You might have noticed that many of the letters written and envelopes used by Jay had the YMCA logo on them. Supplying stationary and envelopes to the dough boys, both while in the United States and in France was only one of the many services the Y provided.
I recently learned that near me, on the campus of the University of Minnesota is the Kautz Family YMCA Archives. The archivist, Ryan Bean was very helpful in giving me an overview of the role the Y (and other service organizations) played in World War I both here in the states and in Europe.
After war was declared, General Pershing recognized that there was more to going to war than just building and training an army. He realized that the men in his army would likely need help in keeping morale high. To this end, Pershing enlisted the aid of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) as well as other service organizations like the Knights of Columbus.
As training cantonments were built across the United States to house, feed, and train new recruits and draftees, the YMCA also made its presence known. Camp Devens, where Jay was training, was no exception. At Devens, numerous buildings were erected as places for soldiers to sit back and enjoy a cold or hot drink, read some news, listen to music, maybe play some chess or baseball or football, participate in or watch a boxing match, grab a meal that wasn’t out of the camp’s kitchens. For many it was a place to escape the boredom of waiting for orders to go ‘Over There’.
The Y, in conjunction with local newspaper companies also published a weekly newspaper, ‘The Trench and Camp’. More about this paper in an upcoming blog post.
The Y was integral to keeping morale up. Without it, the men would have had nowhere to relax and get their minds off the daily grind and more, the anticipation of going into combat.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the YMCA was the first of the civil or social welfare organizations to offer its services to the government. In August 1917 U.S. Commander in Chief John Pershing issued a general order supporting YMCA work among his troops.
The YMCA refocused from civilian to military operations and concentrated on serving soldiers in any way possible. It established permanent posts and staff in all 16 National Guard camps, setting up shop in huts that were to substitute for home, school, theater, and church. Soldiers thronged to these huts day after day, looking for the feel and comforts of home. Eventually the YMCA operated 4,000 huts and tents for recreation and religious services, and YMCA volunteers served snacks to those aboard 8,000 troop trains. YMCA volunteers worked as surgeons, nurses, chaplains, chaplains’ assistants, and distributors of emergency medical supplies, food, and clothing. YMCA volunteers served on battlefields with horse-drawn canteens, built and staffed special kitchens in hospitals, brought books and prefabricated chapels to soldiers, taught enlisted men to read and write, maintained a hotel in England for soldiers on furlough, and provided free meals.
Below are some of the buildings from Camp Devens where Jay would have gone to get a brief respite from army life.