Amongst the unofficial voluntary organisations that took themselves off to the Western Front in 1914 to provide medical support were members of the all-female First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). The corps had been founded by Warrant Officer Edward Baker, a veteran of Lord Kitchener’s Soudan campaign, who, whilst recovering from wounds sustained in battle in 1898, came up with the idea of an organisation who would provide emergency medical care close to the firing lines, before soldiers were moved away by ambulance. His dream became a reality in 1907 with the establishment of the FANY, which was modelled on military lines. Prospective members had to be aged between seventeen and thirty five, and at least 5 ft 3 inches tall, and those with riding skills and their own horses were especially welcome.They also had to be reasonably wealthy for besides the joining fee, money had to be found for uniforms, first aid kits, riding school fees and all horse related costs. Every recruit had to qualify in first aid and nursing, and was trained in horsemanship, veterinary work, signalling and camp cookery, and they were, as their later commandant Grace Ashley-Smith described them, ‘a corps of workers, not shirkers’.
Ashley-Smith’s account of her days in Antwerp in September 1914, and then Ghent a month later, left nothing to the imagination, but she nevertheless wrote of ‘her adventures’ which came ‘thick and fast’ and of her ‘most thrilling day’ being the first day she actually came under fire! She was with a Belgian ambulance, heading for a makeshift hospital at Buckerout, when they were stopped by two Belgian soldiers on bicycles, seeking help for casualties at an outpost near Lierre. Without any hesitation the ambulance and Grace were on their way, and stopped within 200 yards of the trenches, caught up in shell fire and flying shrapnel. She confessed to being seized by ‘a moment of terror’ but there was a job to be done and she ‘ran on hard, and whilst the men picked the worse wounded up I helped a man whose right leg was torn fearfully…’. Other dashes were made, again under shell fire, until the ambulance was full up and the wounded were moved to safety. These same ambulances also proved useful for fetching dressing and medical stores for the English doctors, as well as providing them with bread, cheese and butter ‘thankfully received after days of biscuits and bully beef.’
Pat Waddell, another pre-war member of the FANY, was training as a professional violinist when she was called up in February 1915 and sent to join a contingent of FANYs already established at the Belgian Lamarck hospital – a former derelict and filthy convent – in Calais. She had expected to be an ambulance driver but was initially sent to work on the wards as there was a shortage of nursing staff. Whenever possible, she retreated to the storeroom, which despite being full of ‘tins of biscuits and pots of jam’, was a haven where she could practise her violin. A trip by ambulance, with three other girls, to deliver stores to some advanced dressing stations, proved to be a harrowing experience, not least of all because the ambulances were pretty basic. Typically they took four stretchers and, as Miss Josephine Pennell described in January 1918, were ‘supposed to be warmed by the exhaust pipe which runs along inside… The engines…have four cylinders and a radiator which is liable to freeze up in winter, and so it must be drained in frosty weather, or else must be started up every half-hour during the night if it is to be ready for instant use.’ Lit by three oil lamps and on occasions a single headlamp, the tyres had to be pumped up by hand. With no windscreen, the only protection was a canvas shield which reached the chin.
Pat Waddell was detailed, with three other girls, to deliver heavy bundles of socks and mufflers to Belgian soldiers in the trenches. They set off on foot under cover of darkness travelling along shell-ridden roads, until they reached their destination. Here she wrote, ‘A touch on the shoulder and we climbed into the trench along a slippery plank. The men looked surprised to see us. I crawled into one of their dug-outs, little larger than a rabbit hutch, on my hand and knees, the door being very low. The two occupants had a small brazier burning ; straw was on the floor. The sight of a new pair of socks cheered them tremendously.’ Socks were indeed a precious commodity, for along with regularly washing feet and drying them thoroughly, clean ones were part of the battle against trench foot, which if not treated, could result in amputations.
Their efforts were finally recognised when the War Office asked them to work for the British – sixteen FANY ambulance drivers duly replaced the British Red Cross Society men on 1st January 1916. In all some 450 members of the FANY worked as nurses and ambulance drivers on the western front with the Belgian, French and British armies during the first world war. The jobs they undertook were frequently dangerous and in recognition they were awarded seventeen Military Medals, twenty seven Croix de Guerre, one Legion d’Honneur, and eleven Mentions in Despatches. Amongst the nine decorations that Grace Ashley-Smith received was a rosette to the Mons Star, making her one of the few women to be so honoured.