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Then & now: Friends indeed

Largely made up of Quakers, the FAU is remembered for its extraordinary assistance to China during the war years, writes Jason Wordie

 

After the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, various international organisations swiftly moved to assist the beleaguered country. Among the most effective aid missions was a sizeable Quaker- funded relief team; formally known as the Friends Ambulance Unit, it is best remembered by the acronym FAU. Derived from the old name for the Quakers - the British Religious Society of Friends - the FAU was officially independent. Nevertheless, most (though by no means all) members were drawn from the Christian sect, which practises, as a key ethical belief, active pacifism in any armed conflict.

The FAU's principal private supporter was Dame Elizabeth Cadbury, a life-long, deeply committed social activist and philanthropist whose husband's vast family fortune came from the chocolate and cocoa company that bears their name. The FAU's training facility in England was established in the grounds of their home, near Birmingham.

The FAU was almost entirely staffed by registered conscientious objectors. Contemptuously labelled "conchies" by the ignorant and prejudiced, these men had moral (and usually religious) objections to bearing arms in conflict. Bravery was not in question - many served in very dangerous positions in both world wars. In wartime China, the perils of disease and famine behind the lines were almost as hazardous - and sometimes more so - as armed-conflict zones. And besides facing physical danger, "conchies" required sufficient moral courage to go against the prevailing spirit of their times.

For almost four years, Hong Kong was a major supply route into China. After the colony was overrun by the Japanese, in 1941, the FAU mainly operated in central and west China, where its role involved driving transport trucks along the Burma Road, the "backdoor" supply route into Yunnan province.

Constructed in 1938, with tremendous loss of life, the Burma Road was a vital overland supply route after China's eastern seaboard cities had been either blockaded or occupied by the Japanese. And in case anyone wonders why China makes such massive investments in Myanmar's ports and infrastructure today, the historical lesson is clear; this supply route functioned well in the late 1930s and would work again in the future if needed.

Various accounts of wartime service with the FAU have been written. Among the most readable is Bernard Llewellyn's I Left My Roots in China. Sharply observant and full of human understanding, this chronicle of war-torn China and its extraordinarily resilient people remains a period classic. Llewellyn's experiences had a profound personal impact - he spent the rest of his very long life closely involved in humanitarian aid work. In the mid-60s, he lived for a time in Hong Kong, where he helped establish the local branch of the charity Oxfam.

Another local connection to the FAU was the late Geoffrey Bonsall, who was born in China to missionary parents. His father, the Reverend B.S. Bonsall, wrote Confucianism and Taoism, a detailed study of China's two great philosophical systems. Published in 1934, it remains a standard introductory text. Geoffrey Bonsall spent the war years in west China driving transports for the FAU and settled in Hong Kong in the 50s. A delightful, charming man (when he chose to be so) with prodigious yet underutilised intellectual talents, Bonsall became librarian at Hong Kong University and - using the name Charles Weatherill - later enjoyed a lengthy career on local radio. His wartime west China experiences formed the material for a fascinating book that, despite patient urging, Bonsall never quite got around to writing.

 

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