Home Over There: The Role of the YMCA & YWCA in the Great War

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WWI YWCA Poster from the BHC Museum Collection

When America entered the Great War in 1917, it needed to draft, train and mobilize an army capable of waging war against Germany. Once recruited and trained, the troops arrived in France as early as June 1917 and, in earnest, by October 1917. At home, families and loved ones were deeply concerned for the well-being of the sons and brothers of America. Thankfully, the Young Men’s Christian Association, or better known as the YMCA, tended to the soldiers overseas, giving both peace of mind to families at home and comfort to soldiers abroad.

The YMCA’s involvement in the Great War did not begin with the American entry into the war. Three years prior to the start of WWI, the YMCA entertained and provided for British, Canadian and Australian soldiers in England and other fighting fronts. Viscount Bryce, former British Ambassador to the United States, wrote to E. C. Carter, secretary for France and England of the YMCA, commending their work.

“I can truly say”, Bryce writes in his letter, “that I have heard from every quarter, including many naval and military authorities, the warmest acknowledgement and excellent work done by the Young Men’s Christian Association during these three terrible years of war. Many plans have been devised, many methods successfully employed, to provide for their benefit comforts, recreation, literature of the right sorts and many other wholesome influences. I believe that the American Association which will have the benefit from our experiences, which will be worked with true American energy, and which may command larger funds than we had, may render the greatest possible services in France to those American soldiers who Britain and France rejoice to welcome as their allies in this fight for freedom and right”. This statement appeared in the Reading Times on August 4, 1917. Clearly, American involvement in the YMCA effort was as welcome to the conflict as the military strength that the United States offered to the allies.

The YMCA gave soldiers a place where they could get away from the harsh realities of the war. They organized canteens at the front lines in France. The huts or tents at the front lines were run by “Secretaries,” who provided writing materials, stock libraries, and sometimes, a gramophone and records. Nearly 1500 entertainers, singers, dancers and musicians met with troops in their off hours.

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Dances were organized in Paris and London. The YMCA had its own letterhead as volunteers helped soldiers write letters home. The organization produced pamphlets, raised money back home and provided religious activities. General John Pershing endorsed the YMCA on a popular poster (pictured above): “I have (had) opportunity to observe its operations, measure the quality of its personnel, and mark its beneficial influence upon our troops and I wish to unreservedly commend its work for the Army”.

At home, the YMCA offered free membership to guardsmen that guarded the train lines in the Reading area when the United States entered the war. At the outset of the war, the Lebanon Valley Bridge and the Peacocks Bridge were guarded against sabotage. Jerry H. Edwards, the secretary of the Reading YMCA left for Egypt in December 1916. When he left there were no indications that America would join the war. When he arrived at the Franklin Street Station in November 1917, he stated to friends who greeted him that he was “glad America came into the war”. Dressed in an army trench coat, he noted, “When I got off of my boat yesterday and walked up the street I looked at the flags and demonstrations of patriotism on every side. It was a revelation to me. It was a different America from the one I left”. The Reading Times reported Edwards was soon to leave for Dayton Ohio where he was to deliver a lecture at their city’s YMCA on the conditions of the war in Europe. The lecture supported a $35,000,000 national campaign to extend the work of the YMCA. He reported that YMCA’s evening concerts attracted 4,000 soldiers on a regular basis. He was in charge of the YMCA station in Cairo, Egypt, and ran a service hut in France for American troops.

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WWI YWCA Poster from the BHC Museum Collection

The Young Women’s Christian Association, or the YWCA, aimed to support the war efforts as well. During WWI, the YWCA was responsible for forming work councils, operating hostess houses on camp grounds as well as manufacturing areas. Their mission was to do its share for men in uniform, with its main purpose to meet the needs of women and girls, including the wives and families of service men, nurses and employees at military posts, workers in war industries, and others directly affected by the emergency needs of the nation. The local YWCA formed a patriotic league for its members and concentrated on food conservation and Red Cross work. The Reading Times reported the members took the following pledge: “Realizing my nations need. I will express my patriotism by doing to the best of my ability whatever work I have to do. I will be dignified, thoughtful of the welfare of others, including women of other nations, careful to keep such standards of living as shall make me a good citizen. I will render whatever concrete service I can at this time to my country”. Throughout the Great War, the YMCA and YWCA made significant and critical contributions to the war effort.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

