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