What do the archives of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) offer to wider histories of the French external Resistance in the Second World War?

Laure Humbert introduces her research and discusses this question with Jill Geber, Project Archivist at the Friends House Library, London

As I embark on this new AHRC-funded project with Bertrand Taithe and Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps, my aim is to rethink the history of the French external Resistance from the perspectives of its missionary dispensaries and hospitals across the world. Drawing on the methodologies associated with the global micro-history turn, I intend to focus on different medical spaces of the French external Resistance, including the Hadfield-Spears Mobile Hospital, which followed the French external Resistance throughout the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The history of this hospital has largely been omitted from both the popular narrative and the historiography of the French external Resistance [1]. Directed by an American novelist and philanthropist, Mary Borden (also Spears), this international hospital operated across empires, languages and confessional boundaries. It was made up of British female drivers from the British Mechanized Transport Corps (MTC), British nurses, Free French doctors, riflemen from from what was then French Equatorial Africa (mainly from what are today Congo, Oubangui-Chari and Chad) and Cameroon, and volunteers from the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU). 

LSF,MSS 876/Photos/FAU/SYR, A71, Middle East Hadfield Spears Mobile Hospital, ‘infirmières soignant un blessé sur le sol, sur le sable sous une tente’. [undated].

The archives of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) are held at the Library of the Society of Friends in London and are currently being catalogued by Jill Geber, Project Archivist. These archives offer fascinating insights into the history of the Hadfield Spears hospital and the perspectives of its 38 FAU members. Despite the growing interest in the history of non-combatant men in Second World War Britain [2], there is little dedicated work on the history of the FAU abroad. As historian Linsey Robb recently suggested, the experiences of Conscientious Objectors (CO) fitted uneasily in the cultural memory of the ‘People’s War’ and British popular conception of the Second World War as a just and good war [3]. Yet their wartime and post-war records raise fascinating questions about the links between medical caregiving, pacifism and masculinity [4], and about what Tobias Kelly has recently called ‘the intimate politics of objection’. As Kelly notes, the ‘very act of writing about conscience’ was for COs an attempt to ‘give form to an otherwise intangible and often inchoate concept’ [5]. 

For the historian of the French external Resistance, these archival records also offer an insight into the strong relationships that were formed between FAU members and Free French doctors, who had radically different attitudes towards the war. Where once marginalised by historians, international sites, networks and foreign actors are increasingly seen as central to understanding the history of the French Resistance [5]. This global focus stands in sharp contrast to our knowledge of the intimate physical encounters between Allied and Free French medical staff and patients in various sites across the world. With a few notable exceptions [6], historians studying the army of the French external Resistance and its difficult fusion with the Army of Vichy in 1943 tend to overlook medical spaces.

LSF,MSS 876/Photos/FAU/SYR, A73, Middle East Hadfield Spears Mobile Hospital. [undated].

To launch our blog, Jill Geber kindly accepted an invitation to talk to us about the archives of the Friends Ambulance Unit on 29 January 2021.

Laure Humbert: When did you join the Library of the Society of Friends?

Jill Geber: I joined Library of the Society of Friends (LSF) in January 2020 as Project Archivist.  Over the next 15 months I will be working on a Wellcome Trust Funded project to catalogue the World War Two archives of Friends Ambulance Unit (1939-47) and Friends Relief Service (1943-48) to make them more accessible to researchers. You can follow my blogposts on Quaker Strongrooms for progress of the FAU archives cataloguing project and sign up for mail updates. We will provide updates on when the catalogue will go live and when the archives will be available to consult at Friends House Library.

Laure Humbert: What was the Friends Ambulance Unit? What were their links to Quakerism?

Jill Geber: Friends Ambulance Unit was first established by a group of British Quakers in the autumn of 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. It was a voluntary association of young men and women who organised themselves to relieve suffering caused by war. Although it was not an official agency of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), its members generally shared the Quaker attitude to peace and war and sought to follow the Quaker tradition of service.  George Fox, the seventeenth century founder of Quakerism, in refusing to fight against the forces of Charles I, stated that he ‘lived in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars’. The denial of ‘all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons’ became the Quaker Peace Testimony or testimony against war –  a description of committed actions, in this case to promote peace, and refrain from and actively oppose participation in war.  

