Sunday, 29 December 2013

The YMCA in WW1 - Fascinating Facts of the Great War

The first YMCA branch was founded in London by George Williams (a draper from Somerset who had moved to London to find work) in 1844 as a place where working men could go after work, the idea soon spread around the UK and then world-wide.

During WW1, the YMCA "Huts" provided home comforts for weary soldiers - hot drinks, sweets, refreshments, writing materials, newspapers, magazines and games of housey housey (as Bingo was known back then) and dominoes.  Huts were manned by volunteers - many of them women - and ranged from large hostels, accommodating and catering for hundreds through requisitioned buildings and wooden huts to tents.

November 1914 saw the first of the YMCA Huts in France.   Eventually there were over three hundred of these Huts along the line of the Western Front.   The word “hut” is slightly misleading - as Arthur K. Yapp describes in his Introduction to the 1916 book “Tales from the Huts” which told some of the stories of the soldiers and volunteers and which was sold in aid of the YMCA’s work:

“Huts that are not huts! Huts that are mere stables or farm outbuildings (or tents)! Huts that are palatial establishments catering for the needs of thousands of men.  The little brown Hut made of timber and roofed with felt, serving the men at the outposts of the danger zone of the East Coast – on the wilds of Salisbury Plain – dotted about in hundreds of camps in all parts of the United Kingdom!   And then there are the Huts in France … the Hostel Huts, too, where friends of dangerously wounded men are entertained by the Y.M.C.A. free of charge!'

The YMCA also provided facilities for civilians wishing to visit seriously wounded personnel or to attend funerals in France and Belgium.  They were met by cars from the ferry driven by volunteers and taken to the YMCA hostel and the relevant hospital or cemetery and looked after until it was time to return home.

One of the women who volunteered for service during WW1 was Betty Stevenson, the YMCA heroine volunteer, who joined up when she was 19 and was killed during an air raid near Etaples in 1918.  Betty is buried in the Military Cemetery at Etaples.

Today, the YMCA continues its good work and is a world-wide organisation with an HQ in Geneva and the motto "Empowering Young People".

Sources:  “Tales from the Huts” (published by Jarrold & Sons, London, 1916) with illustrations by WW1 Artist Cyrus Cuneo - it was Cyrus's last work - sold in aid of the YMCA's work.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Elsie Janis - American writer, actress, music hall entertainer, lyricist, composer, film director and film producer

I have just been writing up an Exhibition Panel for Inspirational Women of WW1 and discovered that Elsie Janis, the American actress, composer, film star, film producer and film director, was also a poet! 
Elsie was born Elsie Bierbower in Ohio in 1889. By 1917, Elsie was a famous actress, silent film star and music hall entertainer and went to entertain the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, travelling in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac accompanied by her Mother, Jennie. Elsie was one of the first American women to entertain the troops. 
After a long and illustrious career, Elsie died in Los Angeles in 1956 with her friend Mary Pickford by her side. She left her estate to be divided between her housekeeper and her chauffeur - who had stayed with her after driving her about on the Western Front.  Truly an Inspirational Woman of WW1.
google images

Friday, 13 December 2013

Olive May Kelso King - Australian Inspirational Woman of WW1

I am very grateful indeed to Faye from Stanley Kaye's Facebook Group "Remembering World War One in 2014 one hundred years" who answered my request for other Inspirational Women of WW1 by suggesting I research Olive May Kelso King.   Thank you Faye - over the past eighteen months I have written loads of letters, e-mails and messages;  only a tiny number receive replies so your help is greatly appreciated.

Olive May Kelso King (1885 - 1958) - Australian

Olive May Kelso King, an adventurer and mountaineer, was born in Sydney, Australia on 29th June 1885 - she was the daughter of Sir Kelso King, a Sydney-based company director.

During the First World War, Olive was in England where she purchased a lorry and had it converted into an ambulance which she drove in France, joining the Scottish Women's Hospital.  Later, Olive went to Serbia where she ended up driving ambulances for the Serbian Medical Service.   She was awarded the Serbian silver Medal for Bravery and the Order of St. Sava for her work with the poor in Serbia after the War. 

Olive died in Melbourne on 1st November 1958.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Betty Stevenson - YMCA volunteer killed in the line of duty 30th May 1918, Etaples, France

Betty Stevenson is surely one of the most inspirational women of all time.

Bertha "Betty" Stevenson was born in York on 3rd September 1896. The family moved to Harrogate.   Betty went to boarding school in 1910 and to Brussels to study music in 1913.

When War broke out, Betty, who was eighteen, and her family went to London and helped some of the large number of Belgian Refugees who were camped out in Alexandra Palace, some of whom they took into their home in Harrogate.

When her aunt went to France in 1916 to work in a YMCA canteen, Betty volunteered to go as well.

It took a while for permission to be granted because Betty was by then still only nineteen. In those days a woman needed her parents' permission to do anything because she was officilaly their responsibility until she was 21.

