Kathryn White, a PhD history student at Pembroke College, University of Oxford, talks about her doctoral research into religion and the YMCA in WW1. [Follow her at https://www.kathrynshistoryblog.com/]

Kathryn White talks about the research she is doing for her PhD on the YMCA during the First World War.

Dr Tom Thorpe (TT) : Welcome to ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ - the podcast from The Western Front Association with me Dr Tom Thorpe. The WFA is the UK's largest Great War History Society. We're dedicated to furthering the understanding of the First World War and have over 60 branches worldwide. For more information visit our website at www.westernfrontassociation.com.

It is the 3rd of February 2020 and this is Episode 146. On today's programme I talk to Kathryn White, a PhD student at Pembroke College at the University of Oxford, about her doctoral research into religion and the YMCA during the First World War. I spoke to Kathryn over the internet from her office in Oxford.

Kathryn, welcome to the dispatches podcast. Could you just start by telling us how you became interested in the YMCA during the Great War and what your research examines.

Kathryn White (KW) : Yes, thank you. I first got interested in the YMCA in the First World War when I was doing my masters at the University of Birmingham. I was already working on religion during the First World War and I found it a really interesting area. I came across the YMCA archive, which is held at Birmingham, and discovered the extent of the work there that very few people had looked into or explored it, so I dived into that and found so much stuff that I couldn't possibly cover just during my Masters and so decided to do a PhD looking at the YMCA - but also how their work connected with soldiers and general ideas of social religion to how social work and religion worked together to benefit soldiers during the First World War. 

TT: Why do you think this area of research is important to investigate ?

KW: I’ve come across a number of mentions of the YMCA in lots of historians’ work but none of them actually look at the organisation itself - or focus on what they would doing, so I think my research fills the gap between a lot of other people's - and also in reading soldiers letters so many of them right on YMCA letter headed paper or mentioned that they've gone for a cup of tea or to a concert at the YMCA - that it is an organisation that touched the lives of so many soldiers, that I think it's a really important area to look at something that isn't necessarily can be connected with soldiers lives in battle, but is an important part of when they were away from the trenches or out of the front line. 

TT: Before we go any further can you give us some background on what the Young Men's Christian Association was, when it was founded it's aims and what were its activities before the Great War?

KW: It was founded by George Williams in London on 6th of June 1844 and it had a sister organisation which started in America in 1855. A lot of people think America's one came first but it is a British organisation primarily that worked in the initial years just in the cities and the urban centres of Britain - for the working class men, providing hostels, recreation, physical education and they soon rapidly expanded primarily through the Victorian missionary networks across the British Empire, through Asia and Africa, in what was called old buy them at the time civilising missions - spreading Christianity but also within the UK they did a lot of work trying to support the health and wellbeing of working class man it had always existed as an ecumenical organisation so it's work was a as a Christian organisation but it works outside of the church structures and in collaboration with lots of different denominations - so prior to the First World War this is largely different nonconformist churches that grew very much during the First World War - their audience hugely  expanded because of their war work.

TT: War breaks out in August 1914 how did the YMCA greet this event ?

KW: The YMCA was already working with the army on a very small scale. After the second Boer War they started some work in the Territorial training camps just providing basic refreshment huts on camp so ok they were already doing that work in the summer - but their initial response was to rapidly expand this work quickly developing recreational centres throughout all the British base camps they rented out all marquees to be there for soldiers and as a Christian agency they would a bait where they should support the war all they should take a pacifist approach and oppose it as particularly because of the large Methodist influence within them but the decision that the came to to very quickly was that it was a non-combatant organisation and they worked to support soldiers with a Christian perspective and to spread the Christian message, that this wasn't inconsistent with teachings on war. So, very quickly they threw themselves into support for soldiers throughout the British Army

TT: What sort of work did they do during the Great War ?

KW: Primarily the YMCA’s work programme was provided with wooden huts for temporary marquees or they rented out premises where they could provide a 80 canteen where there was spaces for soldiers to write letters and play board games. There were also concert venues, cinemas - it was a space where soldiers had a home from home away from home and was very much a place of comfort and relaxation. The YMCA’s basic motto during the war was mindful in spirit and these are the three areas that they sought to really work on and support with soldiers the YMCA basic motto was mind body and spirit and these are the three areas that they tried to support with soldiers through actually through Direct rest camps and in the basis providing comfort Recreation education for them.

TT: Did they get involved in putting on games, organising leisure activities or were they primarily providing canteens obviously dry canteens?

