Library resources for researching World War I: Friends Ambulance Unit

The records of the Friends Ambulance Unit are the focus of this blog post, the latest in our series on resources for researching World War I.

Established in the First World War and revived in the second, the Friends Ambulance Unit was an unofficial Quaker organisation, constitutionally independent of the Society of Friends. It both provided an opportunity for active service for Quakers and other pacifists who felt called to play a part, and also, after the introduction of conscription in 1916, came (eventually, and to a limited extent) to be recognised by the Military Service Tribunals as providing an acceptable form of alternative noncombatant service. Its records are held in the Library, along with personal papers, photographs and published accounts of its work.

SSA14 at Dunkirk

FAU Section Sanitaire Anglaise 14 at Dunkirk 1916 (Library reference: TEMP MSS 881/PHOT/SSA14/1/5)

From the earliest days of the War, many Friends felt called to offer service that would be compatible with the Quaker peace testimony. A call for young Friends to volunteer was published in The Friend of 21 August 1914, and a training camp was established at Jordans, Buckinghamshire in September 1914, where about 60 young Friends assembled to prepare for active service – first-aid to the wounded, stretcher-drill, sanitation and hygiene, and field-cookery as well as physical training. The First Anglo-Belgian Ambulance Unit, later Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), set out for Dunkirk on 31 October 1914. The Friends Ambulance Unit came to number over a thousand members.

There were two sections – the Foreign Service Section and the Home Service Section. The Foreign Service Section worked on ambulance convoys and ambulance trains with the French and British armies in France and Belgium; provided help to those affected by the typhoid epidemic in Ypres (December 1914 to May 1915); staffed hospitals and hospital ships; provided relief to civilians, helping establish orphanages, water purification and the distribution of milk and clothing.

Measuring spoons and instructions (in French and Flemish) for using chloride of lime to purify water. These were distributed by the FAU in the countryside surrounding Ypres after German bombing cut off the main water supply in November 1914 (fArnold S. Rowntree Papers, Library reference Temp MSS 977/4)

Measuring spoons and instructions (in French and Flemish) for using chloride of lime to purify water. These were distributed by the FAU in the countryside surrounding Ypres after German bombing cut off the main water supply in November 1914 (Arnold S. Rowntree Papers, Library reference: Temp MSS 977/4)

The Home Service Section dispatched food, petrol and medical supplies, coordinated training at Jordans, and dealt with applicants for service, as well as sending members to staff to hospitals in England. Its General Service Section organised work for conscientious objectors who could not join the FAU for financial or other reasons – in agriculture, forestry, education, construction, surgical appliance and food manufacture, or service with the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee, the Friends’ Emergency Committee and the Y.M.C.A.

FAU group photo at Oxhey Grange

FAU Training Camp group photograph, Oxhey Grange, Hertfordshire, August 1915 (Library reference: Temp MSS 881/PHOT/JOR/41)

What sources does the Library hold on the work of Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War?

The Library holds a substantial collection of material relating to the Friends Ambulance Unit in World War I – the records of the FAU itself, contemporary and souvenir publications, photographs, personal papers of FAU members, works of art and objects, as well as secondary sources on its work. A selection of sources is given in our subject guide Friends’ service in the First World War available on the Library’s web-pages, and full records for many of them are available on our online catalogue. This blog post aims to highlight some of the most important.

Ambulance Train 16

Ambulance Train 16 with members of Friends Ambulance Unit (Library reference: Temp MSS 881/PHOT/ATR/2)

Printed sources on the FAU

The first resort for anyone researching the FAU is the comprehensive official Unit history by Meaburn Tatham and James E. Miles, The Friends’ Ambulance Unit, 1914-1919: a record (1919). There is no subject index, but it includes a list of Unit names at the end.

Lists of members were printed at various dates after the War for reunions and for contact purposes, including joint World War I and World War II lists in 1959 and 1975. For most researchers, the 1919 published list is the most useful: it includes names of FAU members who died in service, and – of particular interest for local research – lists of members with addresses, arranged by English county, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and overseas, plus lists of deceased members.

