FANY at the western front
An overview of the role of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps in WW1: 1914 – 1919
“ During my period of service with Lord Kitchener in the Soudan Campaign, where I had the misfortune to be wounded, it occurred to me that there was a missing link somewhere in the Ambulance Department which, in spite of the changes in warfare, had not altered very materially since the days of Crimea when Florence Nightingale and her courageous band of helpers went out to succour and save the wounded.
On my return from active service I thought out a plan which I anticipated would meet the want, but it was not until September 1907 that I was able to found a troop of young women to see how my ideas on the subject would work. My idea was that each member of this Corps would receive, in addition to a thorough training in First Aid, a drilling in cavalry movements, signalling and camp work, so that nurses could ride onto the battlefield to attend to the wounded who might otherwise have been left to a slow death.”
Captain Edward Baker 1910
“F-A-N-Y” spelled a passing Tommy as he leant from the train. “I wonder what that stands for?”
“First anywhere?” suggested another.
The small group of spirited women that Edward Baker gathered together in 1907, (which included his daughter, Katy), was to evolve into one of the most decorated of women’s units ever. He named them the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corps. These early FANYs did indeed become proficient in the art of swooping down upon a wounded soldier at high speed, scooping him up behind the saddle and delivering him to the First Aid Post. Perhaps Baker himself finally found their spiritedness too much. In 1910 a discontented group, led by Mabel St Clair Stobart, broke away from the FANY to form the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy. Flora Sandes,* who was later to be the first female member of the Serbian Army, was one of these. In 1912 the W.S.&W. Convoy went to Serbia in the 1st Balkan War. Baker soon after disappeared from the scene, and the Corps came under the control of two determined and distinguished women, Lilian Franklin and Grace Ashley-Smith. They transformed the FANY, acquiring a horse-drawn ambulance; replacing the elaborate uniform with more practical khaki; introducing astride riding (and divided skirts); making the all-important contacts within the British military that were to prove vital to their success in 1914. Although often subjected to scorn and hostility from the wider general public, they succeeded in gaining support from the Brigade of Guards, the Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and the Surrey Yeomanry, all of whom helped to train them at their annual camps.
The task which faced the FANY at the beginning of the war in August 1914 was to find a military body which would recognise them and give them work. Grace Ashley-Smith and Lilian Franklin were by now effectively running the Corps. Surgeon-General Woodhouse had inspected them in their camp in July 1914 and had been so impressed that he sent Ashley-Smith to the Director-General Medical Services to ask for official recognition. The Chief Commissioner of the British Red Cross Society (BRCS) had also promised to give the matter thought. Yet, when war broke out and Franklin officially placed the Corps at the disposal of the War Office, British military opinion was still that the Front was no place for a woman:
“My dear, you are overwrought and not seeing things in the right perspective. There are enough nurses to attend to the Army. Amateurs will be neither wanted nor welcomed, either as soldiers or nurses.”
Ashley-Smith, who had spent two years at school in Belgium, was en route to see her sister in South Africa when war was declared. She immediately set sail for home. On board she met Louis Franck, the Belgian Minister for the Colonies, who suggested the Corps’ services would be welcomed in Belgium. (She had spent two years at school there.) Somehow obtaining permission from the War Office to cross the Channel, she set off for Antwerp where she offered the services of the Corps. It was to be the fulfilment of Captain Baker’s plan. By September 10th she was nursing the wounded at l’Hopital de Boulevard Leopold in Antwerp. In her memoirs*, Ashley-Smith wrote:
Whilst waiting, I registered at the Belgian Red Cross as ambulanciere and worked from morning to night with a motor ambulance, bringing wounded in from outposts and trenches near Lierre and Buchout. There were hundreds of wounded to be attended to and I worked in a ward of sixty-five beds for three weeks and in my off-duty hours I interviewed the Belgian Red Cross and various other people. I was offered first an empty house in Avenue Marie Therese for convalescents. A few days later they asked me to get the Corps over to staff a hospital of three hundred beds, fully equipped, in the rue de Retranchements. I sent frantic telegrams to Miss Franklin.
