The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was formed in 1907 as a first aid link between the field hospitals and the frontline. The women not only treated injured soldiers, but they rescued the wounded from the battlefield as well. Thus providing a vital link between the front line and the field hospital.
Women in the FANY were described as “one of the most picturesque, as well as useful and dauntless organisation of women” during the war. Made up of largely upper and middle class women, FANY offered these women the opportunity to take an active part in the war effort during both World War One and World War Two.
Opportunities for women were limited in 1914. Society was dominated by males, who generally still believed that women’s place was in the home. As a result, few people believed that FANY, which was formed in 1907, should be involved in World War One.
Its leaders, Lillian Franklin and Grace Ashley-Smith, came to the Western Front with ambulances, but the British Army refused to work with them. Instead, FANY worked with the Belgian and French armies who were grateful for their support. FANY recruits had started work at a hospital in Antwerp after only six weeks of the war starting. Their work was so valued that they were given the entire hospital to run, which called for the arrival of more FANY members.
However, the Germans took Antwerp just as the first team of FANY’s were about to start their journey to Belgium. Ashley-Smith managed to return to Britain where she tried to organise transport for FANY.
Six members of FANY made it to France at the end of October 1914 carrying only £12. They were faced with a huge amount of work: the dock at Calais was covered with wounded British troops. The FANY’s set up a field hospital in a convent school to treat the men.
The hospital treated over 4,000 patients from 1914 to 1916. As well as tending to wounded soldiers, FANYs set up soup kitchens, drove ambulances and run general canteens. Their work was often dangerous as they were in such close contact with the front line. During the war FANYs won seventeen Military Medals, one Legion d’Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre.
FANY also brought spare clothing and food to the front line. This dangerous act was recognised by King Albert of Belgium who gave three women medal for bravery.
FANY also brought a mobile bath unit to the front line, giving soldiers the rare opportunity to bathe. The unit, nicknamed ‘James’, had 10 collapsible baths which were heated by the truck’s motor engine. This meant that 40 men an hour could take a bath. The FANY’s even set up a mobile cinema for some troops.
The British Army gave the FANY’s more recognition in 1915 when they were provided with a formal base in Calais - a converted casino. The FANY’s continued to argue that they should have more responsibility with helping the British forces. Woodhouse, the Surgeon-General at Calais, supported this idea but he noted that the FANY’s did not have the training of the Red Cross, nor St John’s Ambulance - this made them a “damned good red herring”.
In 1916, members of FANY were even working as mechanics - a job that was traditionally done by males. Slowly but surely, the members of FANY proved that women could play a vital role on the front line.
When the FANYs were first formed the uniform was a scarlet tunic with white facings, a navy blue riding skirt with three rows of white braid at the bottom and a hard topped scarlet hat with black leather peak. But before the war in 1912 the uniform was changed to a khaki tunic, khaki riding skirt and later a khaki soft cap.
Barbara Barnes was a member of FANY during the war. Here she shares her memories of her uniform:
“Of course another thing we had to do, which I haven’t mentioned yet, was clean our buttons on our uniforms (which I think was every day). We used a button stick, which was a piece of brass metal with different slots in it. You put these slots around the button and then cleaned it. The metal must have been two inches wide so that you then didn’t get brasso all over your uniform. Buttons wore down quite a lot over the years. They had “GR” on them and the King’s crown. I don’t know whether it was the royal insignia, or what it was.
This was a job we had to carry out on our ordinary uniforms and our belts certainly shone because I would spit and polish that. I had nice brown leather shoes as well, rather than the ordinary army issue ones. All this is digressing. Of course I loved my FANY uniform but I also had poplin shirts and a Van Heusen collar, which was extremely smart.”
After the war ended, many FANYs stayed in Belgium and France to carry on with their work. When the body of Edith Cavell was taken back to Britain, the FANYs provided a guard of honour.
The work of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry continues to this day, although the organisation was renamed the Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps in 1999.
Since the end of the war, the corps has specialised in communications for the Army and the City of London Police and is open to volunteers. Corps members are trained in radio communications, paramedical skills, map reading, navigation and orienteering.
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