I’ve always loved the Quaker Meeting House in Jordans village in Buckinghamshire. Sure, it’s a beautiful seventeenth century building, all herring-bone brick floor and diamond-latticed windows, old wooden tables with vases of wild-flowers and so forth, but more than that, it has an air of tranquility – maybe that’s what you get from centuries of people meeting somewhere to sit together quietly. Or maybe it’s just in a nice setting.
Out of this tranquility came passionate pacifists, brave enough to stand by their beliefs during the First World War, yet go to the front-line anyway as the ‘Friends Ambulance Unit’ – praised by the Red Cross as “one of the brightest chapters in our history”.
For the centenary of the First World War, I wrote an article commemorating the Friends Ambulance Unit, ‘Friends in Deed’, for Buckinghamshire and Berkshire Life magazine.
On 21st August 1914, barely 2 weeks after the First World War began, Philip Noel Baker put out a call to fellow pacifist Quakers for volunteers to “form an Ambulance Corps to go to the scene of active operations.” Adding, “It is possible that it would in various ways involve some personal risk to members of the Corps. But it would probably result in the saving of a great many lives.”
Philip Noel Baker is the only person ever to be awarded both the Nobel Peace prize and an Olympic medal – silver in the 1500m in 1920. His Nobel Peace prize citation begins, “Frequently when the storm clouds gather the world is made aware of the forces of good, rallying to meet the threatened danger.”
He set up a training camp at Jordans for the ambulance volunteers – “A rather motley band of lawyers, doctors, students, engineers, surveyors, accountants, businessmen and workers in arts and crafts” – as they described themselves.
Over a thousand men, and some women, worked in the Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War. Twenty-one were killed. Ninety-six, nearly one in ten, were awarded medals for bravery. Their achievements were one of the reasons the Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In accordance with the Friends Ambulance Unit motto – ‘Go anywhere, do anything’, they established and staffed hospitals, founded orphanages, set up and ran recreation rooms at Dunkirk – The Pig and Whistle and the Cat and Fiddle, to boost troops’ morale, 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.
The work of the Friends Ambulance Unit prompted one historian to recall the Ancient Greek advice – “The secret of happiness is service and freedom, and the secret of freedom a brave heart.”
As part of my research I had the great pleasure of meeting local Quakers Sue and John Smithson, who both had relatives who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit.
John’s father Michael drove an ambulance on the front-line, aged only seventeen. At the end of the war he came to work at Jordans where the Quakers had established a convalescent home. He’s pictured here at Jordans in 1918, seated fifth from left:
Sue’s Uncle, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of The Washington Post, Felix Morley also volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit. When Sue became engaged to John, Felix recognised John’s surname and realised he had worked alongside his father Michael on an ambulance train in France during the war.
A memorial to the Friends Ambulance Unit was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire in 2013. The Society of Friends, as Quakers are more properly known, have more information about the Friends Ambulance Unit and kindly permitted use of some of their library photos in the article.
And huge thanks to Sue and John Smithson for chatting to me about their inspirational relatives.
Archive photos © Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 2014