Saturday, August 6, 2016


It took courage to be a conscientious objector, to swim against the tide of patriotic fervour and to refuse to do military service. Of those who registered as conshies and who joined the Friends Ambulance Unit for alternative service in war-torn China, a significant number never came back. The distribution of medical supplies and the many medical projects they undertook were not a cushy option by any means.

Surrounded by his family, prosperous builders in Yorkshire, John Briggs, seen sitting at the front, refused to fight and instead joined the FAU in China. Very recognisable by his sad and soulful eyes, he is seen below leaning over the rail of the ship in 1944 on the way to Calcutta from where he flew in to Yunnan province. Not long after, supervising construction of the new FAU transport depot buildings in Kutsing he caught typhus and died. Two weeks later Douglas Hardy, another colleague, also died of typhus.

John was buried in Kunming, his death being so bitterly mourned by his parents that in the early fifties they managed the near impossible journey into communist China to visit his grave.

Other FAU members died of illness and also in accidents. Brian Sorensen, below, died in NE China in a plane crash, ironically when on his final adventure before returning home to the UK.

John's father was Revd Reginald Sorensen, the Labour MP for Leyton in north London, who was later elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Sorensen. Brian was flying back to Chungking after delivering a truck to the British Consulate in Urumchi out along the Silk Road in NW China. As is recorded in my book, when his cousin saw a news paper poster in London reporting the death of an MP's son in China he knew it just had to be Brian.

Peter Mason who lives in Arundel tells me how he and 'Pip' Rivett both contracted polio when serving with the FAU in China. Peter is still living but Pip who was out on the road with Hugh Russell, the son of the Duke of Bedford, never recovered and died in Chungking. Hugh's letter home to his father tells of the horrific time when, weeks away from help, Pip fell ill and of the desperate struggle to get him back to base and to hospital.

I was able to find no picture of Pip but I had a strange hunch that this picture below taken in China could be him.

I knew that Pip had attended Charterhouse school so I contacted their librarian who sent me a house photo including Pip. Pip is below and I'm sure from the sharp profile that the man in the white polo neck jumper is also Pip. He was buried in the hills above the Quaker high school near Chungking.

Finally, I must mention the death in 1949 of Canadian, member, Bob Waldie. I have no photo of him, though the story of his death is fully told as Chapter 8. of my book, A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA. Jack Jones wrote at length of how Bob, his young recruit, was taken ill with appendicitis, was rushed to hospital and operated on but died following complications. Jack's account of the funeral in which he was laid to rest alongside Pip under the pine trees in the hills is full and moving. This picture was taken shortly afterwards.

Sadly though the exact site of the graves is now lost, though with Jack's description of the burial, it ought to be possible to find it. How good it would be to trace the families of Pip and Bob and to visit together the hills on the south bank of the Yangtse at Chonqing and, with the help of the staff at the school, to look for the graves and to pay tribute to these men whose service and sacrifice is now forgotten. It should be possible... an old plan of the school even shows a Quaker burial site in the hills.

So how do we now trace surviving relatives of these two men? As my book records, Bob's parents were William and Nina Waldie of Kimberley, British Columbia. A Google search for Robert Alexander Waldie produces a family tree which tells of Bob's life and death but has given me no leads to surviving relatives.

Louis Rowan Rivett was born on 10 February 1917 and lived at 55 Harley House, Marylebone Road, London NW1. He graduated from Oxford in Modern languages. His father was a distinguished surgeon, Louis Carnac Rivett, FRCS, FRCOG who became ill and died not so long after Louis, his only son. I can find no mention of any sister, though census records might reveal more.

Somehow it should be possible to discover family connections who would want to remember and celebrate the fine principles and service of these men. It would be so rewarding to find them.