KW: They provided all manner of entertainments really there were the canteens where they can get free tea and coffee there would cheap cakes and chocolates and free penny packs of cigarettes and also they put on sporting events and there were lots of cricket competitions particularly with the Australian soldiers, football games as well as board games and boxing - and there were libraries - and all manner of recreational activities.

TT: I see that they took a very tough line on alcohol ?

KW: Yes,this is an area of debate in the initial year of the war that the YMCA had always been a total teetotal organisation it was always seen as an alternative to the pub, especially in British cities. There was a debate in your organisation about whether they should permit alcohol at War so as to encourage more soldiers to come and use their facilities but it was agreed by the national committee that this was inconsistent with the YMCA’s principles as an organisation that supported the morals of young men and alcohol was very much seen as unacceptable to a large number of the loyalty’s leaders and so there were during the war in fractions to this as one that I find quite exciting at the Lille Gate YMCA in Ypres Dr McGrath who the centre there he made what it called the ‘Wipers Cocktail’, which is a mixture of rum and moat water, which sounds disgusting, so that was one instance of alcohol being served - but on the whole it was very much prohibited.

TT: Were the activities of the YMCA just restricted to the Western Front or did they cross or theatres of War?

KW: Not at all - so the YMCA sought to operate everywhere the British Army operated - so in the initial months of the war it was very much in the base camps both in Britain, as well as in the Dominions. They had a large amount of work going on, especially in Australia, but also in Canada - and elsewhere. Within the first 6 months of the war they were given permission to go over to the Western Front. And then very quickly, there followed, the setting up of a large network - in Egypt, and by the mid-1915 they were setting up very much everywhere the British army were. There are a few particularly interesting ones: William Jessop who was the Regional Secretary for Egypt, he set up the el-Ezbekieh Gardens in Cairo which were deliberately positioned next to the red light district as to the the moral alternative for soldiers. That included a skating rink, a cinema, and that was very much the heart of the Australians who were based in Egypt in 1915. And then, once those men went over to Gallipoli, they were again greeted by the YMCA and there were three huts on the peninsula - all at risk of shell fire. One of them was destroyed, but the YMCA saw it as their duty to serve wherever the British Army were. 

TT: How did soldiers regard its activities and efforts?

KW: This is one of the most difficult areas of my research to pin down really. There's widespread support for the YMCA, there were letters written into the Times, there was praise coming from the army high command - for all the good work the YMCA was doing. But it is very difficult to get an on-the-ground idea of how soldiers regarded the YMCA. The YMCA was popular they were well received in a lot of places, but it's very difficult to kind of teas out where soldiers didn't like the YMCA and whether that was just because they didn't like religion, or they didn't like the services it provided, or they didn't like that it's only tea and coffee. It was kind of - so difficult to kind of get the nuances, I think, of how soldiers on the ground were seeing it, but on the whole, most soldiers use the YMCA at some point - it was a great benefit to a lot of them. 

TT: And did the organisation cater to the soldiers of all faiths?

KW: Yes, so that's one of the big parts of the YMCA. Although it's a Christian organisation, and Christianity was the primary focus and concern, they very much wanted to cater for all soldiers and all Faiths and all backgrounds. So they were committed to non-proselytising that was a real mission statement that they repeated throughout the war that they weren't out necessarily to convert people to Christianity and very much they worked with Jewish soldiers and Muslim soldiers to facilitate their needs as well. So the Rabbi Michael Adler, who was the Jewish chaplain to the British Army on the Western Front, he was hugely praising of the YMCA worked throughout the wall and the way that they welcomed you Jewish soldiers into their daily activities but also gave them the hut space for for their services as well as those of Christians. 

TT: So what impact did the YMCA actually have on soldier morale and resilience -  if that's at all possible to glean from the evidence? 

KW: Yes, so this is another kind of challenge that I’m wrestling with really. It was reported that whenever the YMCA opened a hut in a town in France that crime rates would fall by a half within a few weeks - which is something of an outlandish claim, but I think it is kind of representative of  the way the YMCA was seen as a force for good - which provided distractions from crime and vice and the boredom that soldiers suffered when they weren't actually actively engaged. But I think the main benefit that the the YMCA had was it had that home like space for soldiers - that they could go there with their friends to enjoy concert or for a cup of tea - or they get also go alone and write a letter to their family - and it's very much a familiar presence - and the YMCA had this idea of habit that would support a soldier journey time from the training camp through to the front and I think it's that kind of that really had the biggest impact on soldiers’ morale - especially away from the Western Front where they were in what they always described as ‘alien lands’ because it was so unfamiliar. There was that consistent thread that was always there to support and comfort them. 

TT: And did they work were they in the POW camps in Germany or were they mainly behind lines.

