Captain A.B. Bayle is shown cranking the car, prior to making her rounds in New York. Her ambulance is surrounded by other women in service uniforms.

“A Male Department of Warfare:” Female Ambulance Drivers in the First World War

While serving as an ambulance driver during the First World War, Pat Beauchamp witnessed the harrowing sight of four soldiers “blown to pieces.”1 It was an experience that, she wrote:

[I] shall never forget, and, in fact, cannot describe. … I leave the details to your imagination, but it gave me a sudden shock to realize that a few minutes earlier those remains had been living men walking along the road laughing and talking.2

By chance, shortly before the explosion, Beauchamp and her fellow drivers had stopped further up the road for lunch. Part of the shock and fear that Beauchamp experienced, and articulated, was the realization that she and her colleagues too could have been killed or harmed by the explosion. This was a moment of recognition for the dangers of the warzone, but it also underlined the responsibility and need for these drivers to assist in the care and transportation of the wounded.

Plain brown book cover.
Fanny Goes to War by Pat Beauchamp. (Screenshot of item at Archive.org)

Although Beauchamp could not put into words what she confronted in that moment, her memoir Fanny Goes to War (1919) provides illuminating insight into the experiences of female ambulance drivers. She offered us insight into the daily duties of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, F.A.N.Y, what it was like to transport supplies and patients and to encounter wounded bodies. Beauchamp gave an enlightening, often amusing, account of the emotional fluctuations between excitement for adventure and “fear and trepidation” accompanying the duty to drive wounded soldiers.3

The experiences of female ambulance drivers during the First World War are not widely known, partly because discussions of women’s war work often favor nurses’ memoirs. British authorities were resistant to women working in such capacities, so close to the dangers of the frontline. To be granted access for nursing was one thing, but the thought of women driving ambulances, thus infiltrating the “male department of war,” became an unprecedented concern, logistically as well as socially.4 The duties involved were deemed not only too dangerous, but also inappropriate for women. Despite the reluctance of official channels, the development of volunteer and independent organizations enabled women to move into the driver’s seat on the Western Front.

One of the organizations which eventually gained the respect of British authorities was the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, F.A.N.Y. The all-female Yeomanry had been established in 1907, as an independent paramilitary organization assisting in first aid and transportation of the wounded, initially relying upon horseback and horse-drawn ambulances, as detailed in the F.A.N.Y’s history. By 1916, they had earned their place as the first group of women formally connected to the British Army, where they continued to be vital components in medical evacuation and aid.

But how did it feel to be responsible for the transport of wounded men from the battlefield? What was it like to be a woman at the Front? Without considering their first-hand experiences, we are in danger of forgetting the physicality of this role, and the very real dangers to which these women willingly exposed themselves.

Gender Confusion

Part of the resistance to women in these typically male roles was the confusion that developed from seeing women “out of place,” and the unknown, troubling effects this might have on their femininity.5 Soldiers, orderlies, and civilians couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing, especially given the “manly Yeomanry uniform.”6 Beauchamp described how she “overheard a chemist saying to one of his clients … ‘Truly, until one hears their voices, one would say they were men.’”7

Elsie Knocker,the Baroness de T’Serclaes (1884-1978) and Mairi Chisholm (1896-1981) (left) in their ambulance driver uniforms and helmets at the window of their billet in Pervijze (Pervyse), West Flanders. (Bain News Service | Library of Congress)

The patients “were more surprised than anyone to see girls driving out there, and were often not a little fearful as to how we would cope!”8 However, numerous soldiers reported a preference for a female driver, whose attention to detail and astute levels of care ensured a smoother journey.9 The Times quoted a soldier, who “‘would a thousand times rather be driven by a woman …. They’ll look out for every pebble on the road, avoid every jolt, and it makes a difference … when you have got a bad pain in your body.’”10

Women began to cut the figure of men at the front. Indeed, they undertook exactly the same tasks as any man in the same role. Not only were they required to navigate difficult routes, they also had to become proficient in mechanics, managing the temperamental engines and the freezing radiators throughout the harsh winters. Despite the demands and dangers, these women “relished their non-traditional identity,” and found fulfilment in this contribution to the war. 11

A Steady Hand

Driving an ambulance required more than ordinary driving skills. The driver needed to rely more than ever on reflexes and instincts to navigate the often treacherous routes. They had to avoid slipping into the “enormous holes, large enough to hold the car,” navigate through narrow spaces, squeeze past other vehicles while straining to keep on track, and avoid slipping in the “mud–with a capital M…–thick and clayey and of a peculiarly gluey substance.”12

Each journey was an exercise in chance that the vehicle would not breakdown, hit an obstacle, or skid off the road. It took every nerve and sensation in the driver’s body to keep alert and react to every new obstacle that came their way. They had to become “experts at the geography of hell.”13 Driving in the dark, literally relying on every sense, with vision becoming less and less reliable, the body was put under immense strain.

Pain

The combination of duties was a continual, physical pressure, which demanded much from these women’s bodies. After driving back and forth for hours, Beauchamp described the toll on her body: “My back was aching, so was my knee (from constant clutch-slipping over the bumps and cobbles), and my eyes felt as if they were popping out of my head” from “the terrible strain of trying to see in the darkness just a little further than one really could.”14

Photograph shows female motor ambulance drivers with their vehicles, Étaples, France, 27 June 1917, during World War I.
Photograph shows female motor ambulance drivers with their vehicles, in Étaples, France, 27 June 1917, during World War I. (Bain News Service/Imperial War Museum | Library of Congress/Flickr Commons)

The effort to drive, but more so the effort to steer and direct, while navigating, while tuning out the cries, all in the dark, was not only physically demanding, but also psychologically trying. At the wheel, the driver could hear the cries and screams of the wounded men behind, which played havoc with her sympathies: “One of the most trying things about ambulance driving is that while you long to get the patient to hospital as quickly as possible you are forced to drive slowly.”15 The job required a careful hand to navigate routes that caused the least harm:

Those journeys back were perfect nightmares. Try as one would, it was impossible not to bump a certain amount over those appalling roads full of holes and cobbles. It was pathetic when a voice from the interior could be heard asking, “Is it much farther, Sister?” and knowing how far it was, my heart ached for them.16

A journey that would normally take 15 minutes could take up to 45 minutes. Time was of the essence when it came to these life-threatening wounds, so the need to speed up was in conflict with the desire to limit pain; sometimes they were not quick enough, and on arrival they would discover the patient had died.

Injury

Compared to other drivers’ experiences, Beauchamp’s story takes us down an unusual route, into a patient memoir. While driving one of her regular routes, she was hit by a train at an unguarded crossing, which proved fatal to the stretcher bearer on board, and led to the loss of Beauchamp’s leg. In retelling these events, Beauchamp offered profound insights into the experience of being wounded, especially as a woman wounded in a man’s world.

The final chapters of Beauchamp’s narrative epitomize so much about the gender divides of war and society. They also reveal the profound differences between medical care at the Front and the bureaucracy that kicked back in when crossing the Channel. After initial treatment in France, she was evacuated to Britain, where, as a woman injured at the front, she presented a problem: “England seemed quite unprepared for anything so unorthodox, and the general impression borne in on me was that I was a complete nuisance.”17

There was no established procedure for where she could be treated, and it was no longer appropriate for her to be in a military hospital. Repeatedly, she was made to feel a burden. Time and again she heard the painfully familiar phrase: “‘If you were only a man, of course it would be so easy.’”18 Frustration intensified, understandably, given that she had served the nation, practically as a part of the army itself, and yet it was unclear how she could be treated. While women found their place at the wheel, and were taken seriously, authorities and services could not deal with the perpetuating confusion of switched gender roles.

It isn’t often we hear the story of a woman wounded on the Western Front, especially in her own words. Beauchamp’s story is unusual and especially significant for its details on receiving medical treatment: there are few memoirs depicting women’s injuries, and through her memoir Beauchamp raised issues concerning the inconsistencies, even hypocrisies, related to how authorities valued women’s war work. Hearing the patient perspective from an individual, who only days before had been driving and nursing the wounded, is equally profound. We can recognize her frustrations as a patient, and as someone once so active, now forced into immobility.

Beauchamp’s narrative reminds us that there are numerous different stories from the frontlines – and in fact encourages us to rethink where we consider the war to begin and end, and who it directly involved, affected, and potentially endangered. We must rethink who we remember as the medics from the conflict. Ambulance drivers were crucial in the transport and evacuation of wounded soldiers, and it is vital that we recognize women’s contribution, often at irrevocable cost, in the name of providing medical aid.

Notes

  1. Pat Beauchamp [Waddell], Fanny Goes to War (London: John Murray, 1919) 24. Return to text.
  2. Ibid. Return to text.
  3. Ibid, 132. Return to text.
  4. Ibid, 108. Return to text.
  5. Nancy Martin, “‘The Rose of No Man’s Land [?]’: Femininity, Female identity, and Women on the Western Front,” New Writings in Feminist and Women’s Studies 13.6 (2012), 9. Return to text.
  6. Beauchamp, 16. Return to text.
  7. Ibid. Return to text.
  8. Ibid, 162. Return to text.
  9. Ana Carden-Coyne, The Politics of Wounds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 56. Return to text.
  10. “Behind the War: The English Girl’s Part,” The Times, December 27, 1915, p.11. Return to text.
  11. Janet Lee, War Girls: The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 136. Return to text.
  12. Katherine Hodges, “A Driver at the Front,” The Private Papers of Miss K Hodges, Imperial War Museum Collections, Documents, 1974, 15. Beauchamp, 22. Return to text.
  13. Jane Marcus, “Corpus/Corps/Corpse: Writing the Body in/at War,” Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation, ed. Helen M. Cooper et al, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 125. Return to text.
  14. Beauchamp, 150-151, 133. Return to text.
  15. Ibid, 190. Return to text.
  16. Ibid, 149. Return to text.
  17. Ibid, 252. Return to text.
  18. Ibid, 261. Return to text.

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