YMCA centre for the walking wounded

Home comforts: the YMCA and the Great War

Matt Shinn looks at an extraordinary story of philanthropy and humanity that is being uncovered by Voices of War and Peace, one of the AHRC Engagement Centres, in partnership with the YMCA.

‘The average Joe probably just thinks of the song by the Village People,’ says Michael Snape, Reader in Religion, War and Society at the University of Birmingham. Few of us now would associate the YMCA with the First World War, or know that the organisation was involved at the time in one of the greatest philanthropic endeavours ever undertaken in British society.

YMCA Centre in Ypres
YMCA Centre in Ypres

The support that the YMCA gave to soldiers in the Great War was material,  educational and spiritual. It covered everything from providing recreational  huts and tents when young men began their training, to supplying pastoral  care, writing materials and cups of tea at hundreds of centres, many very  close to (and sometimes on) the front line (the YMCA centre at Ypres, for  example, was in a dug-out that frequently came under shell fire). The YMCA  was one of several organisations that gave soldiers a small reminder of the  civilian world, even in a front-line trench.

 The YMCA was one of several organisations that gave soldiers a  small reminder of the civilian world, even in a front-line trench

Then there was what Michael Snape calls the ‘amazingly touching’ service that the YMCA provided, of taking family members to hospitals in France, to say farewell to soldiers who were dying and who could not be moved. ‘I had a great uncle who was fatally wounded at Messines,’ he says. ‘My great grandfather received the news, and was asked to travel to be with him in his last hours. I puzzled over that for years – how was it possible for a working-class man to get over to France in 1917? The answer was that the YMCA had made it possible.’

YMCA centre near the front line

 Elbow room

The YMCA’s work in the Great War was a huge logistical undertaking. And   given its range, cost, and the number of people involved, says Michael Snape, ‘the fact that it’s now so little known shows just how much of the legacy of the First World War has been forgotten.’

The project that is bringing this forgotten history to light has been supported by the Voices of War and Peace Engagement Centre, based at the University of Birmingham but involving other universities and a wide range of organisations (see inset box – to follow). Like other projects supported by the Engagement Centre, it shows how much the role of religion in society has changed in a hundred years, and how important the work of faith-based agencies was at the time of the First World War.

The YMCA’s work in the conflict was entirely independent of government: it was carried out by volunteers, and supported by donations totalling £2.5 million over the course of the war – a huge amount at the time. ‘The latitude the YMCA was given shows how much Britain was a liberal Christian society, and the care that it took of its soldiers,’ says Michael Snape. ‘It’s in marked contrast to some of the black legends of the Great War, with their clichés of every 16-year-old being tied to a stake and shot for cowardice. The elbow room given to philanthropic organisations shows the real attitude of the army and of the state, and the extent to which British soldiers were looked after. The French and the Germans didn’t have anything like it.’

YMCA centre for the walking wounded
YMCA Centre for the walking wounded

The YMCA’s work was carried out by volunteers, and supported by donations totalling £2.5 million over the course of the war – a huge amount at the time

There is a fundamental contrast, in other words, between the work of the YMCA in the trenches, and the image of the army as a callous machine. ‘I’m not trying to bang the drum for the generals, but key figures in the military top brass, including Field Marshal Haig, were important in promoting the YMCA’s work: Haig’s wife even worked for the YMCA in London.’

It was natural that Voices of War and Peace should be involved in this project: the YMCA’s main archive is in the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham University. As Michael Snape says, it is an ‘absolutely astonishing treasure trove of photographs and manuscripts. And this is a very important story to tell. But one of the problems has been that the YMCA is an activist organisation: it tends to be busy with what it’s doing in the present, rather than thinking about the past.’

The YMCA Goes to War project has involved running day schools, to teach people who are interested in the conflict about this neglected aspect of it. It also involves encouraging local YMCA branches to work with the organisation’s archives, and make use of them. Bradford YMCA, for example, has created a display to catch the attention of passers-by, and show them something of the work that the YMCA did during the Great War – a deliberate echo of the kinds of awareness-raising that the YMCA went in for during the conflict, including the creation of mock dug-outs, to demonstrate the conditions that the soldiers were fighting in. ‘We’re telling YMCA people themselves about their history,’ says Michael Snape, ‘and enabling them to engage with the public in a very direct way, taking stuff out onto the streets.’

An international effort

The YMCA’s Head of International Affairs is Ken Montgomery. He points out that many of the YMCA’s volunteers in the First World War were women, who often came to understand much more of the reality of the conflict than those who stayed at home. ‘Many, indeed, found themselves in harm’s way: Betty Stephenson, for example, volunteered at the age of 18, and was given the job of taking relatives to visit the men who were too seriously wounded to be transported back to Britain. She was killed in France in an air raid, at the age of 21.’

And the YMCA’s work was an international effort: volunteers came from Canada, India, the US and Australia, as well as Britain. US President Woodrow Wilson said that 90% of pastoral services provided to the American troops during the First World War were provided by the YMCA. The government of South Africa also paid tribute, donating 400 acres on the shores of Lake Windermere, which the YMCA still uses as an outdoor activities centre.

‘The YMCA provided services to friend and foe alike,’ says Ken Montgomery. ‘It was ecumenical, and it didn’t proselytise. It was very much about providing practical support, and not just praying. With the professionalisation of services, and the expansion in what the State provides, you probably wouldn’t get anything like it today.’

  It was about providing practical support, and not just praying

As well as exploring the impact of the Great War on communities in Birmingham and the Midlands, the Voices of War and Peace  Centre will focus on themes of national importance including Gender and the Home Front, Belief and the Great War, Cities at War, Childhood and Commemoration.

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