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The arrival and work of the Friends Ambulance Unit during the Great War

PUBLISHED: 12:33 03 October 2014 | UPDATED: 12:33 03 October 2014

© Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014

© Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014

© Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014

For injured and despairing troops in the Great War, the arrival of the Friends Ambulance Unit was often, in real terms, a lifeline. Venetia Hawkes tells a poignant story

‘When we look back over the record of the war, we see – amid much that is terrible, loathsome and soul-destroying – many bright and immortal pages of worth, of daring, of endurance and sacrifice, inestimable and immeasurable. Not least among them the labours and endeavours of the little group of men and women – an unpaid, obscure and voluntary unit’ – a 1919 view of the Friends Ambulance Unit, a pacifist organisation established by Quakers, whose main training base was at Jordans.

Its achievements were one of the reasons the Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “They desired to stand beside their friends who went to fight, and share their dangers, devotion and sacrifice.” the chairman of the Friends Ambulance Unit explained.

In the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Jordans is commemorating and celebrating the work of the Friends Ambulance Unit, with an exhibition and a play in September.Local relatives of Friends Ambulance Unit members are providing input; including John Smithson, whose father drove an ambulance on the front line at the age of 17.

Quakers, more properly ‘The Society of Friends’, have a staunch belief in pacifism. “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever” they declared in 1660.

Jordans was an early centre for Quakers with, at that time illegal, meetings held at Old Jordans farmhouse in the mid 17th century. When freedom of worship was finally granted, a Meeting House was built at Jordans in 1688. Quakers still use the atmospheric building today and it is the venue for the exhibition and play.

War approaches

During the First World War, some ‘absolutist’ Quakers believed they could not support the conflict in any way; some set aside pacifism to fight, others worked in the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. Many joined the Friends Ambulance Unit - “a rather motley band of lawyers, doctors, students, engineers, surveyors, accountants, businessmen and workers in arts and crafts” the head of the Unit fondly recalled. Though predominantly Quaker, the unit included a scattering of pacifist-minded Methodists, Catholics and atheists.

Within days of war breaking out in August 1914, Philip Noel-Baker put out a call to Quakers for volunteers to form an Ambulance Corps to go to the scene of active operations.

Noel-Baker, later an MP and involved in establishing the League of Nations, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959. He also competed in the 1912 and 1920 Olympics, winning a silver medal for the 1,500 metres. He is the only person ever to be awarded both an Olympic Medal and the Nobel Peace Prize.

By early September 1914 the first volunteers were training at Jordans, camping in the orchard while studying stretcher drill, first aid and sanitation. Physical fitness training featured country marches to Reading, playing a football or cricket match, before marching back. A tennis lawn providing further scope “to harden the muscles and stiffen the backs of those habituated to the life of the office” as one account of the camp put it. Noel-Baker made his office in a granary at Old Jordans farmhouse.

‘Go anywhere, do anything’

That October, 43 trainees, led by Noel-Baker, shipped out to Dunkirk, rescuing survivors of a torpedoed ship along the way. Arriving to find railway sheds full of 3,000 wounded French soldiers, the volunteers set to work. Not officially attached to the British authorities, the Friends Ambulance Unit was supported by the Red Cross – their sleeve badges showing a red cross with ‘FAU’ underneath.

In accordance with the Friends Ambulance Unit motto – ‘Go anywhere, do anything’, they established and staffed hospitals, founded orphanages, provided civilian relief, including 27,000 typhoid inoculations when an epidemic threatened near Ypres, worked on hospital ships and by the end of the war had transported over half a million patients across France on ambulance trains.

A diary entry from 1915 gives a glimpse of the work, “the guns are still booming heavily. Since midday the clearing station has been full to overflowing, but an endless line of ambulances moves along the crowded road. It is night now, dark as pitch, and a lashing rain; but still the cars are discharging their pitiful loads.”

To boost morale they ran recreation rooms at Dunkirk – The Pig and Whistle and the Cat and Fiddle, somewhere for troops to borrow books, buy cigarettes or simply have a cup of tea. They were also a venue for concerts – with performances by members of the Friends Ambulance Unit and the troops. As the recreation rooms were in an area that was regularly bombed, with part of the Pig and Whistle destroyed by a direct hit, windows were replaced with oiled calico since the glass was smashed so often.

Training camps continued at Jordans throughout the war. Over 1,000 men, and some women, worked in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the conflict. Twenty-one were killed. Ninety-six, nearly one in ten, were awarded medals for bravery.

Family memories

Chalfont St Giles resident, John Smithson’s father Michael was one of the volunteers. Just 17, Michael was soon driving an ambulance on the front line. He worked for the unit throughout the war, also serving on a hospital ship and an ambulance train. In 1918 he came to work at Jordans itself, where the Friends Ambulance Unit had a convalescent home in the Mayflower Barn, so called due to the, possibly true, story that it is built from timbers of pilgrim ship The Mayflower.

Like so many who were involved in the Great War, Michael spoke little of his experiences, and sadly died during the Second World War when John was 14. But one memory John does have is being taken into the barn and his father pointing out the corner where his bed had been when he worked there.

John’s wife Sue Smithson, librarian of Jordans Meeting House, discovered a photograph in the archives of John’s father at Jordans in 1918. He is pictured with fellow volunteers, next to the granary where Noel-Baker had his office.

Sue also had a relative in the Friends Ambulance Unit - her Uncle, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of The Washington Post, Felix Morley. When Sue became engaged, Morley recognised John’s surname and realised he had worked alongside John’s father on an ambulance train. Sue, under her maiden name of Morley, can be found in the dedication of her godfather T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. She still has the table T. S. Eliot used to write on in her mother’s kitchen and remembers afternoons he spent playing cricket with her brothers.

John’s father and the other volunteers in the photograph at Jordans are in uniform; as although some Quakers believed it was wrong to look militaristic, the Red Cross advised it would help smooth relations with the British army. As unpaid volunteers, each man bought his own uniform and the unit primarily funded by individual donations. A group of Durham miners donated an ambulance. Records show large donations from prominent Quakers such as the Cadburys and Rowntrees, alongside a collection raised by fifth form school-boys from ‘proceeds of entertainment’.

‘A black cloud’

Elsewhere there was less support for pacifists. Quaker influence contributed to the inclusion of a ‘Conscience Clause’ in the 1916 act introducing conscription. Asquith was jeered in parliament as he announced this and there was much ill-feeling towards Conscientious Objectors, widely regarded as cowards. In a letter to the Times in 1917 the Bishop of Exeter suggested Conscientious Objectors should be moved to “that portion of England which is frequently visited by the enemy aeroplane.” Wilfrid Littleboy of Jordans, whose daughter still lives in the village, was an ‘absolutist’ and one of those imprisoned as a Conscientious Objector. Janet May-Bowles and Merry Rushton are including stories inspired by his experiences in their play which accompanies the exhibition at Jordans.

Sue Smithson describes the First World War as a ‘black cloud’ when she was growing up, never spoken of by her mother whose two brothers were killed. She explains how her research into the Friends Ambulance Unit “helped me come to terms with the First World War – the Friends Ambulance did some jolly good work. And they just went out and did it.”

In later years

The Friends Ambulance Unit was revived in the Second World War and a memorial unveiled to it last year at the National Memorial Arboretum. Quakers continue working towards peace and providing practical aid in places such as Rwanda, where they are helping rebuild villages. In 1920, the chairman of the Red Cross praised the unit’s work as “Carried through with exceptional energy and devotion - it formed one of the brightest chapters in our history.”

We thank the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for kindly providing the historical photographs in this feature. See


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