Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Story of FANY

By James Patton

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (known as FANY) was an all-female group organized in 1907, originally envisioned to be mounted aid givers, but instead they provided ambulances and drivers to the Western Front. Although rebuffed by the British Army and the Red Cross as amateurs totally unsuited to war conditions, the astute FANY leadership quickly attached their organization to the Belgian Army instead. Acting before they could be banned from travel to the war zone, FANY personnel, then (and now) known as “FANYs,” first arrived on 28 October 1914 and soon set up their own hospital at Lamarck in the Pas-de-Calais, which operated until 1916. In 1915 they set up a second hospital in the Pas-de-Calais, and later they operated a hospital for Belgian convalescent cases in the Loire valley which ran until June 1917. Additionally, FANYs set up regimental aid posts, mobile kitchens, and even operated a mobile bath vehicle that served 40 men per hour.  

Eventually, in 1916, the British Red Cross recognized the FANYs but only as ambulance drivers. Later the Surgeon General of the Royal Army Medical Corps was said to have declared of the FANYs: “They’re neither fish nor fowl, but damned fine red herring.” 

Unidentified FANY Driver with Her Ambulance

In 1918 another hospital was formed at St. Omer, as a joint venture between the FANYs and the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). This hospital became one of the most decorated women’s units of the war with staff receiving 16 Military Medals and three Croix de Guerres. 

Meanwhile, back in 1916 the FANYs had also caught the eye of the French Red Cross. FANYs took over a hospital near Reims and staffed ambulance units based at Amiens, Chalons-sur-Marne, Bar-le-Duc, Chateau-Thierry, Epernay, and Sézanne.

After the Armistice FANYs assisted with refugee management, stretching well into 1919. 

In the Great War the FANYs received 17 Military Medals, 27 Croix de Guerre, one Legion d’Honneur, and 11 Mentions in Despatches.

FANY Group Photo

After the Great War

During the interwar years the FANYs did not go dormant like the VAD or the American Field Service Ambulance Corps. They continued to concentrate on Motor Transport, and in 1938 they aligned themselves with the newly formed Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was a women’s voluntary branch of the Royal Army. With this move the FANYs disengaged themselves from medical service. 

In a move reminiscent of their early assistance to Belgium in 1914, the FANYs sent units to support Finland in the 1939 Winter War and prepared to send them to Poland as well. Later FANY ambulances served with the British Red Cross, the American Ambulance Service, and the British Committee for the French Red Cross. During the war FANYs served as wireless operators, encryption specialists (coders and decoders), and radar operators as well as drivers (including Princess Elizabeth) in the UK, North Africa, Italy, India, and Ceylon.  

During WWII there were over 6,000 FANYs, and 2,000 of these served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Winston Churchill’s secret intelligence unit that operated in support of resistance activity in occupied Europe. Many FANYs were attached to the main wireless listening station, and some others who were fluent in French were trained for service on the ground. These FANYs went through extensive training in weapons, silent killing, field craft, sabotage, parachuting, Morse coding/decoding, and wireless maintenance and repair. SOE was particularly interested in using female operatives as couriers because they were less likely to attract the attention of the German security forces, since over 1.6 million young French males had been deported as conscript labor. Of the 50 women that SOE successfully infiltrated into occupied Europe 39 were FANYs, and 13 of those were lost. 

Some of these FANYs were:

Noor Inayat Khan, GC (1914–1944), born in Russia to an Indian father and an American mother and raised in France. She was assigned to the main Resistance network in Paris and was for a considerable period of time the only SOE wireless operator active there. Eventually she was betrayed and shot by the Gestapo in September 1944.

Memorial to Violette Szabo, GC,
Lambeth Palace, London

Violette Szabo GC (1921–1945), born in France to an English father and a French mother. In 1940 she married Etienne Szabo, a Hungarian-born Foreign Legionnaire. Primarily a firearms expert, she was captured shortly after D-Day after a firefight in which she covered the escape of two French colleagues. She was shot in January 1945.

Odette Sansom, GC, OBE (1912–1995), a French citizen who married an Englishman in 1931. She was inserted into France in 1942 and served as a courier, operating mostly in Italian-occupied territory. In April 1943 she and her boss Capt. Peter Churchill DSO (1909–1972) were tracked down by the Abwehr and detained by the Italian SIM. Throughout sessions of brutal torture, both Churchill and Odette maintained that he was a relative of the prime minister and that she was his wife. Although both were sentenced to death, they were held back by the SS as bargaining chips. Both survived the war, and they married in 1947.

Nancy Wake, AM, GM (1912–2011) was a New Zealander who was married to a French citizen named Henri Fiocca. In 1940 she had been living in France for ten years, and for three years thereafter she and her husband worked for the Resistance in Marseilles; it was during this period that the Gestapo code-named her “The White Mouse.” When their cell was compromised she managed to escape to England, but her husband was arrested and shot. She became a FANY, joined the SOE and returned to France in 1944 as a saboteur. She rose to lead a unit in Vichy territory that grew to 1,500 persons and she supervised several American OSS agents.  

All four of these heroic FANYs have been featured in British movies.

The George Cross

Perhaps a word about the George Cross (GC) would be helpful. This medal was instituted by King George VI in 1940 to recognize “acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger.” Since inception there have been a total of 408 GCs bestowed. The GC is subordinate only to the Victoria Cross, which is restricted to military personnel. The FANYs weren’t (and still aren’t) members of the military, so the GC is the highest medal that a FANY can receive. 

For their WWII service, FANYs received three GCs, two George Medals, a King’s Medal for Courage, a King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, two Commendations for Good Service, and 36 Mentions in Despatches. Non-military honors bestowed on FANYs were one CBE, six OBEs, 23 MBEs, one AM and 10 BEMs. Foreign decorations included one Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, six Croix de Guerre, two Médailles de la Résistance, one Norwegian Liberty Medal, one U.S. Bronze Star, and one U.S. Medal of Freedom with Palm. The FAN’s who have died in the service are memorialized at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge, near Hyde Park Corner in London.


FANY exists today, with the official name now The Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps (FANY). HRH Princess Anne is the commandant. It is still all-female and the members are still known as FANYs. They are still unpaid; in fact, each FANY has to pay an annual membership fee to belong. They have a rank structure that is parallel to the Army, and FANYs are accorded the courtesies of rank when serving beside the military. Today’s FANYs are trained and equipped to assist with all types of civil and military emergencies or incidents that occur within the realm of the Crown. There is no equivalent organization in the United States.


  1. Appears to be a heroic and very helpful organization. Where do they get funding?

    1. Sorry to have not found your question sooner. FANY operates primarily on funds derived from charitable contributions and the aforementioned membership fees. When in service non-personnel cost is borne by the military or civil authorities being assisted and training is provided by the military at no cost.