#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.

We shall retaliate

Thursday 12 November 2015
Laurence Cadbury

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. Here's an abridged version of his letter home after the battle, describing his experiences.

Bodies of soldiers in front destroyed buildings in Ypres

I am sorry you have not heard from me before. There has been such a terrific rush since last Thursday and one thing has followed after another at such a pace that I hardly know where to begin.

Last Thursday afternoon, Catchpool and I ran out from here to XXX with Barnard. While we were there the fun started and hell was fairly let loose.

No-one knew what had happened. From the windows of the château we could see shrapnel bursting, the flash of guns in the trees, and star shells hanging in the air with no apparent object. Very soon a great pall of blue smoke hung over the country, gently blown our way by the wind, and the sweet acid smell of the guns filled our noses. Though the whole affair was so mysterious, it was obvious someone was getting it pretty thick and ambulances would be needed, so we got a hustle on and came XXX. On the way, we saw wounded horses galloping away out of the smoke, but no one knew anything.

The first news came through, first by one man and then another. It was so startling, especially in its naturally exaggerated form, that we were a bit cynical, but galloping ammunition columns, guns hurrying up and soldiers dashing about shouting that everyone who could run was to grab a rifle and double up to the front made it obvious that there had been the devil of a mess somewhere.

On arrival at XXX it was evident we had to get busy good and quick. Wounded were pouring in–on foot, in the little hand-carts of the brancardiers, on stretchers, springless ambulance wagons, and hobbling along with the aid of a supporting shoulder. The château, so quiet and pleasant an hour or two before, was already full of men–smashed and bleeding or choking and making awful noises in their throats.

We then learnt for the first time of the asphyxiating fumes, and heard what had happened in piecemeal fashion. The Germans, taking advantage of a slight wind in their favour, threw some sulphur compound into the first line of trenches, asphyxiating most of the men; the rest, unable to do anything, ran, caused a panic in the second line and a whole section of the front held by the Division of French was left open.

We started in that night, shoving every available car on the job, and have kept up a steady stream ever since, though naturally at times it decreases.

There has been a lot of feeling about the asphyxiation business. It afforded another admirable opportunity for theories and explanations of the most Jules Vernian style.

It seems pretty certain that we shall retaliate by using Terpinite and anything else we can lay our hands on.

After all, it is no use appealing to anyone for the enforcement of international treaties; by resorting to force of arms, we have already appealed to the ultimate and final process of coming to an agreement, and when the settlement comes no-one is going to get any better terms by saying he observed certain rules which the others did not.

It comes as a surprise to find a Quaker welcoming Allied plans to use chemical weapons against the Germans. Laurence's dismissal of international treaties may be equally shocking. Is his reaction understandable given his personal experience of treating the victims of poison gas?

Laurence suggests that international treaties are meaningless once war has been declared as they attempt to create rules for something which is inherently lawless and destructive. What do you think is the purpose of codifying international ‘laws of war’? Does having rules in place normalise warfare?

This is an edited extract of a letter from Laurence Cadbury to his parents, dated 29 April 1915 and stored at the Cadbury Research Library in the University of Birmingham. Used by kind permission of the Cadbury family.

Your Thoughts

Submitted by Richard on
Is Laurence welcoming plans for retaliation? Might it not be that, given what he has seen, and given what the reactions of those around him would have been, he is expressing a lack of surprise of what was likely to- and, indeed, did- follow? In his book "Tommy" Richard Holmes cites a German officer who prophecied that the Germans would be condemned by the Allies as uncivilised for using gas, who would then proceed to develop chemical weapons as fast as they could. The implication is that he was resigned to the fact. Is laurence not expressing resignation, rather than anticipation? Just how I read it.

Submitted by Peter Leevers on
War has been called diplomacy by other means. It is destructive but has its own laws, customs and rules that come down history. Once they are broken, in the interest of a safer or swifter outcome (think Hiroshima or innumerable colonial wars) feelings of injustice take root and grow. Not good diplomatic outcomes. Hence the importance of conventions which only codify what human beings all know, conflict is unavoidable but must be settled fairly. Problem is, modern wars have been won through technological advance (radar, Bletchley Park, and now perhaps drones). Can advance produce fair outcomes?
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. 

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 15 August 2014

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. 

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

Bodies of dead soldiers in front of damaged buildings in Ypres
Thursday 12 November 2015

Laurence's brother Bertie, a pilot in the Royal Naval Air Service, became increasingly critical of the war as it went on.

Latest Tweets

12th May
No time for grass to grow over the earth yet, with a few charred stumps that were once trees https://t.co/H8qpUAVo66 #WW1 #whitefeather
31st Mar
This indescribable scene of chaos was not limited to one area but was the same everywhere we went https://t.co/H8qpUAVo66 #WW1 #whitefeather
31st Mar
Altogether anything seems likely, except peace #1916 https://t.co/H8qpUAVo66 #WW1 #WWI #FWW #whitefeather
31st Mar
We appeared still in the middle of that immense ploughed field, so completely had the village been wiped out https://t.co/H8qpUAVo66 #WW1
31st Mar
No time for grass to grow over the earth yet, with a few charred stumps that were once trees https://t.co/H8qpUAVo66 #WW1 #whitefeather