The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was founded in 1907 by Captain Edward Baker. Those who joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry were sent to battlefronts in both World War One and World War Two. Baker’s idea was that women who joined FANY would not only be first aid specialists, but would have skills that would allow them to get to casualties on the battlefield itself. Therefore, the original members of FANY were trained in cavalry work, signalling and camping out.
British society was very much male dominated in 1914. There were many in power both in the military and politics who still held the view that a woman’s place was in the home. Therefore, in August 1914, when World War One was declared, there was no obvious role for FANY and many in the military took the simple view that women had no part to play in it. War, for them, was a man’s territory. Despite this view, FANY did have some support from what would appear to be unlikely sources – the Brigade of Guards as an example. The Royal Army Medical Corps had helped in training recruits to FANY but this unit in the army was less socially orientated than others were.
By August 1914, Grace Ashley-Smith and Lillian Franklin essentially ran FANY. However, no one at a senior level in the British Army was sympathetic to them. When World War One was declared, recruits into FANY went to Belgium where they were welcomed. Here they did sterling work in helping casualties in the Belgium Army. Just six weeks into the war, FANY recruits were working at a hospital in Antwerp. Such was their success, they were given a hospital to run – but it did mean that a great deal more members of FANY had to be sent to Belgium. Ironically, Antwerp fell to the Germans as the first team of FANY’s was waiting for a train in London to take them, via boat, to Belgium. Ashley-Smith made her escape back to Britain where she set about trying to get transport for the FANY’s as she believed that this was the only way that the unit would improve its function in a war zone.
At the end of October 1914, six FANY’s went to France with just £12. In view of the German advance, it was no surprise that when they got to Calais, they found the dock covered with wounded British soldiers who were receiving only the minimum of care. The FANY’s set up a hospital in a convent school and British wounded soldiers were arriving at it before they had had time to unpack their equipment.
The hospital soon had 100 beds and between 1914 and 1916, the hospital treated over 4000 patients. As well as treating wounded soldiers, FANY’s drove ambulances and set up soup kitchens and general canteens. A lot of their work put them in touch with the frontline and danger. For the duration of the war, FANY’s won seventeen Military Medals, twenty-seven Croix de Guerre and one Legion d’Honneur. This was the perfect way at replying to those who had stated pre-war and in the initial days of the war that the frontline was not the place for a woman.
Old prejudices were also addressed by the simple fact that women drove vehicles! To many men in Britain, women who drove were yet another nail in the coffin of Great Britain. However, the FANY’s needed their ambulances to do their work effectively and to wounded British soldiers, the gender of the person driving the ambulance they were in was irrelevant. To start with FANY’s improved their driving skills as and when they were working for the unit. However, they eventually had to take a formal driving test to assess their competence.
FANY’s also took food and spare clothes up to the front line – a dangerous task which was recognised by King Albert of Belgium who awarded medals for bravery to three FANY’s – Muriel Thompson was awarded the Order of Leopold II.
Few soldiers had the opportunity to bathe. The FANY’s attempted to remedy this by bringing over to the frontline a mobile bath unit nicknamed ‘James’. This unit carried ten collapsible baths, and used the motor engine to heat water so that about 40 men an hour could have the rare luxury of a bath. Elsewhere, the FANY’s set up a mobile cinema.
In 1915, the FANY’s received more recognition from senior echelons in the British Army. They were given what could be seen as a formal base in Calais from which to work – the casino. Here the FANY’s expressed a desire to do more work for the British – much of their previous work had been with the Belgium’s. The Surgeon-General at Calais, Woodhouse, expressed his support for their request but pointed out that the FANY’s were not the Red Cross, they were not St. John’s and few had been formally tested for their driving competence. He referred to them as “neither fish, flesh nor fowl, but you’re a damned good red herring.”
By 1916, FANY’s were working with mechanics to repair broken down motor vehicles. Pre-August 1914, such work would have been all but unthinkable. Slowly but surely, the members of FANY broke down basic prejudices that were held in certain sections of society – a society that was still dominated by men and one where some women – the Suffragettes – had done a lot to turn many against women’s rights.
The FANY’s had few rules and regulations. As they were not ‘Army’ they only saluted an officer once in the morning as a simple recognition of the position that officer held. Also as a few women near many thousands of men, they had to be careful. One golden FANY rule was that an individual FANY did not go to dinner with a male friend by herself. Another FANY would accompany her. Entertainment in a war zone was vital to take away the monotony of their life. In Calais, the FANY’s created the ‘Fanytastiks’ while in St Omer their entertainment group was known as the ‘Kippers’. Groups such as these entertained the troops.
How did you become a FANY? Membership depended on a number of things.
Applicants had to be over 23 years of age and had to be interviewed at the FANY headquarters in London. Those who passed the interview were then put on probation for four months. Those who passed this were then attached to a FANY unit but had to provide their own uniform (though an allowance was given for this). When it was required, all FANY’s had to pass the BRCS driving test. When posted abroad, all FANY’s had to obey the commanding officer of wherever they were stationed. Failure to do so resulted in dismissal from the unit. Every six months duty brought two weeks leave.
After the war ended, many FANY’s stayed in France and Belgium and continued to work there. The FANY’s provided a guard of honour when the body of Edith Cavell was returned to Britain.
Few British soldiers knew what the letters FANY actually stood for. In an apocryphal story, it is said that two British soldiers were having a conversation. One asked the other what FANY stood for. He said that he did not know but that it probably meant 'First Anywhere'. The work of the unit continued during World War Two.