Damned Good Red Herrings

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was created by Sgt. Major Edward Baker of the Guards Regiment. Wounded in the last great cavalry charge at the battle of Omdurman, he realised that men around him were dying for lack of medical attention. He conceived the idea of a corps of mounted nurses who would gallop onto the battlefield when the fighting was over and tend the wounded. In 1907, after leaving the army, he advertised for ‘high spirited and adventurous young ladies’ to volunteer for training in First Aiod and Home Nursing. The girls who joined were also expected to learn horsemanship, veterinary work, signalling and camp cookery. It was a revolutionary idea for the period and was eagerly embraced by young women longing to escape the stifling domesticity of their Edwardian upbringing. Nevertheless, Captain, as he was now known, Baker insisted that they should always behave like ‘ladies’. Only women from a certain l;evel of society could afford this kind of unpaid activity, particularly since it involved the upkeep of a horse, so most of the volunteers were the daughters of the landed gentry. Hence the title ‘yeomanry’.

The first opportunity to put their skills to the test came with the outbreak of World War l but the prejudice of the army high command against allowing women anywhere near the front line meant that they had a struggle ahead of them. Offers of help were rebuffed with remarks along the lines of ‘For God’s sake, woman, go home and sit still!’ Baker had by this time withdrawn from the command, after some acrimonious disputes, and his place had been taken by a redoubtable Scotswoman called Grace Ashley Smith. Through contacts she had with the Belgian army permission was given for the FANYs to set up a hospital in a disused convent in Calais. Here, in appalling conditions, they had their first experiences of real nursing. It was not enough for some of them, however. One great advantage that many of them had, coming from wealthy families, was that they could drive a car – a skill that relatively few men possessed in those days. They could also afford to buy vehicles and convert them into ambulances. As the war progressed, they became the first women to drive ambulances under fire and many of them were decorated as a result. It was during this period that they acquired the symbol which was later painted on all their vehicles. When an officer complained to his general that the Fany’s answered to no authority, because they were neither army, nor Queen Alexandra’s Nurses, nor VADs, the genral replied, ‘Well, they not be fish, flesh or foul – but they are damned good red herrings!’

By the time World War ll started, the nursing function of the FANYs had been superseded by the amry’s own medical corps but the FANYs were still going and still determined to ‘do their bit’.. Some of them were incorporated into the ATS in the Motor Driver Companies but others were determined to maintain their independence, and it was this that made them ideally suited to the needs of the Special Operations Executive. SOE had been set up at the behest of Winston Churchill to run secret agents behind enemy lines. Their object was to dusrupt the enemy by acts of sabotage and to encourage resistance wherever it was found. Because it was so secret that not even the army High Command knew of its existence, the men running it could not turn to any of the recognised services for back-up but fortunately one of the senior officers, Colin Gubbins, was friendly with a Mrs Phyllis Bingham, who was a FANY. At his request, she set up what became known as ‘Bingham’s Unit’, recruiting girls to serve as signallers and coders, maintaining the radio links with agents in the field, and as housekeepers and hostesses for those who were living in the various safe houses where they were trained or accomodated while waiting to go into the field.

These duties meant that the FANYs had to recruit young women from a much wider section of society, so that the exisitng members, who still came from the privileged upper class, were suddenly confronted with having to work as equals with girls they would have normally regarded as their inferiors. It was this aspect that gave me the intial inspiration for the first book, ‘We’ll Meet Again.’