The Library also holds contemporary publications of the FAU and commemorative anthologies of Unit newsletter material. Here’s a selection:

    • Friends Ambulance Unit (19141919). Report. 1st – 4th (1915–1917)
    • Friends’ Ambulance Unit magazine no. 1–6 (1916–1921)
    • The swallow: a monthly journal issued by members of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, Uffculme Hospital, Birmingham Vol. 1, no.1 – Vol. 3, no.5 (March 1917 – July 1918)
    • The little grey book. Published by former members of FAU Section Sanitaire Anglaise 13 (SSA13). Includes a list of members.
    • A train errant: being the experiences of a voluntary unit in France and an anthology from their magazine (1919). Published by former members of No. 16 Ambulance Train. This train was given to the British Red Cross Society in 1915, staffed at first by the Royal Army Medical Corps and later by Friends Ambulance Unit. Includes a list of personnel. Also includes republished extracts from The orderly review, a newsletter first published in 1915, which has not survived in our collections.
    • Lines of communication: a souvenir volume, being pages from the train magazines which were published whilst on active service, together with descriptions of ambulance train life (1919). Published by former members of FAU Section Sanitaire Anglaise 17 (SSA17). Includes a map of operations and a list of members.
    • The Fourgon: Ambulance Train no. XI, B.E.F. France: souvenir number, January 1919 (1919)
    • Two years with the French Army: Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19: an account of the work of a motor ambulance convoy of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, B.R.C.S., 1916-1918 (1919)
    • “Old seventeeners”: being members of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit who served on No. 17 Ambulance Train (1919). Includes a complete list with dates of their service on the train and permanent addresses

Extensive news of FAU activities was reported in the British Quaker weekly The Friend; many of these articles are currently being added to our online catalogue.

Two years with the French Army: Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19 (1919)

Two years with the French Army: Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19 (1919)

Friends Ambulance Unit archives

The records of the FAU include Committee minutes, Executive Committee minutes, personnel records, newsletter records and photographs. Personnel records are strongest, with a number of series – most importantly the Personnel record card indexes. The records have been fully catalogued and more details are available here on our online archive catalogue. Here is a list with references (each series reference should be preceded by the collection reference: TEMP MSS 881/)


  • C: Committee minutes (1914-1920)
  • EC: Executive Committee minutes (1916-1921). 3 volumes

Personnel records:

  • PER/CARD/1 AND 2: Personnel record card indexes. Series 1 records members who served in France and Series 2 is the central personnel card index. These have now been digitised and are available online. The original cards are not usually available to researchers.
  • PER/CF: Census forms (application forms) for current serving members.
  • PER/CFL: Census forms (application forms) for members who had left FAU.
  • PER/CLE: Census forms – clearing file for those in process of leaving.
  • PER/REG: Registration forms. In fragile condition.
  • PER/INF: Workers trained by FAU working for other organisation.
  • PER/ABS/1: Absence record book. Includes information on those rejoining FAU after leaving, 1915-1918; a list of killed and wounded 1915-1918; chronological records of names joining the Unit, 1914-1919. This volume also shows some calculations which may be useful: average service in months (monthly) 1914 onwards, and Unit numerical strength, 1917 onwards.
  • PER/LOC: Personnel location diary for the work in France, showing changes of function and job.

Photographs, drawings and other records:

  • PHOT: Photograph series. 341 photographs catalogued to item level.
  • PHOT/ALB: Photograph album specifically for Section Sanitaire Anglaise 19.
  • DRAW: Drawings. 2 only.
  • LET: Letters. 3 only: these are clearly stray items.
  • NEWS: “Newsletters”. In fact these are production records and drafts, rather than newsletters (published newsletters and souvenir volumes described above are in the printed collections; their shelfmarks can be found through the online catalogue).
  • PLAN: Plan. 1 plan for a proposed FAU hospital.

This is a high quality archive, in relation to what has survived, but it is not as extensive in size as might be expected of a comparable organisation. Minutes, personnel records and visual materials are well preserved and represented, but field records, whether staff or group meeting notes, daily/ weekly/ monthly reports, correspondence with area Headquarters, or Head Office, or files relating to FAU-military relations, are all absent from this collection.

Members’ record cards (TEMP MSS 881 PER/CARD/1 and 2) are the most frequently used part of the archive. They have now been digitised to make them more widely available and they are freely available online. Some other parts of the collection are fragile and may not, as a rule, be available for production.

