The China Convoy: A great leveller

In the first article in a new series on the Friends Ambulance Unit’s ‘China Convoy’ David Brough, whose father Bill Brough served in the Convoy between 1941 and 1943, describes the composition of ‘the Unit’.

John Peter, a Tamil-Zulu from South Africa, painting the FAU logo onto a Convoy truck | Photo: Photo courtesy Peter Reynolds

I never associated with chaps who have more mental vigour or spiritual dynamic. There are one or two among them, strange to say, who are not even Christian in their views. They are all vigorous pacifists and it is very interesting to see them trying to get things in order between their ideals and their practical necessity.

- Bob McClure, China Convoy

Despite its name, the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in the second world war, like its first world war predecessor, was not an official body of the Religious Society of Friends. Thus, as an independent organisation, it was able to extend the opportunity it offered for humanitarian service to others beyond the Society – pacifists who shared a conscientious objection to taking up arms.

Quakers made up about half the Unit’s wartime membership of around 1,300. The remainder included Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists and some of no particularly fixed religious faith. For some Friends, like Peter Leyland, whose father had served in the FAU in the first world war, there was little question over joining what one of them dubbed ‘the family regiment’.

Other objectors had concluded, like Duncan Wood, that ‘there was no form of wartime service for conscientious objectors (COs) that did not, in some way, contribute to the war effort.’ They saw the Unit as offering an opportunity to alleviate the suffering of others in ‘the thick of it’ where needs were likely to be most acute. For some, whose moral objection to taking another life was reinforced by an objection to society compelling them to do so and their lack of deference to those who might wish to order and determine their fate, the FAU seemed a more palatable alternative to the service they might perform in the Royal Army Medical Corps and other noncombatant roles.

Societal madness

My father’s objection owed as much to my grandfather’s experiences in Flanders as it did to his own moral and religious schooling. It was, in part, utilitarian: war was for him simply ‘senseless’ and ‘infantile’, a ‘destructive waste’ and ‘societal madness’. His family neither shared nor understood his views, but accepted his decision. The domestic response to others was less supportive. Schoolteacher John Simpson’s stepfather demanded John give notice of any intention to visit his mother, that he might ensure none of his friends were present to witness his disgraceful stepson. In the east end of London, Tom Haley’s father declared that, if he was not prepared to shed one drop of blood to protect his mother and sister, he was no longer welcome under the family roof.

Each CO had to go through an ‘assessment’ at a tribunal. Tom found his tribunal more sympathetic than his family. He reflected later that they had had an almost impossible task in assessing the sincerity of his conviction, but had undertaken their commission with great care and consideration.

A great leveller

As with many bodies in times of war, the FAU brought together a hugely diverse range of social backgrounds. It included sons of peers of the realm and MPs, clerks, teachers, accountants, men from other trades and none. While some FAU members had been well educated and had had their sensibilities cultivated in reflective and cultured environments, others had not. My father, who had left school at fifteen to serve as an apprentice butcher, found difficulty in articulating his views. Until a sympathetic schoolmaster had introduced him to the term, he had never heard the words ‘conscientious objection’ nor heard of the FAU. In attending his FAU interview, with Paul Cadbury, in the first-class waiting room of Carlisle station’s up platform, he had travelled further than ever before from his Northumberland mining-village home. It was also the first time he had set foot in anything ‘first-class’.

The FAU was a great leveller of social distinctions and backgrounds. All its members were in the same boat. They were all expected to perform the same duties and to learn the same skills. Faced with the challenges of hospital and relief work, of driving and motor mechanics, practical skills and gumption were more significant than qualifications or vocabulary. My father’s experiences as a scout leader, and his knowledge of St John Ambulance’s first aid skills, stood him in good stead. This levelling process gained greater momentum when the Unit undertook service overseas, and, as few had travelled abroad before, they found themselves increasingly interdependent for their well-being and survival.

A cultural mix

This was, perhaps, most marked in the strangeness, remoteness and isolation of Western China, where the China Convoy was to become the most international section of the FAU. Although British members made up the majority of the 350 who were to serve in China between 1941 and 1951 they were joined by contingents of New Zealanders and Canadians, a steadily increasing number of Americans and around sixty locally recruited, mainly Christian Chinese. Like the FAU as a whole, the Convoy was at first exclusively male, but eventually around one in ten of its members were women. The Convoy also absorbed an exotic handful of ‘waifs and strays’ who were washed up in wartime China. They included: a White Russian, Valentin Beltchenko; Sabapathy Pillai Arasaratnum from Sri Lanka; Edmundo ‘Squint’ Marques, a Hong-Kong Portuguese; and John Peter, a Tamil-Zulu from South Africa, who had fled Burma on the motorbike he had used as ‘Daredevil Cyrillo’, a wall-of-death rider in a circus in Rangoon. This multinational membership worked alongside upwards of 300 Chinese paid employees, together with Chinese military and civilian medical and transport staff. Thus, to the social and religious mix was added a further blend of diverse cultural identities and perspectives. The China Convey was an extraordinary group of people.

The Fourth FAU Training Camp at Manor Farm ‘clerks, accountants and schoolteachers, men from other trades and none’ | Photo courtesy Janet Leyland

Idealism and hope

One characteristic shared across the FAU and within the China Convoy was their youthfulness. The average age of members on joining was around twenty-one and that of those arriving in China about twenty-three. Peter Tennant, the first commander, was, at the age of twenty-nine, regarded as being something of an old head. They shared the anxieties and uncertainties of youth but, more particularly, also its boldness, idealism and hope – and, distinctively, its questioning of authority. For most of them their position as COs was, however, singularly determined. They were acting in defiance of the pressure of their peers and against the prevailing tide of national sentiment.

They were nonconformists, not simply in the religious sense, or by their stance as COs, but in their individual approaches to questions of hierarchy, authority and of determining how things were going to be.

The relief of suffering

Although committed in their pacifism, and in this regard quite serious-minded, few seem to have evidenced any particular piety. Although many met regularly for worship, some smoke and drank and used coarse language – much to the disquiet of some of the missionary community they encountered in China. Nor were Unit members inclined to seek to convert others to their pacifist beliefs, other than by bearing their own witness as best they could. Peter Leyland’s diary records the unease of his travelling companions en route to China when one of their number saw fit to engage in an argument with some soldiers about the relative merits of their respective moral positions. Duncan Wood concluded that his military shipmates were equally conscientious in their military stance against fascism as he was in his objection to bearing arms. He was, remarkably, subsequently invited to provide a lecture on the work of the FAU to these soldiers heading to Singapore.

Quqing Garage staff – August 1945 – ‘a diverse blend of cultural identities and perspectives’ | Photo courtesy Janet and Annie Simpson

Despite their diverse backgrounds, all members had resolved to seek to do what they could to bring aid to the victims of war. Many were determined to demonstrate the courage of all COs by putting themselves alongside those who had taken up arms. The FAU’s commitment to ‘Go Anywhere, Do Anything’ to relieve the suffering of others was one that they felt able, in all conscience, to share.

David is a member of the FAU China Convoy Reunion Group

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