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Lebanon Valley Railroad Bridge by John Heyl Raser

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Reading and Berks County have a rich railroad history. This circa 1875 oil painting by John Heyl Raser (1824-1901) depicts the original Lebanon Valley Railroad bridge where it crossed the Schuylkill River and the Union Canal at Reading. Opening in 1858, the Lebanon Valley Railroad became a subsidiary of the Reading Railroad, and a lucrative route connecting Reading with Harrisburg. John Heyl Raser was a native of Alabama who moved to Reading in 1851 and became particularly well known for his landscape paintings. He exhibited his works at a variety of venues including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Are you a fan of railroad history? Berks History Center’s Second Saturday program on April 8th will focus on the Northern Central Railway and its role in the Civil War. Join us for Scott Mingus Sr.’s talk, Soldiers, Steam & Spies: The Northern Central Railway in the Civil War 

Riding the Rails of History: How the Railroad Industry Sparked Government Intervention

 

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The artifacts we collect at the Berks History Center have the power to tell compelling stories, especially when they relate to issues that are still relevant today. This is certainly the case with a simple iron pin which we recently found during our collections inventory.

In the 19th century, railroad “brakemen” coupled cars using pins like this one in conjunction with large iron links. Because coupling required a brakeman to work between moving cars, it was extremely dangerous work. By 1890, the average brakeman had an 11% chance of being injured – with nearly half of their injuries occurring during coupling.

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Drawing depicting a Breakman using a coupling pin & link to couple railcars. (Source Unknown)

Inventors were aware of the problems posed by the link-and-pin system, and they sought to develop safer coupling methods.  One of these inventors was a dentist from Bernville, Berks County, William H. Scholl, who designed a new coupling system in 1868.  We do not know what prompted a Berks County dentist to design couplers, and there is no evidence of him seeking a patent for his creation, but his design survives in the form of a model, also located in the collections of the Berks History Center.

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Scholl’s Model of a Coupler from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

Railroads were hesitant to jettison their links and pins, even after the advent of a commercially viable and safe alternative, known as the knuckle coupler, in 1873.  Outfitting an entire fleet of equipment would be expensive, and they feared that upgrading would render them unable to interchange their cars with railroads that still used the older coupling method.

While railroad executives grappled with this quandary, their industry was becoming increasingly dangerous. In a four-year span between 1887 and 1890, North American railroads broke annual records for employee fatalities on three occasions, reaching a staggering 806 deaths for the year of 1890.

While the United States Government had been largely indifferent to the affairs of corporations, this railroading safety crisis caught its attention and led to intervention. In 1893 Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act which mandated a variety of safety upgrades, including a provision specifying that any railroad engaged in interstate commerce must adopt “automatic couplers that can be uncoupled without a man going between” prior to 1900.

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Example of a Knuckle Coupler (Photo of the Reading Railraod Locomotive Model in the Berks History Center Museum Collection)

 

This was a radical and unprecedented move for a government which had never involved itself with worker safety or corporate regulation.  It opened the door for subsequent regulation including additional railroad safety acts and the Adamson Act which established an eight-hour work day for railroad employees.

Despite some corporate resistance, implementation of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act was a relatively smooth process, and studies showed that employee injuries declined sharply after 1900, despite the fact that railroads were greatly expanding their operations. With the link and pin coupling system obsolete and illegal, most coupling hardware was discarded and lost to time.

The “P&R” marking on our coupling pin is the abbreviation for the Philadelphia & Reading Railway – the corporate predecessor to the more commonly known Reading Railroad.  It was discovered by a resident of Leesport who generously donated it to the History Center in 2014.  We also discovered a coupling link in our collection, though its railroad of origin is undocumented. These artifacts are unique survivors that remind us of an era when industrial jobs were extremely dangerous and the United States Government took unprecedented measures to address the problem.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith