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The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry: The Angels of World War I

Updated on November 10, 2015
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

The nurses posing. Notice the logo on the truck.
The nurses posing. Notice the logo on the truck. | Source

Christmas, 1916: the Great War had been raging in Europe for more than two years. Much of it was fought on the Western Front in which France, England, and its allies were locked in a bloody stalemate with Germany.

The holiday was going to be no different from any other day. That was until The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), an independent British all-woman nursing corps, decided to do something about it.

The women of FANY (also referred as Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps) dressed up in their finest attire, went to one of the canteens they had set up near the front, and converted it into a dance hall. And in typical FANY fashion, they brought good tidings and cheers to young battle-weary men.

Organizing a Christmas at the front lines was just one of many tasks the young female nurses accomplished during the war. On numerous occasions, they went into harm’s way to rescue injured soldiers and transport them to a field hospital (in many cases, a hospital they helped to establish).

And through it all, they had to fight a war on two fronts: one against the Germans, and another against British high command. Yet, when the war finally came to a merciful end, the women of FANY had won a personal victory that would help establish a legacy for years to come

FANY logo
FANY logo | Source

The Early Years

FANY was established in 1907; however, World War I was the unit’s first test. According to its creator, Sergeant Major Edward Baker (later a Captain) there was a need to enhance the way soldiers were taken off the battle field and transported to a field hospital.

As a veteran of the Sudan Campaign and the Second Boer War, Captain Baker saw the disastrous results of having large, cumbersome horse-drawn ambulances trying to rescue injured soldiers. He believed a single rider trained in first-aid and cavalry movements could do a better job.

The corps that Baker envisioned went beyond what was expected from a typical nursing unit of that time. For one thing, it took the nurses out of the field hospital and placed them on the battlefield and mounted on horseback in the theater of operation (which was how they received the “yeomanry” name).

The idea didn’t sit well in the United Kingdom, especially with its military leaders. In post Victorian England, many military officers believed women had no place in war. Thus, the group didn’t find much support in the existing military. As a result, they became an independent branch.

The prejudice against them was so strong that in the early years of the World War I, they were not given an assignment.

What hadn’t change was the attitude many military officers had towards them. In fact, their first mission was not with the British Army. Several nurses were assigned to Belgium where they aided the country’s army. They were assigned to work at a hospital in Antwerp.

First Assignment

It wasn’t long before the women of FANY entered the European theater of the war. And, by this time, the unit had gone under several changes. In 1914, FANY was being run by Grace Ashley-Smith and Lillian Franklin. Not only was it an all-female unit, it was now run by female officers. Also, the unit traded in their horses for motor vehicles. Motor ambulance replaced the horse-drawn ones.

What hadn’t change was the attitude many military officers had towards them. In fact, their first mission was not with the British Army. Several nurses were assigned to Belgium where they aided the country’s army. They were assigned to work at a hospital in Antwerp.

The women of FANY were successful. Due to their stellar reputation, the Belgium Army gave the nurses their own hospital to run (historylearningsite.co.uk, 2011).

Unfortunately, FANY never got the chance to set up that hospital. Antwerp fell to the Germans before a team of nurses were able to leave London for the coast to catch a ship to the besieged city.

Ashley-Smith was in Antwerp at the time the city fell. She managed to escape to England where she planned the next foray into Europe.

FANY in Calais

The next venture came in October 1914. Six FANYS were sent to Calais, France where injured British soldiers were being “hospitalized”. What they discovered was a disaster; thousands of wounded soldiers were placed on the docks of the port city, receiving minimal care and being exposed to the elements.

Despite having very little money on them (12 British Pounds), the nurses set up a hospital in a convent school within the city. Before long, more members of FANY came to help get it running. However, as the war raged, more wounded soldiers came to Calais, and to the hospital before it was fully equipped (historylearningsite.co.uk, 2011).

The hospital grew, reaching 100 beds. It would eventually receive 4000 patients between 1914 and 1916. Also, during this time, FANY was starting become regulars on the front line. And, they were branching out; they began driving ambulances, setting up soup kitchens, and canteens.

Winning the War of Opinion

King Albert of Belgium was one of the first leaders to recognize them for their services. Many nurses took food and spare clothes up to the front line, often in the midst of pitch battle. As a result, three FANYs were awarded the Order of Leopold II, the highest honor in Belgium.

These were not the only medals awarded to FANY nurses. Many were awarded 17 Military Medals, 1 Legion d’Honneur, and 27 Croix de Guerre by France and England.

On top of that, the nurses proved they can do things that weren’t expected from their gender. They drove motor ambulances (motor cars were not widely driven at the time). Women driving were even rarer, if not socially unacceptable.

FANYs were proving to be indispensable in many ways. In 1915 they were given a formal base in Calais (formally a casino). Also, they received praise from the Surgeon-General of Calais. His recommendations opened FANY to operate with the British Army at the front lines.

In 1916, they took on the role of mechanics by proving they can fix motor ambulances and other vehicles. It was merely one more example of how resourceful this unit had become.

Also, about this time, many groups of FANY provided entertainment for the troops, as a group did during Christmas 1916.

Still, this was war. Several FANY members made the ultimate sacrifice. In World War I and World II, 58 FANY nurses lost their lives.

Their Legacy

World War I was the unit’s first war, but it wasn’t the last. Their training made them pioneers in many fields of warfare and medicine. In fact, they appeared to be similar to the modern combat medic, as well as pioneers for the professional female soldiers and combat nurses. Also, an argument can be made that they were the precursor for the United State’s USO by providing entertainment.

While they were pioneers, the women of FANY were more than that for the British soldiers of World War I. They were bright lights in an otherwise dark time in history.

Source

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© 2015 Dean Traylor

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