The members of FAU in WW1 strove to live up to the high ideals their pacifism imposed. Yet, as historians Fiona Reid and Jessica Meyer have shown, medical pacifist service required a level of cooperation with government and the armed forces, which left many FAU volunteers wondered whether they were helping the military machine by contributing to send soldiers back to fight [8]. FAU volunteers attempted to maintain that although their religious beliefs prevented them from entering the war in combat, they could not stand aside while the conflict raged around them. Anticipating the need for medical and humanitarian aid that war would create, they offered to serve alongside troops, alleviating the suffering caused by war wherever possible. Over 1,000 of the FAU’s members provided emergency medical services with the French and British armies in France and Belgium and on ambulance trains, motor ambulance convoys and on hospital ships in the English Channel and in the Mediterranean, until the Unit was disbanded in 1919.

In 1939, the old Unit was revived by prominent former WW1 members.  It released a statement of purpose:   

We propose to train ourselves as an efficient Unit to undertake ambulance and relief work in areas under both civilian and military control, and so, by working as a pacifist and civilian body where the need is greatest, to demonstrate the efficacy of co-operating to build up a new world rather than fighting to destroy the old. While respecting the views of those pacifists who feel they cannot join an organization such as our own, we feel concerned among the bitterness and conflicting ideologies of the present situation to build up a record of goodwill and positive service, hoping that this will help to keep uppermost in men’s minds those values which are so often forgotten in war and immediately afterwards. [A Tegla Davies, Friends Ambulance Unit: the story of the F.A.U in the Second World War 1939-1946, pp.5-6]

Not all young Quakers necessarily registered as conscientious objectors in either of the two World Wars, nor was the FAU intake by any means confined to Quakers, but Quaker thinking was an unmistakable influence on the work, and of the organisation of the FAU.  From the beginning there were arguments about what it stood for.  Some felt that the nature of the work would lead to the service becoming part of the military system, others that its existence was fully justified by the inadequacy of any services devoted to acts of healing in the fields of conflict.  

LSF,MSS 876/Photos/FAU/SYR, A75, Middle East Hadfield Spears Mobile Hospital [undated].

Laure Humbert: What did the FAU do during the Second World War?  What records are left in the archives?

Jill Geber: The FAU motto was ‘Go Anywhere, Do Anything’.  After first serving in Finland and Norway in 1940, the FAU became closely involved at home, during the Blitz of 1940-1941, in relief work in the bombed areas of London and other British cities and in hospital work throughout the country.  By 1945, the Unit’s 1,300 members had seen service in 25 different countries in Europe, Africa and in Asia, right behind the front lines, in the heat of and in the wake of the most intense battles of the war. The Unit was wound up in June 1946. The work of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit was referred to in the 1947 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the permanent relief bodies of British and American Quakers, acknowledging that the prize was being accepted by these bodies on behalf of the wider international Quaker community. 

Before the FAU was wound up in June 1946, its Chairman Tegla Davies, assisted by members from all its Sections, wrote the official history of the Unit – Friends Ambulance Unit – the story of the FAU in the Second World War 1939-1946 – which was published in 1947. When that work was complete, its Executive Committee considered what method should be adopted for sorting Unit records and preserving those of permanent value.

It was agreed ‘Basic’ files should be compiled by areas, containing records which should be preserved. The selection should be undertaken by a member with intimate knowledge of each area.  Other papers should be destroyed forthwith. An immediate start should be made with areas in which the Unit’s work has been closed and which has been covered by the Unit’s Historian. [FAU Executive Committee Minutes, 4 March 1946, p 142]

The collection contains FAU units’ newsletters and correspondences with Free French authorities, but it is unfortunate for historians as it is for archivists, that many of the records which provide the evidence and detail written in the official history, may have been lost. In the surviving FAU archives, they are nevertheless some important information about the work of the FAU in the Hadfield-Spears Hospital and the 2nd Armoured Division of General Leclerc.

