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FANY - The Women of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
by Beth Brook
An introduction to FANY
The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) was formed in 1907, by Captain Edward Baker, as an independent voluntary women’s organisation. It was the first British women’s voluntary organisation to be arranged along military lines and to be sent out to serve in the First World War. All its members were originally mounted on horseback and provided specialist first aid and emergency medical care to wounded soldiers on the battlefield before they could be evacuated to field hospitals.
The organisation took its title ‘Yeomanry’ from the fact it was a mounted unit. Women who joined the FANY were trained not only in first aid but signalling and drilling in cavalry movements. To join the FANY, members paid a joining fee, as well as paying for their own uniforms, first aid kits, riding school fees and the care of a horse. This meant that only reasonably wealthy women were enrolled.
“During the First World War, FANYs ran field hospitals, drove ambulances and set up soup kitchens and troop canteens, often under highly dangerous conditions. By the Armistice, they had been awarded many decorations for bravery, including 17 Military Medals, 1 Légion d'Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Corps was called upon to form the nucleus of the Motor Driver Companies of the Auxiliary Transport Service (ATS). Another section was attached to the Polish Army, and a Kenyan unit formed in 1935 also joined the war effort. A spirit of independence led yet others to join the FANY in the Special Operations Executive. These women worked on coding and signals, acted as conductors for agents and provided administration and technical support for the Special Training Schools. Their work was top secret and often highly skilled. Members operated in several theatres of war, including North Africa, Italy, India and the Far East.”
Women into war
FANY members had to overcome prejudice because of their gender; they were women entering into war, riding horses or driving ambulances and wearing uniforms. Although nursing was seen as a feminine role, these other activities were seen very much as the domain of the male, particularly in public life. For many in the British establishment and in British society, FANY represented women moving into the sphere of the masculine. In the context of the suffragette movements in the early twentieth century, any notion of female militarism was particularly poignant. The transgression of gender roles was seen as a paradox and a threat.
The resilience and bravery of FANY members and the prejudice they faced, particularly in the early years of their existence, was shown time and time again. Following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the British authorities turned down FANY’s offer of services to provide emergency medical care to wounded soldiers, despite positive recommendations from within the Army. In spite of this, FANY members travelled out to France in October 1914 intent on providing an ambulance and hospital service for the Belgian Army and for the French. Soon after signing up to the FANY in 1915, Mary Baxter Ellis (see below) was stoned in the street when she returned in her khaki uniform to her Northumbrian home town to meet her father.
“Women’s entry into this masculine space of war in any role other than that of nurse, that submissive angel of mercy, threatened the foundation of wartime gender construction with its division into masculine military forces and feminine home front. Women’s entrance into war, especially women in an organization bent on maintaining its independence and providing ambulance support, provoked anxiety because it might lead to sexual immorality and the potential masculinisation of women, not to mention a case for their full citizenship.” (p.55, Janet Lee, War Girls)
FANY and lesbianism
FANY members were cautious about such social and cultural conflicts and its effect on the collective identity and reputation of the organisation. Members built networks and allegiances with the military establishment which would justify and strengthen the notion of decency and respectability of the organisation. These efforts extended to avoiding accusations of lesbianism or members being ‘inverts’.
As Janet Lee states, “given the high need for FANY ‘respectability’ this question of lesbianism is of course completely silent in all FANY accounts of their war service, although one assumes that there were romantic relationships among them…. It behoved the FANY to construct the narratives of their lives and experiences together with great care to avoid censorship and disapproval. Indeed, the heterosexually oriented stories of FANY fun, as already mentioned, were most likely constructed in part to avoid accusations of their being ‘mannish lesbians’.” (p. 213, Janet Lee, War Girls)
Being a part of the FANY involved women living, working and playing together. It established close and intimate friendships among some members. War and service also allowed for the suspension of the traditional expectations of domestic responsibility and marriage for women. This would have allowed women to develop friendships and relationships outside of traditional spheres of existence and frames of reference.
One illustration of the effect this had on the professional and social bonds between FANY members was their use of male nicknames for each other, such as Mary Baxter Ellis and Marjorie Kingston Walker, otherwise known to other FANYs as ‘Dick’ and ‘Tony’. Dick and Tony had a particularly close bond and friendship.
‘Dick’ and ‘Tony’
Mary Baxter Ellis succeeded Lillian Franklin in the position of Commandant of the FANY in 1932. Baxter Ellis had signed up to the FANY in August 1915 and had seen active service during the First World War in France and Belgium. During the Second World War, as the FANY provided the Motor Transport Companies of the Auxiliary Transport Service, Baxter Ellis became Deputy Director of the ATS in 1943. Baxter Ellis’s Second-in- Command was Marjorie Kingston Walker.
Mary ‘Dick’ Baxter Ellis and Marjorie ‘Tony’ Kingston Walker had a very close friendship and partnership. As described by Irene Ward in FANY Invicta, “‘Dick’ and ‘Tony’ to their numerous friends made a wonderful pair and the close harmony in which they worked was a big factor in the growth and happiness of the Corps.” (p97) The pair retired together in 1947 and “inseparable as ever, went off to the country to breed cocker spaniels and paint in water colours. They were to die within a couple of months of each other twenty years later.” P.117 (Popham). Whether their relationship was homosexual or not – which from the current evidence is not clear – hardly matters. That they found companionship in one another in their profession and in life is a touching aspect in the history of the FANY, of the history of women and war and of LGBT history.
FANY and its legacy
One of the problems of lesbian history is that it is so often hidden and evidence is rare and difficult to find, particularly the personal stories in the written record. There are a number of reasons for this. Often at this time invisibility was deemed a necessity, such as the FANY's efforts for 'respectability' and legitimacy with the establishment. For the historian this means that we have to partake in more extensive research to uncover what is beneath the surface. Although the effort to find primary material might prove more problematic when researching LGBT history, the rich and diverse discoveries that can be revealed in the records certainly makes the effort feel worthwhile.
The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry played an important role in women’s history and, arguably, for LGBT history too. The organisation was not principally straight or lesbian, neither was it primarily masculine or feminine. There were, however, certainly elements of both. The benefit now is that, from a historical perspective, we can celebrate all the elements it embodied and all the characteristics and communities it enveloped. These factors comprised to form a significant and valuable movement in the First World War, which brought real relief and assistance to the suffering. In the long term, FANY has contributed to a significant and valuable aspect of women’s social and cultural history.
Bibliography and sources
● Janet Lee, War Girls: The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in the First World War, Manchester University Press, 2005.
● Mary Baxter Ellis – Obituary in The Times, 29 April 1968
● Irene Ward, FANY Invicta, Hutchinson, 1955
● Hugh Popham, The FANY in Peace and War, Pen and Sword Books, 2002.
Files On Film
The recent Files On Film competition, held by the National Archives, asked aspiring filmmakers to create short films, inspired by a selection of diverse documents from the national collection.
A 3 minute film by Coral Manton, The investigation of alleged unnatural relationships amongst service women, was highly commended.
Lecture notes from 1960:
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