The first contingent of FANYs was at Fenchurch Street station waiting for the boat-train when the news of the fall of Antwerp came through. As the British and Belgians retreated to the coast Ashley-Smith stayed in Ghent. In a letter home, the spirit, audacity and determination which the FANYs came to embody shows vividly:
Dearest Mother, Institut Moderne pour Malades, Ghent
Another chance of getting a letter through. My last went with the Consul's daughter when they left suddenly on Sunday night. I met a Miss Sinclair*, an authoress, who is acting as secretary to an Ambulance Corps run by a Dr. Munroe (Hector Munroe) and consisting of six women and about ten men including ten doctors, chauffeurs, a clergyman and four motor ambulances. It was a chance meeting- but that night I was doing night duty as well, as they were short-handed at the Convent. Miss Sinclair came round about 2 am to say they would be able to take me and my two English wounded with them as they were fleeing almost at once. At 3am the motor ambulance called for us - and a long bitterly cold ride followed. I was so dead tired I actually slept for about an hour - despite the cold and the cramped position etc. Luckily we found a station and a train just starting for Ghent, so I jumped aboard and came back. It was a hard frost and bitterly cold and I must confess my heart was somewhere about my boots because as far as I know the English had all fled. Crowds of Belgians surrounded me in astonishment on my arrival! I think they began to wonder if the English army had really fled. Poor boy! He was so thankful to see an English person again, he had no idea they had left him to the Germans. He is in the Royal Marine Light Infantry. He is dreadfully weak. We have seven Germans billeted here and I sat by him in terror at every sound - there are such awful tales of their barbarity but we have much to be thankful for as the ones here were very civil I can't bear to leave Mr Foote until he is either out of danger or gone. I haven't had any luggage since I left Antwerp. It is lost. Today I washed all my clothes in my bath and they are drying now to be ready for night. I only brought one suit with me and the blouse was filthy. This is a very selfish letter. I may of course be taken prisoner by the Germans. I hope they leave the wounded alone. German aeroplanes go about all day. Brutes! I am going to try to blow up their aerodrome with dynamite. It is quite near here, it wouldn't be such a chance as getting near their big guns, but I fear that is hopeless. I suppose if this falls into their hands I shall be shot!
Much love to you all, Gracie
PS. Poor Mr Foote - it will all be over in an hour or two. I have been with him all night I shall probably be made a prisoner or something now as I shall certainly see he gets an officer's funeral - that at least he has the right to and he shall have it somehow. Goodbye Mother - I feel very miserable - it is so easy to be brave when there are horrid wounds to do up but to sit helpless hour after hour and just watch and be able to do nothing. He is dead! I shall try and leave here tomorrow after the funeral.
Grace Ashley-Smith did manage to escape and got back to England. Realising how the FANY’s services would be enhanced by having their own transport, Ashley-Smith went immediately to Scotland to raise money to buy a UNIC motor ambulance. The first small troop of six FANYs left for France on October 27th 1914. They took with them three nurses, two orderlies and Ashley-Smith’s brother, Bill.* They set off with only £12 of Corps funds in the bank. In Calais they found hundreds of wounded men on stretchers on the quayside awaiting boats to England, and crowded into hangars where they lay on straw. The hospitals were overflowing. On October 29th they took over a dirty and decayed convent school opposite the Church of Notre Dame. This was to be Lamarck hospital. The wounded were being brought in before the FANYs had time to unpack.
The wards at Lamarck were in the charge of Isabel Wicks, who was a trained nurse and had served in the Boer War. The FANYs mostly assisted with the patients, often wearing a version of nursing uniform. There were three wards in the main building for wounded. Across the yard they set up a separate ward for typhoid cases. The conditions which greeted them were daunting. Isabel Wicks remembered:
The school was dirty and decayed-looking. We found forty-five desperately ill men in three wards lying on plank beds with a thin bag of chaff as mattresses. The only other furniture was two chairs and a very insecure table made of planks balanced on iron bedsteads. A few of the beds had sheets and some even had pillow slips, but the majority of patients were lying in blankets with something like a small carriage cushion by way of a pillow. In the circumstances it was not surprising that there were severe cases of bed sores. At one time we had eight wildly delirious in a row. Franz, a gunner who had been through the siege of Antwerp, would go over and over his experiences, counting his ammunition and lamenting his comrades as they fell around his gun. Every now and then he would puncture his recital with “BOOM”. If he took us for comrades it was all right, but occasionally he mistook us for Germans and then it was awkward. One day he caught (Margaret) Hall by the throat and there might have been a tragedy had not the orderly sprung to the rescue. By degrees, and with the help of kind friends at home, we got sheets, pillow cases and soft pillows; then chairs, tables and after a bit even pink bed spreads which brightened the place up wonderfully. The B.R.C.S. gave us narrow spring beds with good mattresses. The point that gives me most satisfaction is that although our death rate is high, (we lost forty out of one hundred and seventy-five cases), those who recovered were not invalids and were able to ‘do their bit’ once more on active service.
The FANYs quickly learned to cope and the hospital eventually had one hundred beds. More than four thousand patients were treated between 1914 and 1916. Beryl ‘Betty’ Hutchinson wrote:
For the first fortnight I was put in No. 1 Surgical Ward. Knowing nothing of nursing beyond animal and theoretical first aid, it was considered wise for us to have some practical experience. My record of fainting was eleven times in one morning. Sister White sent me on messages up and down two flights of stairs as a cure for nonsense.