Laure Humbert: Who were the members of the FAU who worked in the Hadfield-Spears Hospital?

Jill Geber: The FAU component comprised 38 orderlies on the wards who also drove and maintained the trucks, provided the hospital’s Quartermaster and its electrician; was responsible for the laundry, linen, mortuary and odd-jobs as well as to load and unload the trucks and set up camp at each new site. The section was led by Raymond ‘Nik’ Alderson until he was killed in 1942, and Michael Rowntree took over.

LSF, MSS 876, Nik Alderson, unknown reference.
LSF MSS 876, Michael Rowntree, FAU Personal Cards.

In the summer of 1943, some FAU men joined the 2nd Armoured Division’s Bataillon Médical, which had only a rudimentary medical service, under the leadership of Hamilton ‘Ham’ Mills. The medical service of the ‘Leclerc Column’ also included the Rochambelles, a group of women supported by a wealthy American Philanthropist Florence Conrad [9].

A number of FAU volunteers won medals for their actions during the war. For instance, in the Hadfield Spears, David Rowlands, who participated to the Surgical Commando who landed at the Canadel in August 1944, won the Croix de Guerre for his actions, helping the wounded. In the the 2nd Armoured Division’s Bataillon Médical, Bill Spray received Croix de Guerre for evacuating wounded from a dangerous situation in the Normandy Campaign. 

LSF,MSS 876/Photos/FAU/SYR, A76, Hadfield Spears Mobile Hospital [undated].

Laure Humbert: During my first visit at the Friends House Library in London, I found a very moving obituary written by Ian Scott-Kilvert after Nik Alderson died in 1942 in an air attack. This document hints at the difficulties that the FAU volunteers faced when working with the Free French, but also at the ability of Nik to arrive ‘extraordinarily at an understanding with our French officers’.

LSF, MSS 876/FAU 1947/3/5, Ian Scott-Kilvert, Nik Alderson.

Laure Humbert: Many reasons accounts for these difficulties. First, different conceptions of ‘medical neutrality’ co-existed in the Hadfield-Spears Hospital. British COs often criticised the Free French for their lack of respect of the Geneva conventions. Some Free French also struggled to understand either rationally or emotionally their pacifism [10]. It is worth recalling here that the exemption on the ground of conscience was only granted in 1963 in France. Thirdly, when examining British COs wartime testimonies, it is apparent that they had a very different conception of masculine duty in wartime. FAU volunteers – by refusing to bear arm – refused to conform to hegemonic and wartime idealised masculine roles, where appropriate war service was often judged by the wearing of a military uniform. Mary Spears explains in her memoirs that she would never understand the position of Conscientious Objector. ‘Their attitude to the troops exacerbated me’ [11] This does not mean, however, that FAU members were completely immune to the social pressures of the ‘temperate hero’ [12], which continued to centre around the military hero. 

William Spray, who joined the service of the 2eme DB in 1943, admitted ‘My one concern, this is an awful revelation about myself and it is… pause… sheer self-interest really, I mean my one concern was that they would be able to say that I was a conscientious objector but also that I was afraid, afraid I certainly was in lots of what happened… but the ultimate satisfaction I suppose of eventually the FAU would my dream come true was that it put me in quite as much danger as and in some cases more danger than many of mine in inverted commas Fighting Friends’. [13] 

As Bertrand Taithe has recently shown, there were important links between ideal notions of martial masculinity and humanitarian masculinity [14].  The FAU archives, combined with other sources, will thus enable us to uncover how different social expectations of masculinity and femininity co-existed and conflicted within medical units of the French External Resistance.  A story to be followed!

Jill ended the interview by pointing at the work of Lyn Smith, who interviewed many former FAU volunteers for the Imperial War Museum in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Her book Pacifist in Action. The experience of the Friends Ambulance Unit in the Second World War was published by Sessions Book Trust in 1998.

LSF,MSS 876/Photos/FAU/SYR, A79, Middle East Hadfield Spears Mobile Hospital [undated].

