#whitefeather diaries
Laurence Cadbury

About Laurence Cadbury

Laurence Cadbury was a Quaker engineer from Birmingham. As the son of George Cadbury, then head of the famous chocolate firm, he was immersed in the world of Quakerism. He was fascinated by cars – at a time when most people in Britain had never ridden in one. He was particularly attached to his own car, which he named “the Beetle”.

War came when Laurence was 25. Shortly after the war started Laurence joined the newly-formed Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), dedicated to providing relief from suffering at the front.

Taking sides

Friday 15 August 2014
Laurence Cadbury

By December, Laurence was heavily involved in running ambulances in the Ypres area of Belgium and nearby parts of France. His enthusiasm for cars proved to be useful. At that stage, cars were rare and few people had ridden in one. The word “car” still referred to any motorised vehicle, including what we would now call vans or buses – thus the ambulances were “cars”.

Laurence wrote a long letter to his father on 13 December. Here it is, in abridged form. Most place names have been deleted by the censor.

Dear Father,

I have returned here from XXX for a day or two to fit the new batteries and electric outfit on my car, and overhaul it a bit. It practically has not been touched since it went to Beaconsfield about three months ago, and really wants a few men at it for several days. However, I have to do what I can in a day or two by myself.

A letter from the British Red Cross on 21 October 1914, informing their French colleagues of Laurence Cadbury's arrival. Used by kind permission of the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham.The only change that has taken place in the last few days is that the Belgian army has been withdrawn from even the narrow front it was holding previously and has gone for a rest and winter outfit to Orleans. Belgians still remain as guards in the town, and are working on the roads, but they are doing no more fighting, and the Dunkirk-Furnes road is now clear of the yellow-grey motor supply columns I previously battled with for the possession of two wheels on the macadam or pavee, instead of one, and one axle deep in mud.

Our troops have retired - first to XXX but now right to XXX - for a little rest and a new outfit of winter clothing. The poor beggars have been living in what they stood up in when they came out in the heat of August so far.

By the way, it seems that kilts are ideal for the trenches. The Highlanders' knees get used to the cold, and they feel the water therefore much less than the Tommies, who have wet trousers hanging round their legs.

The most certain means of galvanizing the German batteries into life seems to be for a few French aeroplanes to go up. Directly they get anywhere near the German lines they blaze away, and everyone watches spellbound the aerial battle, more thrilling than any bull fight.

I must say I am always glad when an "Avion" wins out - whether he is Teuton or Gallic - he is so obviously more of a sportsman than the landlubbers.

We have been doing a lot of work in Ypres lately. The other day, Geoffrey Young found that a whole crowd of old and infirm people had been left in a convent there. The old priest and sisters luckily had not left, and they were being looked after, but might have been hit any minute. In fact, eighteen had been killed a week or so before by a shell visiting one of the rooms of the convent. We therefore got busy and carted them off to XXX. Most of them had never been in a car before and were mortally afraid of the ambulances. It was the funniest sight in the world to see these old people being persuaded by the priests and sisters, Young, Will Harvey, and others, to get in.

I hope everyone is getting on all right at home, and Bertie has been able to get back to work.

Your affectionate son,


One of the notable points of this letter is Laurence's statement that in a fight between an aeroplane and the ground troops, he takes the side of the aeroplane. A soldier would be less likely to be so flexible. However, unlike many other FAU members, Laurence happily refers to the British army as “our troops”. This raises the interesting question: is it possible to be a pacifist while still viewing one of the armies as “our side”? What do you think?

Your Thoughts

Submitted by RobinB on
It is odd to read his 'sporting' view on the war's proceedings. Perhaps we all find war fascinating even while we disapprove of it. Of course the aircraft were only used for reconnaisance at the beginning. Dangerous for the other side though, because they gave valuable information to help their batteries aim. Later small bombs would be dropped over the side, but this cannot be compared with bombing in WW2 or the effects of cannon fire and machine guns in this war. My grandfather flew SE5's and Sopwith Camels in the RFC. Although I am a pacifist, I am keen to seek out his war records. He would never speak about it. The average life of a flyer was 4 weeks.

