The FAU was an independent body led by Quakers in the First and Second World Wars, and was open to people of all denominations. In World War II over 1,300 young men and women served in 25 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia to build ‘a record of goodwill and positive service.’
Conscientious objectors to military service could serve in theatres of war by providing first aid and medical relief to civilian and military casualties, refugees and displaced persons of any nation. Seventeen members lost their lives in World War II.
Leslie Barnes attended Stoke Meeting until he died. In his letter home from Belgium/Netherlands (very close to the front line and artillery shelling) on 18 February 1945 he wrote:
“Our FAU team is engaged on civilian casualty work. We have picked up refugees, located a German army food dump and transferred large quantities of meat, biscuits, sugar, ‘ersatz’ coffee and lentils to a refugee reception camp, where hundreds are arriving. Today we are transferring patients from a hospital to a more ‘healthy’ spot.”
In September 1939, Paul Cadbury and Arnold Rowntree (members of the Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War) re-formed the Unit with the intention of again enabling conscientious objectors to undertake civilian service in a military context. One of the aims of the Unit was to assist those conscientious objectors who were not members of the Society, and thus less likely to be granted exemption from military service. Not all Quakers registered as conscientious objectors during the First and Second World Wars, some seeing no alternative to service with the Forces.
Over 1,300 members served with the FAU between 1939 and 1946, including 97 women. All FAU recruits attended a six-week training course in Birmingham, which covered practical sessions provided by medical and nursing staff, lectures from former FAU members, specialised training in motor mechanics, and physical training exercises with route marches. It was made clear that members must be prepared to “Go anywhere,do anything” in the course of their service.
Seventeen members lost their lives in the Second World War.
By 1943 most members were working overseas, with 200 serving in hospitals across England. Teams also undertook social work activities in evacuation centres and hostels.
The FAU began overseas work in Finland in 1939 following the Soviet invasion. In 1941, FAU members undertook medical relief work with the British Red Cross in Greece. Later that year the German army captured sixteen members of the Unit and transferred them to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany.
Many FAU members served in mobile military units with the British and French armies. In 1942, whilst serving with one of the Free French Forward Theatre Units, Raymond (Nik) Alderson was killed by a German bomb, whilst sheltering in a trench. The FAU subsequently followed the Free French army as it advanced from the Middle East into Italy and France.
The FAU also provided relief to civilians: in Syria and Ethiopia teams opened rural clinics to vaccinate against typhus. Teams undertook relief and rehabilitation work in India following the Bengal famine in 1943. The FAU China Convoy was created in 1941 to provide medical relief to those affected by the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), transporting supplies along the Burma Road and providing medical assistance to civilian and military hospitals.
In 1943 FAU teams began providing civilian relief in Italy, and the following year they entered Greece. Teams accompanying the British Army cared for Displaced Persons in North-West Europe, assisting in the relief of the Sandbostel Concentration Camp in May 1945.
Although the FAU officially disbanded in 1946, many members continued to serve overseas with different organisations.