Sources and further reading:

[1] Mary Borden published a memoir of her work during the Second World War. Journey Down a Blind Alley (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1946).  Jacques Duprey L’ambulance Hadfield-Spears ou la drôle d’équipe (Paris : Nouvelles éditions Latines, 1953).

[2] Linsey Robb and Juliette Pattinson (eds) Men, Masculinities and Male Culture in the Second World War (London: Palgrave, 2008)

[3] Linsey Robb ‘The Conchie Corps’: Conflict, Compromise and Conscientious Objection in the British Army, 1940-1945’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2018), pp. 411-434.

[4] Jessica Meyer ‘Medicos, poultice wallahs and comrades in service: masculinity and military medicine in Britain during the First World War’, Critical Military Studies, 6 (2020), pp. 160-175.

[5] Tobias Kelly ‘Dissenting conscience: the Intimate politics of objection in Second World War Britain’, in Harini Amarasuriya, Tobias Kelly, Sidharthan Maunaguru, Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic, and Jonathan Spencer (ed) The Intimate Life of Dissent Anthropological Perspectives (London: UCL Press, 2020) p. 115. Also see David Saunders ‘Pacifism, Infection and ‘somatic citizenship’ in wartime Britain, 1940-43’, The Historical Journal, advanced view.

[6] Sylvain Cornil-Frerrot and Philippe Oulmont, Les Français Libres et le monde: Actes du colloque international au Musée de l’Armée, 22–23 novembre 2013 (Paris: Nouveau Monde Editions, 2015), Alya Aglan and Robert Frank, 1937-1947 La guerre monde (Paris: Folio, 2015); Eric T. Jennings, Free French Africa in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Olivier Wieviorka, Une Histoire de la Résistance en Europe occidentale (Paris, Perrin, 2017) ; Charlotte Faucher and Laure Humbert ‘Beyond de Gaulle and beyond London: the French external resistance and its international networks’,  in European Review of History: Revue Européenne d’Histoire, vol. 25, (2018), p. 195- 221; Robert Gildea & Ismee Tames (eds.), Fighters across Frontiers. Transnational Resistance in Europe, 1936-1948(Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2020); Sebastien Albertelli, Elles ont suivi de Gaulle : Histoire du Corps des Volontaires françaises (Paris, Perrin, 2020).

[7] Guy Chauliac Le service de santé de la France Libre de 1940 à 1943 (Paris, 1994).

[8] Jessica Meyer ‘Neutral Caregivers or Military Support? The British Red Cross, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and the Problems of Voluntary Medical Aid in wartime’, War and Society, 34, 2 (2015), pp. 105-120; Fiona Reid ‘The Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU)’, Medicine, Conflict and Survival, 35, 2 (2019), pp. 140-143. 

[9] Elodie Jauneau ‘Des femmes dans la 2eme division blindée du général Leclerc. Le groupe Rochambeau : un exemple de féminisation de l’Armée française’, Travail, Genre et sociétés, 1, 25 (2011), pp. 99-123.

[10] Michael Rowntree quoted in Smith Pacifists in Action, p. 138.

[11] Borden Journey down a blind alley, p. 182.

[12] Sonya Rose Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[13] IWM, 10551, Interview of William Hillah Spray by Lyn Smith, 12 March 1988, reel 1, 18’20-19’03.

[14] Bertrand Taithe ‘Humanitarian Masculinity: Desire, Character and Heroics, 1876-2018’, in Esther Moller, Johannes Paulmann and Katharina Stornig (ed) Gendering Global Humanitarism in the Twentieth Century (London: Palgrave, 2020), pp. 35-60. Graham Dawson’s Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (London: Routledge, 1994) provides a key foundation for any study of martial masculinities.

2 Replies to “What do the archives of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) offer to wider histories of the French external Resistance in the Second World War?”

  1. My cousin John Clifford Bough served with the Friends Ambulance Unit during WW2. Attached to the French 2nd armoured Division commanded by General LeClerk. He was killed in action while driving an ambulance. He was also awarded a Croix Du Guerre. He is mentioned in at least two books.


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