#whitefeather diaries

Ambulance work at the front – helping the injured or helping the war?

Laurence was one of the first people to join the Friends' Ambulance Unit (FAU) The unit's work caused disagreement amongst Quakers and other pacifists. The creation of the FAU was announced by Philip Baker in a letter to the weekly independent Quaker magazine The Friend. In the following weeks, the paper's letters page carried heated arguments about the idea.

Here is Philip Baker's first letter about the FAU, published in The Friend on 21 August 1914.

Dear Friend,

Some members of the Society with whom I have been in correspondence feel strongly that in this crisis in public affairs they want to render some service more commensurate with their powers and opportunities than is involved in the administration of war relief at home. They feel perhaps in some cases that this relief work is not of the sort for which they are fitted, and that in any case there are so many well-qualified people anxious to undertake it that what remains over for them will not be sufficiently exacting to satisfy their sense of duty.

It is, on the other hand, very probable that at an early date the number of persons available for ambulance work at the front will be quite inadequate to deal with the needs of the situation. It has therefore been suggested that young men Friends should form an Ambulance Corps to go to the scene of active operations in Belgium or elsewhere. A certain number of Friends have already expressed their willingness to join such an expedition and there is little doubt that a sufficient number will shortly do so to make up an ambulance unit of forty-eight.

Some Friends, however, who would like to take part in such an expedition will not be able to do so unless some provision is made for their travelling expenses and for the maintenance while at the front. I shall be glad to give further details to any Friends who may wish to subscribe. 

There is perhaps no need to add that the expedition would go under the auspices of the Red Cross Society, whose work of course is entirely neutral. It is possible that it would in various ways involve some personal risk to member of the Corps. But it would probably result in the saving of a great many lives, and in the alleviation of a great deal of suffering among the primary victims of the war.

Yours sincerely,

Philip J Baker

Donnington, Harlesden, NW

One of the first responses to Philip Baker's letter was from Henry Mennell, whose letter appeared in The Friend the following week, on 28 August.

Dear Friend,

I have read with much interest, and some concern, Philip Baker's letter in The Friend on the subject of an Ambulance Corps.

I should be the last to judge or criticise any Friend, young or old, who felt it to be clearly his personal duty to devote himself to the help of the wounded in battle, but the organisation and equipment of a Quaker Ambulance Corps to go to the seat of war and to form an essential and necessary part of the fighting force, as an ambulance most certainly is, seems to me to need most careful consideration, and to be scarcely consistent with what I have always understood to be the views and principles of Friends.

I am the more anxious on this matter because I feel that, whilst there are now so many openings for personal service, in the near future, these will be infinitely more urgent and pressing. When we think of the sufferings of the peasantry of Belgium and of large areas of France, with their villages burnt and looted, and their crops destroyed, we shall see before us claims and openings for personal service for material help with which Friends are specially qualified to deal, and which appear to them as being in no sense a part of the military organisation and system, as the Ambulance unquestionably is.

This was the view Friends took in 1870, when they were able to carry out a work under the “War Victims' Fund”, strictly limited to non-combatants, the extent and blessings of which it would be difficult to over-estimate.

I am, thine truly,

Henry T. Mennell


Henry Mennell's suggestion was similar to the idea of Hilda Clark, which led to the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, working with civilians in France, Belgium and elsewhere. This was officially set up by British Quakers, whereas the Friends Ambulance Unit remained independent of the Quaker organisation. The debate over the rightness or wrongness of the unit continued for the rest of the war – and still does.

The above extracts are used by kind permission of The Friend Publications Ltd.

Your Thoughts

Submitted by John Walter on
I am struck by the sincerity and civility of these men. They are struggling to live out their faith in a complex world. They are seeking to do the right act for the right reason. I think that I would have sided with Mr. Baker. To be tended to by a Friends Ambulance rather than RAMC Ambulance might have been a different experience. There is a possibility of an added spiritual solace to the standard medical services. Could we not criticize Toc H for breaking the focus of combat soldiers by providing a touch of home in the Ypres Salient?

Related Materials

Friday 8 August 2014

Shortly after the war started, several young Quaker men formed the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), dedicated to providing relief from suffering at the front.

Throughout the war, Laurence poked fun at the censorship regulations that meant parts of his letters were deleted.