In the year 1919, three Canadian artists of some prominence came together to write and record a comedic love song titled “Doughboy Jack and Doughnut Jill”. The song describes an American soldier and a Salvation Army volunteer falling in love at the Western Front. Like any good love song, it contains a chance encounter and love at first sight, and like any good war song, there are implied themes of duty, perseverance, and the promise of rewards upon returning home. Despite the song being about Americans and written after the war, it nonetheless speaks to the Great War—specifically the methods used to keep morale high—and is rooted in a particularly Canadian experience of the War.
Maintaining morale was a constant struggle during the Great War. From the front lines to the home front, a vast network of institutions and infrastructure was created to keep soldiers’ spirits high. Methods of saving morale extended from basics such as rum rations to the variety of activities offered in the rear—plays, films, concerts, and sports like the recently covered baseball—to vast gift deliveries such as Princess Mary’s Christmas Gift Fund Box. One institution dedicated to preserving and raising the morale of soldiers was the Salvation army. This religious organisation provided meals, activities, and rest—and maybe some light proselytization—for the weary Canadians that made it back from the trenches. The Salvation Army was present in its British and Canadian form from the beginning of the war, but it was a unique aspect of the American Salvation Army that would sear the Salvationists into the popular imagination of Canadians at the front.
The arrival of the Americans, beginning in June of 1917, had its own positive effect on the morale of Entente forces, among them the Canadians. Nearly four years of constant fighting, with no end in sight, meant that the appearance of fresh-faced doughboys—as American soldiers were popularly nicknamed during the war—did much to raise the spirits of the allies of the United States. The doughboys brought with them 250 Salvation Army Lassies, female members of the organization under the leadership of Evangeline Booth. In 1918, short on supplies and desperate to raise soldier morale after weeks of nonstop rain, two ensigns named Helen Purviance and Margaret Sheldon decided to make doughnuts, using used shell casings as rolling pins amongst other innovations. These doughnuts were a massive success and created a poetically potent symbol.
Canadian songwriter Gitz Rice, who served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Comedy Company beginning in 1914, had spent long years trying to find new and inventive ways to keep soldiers entertained while serving in France. This experience of using day-to-day occurrences for entertainment purposes at the front gave Rice a large repertoire of symbols to make use of. As the war drew to a close in 1919, Rice used his memories of the frontlines and the people there to write a comedic love song—performed by Geoffrey O’Hara with Willie Eckstein on the piano. “Doughboy Jack and Doughnut Jill” called up memories of the front, namely the novel and morale-boosting image of the Americans and their doughnut producing Salvation Army Lassies. The song was a hit, striking a familiar chord with the hundreds of thousands of returning Canadian soldiers and reminding them of the few sources of peace and hope that could be found on the Western Front.