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.