Women were restricted from serving on the front line – even as medics – but some still performed great acts of bravery. Sadie Bonnell and her comrades did just that in May 1918, rescuing the wounded amid the danger and confusion of a burning ammunition dump.
Sara Bonnell – known as ‘Sadie’ – was born in January 1888, daughter of American dental surgeon Bentley Jay Bonnell and his English wife Harriet. The family lived in Kensington and young Sara was educated at Bedales.
Sadie learned to drive in 1915 in the hope of being of service during the Zeppelin raids on London that began that year. She was told that this was not something a woman should be doing. From June 1917 she managed to get a role as a driver for the Canadian Army Service Corps, driving an ambulance car in London.
By the end of the year, she had joined the the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and was out at the front and driving field kitchens, mobile baths for troops, and supply lorries. This soon developed into an ambulance-driving role. This was a difficult job, driving a vehicle with little suspension and unreliable engines over bumpy roads, often carrying severely wounded men whose moans could be heard by the driver.
On the night of 18/19 May 1918, she was serving near St Omer when a German air raid caused an explosion at an ammunition dump at Arque. The bombing had destroyed the only ambulance at the site, so three extra ambulances were called for, driven and staffed by five FANY women, who – as the London Gazette (8/7/1918) described it:
despite the danger arising from various explosions, succeeded in removing all the wounded. Their conduct throughout was splendid.
This dangerous work took five hours and resulted in 18 Military Medals being awarded – included Bonnell’s. The diary of the Matron in Chief in France and Flanders records the incident, from the point of view of number 10 stationary hospital at St Omer, is glowing in its praise of the women:
Great credit is due to the FANY Convoy for it was their night on duty and these girls worked continually bringing in the wounded and dead from whatever place they were instructed to go.
Bonnell’s account of it was much more self-deprecating: ‘It wasn’t courage; I was there to do something useful. There was a job we had to get done.’
She and the other heroines of the incident (Evelyn Gordon-Brown, Aileen Maude Faulkner,Evelyn Faulder, and Nellie Dewhurst) were awarded their Military Medals by General Plumer, along with other female motor-drivers. Bonnell was then given he actual medal by the King at Buckingham Palace in 1919.
In 1919, Sadie Bommell returned to the UK and married Major Herbert Marriott, a Railway Transport Officer who had been gassed during the war and awarded the OBE. Sadly, he died – possibly weakened by his war wounds – in the influenza epidemic in 1921.
Sadie remained a keen driver after the war. In the words of her entry in the Oxford dictionary of national biography:
“She was described as a tomboy who loved sport and who seized the opportunities offered by the war to break out of the conventional Edwardian mould. She loved fast cars and between the two world wars drove a six-cylinder AC, similar to the model which became the first British car to win the Monte Carlo rally in 1926. Her car had a red fish mascot on the bonnet, a reminder of a senior British army officer’s description of the FANYs in France: ‘Neither fish, flesh nor fowl but damned good red herring’.”
She remarried in 1948, to Charles Leslie Talbot. Talbot died in 1967 but Sadie lived to be a centenarian and died in 1993.
Sadie Bonnell was clearly a brave woman, driving an ambulance seems to have been both a duty and an opportunity for her. She summed up her feelings as a driver in an succinctly: ‘I was not frightened during those drives’, she said. ‘I did not think about it. I enjoyed being out in France and, if it was dangerous, that did not seem to matter at the time’