One hundred years ago, when the Armistice agreement was signed on November 11th ending World War I, Kenneth Oliver, my grandfather, was serving as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, headquartered in Dunkirk. He had arrived in France the previous year, a baby-faced eighteen year old, and had undoubtedly experienced enough of war to last him a lifetime.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Ken and his brothers, Doug and Hugh, were students at the Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. They were sons of British Quaker missionaries in Lebanon, raised and educated in a pacifist tradition. Joining the military would not have been an option for them, yet like many young men and women raised in the Society of Friends, they must have felt a strong need to be of service during the terrible war.
In response, the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) was created by British volunteers in 1914 as a way for Quakers and others to provide medical aid and other assistance to civilians and members of the military during the war without compromising their commitment to non-violence. Over 1000 volunteers served in France, Belgium, and England between 1914 and 1919, driving ambulances, assisting in hospitals and providing aid for civilians evacuating the war zones.
Following his sophomore year at Haverford College, Ken left to join the FAU. He departed New York on the RMS Aurania, arriving in Liverpool on September 2, 1917. (Incidentally, a few months later the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Northern Ireland on February 3, 1918, heading from Liverpool to New York). It was customary for new volunteers to spend a month at an FAU training camp in Birminghamshire before being assigned to a unit.
Ken arrived at FAU headquarters in Dunkirk on October 10th. His personnel card lists a variety of assignments and job titles—chief orderly, chief clerk, stores buyer, and primarily driver. He served as a driver in an ambulance convoy like the one pictured here, and he was listed as being based in Dunkirk in August 2018, when the FAU headquarters were bombed. Family lore has it that one of my grandfather’s assignments was to inspect the sanitary conditions of French military brothels, but of course this doesn’t appear on his personnel card…
FAU headquarters, Dunkirk, after bombing, August 1918 (Image from Cadbury Research Library)
Uncle Doug, Ken’s elder brother, left Haverford and joined the FAU in May 1918, nearly a year after Ken’s arrival. He sailed to Liverpool on the RMS Carpathia, renowned for having taken on passengers from the sinking Titanic in 1912. Like the Aurania, the Carpathia was torpedoed by a German U-boat, and sunk off the southern coast of Ireland just two months after Doug’s arrival.
Both young men remained in France for several months after the armistice, with Doug departing in January 1919 and Ken following in February. They rejoined their classmates at Haverford for that spring semester and both graduated the following year.
I never heard my grandfather speak of the war, but surely it had to have changed the course of his life. I have to believe it played a role in his choice to become a doctor. He went on to medical school at Johns Hopkins University and then a career practicing and teaching medicine in Lebanon and the U.S.