Submitted by LollyO on
So much was new for everyone at that time in terms of transportation as well as the war itself; Cadbury's comments on the watching of airplanes, despite the dreadful circumstances of the war in the air, captures the interest in seeing the battles first hand. Most touching is Cadbury's account of helping out the elderly, who had never even been in a car before. The letter captures the dilemma of being in the midst of war, while also working on the ground to aid the injured and the infirm. Since he saw the battle from the ground, he would have been among British and French soldiers--quite natural to identity with them, and at the same time to still be a pacifist. I wonder if he ever worked with wounded German soldiers? Any letters or diary entries that speak to this?

Submitted by nikolasd on
I'm not sure LollyO - I will ask the researcher. Thanks for your comments on the posts BTW. Nik

Submitted by Symon Hill on
LollyO - Thanks for your question. I've read most of Laurence Cadbury's letters from the front (as I was editing them for this website). I can't recall any major reference to working with wounded German soldiers as such. Corder Catchpool, another FAU member, refers to working with a blinded German in one of his early letters. However, Catchpool was much more critical of the war than Laurence Cadbury, who seems to have identified with the British troops increasingly as the war went on. Thanks for all your comments! I'm enjoying reading them.

Submitted by LollyO on
Thank you, Nickolas, and thank you, Symon, for your responses! This site is absolutely fabulous. Many thanks for setting it up.
Details of Laurence's service in the FAU
Thursday 31 March 2016

Laurence's brother Bertie Cadbury, who had joined the navy at the beginning of the war, received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1916. Laurence heard the news while helping an FAU section make arrangements to move.

Thursday 24 March 2016

When news reached the Friends Ambulance Unit of conscientious objectors being sent to prison, some of its members were quick to speak out about the situation. Laurence made his opinions clear in a letter to his parents.

Hospital ward
Thursday 17 March 2016

Laurence was promoted to Officer-in-Charge of Transport. He was so absorbed with his work that he forgot his own birthday. The FAU was attached to the French army rather than the British. In a letter to his parents, Laurence expressed his frustration with the British army's wastefulness. 

Conscientious objector sweeping up the trenches (cartoon)
Thursday 10 March 2016

In a letter home Laurence shares his thoughts on members of the Friends Ambulance Unit leaving based on their conscientious objection to compulsory enlistment.

Henry Dearden wearing a makeshift gas mask in France (c) Quakers in Britain 2016
Thursday 3 March 2016

At the beginning of 1916, Laurence Cadbury wrote home from the front, concerned that his mother was giving money to charitable appeals that he believed would not be effective. 

Bodies of soldiers in front destroyed buildings in Ypres
Thursday 12 November 2015

Laurence Cadbury was present at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, the first time in the war when poison gas was used. He not only saw the battle but he helped to heal the victims.

FAU magazine
Thursday 5 November 2015

In early 1915 the army tightened up censorship rules for letters home from the front. Laurence's letters from the Friends Ambulance Unit show both amusement and frustration with the new regulations. The authorities did not want the public to know the extent of the typhoid outbreak at the front – so banned the word from being mentioned.

Laurence's passport
Thursday 29 October 2015

By 1915 opinions were divided within the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU). Formed by young Quaker men at the outbreak of war, it provided ambulance services to wounded soldiers (unlike Hilda's group, which worked with civilians). Fears began to grow within its ranks that it was effectively helping the war effort by freeing up other men to go and fight.

Friday 29 August 2014

Laurence wrote to his parents from a Friends Ambulance Unit station in France on Boxing Day 1914, picking up themes that had been cut short in his last letter. Here's an abridged version of his letter.

Friday 22 August 2014

Five days after his previous letter, Laurence wrote to his mother. The letter was cut short as his colleague Philip Baker was leaving for England and offered to take the letter with him.

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.

Related Materials

Friday 15 August 2014

During World War I, as today, several arms companies happily sold weapons to countries fighting against each other.

Friday 15 August 2014

Germany and Britain, along with other countries, had increased military spending in the run-up to the war. This arms race is considered by many historians to have been one of the factors that made war more likely.

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