Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From Parlour to War

The FANY in WW1,  by Janet Lee

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was a group of mostly well bred, often aristocratic, young women who drove ambulances and ran field hospitals in war-torn Belgium and France.

Plucky and stoical, they transported wounded, ill, and dying men from trains and barges to hospitals and ships, often at night and in all weathers, frequently driving through bombardments. One FANY was seriously wounded when a torpedo exploded in front of her ambulance, killing the orderly beside her, but she managed to crawl 200 yards to a hospital, refusing aid until the men in her charge had been treated. During one of 197 air raids on Calais, shrapnel so narrowly missed injuring some FANY in their nearby camp that it shredded bits of their clothing and was embedded in their bedroom walls. During a major offensive, like Passchendaele, they worked endless days without sleep or time for proper meals or even a wash, snatching naps on stretchers in their ambulances while awaiting yet another hospital train.

They maintained their cars mechanically, but also had to cleanse them of blood and other bodily effluences. Those on night duty in winter had the arduous task of hand cranking vehicles hourly to keep them from freezing up. 

Being unconventional women, they had to deal with skeptical or even hostile military personnel, and a public that dismissed them as eccentric or berated them for unfeminine behaviour. Far from being paid for their difficult and dangerous work, the “girls”, as they called themselves, had to pay a weekly stipend, which was used to run this volunteer organization.

But they also had fun when off-duty, and were renowned for their hospitality - hosting teas, dances, and entertainments for officers, many of the ladies being accomplished musicians. This juxtaposition of harrowing ordeals and genteel tea parties is surprising to many, but was how men and women snatched moments of sanity and relaxation amid the horrors they witnessed. Of course, some romances ensued.

FANY members earned 136 medals and decorations during WW1. One of them was Pat (Waddell) Beauchamp, who lost a leg in the line of duty. She recounts her experiences in her engaging memoir, Fanny Goes to War. The FANY is still in existence.

In ElusiveDawn, my heroine joins the fictional WATS (Women's Ambulance and Transport Service), heavily based on FANY history.  There was actually one Canadian among the FANY.

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