Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, March 5, 2018

Impressions of the YMCA at War

A Soldier Enjoying Music at  a YMCA Canteen

By Mark Hauser
From the Hoover Institution Website

In France, YMCA huts provided soldiers with record players and movie theaters; again, soldiers’ responses were more complicated than those anticipated by Y officials. John Wister, a horticulturist from Philadelphia, wrote home to his family that at the Y "they never show anything but the oldest, cheapest and worst. I have seen good American pictures in Bordeaux by going to the French theatres at about 4 francs, but never anything good in the Y yet, but of course tastes differ and some like them.”

YMCA Sponsored Baseball League
Although Army and welfare officials struggled to organize entertainment, YMCA workers were more effective at organizing sports leagues; sports had been an important part of the Y’s services in the United States where officials encouraged men to participate in sports as a form of “muscular Christianity". Birge Clark, a Palo Alto native and former Stanford student who served as the captain of a balloon company during the war, wrote in his diary of the popularity of the Y baseball league, which three times a week attracted ten percent of his company to a nearby French town. Baseball was so popular in Clark’s unit that even though the Y had spent millions of dollars on sporting goods it was unable to supply his soldiers with enough equipment; Clark’s company eventually built their own machine to sand lumber into bats. However, over time athletic programs transformed from mass participation into mass spectatorship, a change welcomed by many soldiers. Independence Day celebrations in 1918 featured huge baseball games designed to showcase the best soldier talent, yet also turned the non-participants into a crowd that watched the games with enthusiasm. Roy Davis, an ambulance driver from Los Gatos, CA, recorded in his diary the experience of attending his first football game alongside thousands of other soldiers, writing “I am willing to frankly admit that I did not know the first thing about football. However, after the ‘kickoff’ at 2:30, the points of the game soon became apparent to me and when things became especially exciting I found myself yelling and waving my arms with as much gusto as some of the one-time-stars of the game.” Winning new fans like Davis was important for football but even more important for a controversial sport like boxing; boxing’s popularity soared after the war in large part because of soldiers’ spectatorship at YMCA and Knights of Columbus-sponsored bouts, and veterans successfully lobbied to legalize the sport in states such as New York where it had previously been banned.

A YMCA Tour of Paris for the Troops

YMCA officials operated “canteens” where soldiers could buy a wide range of goods, including cigarettes, canned fruits, toiletries, chocolate, and even wristwatches. Edwin Gerth, a Knox College student who enlisted in the Army, wrote in letters to his family and his diary of his appreciation for the YMCA, and wished their canteens could be in the trenches where he could have chocolate when he needed it most. Other soldiers like Jacob Emery, a lieutenant and student at Harvard, wrote to his family criticizing the canteens for their limited selection, high prices, and inconvenient hours. The reactions of soldiers like Gerth and Emery highlighted what soldiers perceived as the unfulfilled potential of canteens to provide inexpensive, convenient comforts during times of intense physical and mental strain.

Photos from the Hoover Institution Collection

1 comment:

  1. my father (2nd division, 9th infantry) said that YMCA also stood for
    'Il Y Moyen de Coucher Avec' !