Friends Ambulance Unit Dependants Fund Committee was formed to assist relatives and dependants of men serving in the FAU. Its records consist of one volume of minutes (1916-1919) and a volume of Treasurer’s accounts (1916-1919), separate from the FAU archive (Library reference MS Box U1/2).

FAU service card for Lionel Sharples Penrose

FAU service card for Lionel Sharples Penrose

Personal papers and other records of FAU work – a selection of unpublished sources

Other personal accounts have been published or privately printed, often by descendants of FAU members. Find out more by searching our online catalogue by subject Friends Ambulance Unit (1914-1919).

Cotterell, Ambulances at Gizaucourt, winter 1917

Ambulances, Gizaucourt, December 1917. Watercolour by Arthur Cotterell. In: Autograph book of Friends Ambulance Unit members 1917. (Library reference: MS VOL S 284)

FAU SSA14 song book

FAU SSA14 song book (Alan F. Ardley Papers. Library reference: Temp MSS 452)

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13 Responses to Library resources for researching World War I: Friends Ambulance Unit

  1. Anne Ashworth says:

    How wonderful that such a resource is so faithfully kept. One hopes that it is known to today’s historians. During this period of remembrance, can public attention be drawn to these rich sources?

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Thank you for your encouraging comment Anne. There is a great of use being made of Friends Ambulance Unit records at present, as the centenary of World War I approaches. You may be glad to know that there is a lot of interest in them, not only from professional historians, but also from people researching their own families, or their local areas, and from those who simply want to know more about the events of that period. We’re using the blog to give people more information about these resources in 2014. Quakers around the country are working hard to mark the centenary in a non-militaristic way, and to encourage people to reflect on war, peace and nonviolence, as you can see from these pages on the Quakers in Britain website:

  2. Pingback: Library resources for researching World War I: Wartime Statistics Committee | Quaker Strongrooms

  3. Mr D P King says:

    I’m reading ‘Still, Small Voice’ (Sidcot in the Great War) by Christine Gladwin – a fascinating booklet which might make a useful addition to the Library if you do not already hold it.

  4. Pingback: Quaker Strongrooms blog at the turning of the year | Quaker Strongrooms

  5. Jeremy Birkett says:

    Thomas (Tom) Birkett. Hello, you gave me a lot of help a year or two ago when I was researching my grandfather’s experiences with SSA14. He joined the convoy SSA14 in 1916 with his own, converted Argyll, ambulance. Of great interest when I visited your library was a little book I was permitted to read – written in a diary style – in which there were several references to my grandfather, sometimes referred to as TB, sometimes using his French nickname ‘Briquet’, leading the sing-songs, with his guitar, that they regularly enjoyed during lulls in the fighting. I don’t remember the title or the author. I’ve just come across your picture of SSA14 Song Book. Very interesting, as Tom Birkett had a fund of songs, including old American songs learnt as a child. Do you have a copy of this Song Book?
    Or any other references or pictures of Tom Birkett? He was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
    Any help you can give would be most gratefully received.
    Many thanks
    Jeremy Birkett

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Hi Jeremy, how interesting to hear your grandfather’s time in SSA14. We’ll be in touch by email to answer your questions.

  6. Martin Rose says:

    Ten years or so ago I used your wonderful resources to research the service of Dennis Briggs, my grandfather, on AT 17. I sent you, I think, a copy of the essay I then wrote. Having come across more information since, I want to revisit it and expand the piece a little. One thing I want to follow up is a story in the family that he was wounded – looking at this list I guess PERS/ABS/1 would help me, though I am also told that there is material at the PRO in Kew. Is this likely? And if so, where in the PRO catalogue would I search for it? Finally, apart from the 1919 volume which I used last time round, do you hold individual copies of AT 17’s ‘Lines of Communication,’ or any of its previous magazines? Many thanks, Martin Rose (

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Hi Martin, thanks for getting in touch, we will respond by email to your enquiry.

  7. Yvonne Lash says:

    What a wonderful resource. The much written about Charles Frederick Dingle is my great uncle. I have just read Karyn Burnham’s book, and am now trying to search out Uncle Charles’ actual files. I see they are available, but I live in New Zealand. Uncle Charles visited us in New Zealand back in 1980, well into his 80s! He was made of stern stuff!

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