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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