However, their greatest appeal turned out to be their motoring skills, rare in women at that time. Vehicles were scarce in Calais and in those early months the FANY ambulance was in much demand. All Belgian supplies had to be brought from Gravelines, 15 km up the coast. The Belgian doctors needed transport to and from their medical HQ at La Panne. The FANYs also carried the wounded and injured for other French and Belgian hospitals, and, until the arrival of a Red Cross convoy in Calais, unofficially for the British. Hutchinson already knew how to drive:
I collected an old Flemish woman on my own. She was bundled into the ambulance by her family who could not spare the time to come with her. I was quite at the back of the Line so all should have been well but a German pilot saw what he took for an armoured car on the road. There was no cover anywhere for about four miles and I slowed and raced and generally tried to get out of the way. When the plane had gone I looked in and thought my old lady had passed on. I inquired in my best French, no response; bad Flemish, still no movement. Then, in desperation, I tried rich, broad Lancashire at which she lent up on her elbow and, cutting out all unnecessary words, we established that she was quite comfortable, had not been frightened, and I was not to worry about her.
Back in London FANY HQ was busy both recruiting and fundraising. More FANYs and more vehicles arrived. Amongst them was Muriel Thompson, a very experienced driver who had won the very first Ladies’ Race at Brooklands in 1908. She kept a diary throughout her war service:
Feb 8th Left Victoria at 12.30pm with Gwen Strutt for Calais. We had Passports and had to pass through a room where we might have been searched, but as we were in uniform they did not worry us. Reached Folkestone about 2.15 and got on the boat for Calais. It was very rough indeed, but Gwen and I sat on deck all the time and looked for submarines. It was dark when we got there. We went straight into the kitchen where we have our meals and found a lot of the Corps sitting having tea, also some Belgian doctors and orderlies. Had tea, saw over the hospital. Looked at the cars, which have been standing for weeks in the pouring rain without any shelter at all; a Ford, a UNIC ambulance, and a Ford Soup Kitchen. Went to the flat where the Corps sleep. Eight of us in one room and two small basins - Active Service so we don’t mind!
Feb 9th Got up at 6.30 and walked to the hospital, about one and a half miles. Had breakfast there and started to clean the UNIC. Worked till 12.30 in the rain. Gwen was in the typhoid ward, and had a trying time for an untrained person. It is a Belgian Military Hospital and we get our letters stamped free because we are on Active Service.
Feb 11th Up at 6.30. Went with Chris Nicholson on Ford* ambulance. We made trips backwards and forwards all morning taking men from our Hospital to the Hospital Ship. They were all stretcher cases. We carried the stretchers into the ward and helped the men get on them, then took charge of their bundles while the orderlies carried them out and put them into the car. Then we drove to the Gare Maritime up alongside the hospital ship Leopold II. We helped to get them out. They were then carried below into the saloon. It was awful, dozens and dozens of men sitting round, all smoking - nowhere for them to be. The worst stretcher cases were simply put on the floor.
In those early months a much coveted job was taking supplies up the line. It was a chance to experience the war at first hand. Muriel Thompson in her 1915 diary again:
Feb 23rd Left Calais with White and Waite. We were to go beyond Pervyse to take bundles of shirts, socks, etc. the Belgians being very badly in need of supplies. We started early on a glorious morning and motored through a flat, ugly country towards Gravelines, a pretty, unfortified town which reminded me of Banbury. Then on to Dunkirk, a strongly-fortified place and so into Belgium. We stopped at Furnes, a very quaint little place with a lovely old church*. It is like a city of the dead, every house was shuttered and only a few soldiers were to be seen walking about. The beautiful old square is damaged in places but this was nothing to what Pervyse is like. It is simply in ruins: church, houses, shops, all destroyed. The road had got very bad after Fumes, narrow pave in the middle and deep mud ruts on each side, awful if a back wheel slipped off A long way after Pervyse, we reached the second line trenches.* We went one at a time and left about one hundred yards between us so as not to draw the German fire. As I was walking along I heard the whizz of the shrapnel for the first time. There is no mistaking it, first a bang, then a curious whistling, swishing sound. Then another bang, then a white smoke cloud bursting and lingering some time. All the time the larks were singing and the shrapnel was going on. We ploughed along in the most awful mud I have ever seen. Every now and then we would stop and a head would appear out of a hole and a man would dive out on all fours. "How many are you?", and then we would give as many packets of cigarettes as there were men and hand out shirts, socks, etc, and newspapers. A number of men had been wounded in the bombardment. We helped them back as fast as we could to a little but where there were stretchers and then to the car.
March 30th Had the shock of my life. Was very tired and had headache so stayed in bed when woken by Chris Nicholson banging on the door and saying "Get up at once, you've got the Leopold II, and you must go to La Panne to get it." I did not know what she was talking about. At first I thought she was talking about the hospital ship and that I must get up and take some men there. I dressed in a hurry, rushed to the hospital and found an order had come for us to present ourselves at the Royal Villa at La Panne to be decorated by King Albert.
It was the first public recognition of their work.*
Lamarck Hospital was the foundation of the FANYs' tradition of learning to do whatever job came to hand. Seven miles from Lamarck at St Ingelvert was a Belgian convalescent home with twenty beds. The F.A.N.Y. sent a trained Sister and two FANYs to look after the men. Muriel Thompson was sent south with supplies:
Feb 11th After dinner drove in the Mors to St. Inglevert, the convalescent home. It is about eight miles out in the country, and we had to pass three different barriers at which everyone is stopped by soldiers with fixed bayonets. The home is run by two members of the Corps. There is one big, bare room, the village hall, with a stage at one end with three beds on it. The floor was quite bare, and there was just a strip of matting by each bed. The beds were tiny, low ones. The girls sleep in a tiny room in the farm house nearby. We went over to the little church and then came back, and a photo was taken of a baby and its mother, to send to the father in the trenches. The cure came and posed the group and the old grandmother came up and there was much laughter and all the malades* came and looked on. Drove back in tons of mud.
Five miles from the Front Line at Oostkerke, the FANY set up a Regimental Aid Post with the Battalion doctors of the 3me Chasseurs à Pied, 5th Division, Belgian Army. It was an advanced dressing station. Three FANYs at a time were stationed there. Edith Walton was one of them:
We are within three miles of Dixemude, with rough fare, consisting for the most part of coffee and black potatoes, sleeping on straw, having a cupful of water to wash in, treating wounded brought from in the trenches.
A Motor Kitchen was brought over from England on January 1st 1915 by Beryl Hutchinson. In a post-war account she wrote:
I arrived complete with the Ford soup kitchen, upon which Grace McDougall had insisted as the price of my being allowed to go to France. In appearance it was rather like a hen-house mounted on a Ford chassis. The door was at the back and it had a little window high up on each side and a trap-window, as in buses, to communicate with the driver. Inside was an ‘Ideal Home’ sort of dresser with gilt canister sets, fastened firmly by rubber bands made from inner tubes. Behind the driver’s seat were big urns over the largest size of Primus. When being driven, the urns were made inaccessible by the stern end of the driver.
In April, she, Ida ‘Tommy’ Lewis and the Motor Kitchen were attached to 7me Regiment d’Artillerie Montée* which was to join the British 5th Division in the Ypres salient. She recalled how difficult it was to drive the Model T Ford so slowly:
We set off with the Battery on a long trek which a fortnight later landed us just behind Ypres on the Furnes road. The endless low gear, the horse-pace driving, the people who covered our hen-house with lilac; even now the scent of lilacs brings back the French and Belgian lanes.
On May 24th they experienced one of the first uses of gas.
The 7me had been attached to the British and, as usual then, the British wanted to know - “How the ....? Who the ....? Women near the Line...!!!“ Arguments, passes shown, the Intelligence Officer came over to see if we were spies, but FANY luck held; he knew Lewis in her private life. But we were to leave. The I.O. made it the day after tomorrow to let everyone make plans. At dawn I woke to a very queer noise and an even queerer smell. The Belgian Quarter-Master came round with gas masks. All our men had had gas masks already issued and were firing for all they were worth. Out of the mist came a procession of British, staggering up the lane or just lying in a groaning, gasping heap. They had the silliest bits of chewed cotton wool fastened to their faces. We had the idea that hot black coffee, being so very good for asthma attacks, might help so we had those primus going as hard as they could lick. Of course being young and enthusiastic, we gave our masks to some we thought were dying. Then we remembered we had gone up provided with enough ‘Mr Southall’s conveniences for ladies’ for some time. Also at that time one used Rimmel’s toilet vinegar for cleansing one’s face, etc. We cut each pad in half, poured the vinegar on and lashed it to our faces. We found it so good that we made them up for the men and it certainly got them along the road to the dressing station. We always wondered if the staff there recognised our first aid ‘equipment’. The I.O. turned up again and said would we go to G.H.Q. We were shown into a room where five or six figures in ‘red flannel and gold lace’ were seated round a table. They were disappointed we had not our Belgian gas masks with us but we described them as well as possible, as well as our own efforts, though being nicely brought up Edwardian girls we were too shy to say what we had really used and it became ‘specially medicated cotton wool.
