World War 1 Letter Home Essays

Adequately summarizing the efforts of the YMCA on behalf of the soldiers during World War I is impossible to accomplish in a page or two. Literally volumes have been written on the subject and even they don't give enough credit to what the men and women of this charitable organization contributed to the well-being of "our boys" so far from home.

At the time of America's entrance into the war, the fully organized associations of the Y in North America numbered 2,087 with about 5,000 employed officers and membership of 720,000. The Y was the first of the civil or social welfare organizations to offer its services to the US Government; which offer was accepted with hearty appreciation. While the Y had done some charity work with the troops involved in the crisis along the Mexican border, this would be a whole new ball game.

No one had ever before faced the multiplicity of problems inherent in handling huge masses of men gathered overnight for the purpose of plunging the nation into war. But the Y entered this service not only with the nucleus of a general organization, with an administrative force, and with world-wide connections; but also with tried and true methods which were already proving their effectiveness in the armies of our Allies. YMCA organizations around the world were already supporting the troops from their particular country.

The local Y associations were the foundations for the support of the whole work. They played a leading part in securing the supplies of money, men and women necessary for the huge undertaking. The service began with the soldier at his home and followed him to the furthermost parts of Europe.

The Y's whole effort was directed to increase comfort of the soldier in any way possible and to offer its friendly advice whenever desired. It began with the soldiers in the training camps, establishing permanent posts and staff in all sixteen National Guard camps, sixteen National Army camps and elsewhere. The buildings (called "huts") were designed to serve as substitutes for home, school, theater and church. They were thronged with soldiers day after day and every facility was made use of to the fullest extent.

When the new soldier entered the camp, he found the Y ready to help him in countless little ways -- sending his civilian clothing back home, providing writing paper, postage stamps, advising on matters of daily routine, and giving information of all sorts. Regular programs were conducted to provide relief from the military aspect of their new lives. Motion pictures, educational lectures, athletic stunts, and religious meetings were commonplace. There was also a library in each hut.

The two largest huts were established at the Hoboken and Newport News embarkation ports, serving the soldiers in route for Europe. The Y was the only welfare organization serving men on the ocean transports themselves -- providing a diversion from the ever-present danger of enemy submarine attack as well as distracting the men from uncomfortable and overcrowded conditions. Movies, boxing matches, victrolas, writing paper, lemons and sour pickles for seasickness, a handshake and a smile went a long way in helping the soldier handle the ordeal.

These American youths -- away from their country for the first time, going onto battlefields in a country whose language they didn't even know, tens of thousands going to their deaths -- needed an American greeting when they landed on the foreign shore. The first effort was established to greet the men in England in transit to France. From the first ship to the end of operations, the Y organization in England labored energetically to meet the needs. A staff of 200 served the 78 aviation training camps and also concerned itself with those in the line of communication, men on leave, and troops who stopped longer than the usual 48 hours en route to France.

But it was with the A.E.F. in France that the principal welfare work of the American Y centered. Nearly 13,000 men and women were involved in service of the 2,000,000 troops.

Its usual program of social, physical, educational, and religious activities was increased by one additional responsibility -- the canteen. Early organizers realized that the Army needed every soldier in the ranks, not serving in canteens so the Y willingly agreed to take this burden.

The standard Y huts (491 of them) were quickly established as well as over 1,000 tents and 255 rented structures. In these huts and with the personnel, it created one of the largest chains of retail grocery stores the world had seen. A supply line was set up to stock these stores from manufacturers in the U.S. and the Y even set up 48 factories of their own for the manufacture of chocolate, biscuits, and other canteen supplies. It conducted a chain of banking operations to assist the men in sending their military pay to their families back home (at no charge to either party), managed upwards of 100 hotels, dormitories, and cafes, developed an extensive motor transport service for handling both merchandise and passengers, and organized and equipped some 50 garages and machine shops to keep everything running.

To stage athletic contests and the A.E.F. games, it designed and built the Pershing Stadium in Paris (the site was donated by the French government and labor was contributed for the most part by Army engineers) which was presented to the French people at the completion of the war.

One of its most important services of the entire war was the operation of the leave areas. I have discussed the details of this feature elsewhere in this project.

Permanent facilities with each Division and at each training facility in France proved to be impossible due to the instability of the positioning of the troops to meet the ever-changing battle requirements. So they relied mainly on existing structures such as cafes, hotels, town halls, or even stores, warehouses or office buildings and occasionally chateaux and other private mansions temporarily abandoned by their occupants.

The standard ratio was one canteen for every 500 soldiers. During the period of heaviest warfare, March 2 to the end of July 1918, the Y attempted to meet the needs of the soldiers on the front lines by sending their most experienced men to the front. However their efforts were seriously hampered by the regulations governing the movement of military civilians in the forward areas. Permission for a worker to go to such troops had to be secured from both American and Allied authorities which took from 6 to 20 days. Because of this, there were never as many workers at the front as the Y desired and was prepared to furnish. Those workers fortunate enough to make their way to the front worked to the limit of their strength to make up for the deficiency of numbers.

