and many other sources. Women served as nurses in the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Dunkirk and also with the Anglo-Italian Ambulance Service. One hundred and two women served in the FAU out of a total of 1800,  54 of whom served abroad.

FAU’s unofficial motto was ‘find work that needs doing. Regularise it later, if possible’. In the heat of the conflict, that is exactly what they did. They were never officially regularised, but it didn’t matter.

After the armistice in 1918, the Unit worked for another year on civilian relief and repatriation. FAU was finally laid down in 1919.  The concept was to be revived in WW2.

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Further Reading and Credits

Photograph reproduced by kind permission from the copyright holders The Library of the Religious Society of Friends, London