DPhil Diaries Three: Introducing My Research

Since beginning my PhD course just over a month ago (time's flying already!) I've been asked a number of times what my specific research area is, so I thought I'd devote a whole post to explaining it.

Regular readers of my blog won't be at all surprised to hear that my research is centred on the work of the YMCA during the First World War. This is the area I began researching during my MA, but at that time I was only able to scratch the surface of the Association's war history. I'm now working on something which I hope will be more comprehensive, looking at their work across the active and home fronts of the war from 1914 to 1918.

I have been toying around a lot with the geographic scope of the project, but at the moment I have settled on looking at the YMCA in the British Empire and for the British Army. I want to look at the relationship of the YMCA organisations from around the Empire and its dominions, particularly as there is so much overlap in the work. With forces from across the Empire serving in the British Army, it would be impossible for me to complete a study merely of just the home nations. For example, in my recent article about Gallipoli, the Association's mission was organised by an Egyptian-based Brit (William Jessop), who enlisted the help of an Australian (William Owens) for work benefiting men from Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Also building on the beginnings of my Gallipoli research, I am going to look at the YMCA's operations across the active fronts of the war. In my reading over the last year I have become very interested in the Middle East during the First World War and of the British Offensive on Palestine, which resulted in the capture of Jerusalem. Unlike the Western Front, this was far more a war of movement, but nonetheless the YMCA rose to the challenge and followed the advance providing all of their usual comforts.

I have, however, decided to omit the work of the American YMCA, at least for the time being. Although this would make an interesting comparison with the British experience, I also feel that it would open up a whole can of worms and work which is better placed to be done by American historians.

In many ways, I have made this decision because I would like to create a thesis which extends beyond a mere institutional history of the YMCA. I am endeavouring to create a thematic history of the relationship between social work and religion, as encompassed in the YMCA's wartime role. I have written about this area a number of times before (including in this article), but I would like to expand this into an exploration of how social provisions (refreshments, entertainments and comforts) could be used to benefit evangelism and to foster religion during the war.

This is an interesting area, looking at the effectiveness of social work and the YMCA's operations, as well as the influence which could be exerted by Christian teaching and faith on society during the extraordinary period of the First World War. My research sits very much between that which is already out there, particularly between the extensive work that has already been done both on religion during war (which largely select the chaplains as the Christian agents) and on the personal lives of serving soldiers (which are largely secular histories). I'm also taking advantage of the theology department here at university, to inform myself of the YMCA's religious mission and motivations for the services it provided for those at war.

At the moment I am working through background reading and beginning to investigate the YMCA's primary records. It is all very much a work in progress, but I'm excited to be getting stuck into it and to discover more about what I consider to be a fascinating area of history. I am, of course, hoping to continue writing regular articles here about what I'm researching and the progress I'm making with my DPhil.

Also, if you're reading this and you know of any sources/ writing mentioning the YMCA which I may not be aware of (particularly in soldiers' diaries/letters, or anything about YMCA workers) please don't hesitate to get in touch: kathryn.white:pmb.ox.ac.uk.


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