When her aunt had to return home, Betty's Mother took her place and the pair worked together, living in Paris and travelling by tram and train to the YMCA hut in St. Denis.   They returned to the UK in November 1916.  But Betty could not settle down at home - she missed her friends in France.  In 1917, Betty went back to France, where she worked as a driver but the long hours, hard work, erratic meals and weather took their toll on her health and Betty had several bouts of 'flu and even contracted mumps.
She was transferred from driving back to working in a canteen in Etaples in 1918.  After a brief period of home leave, Betty was killed in an air raid on 30th May 1918  and was buried with full military honours in the British Cemetery in Etaples.   Betty received the French Croix de Guerre aver Palme.

"Betty Stevenson, YMCA Croix de Guerre avec Palme Sept. 3rd 1896 - May 30th 1918"
Edited by G.G.R.S. and A.G.S. published by Longmans Green and Company, New York, 1920

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Peter Pan and WW1

The other night we went to the opening of "Peter Pan" which is this year's Christmas Pantomime in our local theatre.  This was the first time I had seen a performance of "Peter Pan" since reading "Peter Pan's XI The Extraordinary Story of J.M. Barrie's Cricket Team" (by Kevin Telfer, Sceptre, London, 2010) as part of my research for WW1 Commemorative Exhibitions.   It was very clear to me from watching the play the other night that Barrie was Peter Pan. As Telfer  says: "Barrie himself later speculated that perhaps he was the real-life embodiment of Peter Pan, the boy who would not grow up, as much as any real boy ..." (p. 17).  I feel certain that Barrie would approve of the production we saw.

I could not help wondering what happened to the cast members of the first play in 1904.  And I kept thinking how poignant it was that George Llewelyn Davies - one of the boys Barrie looked after following the death of their parents and for whom he devised the sort of adventures embodied in his play "Peter Pan" - was killed on The Western Front in World War One on 15th March 1915. Geoge's brother, Peter who took part in the Battle of the Somme, was invalided home suffering from shell-shock, returned to the front and was awarded a Military Cross (MC).

During WW1, Barrie worked at the British Government's Propaganda Bureau, along with writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, E.V. Lucas, Thomas Hardy, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells and John Buchan - Conan Doyle and Lucas having been members of Barrie's recreational Cricket Team.

Picture:  "Grand Theatre" - an original watercolour by Geoff Winch the artist.

From Review of "Peter Pan" Best Kept Secrets, 6th December 2013 -

Rin Tin Tin and WW1 - Fascinating Facts of the Great War

I'm working on a panel for the Fascinating Facts of the Great War section of my Exhibitions - it's about Rin Tin Tin, the famous German Shepherd Dog movie star.  

The original Rintintin was one of a pair of Parisian street urchins ('titis' in Parisian slang) drawn as a cartoon by a French Artist in 1913 and called Nénette et Rintintin. The little cartoon couple became famous throughout France during WW1 because of a popular song and people made little dolls representing the couple out of bits of left-over wool.  Paris was not occupied during WW1 but it was during WW2 when the artist who drew Nénette et Rintintin was put under house arrest for designing patriotic posters, cartoons and cards during WW1.

The drawings and song depicted the couple as escaping unscathed from the various bombardments that Paris was subjected to during the First World War, so they were made into good luck charms and also brooches and distributed widely. The artist designed a postcard with the woollen dolls pictured on it with a little poem and these were sent to troops at the Front for luck, which may be how Lee Duncan knew about them.

Rin Tin Tin was found by an American Army Corporal called Lee Duncan in a bombed out kennels in Lorraine in the east of France (which back then was under Germany rule) in August 1918.   The kennels had bred guard dogs for supply to the German Army.    The story goes that there was a German Shepherd bitch still alive in the kennels and she had just given birth to six puppies. Duncan rescued them and took them back to his Regiment's camp to look after them - the puppies were so tiny they apparently hadn't opened their eyes. 

Once they were weaned, Duncan chose two puppies for himself - a male and female - and called them Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.  He took them back to America with him after the War - Nanette died but Rin Tin Tin survived.  Lee Duncan trained his dog and the rest, as they say, is history.   Rin Tin Tin lived until 1932, starred in 27 films and even had his own radio show from 1930 - 1932.  Duncan took the body of his dog back to Paris where Rin Tin Tin is buried.   There were eleven more dogs, reportedly related to the original Rin Tin Tin, after his death and a TV film series was also made using his name.
Sources:  Sources: and

Note: “titis” is a word in Parisian slang meaning ‘street children’.   For fans of “Les Miserables”, Gavroche is a ‘titi’.   "Titi"is also the name used in France for Tweetie Pie the cartoon character.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

"A Nurse at The Front The First World War Diaries of Sister Edith Appleton"

I am extremely grateful to Sonia Bidwell the textile artist/storyteller based in Scotland (see left for examples of Sonia's work) for sending me a copy of the book edited by Ruth Cowen, Edith Appleton's great niece.

I look forward to reading this very much when I have finished preparations for the exhibition panels that are to go to Stow Maries WW1 Aerodrome in Essex.  I hope to review the book once I have read it - having 'dipped in' it looks extremely interesting.

You can also have a look at Sonia's work on her website: