Tag Archives: Women at war

Mary Bushby Stubbs, saving French lives

British women played an increasing part in the war effort as the Great War went on. It was not just British forces that benefitted from their contribution. Mary Bushby Stubbs served with the British and the French, and was decorated by both for her bravery in the field.

Mary Bushby Stubbs MM (image from the IWM Women at War archive)

In her book, Within The Year After, Betty Adler recounts Stubbs’s story:

I want to tell you about these English Fany girls for they are one of the joys of my motoring in Belgium. F. A. N. Y. stands for First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, an organization of English war workers, that saw some of the foremost of the women’s service in the war. There is Mary Bushby Stubbs, such a pretty, blue-eyed Irish girl, whose home is in London, and she drove the car to Louvain. She had enlisted in the beginning of the war as a Red Cross Nursing Aid, but contracted a septic throat from nursing poisonous wounds — some of the wounded had gone for five days before they could reach the hospitals, she told me. Forbidden to nurse, she entered the Yeomanry motor car driving service and was sent to Chalons sur Marne in February, 1917. She drove an ambulance during the battle on the Chemin du Dames, was in the drive of Chalons and at Epernay. She has the Croix de Guerre, has one citation from the Chemin du Dames and one for the time they bombed the hospital at Chalons.

“We lived on the rations of the French soldiers and often we were hungry,” she told me, once. “Their rations were black bread, black coffee, horse meat and beans.” She was one of the motor girls chosen to run the cars that brought the prisoners back from Germany after the armistice and had many thrilling mo-

Stubbs was awarded the Military Medal for her gallantry. The citation (London Gazette 19/10/18) is vague about exactly when the events took place but presumably it was for the air raid on Chalon, to which Adler referred:

For gallantry and devotion to duty during an enemy air raid. Miss Stubbs was detailed to evacuate a hospital. While her car was waiting to be loaded a bomb dropped within 30 yards. The stretcher-bearers, who had been loading a car immediately in front, ran for protection to dug-outs, calling to Miss Stubbs to do the same. She, however, regardless of her own safety, stayed in the open with two wounded and helpless patients to help and reassure them. She finally got them unloaded and to a place of safety. During the unloading a second bomb fell on the hospital.


Posted by on 10 January 2013 in Award-winners, Women


Tags: , ,

Sadie Bonnell: bravery in the field

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 Bommell MM

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.’

Motor-drivers awarded Military Medals by General Plumer. (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1918)

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’


Times obituary

Oxford DNB entry

Historical Roll of women of the British Empire to whom the Military Medal has been awarded… (part IV)

1 Comment

Posted by on 24 November 2012 in Award-winners, Women


Tags: , , , , , ,