Wartime Quakers remembered in national memorial

Picture of the memorial to WWII Quaker service in the National Memorial Arboretum Seventeen members of the Friends Ambulance Unit lost their lives during WWII

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Staffordshire's National Memorial Arboretum is now home to the first monument in Europe remembering Quaker service during World War II.

At the outbreak of WWII the Quaker community was faced with a dilemma: should they accept or refuse to fight? Was there a way to honour their country while safeguarding a fundamental part of their faith?

Pacifism is intrinsic to the Quaker philosophy: the members of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers or Friends, believe that God is in everyone and each person has a 'divine spark' in them - hence their opposition to all forms of violence.

FAU and FRS: What were they?

Roadside rest for FAU ambulance convoy, Africa 1942
  • The Friends Ambulance Unit was an independent Quaker-led organisation which aimed to show solidarity with the suffering at the front. They worked in khaki uniforms as ambulance drivers and people who managed first aid stations and evacuated wounded troops
  • The Friends Relief Service wore Quaker grey and did not work on the front line in the same way as the FAU, but more as a back-up service to relieve victims, for example evacuating people that had been bombed out

In 1939, when conscription was introduced in Britain, individual Quakers took personal decisions whether to join up or take alternative routes.

Many found a compromise in the Friends Relief Service (FRS) which provided support on the home front for civilians in distress as a result of the war.

Others joined the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) which allowed them to serve close to the front line without engaging in fighting.

Start Quote

Picture of Leslie Steed

"I went and called Paul Cadbury and asked if I could join, and I was in the next camp - it was as simple as that”

End Quote Leslie Steed Former FAU member
'Chocolate soldiers'

Leslie Steed was one of them. Born and raised in Stafford in a Quaker family, he was encouraged by his father to look for a job with a pension - so he started to work with the Birmingham Gas Board. But as the war broke, his early career was interrupted.

The FAU had been originally set up in WWI. At the outbreak of WWII, a committee, chaired by FAU veteran Paul Cadbury, was created to re-establish the Unit. Mr Steed recalls: "I went and called Paul Cadbury and asked if I could join, and I was in the next camp - it was as simple as that."

Mr Steed joined the FAU in 1939 at the age of 20. After working in a hospital in London, he supported first the Eighth Army in North Africa as an ambulance driver and mechanic, and then the Allied Troops in a blood-transfusion unit in Italy.

Mr Steed did not see being part of the FAU as a compromise with his pacifist beliefs: visiting his cousin, an FAU member in Birmingham, he realised that what they were doing was "really up [his] street."

The chocolate connection

Illustrated Cadbury advert from 1930s. Image courtesy of Cadbury
  • The Cadbury name is synonymous with chocolate, but the business started by Quaker John Cadbury in 1824 first sold tea and coffee, as well as hot chocolate
  • Mr Cadbury wanted to provide an alternative to alcohol - viewed as a destructive force by the Quaker philosophy
  • The Quaker influence continued with John's sons, Richard and George. When they needed a larger factory site they created Bournville, a spacious green village with leisure facilities for workers
  • The remaining Cadbury family sold their part of the business in the 1960s. The charitable trust set up by Barrow Cadbury and his wife in 1911 continues to this day with the Barrow Cadbury Trust

Under the terms of the National Service (Armed Forces) Act of 1939 conscientious objectors, including Quakers, had to face a tribunal to claim exemption from fighting.

When Mr Steed's turn came, the judge told him and two colleagues that they would be exempt from military service as long as they stayed in the FAU. "We called ourselves the chocolate soldiers of Paul Cadbury," he says.

Unlike many other conscientious objectors, Mr Steed did not encounter any hostility from the population or the army: "There was a rather mock incredulity, people saying: 'Look, we couldn't have any choice, we were forced to, but you lot volunteered - you must be mad!'"

Pioneer woman

Born in 1921, Angela Sinclair was one of the first women to join the FAU, serving from late 1940 to 1948.

She took part in the support service during the London Blitz and, after working as a secretary for two years in London's FAU office working for Brandon Cadbury, she undertook social work in a Yugoslav refugee camp in Egypt, and then worked with the FAU in Yugoslavia.

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Picture of Angela Sinclair

I think being a pacifist was undoubtedly less criticised as being unpatriotic for a female, provided that it was clear one was not trying to evade dangerous situations”

End Quote Angela Sinclair Former FAU member

When she decided to join the FAU her father did not object, although he and his ancestors were soldiers: "I think this was because he felt it was courageous of me to choose to work in an area specially threatened by bombing," says Ms Sinclair. "Also, probably, because I was a girl; he might have objected if I had been a male of military age.

"I think being a pacifist was undoubtedly less criticised as being unpatriotic for a female, provided that it was clear one was not trying to evade dangerous situations," she adds.

If working in the FAU could be seen as an involvement in the war effort, Ms Sinclair did not see it as such, as it only aimed to help relieve suffering caused by the war.

"Only in one activity did there seem to be any contradiction," she explains, "when I willingly took part in extinguishing incendiary bombs; some FAU members refused to do this on the grounds that they would be replacing military personnel who would otherwise have to do this."

Ms Sinclair later became a social worker and has been involved in the peace movement.

Making a statement

The new memorial takes the form of four benches in a circle, resembling a Quaker meeting for worship - that was also how the FAU and FRS teams started their day.

Close up of one of the benches of the Quaker service memorial. The inscription reads "It is the silent help from the nameless to the nameless which is the Quakers' contribution to the promotion of brotherhood between nations", a citation from the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Quakers in 1947 The Quaker Service Memorial Trust hopes the new memorial will serve as a place of reflection for everybody

The carving on each of the benches explains the Society's position on fighting, the FAU and FRS services, and an inscription on the back of the fourth bench explains the awarding of Nobel Peace Prize to Quakers in 1947 for their service in the relief of war suffering.

What is pacifism?

Illustration of a dove carrying an olive branch in its beak
  • The word pacifism was first used at the International Peace Conference in 1901
  • Different types of pacifism all include the idea that war and violence are unjustifiable
  • Pacifism is more than an objection to war, and pacifists often actively strive for social justice and human rights

Anthony Wilson, clerk to the Quaker Service Memorial Trust who also served in the FAU after WWII, sees the memorial as "a place for Quakers to make a statement alongside the other organisations there - not a statement of defiance or disagreement... there were many ways of serving and witnessing against evil."

However, he adds, not all Quakers initially agreed with this, as they saw the Arboretum as being, essentially, a place for military memorial and were not comfortable with being there, although those who had already visited the Arboretum appreciated that it in no way celebrates military conflict.

This would not have been an issue for FAU and FRS members, as they accepted that cooperation with the military was necessary to help relieve the suffering.

Mr Wilson hopes that visitors will be able to use the memorial as a place for reflection, as he feels that attitudes to war are much more equivocal than they were in WWII, when the vast majority of people accepted that Nazism could only be dealt with through war:

"People are asking questions, and we want to provide a place where [they] can sit and contemplate."

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