The FANYs also operated a mobile bath vehicle, nick-named ‘James’. This had been brought over by Marion and Hope Gamwell. James the Motor Bath was a 1907 Daimler:
James was seven years old when he came to me, sound in wind and limb but self-opinionated. His limousine body had been replaced by a bulky caravan-like object - the 'Incubus' - containing ten canvas baths, a cold after tank, a disinfecting cupboard and two huge Primus-stoves. He was chain driven and specially selected for his strong chassis. He had both low and high-tension ignition, a governor and a curious bicycle-pump stowed away under the steering box, the function of which was to produce pressure for the oil and petrol systems. Another of his peculiarities were two gear-levers, a handbrake which moved in a vertical line, and the absence of an accelerator. The 'Incubus' was, if possible, even more intricate. Built of wood, it had a tent which rolled up on either side and a hot-water tap protruding from each flank. When stationary and prepared for work, these tents were let down to form lean-to's in which were placed the baths - five in each tent - and a length of hose was fixed to each tap. A supply pipe similar to that of a steam wagon was placed in the selected source of water and it then became the painful duty of one of James's satellites – he, alas, had two - to pump the tank full. Meanwhile the second satellite was fully but not always agreeably occupied in starting the primuses. Paraffin was always provided by the 'bathees' and was frequently very dirty, with the result that the unfortunate who had the care of the lamps spent most of the time flat on her face coaxing them with petrol-soaked waste. We arrived at our destination and found our 'hosts' had selected a site in the middle of a bridge - they had not previously seen James. As we did not want to hold up all the traffic we got James down into the field beside the stream, the water supply, though with difficulty. The officer in charge of the bathing operations was a modest young man and asked if we should 'be going for a walk'. We pointed out James's inner workings and he agreed that we should have quite enough to do to keep us out of mischief. The troops were splendid and kept up a constant stream of bathers. One of their latest activities has been to devise and work a peripatetic bath. By ingenious contrivances, tents and ten collapsible baths are packed into a car which circulates behind the lines. The water is heated by the engine in a cistern in the interior of the car and offers the luxury of a hot bath to forty men per hour.
Over the years the FANYs learned to drive a wide variety of vehicles. As well as the bulky, hard-to-manoeuvre Motor-Bath and the Ford Mobile Kitchen, there was ‘Unity’ the Unic ambulance, ‘Flossie’ the Ford ambulance and ‘Kangaroo’, Muriel Thompson’s Cadillac. There were Napiers, a Hotchkiss called ‘Ann’, Siddeley-Deaseys, the Crossley ambulance, an Armstrong Whitworth ambulance, a Vulcan lorry, a Mors car, a Mors box lorry, early Vauxhalls and Wolseleys. With the French, they drove Peugeots, Berliots and Delahayes. They came to Flanders with a mixed range of driving experience. Muriel Thompson adopted a pragmatic approach to maintenance:
Flossie’s carburettor flooded after lunch. I hit it with a spanner and it revived. Parcels arrived from England - joy! A cake from Buzzard, also a lovely oil pump and pliers, just what I wanted.
On the later convoys, they were required to pass the B.R.C.S. driving test but in the early days they learned on the job. Beryl Hutchinson remembered:
After initiation, I was allowed a car, dear friendly ‘Unity’ the UNIC ambulance. She had broken her axle falling off the platform onto the railway line and had a large splint at driver’s seat level. The other side started to tear so she was promoted to a splint each side and served me faithfully for the eleven and a half months we worked together.
The Front Line moved backwards and forwards several times during the course of the war but many towns and villages remained within bombardment range, from the air, land and sea, throughout. Air raids were a new form of warfare. On March 16th 1915 there was a Zeppelin raid on Calais. Every window in the hospital was smashed and splintered over the patients’ beds. The railway station was also hit. Beryl Hutchinson described the scene:
The casualties were dreadful, heads, all mutilated, hands and feet torn off. The keys of the station ambulance were missing so Chris (Nicholson) and I fetched ours and made many horrible journeys with the living and the dying amid a haunting smell of burnt flesh.
In August 1915 the FANY were asked to open a canteen at Camp du Ruchard, a Belgian holding camp in the middle of the countryside in the Loire. Some of the ‘old’ hands were sent there from Lamarck. It was a long way from the Front and took them into a different world. Adela Crockett (who was Australian) and Muriel Thompson were sent there. Thompson, who had been driving for over 10 years, much savoured the drive south:
Sept 6th Great excitement; found my pass had actually arrived. Got ready, said good-bye and collected 100 litres of petrol, 5lbs of grease and 10 litres of oil, for all of which the adjutant gave me a voucher. Crockett and I left Calais at 12.45pm on a glorious day, and drove via Boulogne, Montreuil and Abbeville to Rouen. Saw a lot of Indian troops near Abbeville. There were English troops and camps all along the road. We reached Rouen at dusk having done 133 miles. Went to the Hotel du Vieux Palais. Very quiet and nice.
Sept 7th Up at 6.30am and cleaned the car from 7 till 8am. Found our coffee laid in room with three British officers. They talked to us and were very interested. Went to Belgian Etat Major who at once gave me a bon* for 50 litres of petrol. Rouen looked lovely - we did so regret having to go without seeing it.
Kangaroo* ran beautifully. Stopped at Louviers and took snapshot of the car outside the cathedral. We lunched by the roadside, in a wonderful empty world, and lay on our backs beneath a haystack, with blazing sun, and miles and miles of empty country, blue sky and not a human being. Lovely drive, but got very tired - mile after mile. Passed Evreux, Dreux, Chartres, Vendome and reached Tours at dusk. The screen of the car broke, and it took us about half an hour to unship it. For miles the road lay as straight as a ruler, and quite empty, and I sighed for Pobble* in his stream-line days. Got to Azay in the dark and arrived at 8pm. Did 178 miles.
