Ambulance car in ditch (Paul Cadbury papers)


“Altogether the Buicks (the last model of ambulance they used, presumably supplied by the Americans) gave good service, but I shudder to think what would have happened had the war lasted another year. Two years would seem to be about the maximum with an American chassis over war time roads.”

When we think of engineering and engineers in the context of war, normally we conjure up visions of supply lines or development of weapons or the like but there is another side. The Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), an independent Quaker body, operated during the First and Second World Wars. Quakers (Society of Friends) were (and are) pacifists. During earlier conflicts such as the Boar War, they spoke out. They remained pacifist during WWI but they wanted to care for the victims of war, both civilian and military. Our guest feature on our online exhibit, Engineers at War: From Home Front to Battle Front, tells their story.

Ambulance car in ditch (Paul Cadbury papers)
Ambulance car in ditch (Paul Cadbury papers)

As well as domestic duties including hospital work and a general service section that did agricultural work etc in Britain, the main function of the FAU was to provide ambulance cars and trains to clear the wounded from the battlefields of Belgium and France. Certainly, this was the area of the Unit’s work that required most engineering or mechanical activity.

For anyone interested in the engineering aspect of the activities of the Unit there are various sources of information. While the main repair work of the ambulance trains was initially done by the Army en repos, the men of the Unit had to do temporary and responsive maintenance to keep the cars and trains operational, and seem gradually to have taken on more serious repair jobs as the war went on. One Unit magazine stated:

“Repair work has occupied the usual attention, and there are now thirteen unskilled workmen to each car.”

The FAU records show that those with mechanical experience were given engineering-related tasks. Mind you this experience could be very limited, staff encompassed professional engineers to those who owned a motorcycle. As their pre-war occupations show:

Inside title page of Two years with the French Army : Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19.
Inside title page of Two years with the French Army : Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19.
  • James H Baker -carriage builder
  • Samuel H Campion -brush maker, also previously fireman and boiler maker
  • William E Clark -audit clerk
  • Edgar P Faux -no previous occupation on card but ‘drives motor cycle’ in skills
  • Henry Fenton -clog maker, ‘good knowledge’ under motors
  • George Fidler -grocers clerk, ‘experience driving’ under motors
  • John Genders -pattern maker, ‘repairs motor cycles’ under skills
  • George Haward -cabinet maker, ‘motor mechanic’
  • Arthur Oakes -architect, under ‘motors: inst school exam 82%
  • Arthur Cotterell -wallpaper manufacturer and artist
  • Olaf Stapledon -lecturer and science fiction writer
  • Lewis Fry Richardson –physicist, mathematician and Royal Society Fellow
  • Colin Priestman -spinner, killed on service with SSA13, aged 24 among the drivers

The Unit sent regular articles to the Quaker weekly magazine The Friend. Surprisingly one of these articles starts in the tone you would expect from an army recruitment brochure:

“On the rails of France is to be found an Ambulance Train, shining as if newly painted, with every brass glistening and without a smear on its windows, – A Great Western Railway train finished in khaki. Its length is 970 feet, its Commanding Officer, Captain Walker RAMC, its personnel, members of the Friends Ambulance Unit, and its record, one that compares with any.”

The article goes on to describe the logistics of their work loading and unloading casualties, preferring a mathematical, rather than emotional, analysis of the work, which for today’s reader seems somewhat trivial, given the situation:

“600 brasses to be polished…one mile of enamel…700 windows to be cleaned…14, 464 square feet of outside paint to be polished”

The magazines feature day-to-day stories of perceptions and conditions. One describes how the ambulance trains function, giving an insight into the conditions:

“Walk up the train from one end to the other, and there will seem to be not a corner that has not its occupant; everywhere the same inert shapes under the dark, rough blankets; everywhere the same all-pervading smell, thick sickening.”

Perhaps, the preoccupation with the minutiae of repair work, and accounts of throttles jamming, axles breaking, and failing gear-boxes was a means of distraction from the immense difficulties they faced. From talking to relatives in our Library, Quakers and other pacifists seem to have been no different to those who fought, in not wanting to discuss the harrowing aspects of their wartime experience.

And of course, many of the men from the FAU did use their experiences to inspire lifetimes of pacifist activity and anti-war campaigning, least of all in the lead-up to the next World War.

A full version of this story is available on our online exhibition page.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers




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