The signing of the Armistice in November caused a radical shift of emphasis in the Y welfare work. Education came into its own for the first time. Before, education had been greatly limited by the soldiers' busy schedule. Now it became a prime objective. Soldiers taking advantage were relieved of their other military duties. The Y Army Educational Commission, in anticipation of this situation, had laid out a program as wide as the Army itself. A careful census of rank and file had revealed more than 40,000 officers and men with previous experience as teachers. With post and division school, vocational and farm schools, and the A.E.F. University at Beaune established, the Army then took over the responsibility of education from the Y on April 15, 1919, converting it to the Army Educational Corps.

The Y was also relieved of the canteen duties as soldiers were now plentiful to provide this service. Once again the Y was able to concentrate on its social features and the athletic program. I have briefly discussed the athletics aspect below.

With the repatriation of the soldiers just beginning, the Army established embarkation points at St. Aignan (for casuals) and Le Mans (for combat divisions). The Y had already completely organized its service at St. Aignan but problems developed at Le Mans. All thirty divisions were scheduled to go through Le Mans for a medical exam and to have their papers examined in addition to delousing and being completely re-outfitted for the trip home. In all, over 400,000 men were expected to pass through a facility previously occupied by only one or two divisions. On top of that, the period of time between a division's arrival at Le Mans and their eventual sailing orders varied greatly and the resulting state of suspense was exceedingly trying.

To meet this emergency, the Y constituted this area a separate region and set up a complete regional organization to coordinate their work. In total, 27 wooden huts, 71 tents as well as a large number of theaters, clubs, hotels and other various places were established in and around Le Mans.

Throughout the war effort, the YMCA and various other welfare organizations worked in full cooperation while making every effort to avoid overlapping of service. Y entertainers visited the Red Cross hospitals to entertain in the wards. The Y welcomed workers from the Salvation Army and the Jewish Welfare Board to assist in the general religious services in the huts. At the apex of the Y effort in the winter of 1918 and 1919 when the number of Y workers was substantially increased, it was possible to turn over a number of centers to be completely manned by Jewish workers. The Knights of Columbus, while providing a service similar to the Y, concentrated mostly on areas insufficiently staffed by Y personnel and laid special emphasis on the promotion of boxing matches, promoting them on a large scale. The American Library Association was the primary source for materials in the Y hut libraries.

Each charitable organization found the others helpful in the fundamental matter of covering the field and ministering the welfare of the American Army.

Read more about the historic background of the YMCA:
Service with Fighting Men: An Account of the Work of the American Young Men's Christian Associations in the World War

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      I was rather surprised to hear that Robert was going into the R.F.C. although you had told me of it, too. But to know that he had already left for camp and by the time you get this letter he will probably be in England was just a bit of a surprise. Well, I am glad that he is in the service but, of course, I would like to have seen him in a uniform of the U.S.A. It is all one cause, however, and we are comrades just the same whether American, English, or what. I have seen some mighty fine men from Britain just what short time I have been here. (My pen went dry and I haven't any ink at my elbow as I did in U.S.) Speaking of the English, it is wonderful how men can go through three and four years of this war and still be smiling, cheerful, good-natured fellows, but they are. I agree with Robert when he says there will be two classes of men in America after the war -- the ones who went, and the ones who did not. And I believe as he does the ones who went are going to be the ones who will have charge of affairs when they get back for, if a man stands this war and still comes out smiling, he is a man. I certainly hope I may have a chance of seeing Robert over here but it would be only an accident I am afraid. Let me know his address from time to time so if there is any way of seeing him, I will do all I can to find him.
      You must have a nice home now and right in your old neighborhood. And those fruit trees take my eye. I believe I could consume your total production right now. Some of these times we will sample that fruit and also stroll over to Swope Park and look things over considerably after the war, apres la guerre, as the French say. Whenever you say anything to them about certain things they can't do now, they always say "after the war," and I think that little expression shows to what extremes they are willing to go in self sacrifice. I certainly have a very high opinion of the French. They are most highly respected by the American soldiers and they return the compliment.
      To sit here where I am now, it seems scarcely possible that we are so near the front. This country here is a peaceful-looking farming country and, to look out over the quiet fields, it is hard to realize that the fighting is so close at hand. To walk across these fields is just like taking a stroll over Dad's farm on some quiet Sunday afternoon. Only there are several things that are conspicuously absent -- most of all the folks that were left behind. The ones that you love and are loved by is what goes to make life worthwhile.
      Well, the sound of the big guns somewhere not so many miles away has begun again. Sometimes the sound comes from one side, then the other, until it is hard to tell which way one could go and not find someone shooting at someone else. My address is the same: Co. K, 137th Inf., Amer. E.F. I expect you know it by this time but some of my letters may drop by the wayside so it is best to be sure for I certainly want to get all the mail that is coming to me.
      So, goodbye to the little girl who has given up two loved ones so cheerfully and sent them away with the smile that counts.
      With sincerest love, Lloyd

(Tell Aunt Jess I will write her soon. I am glad that you two have become such good friends.)

P.S. I have received another letter from you since I wrote the fore part of this letter. It was dated April 25. Also I got one from Mother dated May 10. It was marked No. 2.... suppose No. 1 was sidetracked somewhere along the line. This is the second letter I have written you since going into our billets. The other was not dated at all, maybe this one won't be when you get it but I am risking it anyway. Mother said my first letter written on the boat got by without being cut up. It had no cause for being cut up as I said almost nothing as most of my letters do, but wait until I can tell you. I will have some tale.
      Well, goodnight sweetheart, Lloyd

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