Sept 9th All went up to Camp du Ruchard. Lovely big building in the middle of the camp. Paintings all around walls, Allies’ coats of arms and mottoes. Place of honour occupied by F.A.N.Y. Badge. Unpacked and put away stores all morning. Tried to find a garage for Kangaroo in Azay - it got stuck in the stable and five French soldiers came to the rescue. They nearly pulled the stable down and finally I got out with a flat tyre and a torn hood. Jacked up and left it for the night.
Sept 13th Great day - opening of the Canteen. At 1.15pm the men were admitted, and at 2.00 the French General Chêne arrived with the Belgian Colonel Van Dyck, followed by about twenty officers.
There were about 3,500 Belgian soldiers at the Camp, some in hospital, some convalescing, some maimed men waiting to be distributed to special training centres. The canteen was an immediate success, boosting the men’s morale. Margaret Cole-Hamilton wrote to HQ in London:
The hut has been open for a month. At first the men were not quite sure what was going to happen. Now they crowd in, especially in the evenings, thump the piano vigorously, consume enormous quantities of liquid, eat cake, and write hundreds of letters, just like our Tommies.
A mobile cinema was started which gave performances every evening. They also provided a trained nurse, Sister Lovell, whose salary they paid.
As a voluntary organisation, money was always a problem. Back at HQ, fund-raising was a major preoccupation. One fundraising leaflet of 1915 read:
The members of the Corps give their services voluntarily besides paying for their own uniforms, laundry and travelling expenses. In addition to this, those working at Lamarck Hospital and Camp de Ruchard contribute towards their board. With the exception of rations, medical and surgical attendance, and the majority of hospital stores, all the expense of the Hospital and the Canteen at Camp de Ruchard, including the salaries of trained nurses, are met by the Corps.
Later in the war, when the Belgians decided to close Camp du Ruchard, it was agreed that the Camp could not moved as one unit. However all the sections wanted the FANYs to go with them. Adela Crockett made the decision that they should stay with the two hundred nervous convulsives. They moved to a monastery in Soligny-la-Trappe. Crockett wrote:
Things are very tranquil. Nothing much to report till yesterday when a patient from Ruchard became more violent, and had to be confined. When taken food, he escaped on the roof three stories up. Nearly all the men gathered in the courtyard watching him lustily declaring his views on the iniquities of the Armée Belge. There are about 20 German prisoners working at a farm for the Monks. Well content to be there instead of at the Front. We got up a party in the afternoon. Tables and benches and cigarettes, followed by games (bobbing the onion etc.) and races. A Belgian Trappist Monk, a great admirer of the English, is often at the hospital. The French Trappists are stricter than the Belgians who may drink beer, smoke and sing, so, knowing he hankered for mild dissipation, we asked him to the party.
Meanwhile the FANY was still trying to persuade the British military authorities to make use of their services. In the summer of 1915 the British made Calais a Military Base and turned Calais Casino into a Military Hospital. Fortunately for the FANYs, the Director of Medical Services at the Base was Surgeon-General Woodhouse who had been so impressed at that last pre-war F.A.N.Y. Camp. Beryl Hutchinson recollected:
Trains came in, ships came in, a lovely hospital was created out of the Casino. But the promised ambulances just did not arrive. Naturally the FANYs did the honours of the new Base and we heard of the troubles of our new R.A.M.C. friends. We did some wangling and as we were not then busy for the Belgians, the Line being very quiet at our end, they kindly lent us to the British on condition that we did our Belgian work as first priority. So for three weeks we did the whole work of the new Base. General Woodhouse sent for Boss* and McDougall. It was decided that a driver in F.A.N.Y. uniform would look good, and ‘Unity’ was chosen, with me as driver. So, tidy and washed, we set off. He asked what reward we would like for having done such good work, and with one voice McDougall and Boss replied, “Work for the British, please”. “I feared you would say that!” he said. “Now how are we going to manage it? You’re not B.R.C.S. You’re not St. John’s. I know, alas, that you are not Army..... You’re neither fish, flesh nor fowl, but you’re damned good red herring!”
On January 1st 1916, the ambulance drivers replaced the B.R.C.S. men. They were the first women to drive officially for the British Army. The weather was not good. Lilian Franklin, ‘Boss’, wrote candidly to HQ:
The Camp is situated on a high sandy hill behind the Casino and consists of four bell tents and a canvas hut, the sides of which are not on speaking terms with the roof and floor. There are also some good size rents in the sides thus enabling the wind to blow through in every direction. The Mess tent consists of an Indian-pattern marquee heated by an iron stove, but as the ground is sand, the pegs do not hold well and it is not considered safe to light this stove if there is a wind blowing; which there generally is. There are also several bathing huts. One of these is used as an office, and the others as sleeping quarters. The vehicles are: 8 ambulances, a 30cwt lorry, a small box lorry and a small bus. These are not exactly in their first youth. The ambulances have all done a turn at the Front and it taxes our driving skill to keep them on the road.
They did their own repairs with the aid of two male mechanics. The FANYs were very proud of their triumph over British military hostility and were not at all daunted by their new role. Muriel Thompson recorded in her 1916 diary:
Jan 1st We have started the first woman’s M.A.C. (Motor Ambulance Convoy) ever to work for the British Army. Our camp is on a little hill near the sea, behind the Casino. Most of us live in tents and bathing machines. I share a small chalet with three others. The weather is fiendish, gales and torrents of rain. The cars are old and in a bad state, and we are short of drivers. We mess in a big tent, all together. Lots of work but are all so very pleased to be here.
Jan 2nd Got up at 5.45am and sat down for the first time, except for meals, at 7.30pm. We took over from the B.R.C. men yesterday. The cars stand in the open always, and the weather is awful. Suddenly word came that the Barges were there - every car goes at once, and the men are taken off to the hospitals. These are bad cases, and one has to go very slowly.
Jan 14th The Quarter-Master Sergeant tells us we are a great improvement on our predecessors! Last night we had a raging gale which howled over our little plateau and blew a tent right over. The unlucky possessions were blown all over the place. This morning all cars had to be at the Casino at 6am so we got up at 4.30am. The first lot of wounded arrived on the quay in pitch darkness. Calais is a healthy place. I have lost the cough, and the pain in my back I had when we came here
Jan 28th Eighteen of us went to dine at the mess of a regiment which is here resting. They drank our healths and cheered us; I had to reply for the Corps.
The drivers were divided into two sections, with Section Leaders holding the rank of sergeant. They were responsible for the girls turning out punctually. The FANYs did not observe full army compliments. ‘Boss’ was saluted first thing in the morning but not again. A roll-call was held before breakfast to ensure that everybody was up.
Now the Calais Convoy was officially attached to the BRCS, FANY HQ tried to ensure that rules about uniform were adhered to, (not always successfully), issuing a rare order in 1916:
The khaki tunic is to have four pockets with F.A.N.Y. buttons and badges and made with plain sleeves. There will be a Red Cross circle on each sleeve, the centre of the cross to be seven inches from the shoulder. The bottom of the khaki skirt is to be ten inches from the ground and for footwear, khaki puttees and brown shoes or boots, or long brown boots, are to be worn.
However as the FANYs supplied their uniforms themselves, they often varied in material if not in pattern. It was considered smart to wear linen ‘spats’ when off-duty.
A long navy blue coat with red piping was introduced for the drivers to wear in their open-cabin ambulances, but many managed to get hold of the goat-skin coats so beloved of the French taxi-drivers in the region.
The mechanics wore breeches and smocks, the cooks wore overalls. The pith helmet, which the drivers complained hit the canvas roof of the ambulances, had by 1916 been largely replaced by a soft bonnet-style hat, designed at Lamarck by Chris Nicholson.
In fact, rules were few and therefore rarely broken. Relations between those who gave the orders and those who executed the orders relied more on respect than military style discipline. FANYs were trusted not to bring the name of the Corps into disrepute, always conscious that they were trailblazers for women and very much in public view. Extracts from a poem by Diane Paynter made fun of the criticism that came their way from some quarters:
Oh you criticize the clothes,
Or lack of them, as worn
By members of the female sex
Who rise at early dawn,
And carry on throughout the day
To help this stinking war.
Just try to think, a thing I feel
You’ve never done before.
We’re sorry if our garb offends,
We do not like your smile
When you observe a skirt that reaches
To the knee only of our breeches......
However, there was one rule concerning men friends, known as ‘persuitors’. The rule was that FANYs were only allowed to dine out in pairs. ‘Boss’ however did not ask who else would be there, merely the name of the other FANY. Dining out was only permitted once a week. Tea, however, was a different matter. Beryl Hutchinson humorously recalled:
No FANY could be seen dining with a man alone. One had to take another FANY when dining at The Grand or any other restaurant. We got round that rule a little by teaching a tea shop in the rue Royale to serve a sort of high tea with omelettes but somewhat later. This could be counted as tea and one could go with one’s boyfriend.
Keeping a sense of humour as well as keeping one’s head was important.
The War Song of the FANY (to the tune of The Road to Mandalay)
On the sandy shores of Calais
Looking Blighty-wards to sea,
There’s a FANY camp a’sitting
And it’s all the world to me.
For the cars are gently humming
And the ‘phone bell’s ringing yet,
“Come you up you British Convoy,
Come you up for omelette.”
For ‘er uniform is khaki
And her little car is green.
And her name is only FANY
And she’s not exactly clean.
And I see’d her first a’smoking of a ration cigarette,
And a’wasting Army petrol
Cleaning clothes, when she’s in debt,
On the road to Fontinettes,
Where the Red Cross trains are met.
And the cars come up in convoy
From the Camp to Fontinettes.
