Wholesome entertainments: The YMCA in the First World War

The First World War period in Canada, an across the British Empire, saw an unprecedented amount of activity by charitable organisations towards the war effort. Groups like the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), and the Red Cross raised millions of dollars for medical supplies and for the care of prisoners of war. Others were more concerned with the welfare of the young men fighting in Europe, particularly the YMCA and the Salvation Army. 

[Envelope] Pte. Stanley Mortimer to his mother, Mrs. Fred Mortimer, 1917. Collections CCGW/CCGG, gift of M. Cahill.

The YMCA, or Young Men’s Christian Association to give it its full name, was established in Britain in 1844 originally as study and prayer group. By 1914, their activities had widened to North America, and included the physical wellbeing of their young male users, as well as their spiritual wellbeing. The “Y” as it was known, provide gymnasiums, swimming pools, safe spaces to sleep, and hot meals. In 1914, the Y turned its sights on the young men set to fight in Europe.

YMCA canteens could be found across the front in France and Belgium, in Allied military bases, and in large cities like London and Paris. They provided coffee and tea on the front lines through the canteens, and organised libraries and other forms of entertainment for soldiers on leave. YMCA dormitories continued to receive single men looking for a place to sleep for the night; the fees were nominal and usually they were much quieter than a hotel, since alcohol was not allowed. Soldiers also had access to writing paper, like the envelopes above, to use to write home.

YMCA services contributed a great deal to the morale of the men on the front, however, the reasons for YMCA involvement were more complicated than simple charity. At its base, the YMCA was still an evangelical, pastoral organisation, and it was thought that the large groups of single young men faced considerable moral danger from the temptations of a soldier’s life – alcohol, cigarettes, and prostitutes. YMCA activities were designed to provide an alternative to the nightlife in London and Paris; instead of going to the cabarets or music halls, young men could go to a Y for music, singing, and reading.

In addition to its entertainments, the YMCA also provided support for prisoners of war; helping during the repatriation process after the Armistice in 1919. In this, the organisation was non-partisan, and provide support to prisoners on both sides of the conflict. By the end of the war, the YMCA had provided rooms for over 1 million soldiers in its London dormitories alone, and spent over 200 million pounds sterling on providing its services.

 

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