Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Intrepid Women

During my research on the First World War, I came across the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), a Corps of plucky women who volunteered to drive ambulances and run hospitals in war-torn France and Belgium. They were well-bred, often aristocratic young women, and cultivated an image of fierce independence, self-confidence, flair, gaiety, and audacity. The FANYs' work was difficult, dangerous, and dirty (they fixed their own ambulances), but they also had fun. They were renowned for their hospitality, hosting teas, dances, and entertainments for officers when off-duty. Many were accomplished musicians.

The “girls” as they called themselves, often had to drive ambulances during bombing raids. 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 memoir, Fanny Goes to War.

Some of the FANY brought their own cars to France, which were then converted into ambulances. The windshields were removed from all vehicles, and only small sidelights were allowed for night driving. This was so as not to alert enemy aircraft with lights or reflections, and to prevent injuries from breaking glass during bombings. The girls often had to evacuate the wounded from trains to hospitals or ships at night and in all weathers.

It’s amazing to realize the many hardships that these gently reared ladies endured - with stoicism and grace - in their bid to “do their duty” like their brothers and sweethearts.

For a comprehensive account of the FANY, read War Girls by Janet Lee.

I pay homage to these courageous women volunteers in Elusive Dawn through my version of the Corps, the WATS (Women's Ambulance and Transport Service). The FANY is still in existence.

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