Come you back, you blighter FANY,
There’s another carload yet.
And the dawn comes up like thunder
To find the convoy coping yet,
On the road to Fontinettes,
On the way for omelettes.
The winter of 1916-1917 was hard. On very cold nights, the FANYs had a night watch which stayed up all night and fired the engines of the cars every hour to keep them warm and ready for the morning’s work. Those on night watch still had to do a full day’s work. Muriel Thompson noted in her diary:
Feb 5th Did night guard, cold awful. Cranked the Vulcan and three taxis every hour. Sat in cook-house and boiled water to thaw the petrol filters of the Napiers in the intervals. The filters were full of water from the petrol and were frozen solid nearly every time. Started day at 5 am and was about six hours on the quay. It snowed hard towards morning. We are consoled by hearing that everyone else has burst their radiators and some, their cylinders. The girls are bricks, it is very hard work.
In July General Woodhouse inspected the convoy and was pleased with what he saw. He said that the good work done by the FANY drivers “was making a name for women’s work at the Front”.
One of the FANY’s jobs was to meet the barges using the St Omer and other canal systems. Seriously wounded soldiers were moved by barge to save them from the unavoidable jerks of a hospital train and the bumps of the roads. The ‘phone would ring and a moment later up would go the cry of “Barges! Barges!” when all the FANYs would run out to their cars and drive down to the canal. The drivers were aware of all the dips in the war torn roads and went to great lengths to try and avoid them. After driving several car loads of men a FANY driver would have backache, knee pains, sore eyes and a special strained expression which came to be known as ‘stretcher’ face. The strain of such journeys was tremendous. Their public faces were calm and competent but in private, the anguish sometimes showed. One night the convoy was called out in the middle of a very bad air raid on an ammunition dump. In her 1916 diary Muriel Thompson described one terrible journey:
April 25th A terrible day. Were just starting for the evacuation when orders came to go at once, as fast as possible, to Audricq. I went, and three others. We went to the E.M.O.’s and drew four stretchers, twelve blankets as usual, and four pillows for each car. We arrived at eleven; they never expected us so soon. It was terrible. Railway trucks full of burnt and blown up men. We took the fifteen worst. I helped with some of the stretchers. There were not enough bandages for all;
their faces were skinless and awful. They were mad with pain, their puttees were charred and black, where they had any left. We got these poor awful things into the cars, and started. One kept calling, “Sister! Sister! I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it!” and then he broke off and began to try to sing with half his mouth gone. I was fortunate - my four were unconscious till we nearly reached Calais when they all began to cry out. I had a R.A.M.C. orderly with me. We drove those awful miles to Calais and luckily we could go at a fair pace as the road wasn’t bad and there were no fractures. Got to the hospital and had our men taken out; one was dead. Returned to Camp and cried. Played four terrific sets of tennis in the middle of which we saw an aeroplane fall into the sea. The pilot was all right. Went to a concert at the Ordnance place. After it was over we had coffee and sandwiches. I had prayed all the way to Audricq that my tyres should not puncture.
April 26th The fourth man is dead, poor soul.
In fact one way the FANYs had found of relieving the anguish was going to, and giving, parties and shows. Concert parties for the troops, patients, and for private pleasure, became a FANY speciality. In Calais there were the ‘FANtastiks’, and later, in St Omer the ‘Kippers’. Going on to a concert, after her harrowing drive from Audricq, was Thompson’s way of coping, as she knew from past experience:
March 1st Went with seven girls to Beau-Marais. They gave a splendid concert to 800 Guardsman who were down the Line resting. The girls were rehearsing all the way in the car and the applause nearly blew the tent away - never heard such an audience in my life.
Dec 1st Intense cold, half the Convoy had to tow the other half this morning, and it was an awful struggle to get out of bed. We have started a Pierrette Troupe - ‘The FANYtastics’ - Dickie, Quin, Lowson, Pat, Heasie and Winnie; black sateen dresses and huge tango bobbles. Very pretty and smart. Archie15 has a big orange bow. They threw oranges to the men in one song, and a corporal came up after it was over and said, with a delighted grin: “You didn’t ‘alf cop the sergeant in the eye, Miss!”
Another duty was to take those who had ‘Blighty’ wounds to the hospital ships which then took them to England. The layout of the Calais waterfront made it difficult to turn the large ambulances. When they could use the quay it was not as difficult but when restricted to the platform, an inch either way could mean a nasty drop. The only access to the quayside was across the rail lines and down the frequently crowded station platform. On one occasion, after depositing her patients, a new girl made a fractional miscalculation and paid for her error with a nose dive of about 30 feet into the harbour. Thompson described the process vividly in her 1916 diary:
Oct 6th The evacuation is complicated by hundreds of men and officers who are going on leave, coming down onto the quay and embarking across the hospital ship. The cars back down the quay, and the leave men fly in every direction!
15 ‘Archie’ was a ventriloquist’s dummy.