KW: No, they didn't work in POW camps which is somewhat unfortunate - it would have been nice if they had but that was very much dealt with by the Red Cross and then the YMCA worked behind lines.

TT: And did they incorporate other sort of Christian or social organisations in providing care for soldiers or was there a degree of competition?

KW: The YMCA’s the biggest organisation providing this sort of care but there are also the Church Army run by the Church of England and the Salvation Army who were providing very similar huts and also very much on a smaller scale there were Catholic soldiers’ clubs as well. The YMCA know that they are in a dominant position and they are very keen to stress that they are not in competition with the other organisations - and they set about dialogue with those leaders so that they can together provide the biggest network of support for soldiers possible - rather than competing with them. The Church Army, in particular, work very closely with the YMCA and they had conversations of whether they should turn all their huts over to the YMCA just to support as one organisation, which they decided they wanted to keep the Church of England character the Church Army huts - but they are very much seen as singing from the same hymn sheet and working together on the same mission

TT: And how did the YMCA staff its canteens in France. Obviously it couldn't use able-bodied men, so who actually did dole out the tea and actually care for the soldiers behind the lines?

KW: So they had a policy that no man who is eligible to fight was allowed to work in the YMCA. There were some conscientious objectors but primarily it was older men or men with disabilities - sort of eyesight problems, or it was clergy who were exempt from service. Forty percent of staff on the Western Front were women so they had a very active role in running the YMCA hoods as drivers of the resources for the YMCA and there were women who were also working in the Middle East organisations - so it’s a aside from nursing, it's one of the most involved roles that women could have during the First World War which I find really quite interesting.

TT: Did they have a large fundraising effort actually on the Homefront at all to support all these sort of activities in the theatres of war?

KW: Yes. There's continual campaigns - and national drives published in the newspapers - calling for money and a lot of that’s organised through the Women's Auxiliary Committee, which had backing from Douglas Haig's wife, from Princess Helena. There was a lot of aristocratic backing for the YMCA but also a lot of local campaigns as well - so a lot of the huts are named after local towns, or organizations, the Scouting Movement have huts that they fundraised for. 

A hut at the start of the war was expected to cost £300 for the hut and its resources and later that rose to £450. There are lots of YMCA drives locally as well as nationally to raise these pots of money for different huts.

TT: Did staff and personnel who served in all of these countries behind lines actually suffer death and injury through war? 

KW: Yes. There are a number of YMCA personnel on the Western Front who were sadly killed. One of them is the Rev Alfred Wilcox. He ran the hut at Reninghelst, just south of Ypres. He was killed in late 1917 (17 August 1917) when a high explosive shell landed in his hut. He was the only one present; it was late night but he was killed in the hut where he served.  There was also Betty Stevenson who was a driver for the YMCA. She was killed in 1918 and is buried at Etaples - also from shell-fire. 

TT: Did the YMCA actually have any contact with Chinese or Indian Labourers at all during the war ?

KW: Yes, they ran separate programs for the Indian and the Chinese Labour Corps and especially junior mediate months after World War they put over lot of the huts on the Western Front to the Chinese labour corps and they had educational programs which with them to help them learn English and it's very much done in the that Edwardian paternalistic way - but they did see that it was their job to sort of educate these labourers as well as providing them with refreshments. What is interesting there is that they do take a step back from the religious side of it that there isn't much religious teaching. It's still very much done with its Christian Ethos but that isn't so much religious teaching that they try to do there.

TT: And my penultimate question that I'm afraid we cannot avoid asking, does the song by the Village People which is obviously ‘YMCA’ help or hinder your studies?

KW: It seems to haunt my life that one son. I think it helps because everyone's heard of the YMCA but also everyone does the dance moves at me whenever I talk about my research. 

TT: And finally Kathryn, where can people learn more about your research?

KW: I write a history blog which is www.kathrynshistoryblog.com or you can follow me on Twitter which is @KathrynWW1. I try to post about my research and what I am reading and I'm also very happy to answer anyone's questions they might have. 

TT: Kathryn, thank you very much for your time thank you very much.

You have been listening to the mentioned in dispatches podcast from The Western Front Association with me Dr Tom Thorpe. Thank you to all my guests for appearing on this edition. The theme music for this podcast was by George Butterworth the Banks of Green Willow. It was performed by the BBC national Orchestra of Wales conducted by Chris Rothman and produced by the records. This recording is part of a collection of orchestral works by Butterworth performed by the BBC's national tree of Wales and supported by the Western Front Association. This is available from all good record stores; the record code BIS2195 until next time.