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15 October 2014
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A Matter of Conscience. Bill Sprayicon for Recommended story

by The CSV Action Desk at BBC Wiltshire

Bill Spray with FAU group of thirty, attached to French Tank Division 1943.

Contributed by 
The CSV Action Desk at BBC Wiltshire
People in story: 
Bill Spray.
Location of story: 
UK, Algiers, Rabat in French Morocco, France, Germany.
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 October 2005

An agonising decision, I found it. Perhaps it helped rather than hindered the 'First' in History with which, in 1941, I ended my two year wartime degree course at Cambridge. But until my hearing before the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal, it was certainly a part of everyday life. And, though in different and differing ways, the memory has remained a challenge ever since.

The long threatened world conflict had come. In 1939 we could guess only the half of it, but that there would be destruction and suffering on a huge scale was obvious. Without being starry-eyed about one's own side of the divide, there seemed enormities of evil on the other side to be confronted. What, for an aspiring Christian, was the 'right' thing to do?

The majority of Christians and others, including my previously pacifist parents, were committed to limiting by military means the damage the other side was doing elsewhere and, most certainly, to keeping family and national life here safe from it.

Yet there were also folk who were weighing up whether, however unwillingly, they would have to differ from the great majority of their fellows. Some would do so on strongly humanitarian grounds. Others would come to feel that this was, for them, the only possible response to the Love they felt they knew in Jesus. Not an immediate national policy for a differently motivated nation. But not, either, a running away from evil or from the war to which it had given rise. Rather, a compelling personal commitment to Jesus' love-in-action IN the evil. If you could do it and, sometimes at least, for both sides, in as much if not more battlefield-danger than Christian friends who had devoutly made the other decision, so much the better.

That was what the Quakers (members of The Religious Society of Friends) who revived the Friends Ambulance Unit of the 1914-18 War made it possible for me, a Methodist, and 1,313 other folk of varying religious loyalties, to attempt. Accepted for service in the FAU beforehand, I found myself with the blessing of the Cambridge area Conscientious Objectors Tribunal the potential participant, from 1941-45, in an astonishing range of just such activities - in this country, from London bomb shelters to work in 84 very varied hospitals; abroad,from Finland to China and many war zones in between.

That's how, a conscientious objector, I finished up,incongruously,with a croix de guerre! Following two years of basic hospital work combined with what would now be called paramedic training, I was by 26th October 1943 on the way by sea to Algiers and then by troop train to Rabat in French Morocco as leader of the team of 30 similarly trained FAU members who, as unarmed British Red Cross personnel, were to provide the ambulance collection and casualty clearing services for one of the three Medical Companies of the 2nd French Armoured Division newly formed, and to the end of the war commanded, by General Leclerc. With the Division we returned in May 1944 to England, crossed the Channel to the French beachheads on 31st July, and three weeks later were following 'our' French tanks into the overwhelming experience of the liberation of Paris in which, for all the right symbolic reasons, the Americans had left the starring role to the Division. There followed the liberation of Strasbourg and then the advance across the Rhine into Germany itself.

As Tegla Davies wrote in his history of the Friends Ambulance Unit: "If ever pacifists lived and worked in the front line, not ten or two miles behind the front, but at the front", it was this group of 30, attached to a French Tank Division that was for the most part incorporated in an American Army.Two of the ambulance driving team were killed in action whilst trying to reach or evacuate their tank battle casualties, another so seriously wounded as to be invalided home, two taken prisoner. As opportunity offered - and sometimes to the indignation of the French - Germans could be as much our concern as they. As hostilities ended we found ourselves in Bavaria at Utting on the Ammersee, still doing our best, as since the first crossing of the Rhine, to prevent occupation from becoming reprisal.

A letter which arrived in London over the signature of General Leclerc, soon after the FAU's withdrawal, said far too generously all we'd ever hoped but knew we'd often failed to do:
"Attached to the 3rd Medical Company, wherein they constituted the entire group of ambulance and nursing personnel, they have contrived in their thankless and obscure work to show themselves worthy of their pacifist ideal in the very centre of the vast machine of war. On every type of road or terrain, in all weathers, by night as by day, and very often in forward posts under a fire deadly enough to unsettle the composure of the fighting man, they have displayed the finest qualities of selflessness and charity in order to fulfil this service to their friends".
If that were true I, for one, could wish no more. And perhaps there had been at least feeble witness to "the futility of cruelty on one side breeding blind vindictiveness on the other".

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