Quakers in wartime

Anthony Wilson
Quaker Service Memorial 300x225 Quakers in wartime

Quaker Service Memorial (David Faul/NMA)

On Saturday Quakers inaugurated a memorial, in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, to peaceable service during and after World War II. The Quaker site lies a ten minute walk away from the iconic Armed Forces Memorial at the centre of the Arboretum.

Although the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, has been pacifist from its beginning in the 1650s, it has not been dogmatic about how its members should express this. Since conscription in 1916, responses have ranged from refusal to register under the National Service Acts, to full military service. Most of those conscripted claimed conscientious objection to military service; the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and Friends Relief Service (FRS) presented the opportunity to serve where the war directly affected people. A majority of the 1,300 members in each organisation were not Quakers, but chose to willingly serve alongside them.

The FAU, managed by its own independent Council, accepted that members serving in military theatres dealing with casualties would be required to wear khaki – a step too far for the Society as a whole, whose official Friends Relief Service wore Quaker grey with the Quaker star and worked with civilians. My father served with the FRS during the war and I served for two years with the FAU International Service in the 1950s in civilian contexts – with no uniform.

The work of the two organisations often overlapped; FAU workers’ training in first aid put them in the front line during the blitz, while the FRS ran evacuation hostels in the UK. Following the military through mainland Europe, both were involved in relieving Nazi concentration camps and subsequently working with displaced people. FAU members were quickly redeployed where immediate needs were most urgent, while FRS members were engaged with the rehabilitation of people whose humanity had been denied as slave labourers or prisoners under Nazi rule. Over the course of the war, 17 FAU members lost their lives, often alongside the military. Others were taken as prisoners of war.

Contemporary accounts from the field speak of the mutual respect between these pacifist conchies and the military. Field commanders knew that they could draw on FAU and FRS workers to undertake relief work, while troops saw them as colleagues in a shared experience – an attitude reciprocated by members.

Friends’ nonconformity may have actually helped: there were no ranks in the FAU or FRS, section leader being just one job alongside other specialist tasks, and there was no pay, only equal personal allowances. Although the FAU members were almost all male, service in the FRS was not restricted to registered conscientious objectors and nearly half its members were women, which generated a different dynamic in its relationships.

The most serious issue around relations with the armed forces arose from the non-fraternisation order following the invasion of Germany itself: all but the most formal contact with civilians was forbidden to allied personnel. The FRS could not operate on these terms, and delayed sending teams into Germany while the order was enforced. The situation was resolved by teams entering Germany from the Netherlands, and the order being effectively ignored by both parties.

Given their common experience, past members of the FAU and FRS had no problem sharing space in the Arboretum with memorials commemorating the service of those who found themselves having to fight, often after the same soul-searching as they had gone through.
The issue has not been so simple for those Quakers who have seen the military as a service apart, standing for values which are clearly opposed to our pacifist witness. Many doubts have been resolved by the ready encouragement we received from the start by the Arboretum, managed by the Royal British Legion. Its education staff are placing our memorial high on the list of sites for school parties to visit, with supporting material which points to ours being the only memorial which incorporates the Nobel Peace Prize (awarded to Friends in 1947) amongst its inscriptions.

The memorial itself combines simplicity with function. Four high-backed benches in a circle to echo the settings of the meetings for worship with which relief teams started each day. Succinct hand-carved wording describes the Society’s peace tradition, the work of the two organisations, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. We hope that it will provide a sheltered site for reflection, as people visit other memorials to service given and lives lost in more recent conflicts.

Quakers’ witness to peace does not deny the reality of evil, or provide simple answers to complex problems. Respect for the ‘inner light’ within every person, however dim in the case of their Nazi persecutors, helped Friends to organise the rescue of thousands of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe through programmes which included the Kindertransport; the same concern drives their work with asylum seekers today. We commemorate the past to remind ourselves of the present, alongside the range of service displayed in the Arboretum; and our memorial will still be standing in two and three hundred years time, in a world whose values we hope it will help to shape.

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  • Alastair Pardoe

    A lovely piece – and a reminder that serving humanity and the greater good in wartime can mean more than just killing for your country. I am not a Quaker, but I have great respect for the work they did during the war, and for the stances they have taken since.

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