'This Will Make Me Be a Christian if Anything Will': WE Rix with the YMCA - Kathryn's history blog

Saturday, 2 February 2019

'This Will Make Me Be a Christian if Anything Will': WE Rix with the YMCA

Sketches at Gallipoli, by Leslie Hore (NSW PXE 702)

In the summer of 1915, Wilton Rix, a Congregationalist minister from Oxted in Surrey embarked on the longest journey of his life to join the YMCA in their work in Egypt. He was one of eight British men who made the journey together, each with six month permits to work at the African base camps in support of the ongoing offensive at Gallipoli. While this was certainly a trip into the unknown, Rix was with two fellow alumni of Mansfield College, Oxford, AH Griffiths and EA Claxton.

Rix’s experiences are recorded in a number of letters to his wife Mary and YMCA reports which he donated to Mansfield. They give a personal account of the life of a YMCA man and an insight into the logistics of the Association’s work. His initial impressions were an understandable shock at the ‘heat’ of Egypt but also an excitement at the uniform he had been provided with. He described it as ‘puttees and brown boots, shorts and shirt of a khaki cotton twill, coat likewise with YMCA letters in oxidised metal letters on a clasp on the lapels of the shoulder and the sunhelmet to complete’.

Upon arrival, the eight new volunteers met William Jessop, the YMCA’s regional secretary for Egypt and were introduced to their work in Cairo. Rix was sent to work at the four hospitals which were centred around the city’s Palace Hotel. Together, he claimed, these constituted the ‘largest hospital in the world’, caring for the wounded personnel from Gallipoli, as well as those servicemen who had contracted sickness in the camps of Egypt.

Luna Park Hospital, Cairo (CRL YMCA/K/1/3/89)
This was certainly difficult work for Rix, whose background had previously been in rural ministry.  He declared privately to his diary that his work for the sick and wounded ‘will make me a fine Christian if anything will’. His work in the hospital is described rather more like that of a chaplain than a YMCA hut worker, providing prayer and fellowship for the sick. His diary notes that he used John 14, including ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’, to comfort the soldiers.

Aside from his difficult hospital work, Rix also appears to have had a hard time coping with the Egyptian environment. Within a month of his arrival he complained to his wife that he was ‘tired, tired, tired, burning with mosquito bites, an unquenchable thirst, boiled, hot tea to pour in. Flies, flies, flies’ and that he lived on a diet of eggs. Not even the whiskey was of the quality he appreciated, comparing it to ‘methylated spirits coloured with wine’. As the YMCA was a teetotal organisation, he wasn’t supposed to be drinking this anyway!

J Whittle for "The YM"
Despite his complaints and the harsh realities of life in Egypt, Rix does seem to have found his work rewarding and he was committed to providing the best for the soldiers he cared for. He spent £1 a week of his own money helping the soldiers, admitting that while it ‘seems like a large amount ... it is an expenditure well worth the while’ as he mostly spent it ‘on food and nice things for the patients to whom I take out with me to have a feed’. Rix says little of his patients, although it is likely they would have been an interesting collection of figures, from both across Britain and its dominions.
He also found other interest in Cairo. In more light-hearted letters to his children, he sent them a range of exciting toys, including camels and snakes, as well as descriptions of the amazing African sights.

In October 1915, Rix was entrusted with a new challenge. He was to become the YMCA’s first staff member to be permanently placed on the Gallipoli peninsula, where he would run a hut for the soldiers. At this time on the Western Front the YMCA’s work was still largely confined to the base camps and rear positions, so Rix’s posting to Cape Helles was to be one of the most dangerous establishments in its operation. If Rix had found the conditions in Egypt difficult, this was to be nothing compared with Gallipoli. As a mark of this, upon his embarkation he wrote a letter for his family in case he died, including touching wishes for his beloved children.

While the danger weighed on his mind, the immediate challenge lay in supplying the new hut.  Under the instruction of Jessop, Rix rounded up all the tinned fruit, Swiss milk and other canteen stores that he could acquire in Egypt and wrote to his wife requesting packages of ‘sugar in tins, oxo cubes in tins ... Toffee. Peppermints. Sardines’ to be sent from England, as well as cigarettes, of which the YMCA could never have too many.

His next trial was to get these boxes of supplies onto the Gallipoli peninsula, along with the materials needed to equip the YMCA hut. In total, he took 130 cases of equipment with him, which took much co-operation from the Army authorities to get transferred between the right ships in order to reach its destination.

Rix finally landed at Lancashire Landing, Cape Helles on 4th November and set up the YMCA’s marquee, under the relative shelter of the cliff. In a report back to the YMCA authorities he recorded that ‘from the first the men flocked to our premises’, with it packed out from 5-9pm each day. It was so busy, he told his wife, that ‘whoso gets into the top corner at 5.0 to write a letter must stay there till 9.0 when we close, for he simply can’t get out.’

The camp at Lancashire Landing, Cape Helles (IWM Q13488)


With the help of four orderlies Rix expanded the premises by lashing another marquee alongside the first so that it formed a T shape so that they could better serve the 30,000 men who were serving at Helles. ‘This greatly relieved the congestion at night, and made room for a small counter, a platform for the piano, as well as space for writing and games, besides the main seating.’

The YMCA at Cape Helles was a clear success and even managed to generate a profit – a rarity for the YMCA who distributed so much for free! This work was no doubt worth the effort taken to keep it running amid the constant shortage of supplies and water. For Rix, however, it must also have been at times scary work as they were working well within range of artillery fire. On 8th December a high explosive shell fell within the hut , destroying the original marquee. Luckily it was relatively quiet at the time and no one was seriously injured. The gramophone even kept playing throughout! Despite the damage, Rix had the YMCA fixed up and reopened within 36 hours, keen to keep things ‘running as usual’.

Rix's sign used after the YMCA explosion (Mansfield archive)
By now, Rix was nearing the end of his six month contract. It is almost certain that he could have extended it, should he have wished to, but he wrote to his wife that he had told Jessop, his direct boss, that he was needed to return to his church. There is a sense in the letter that this is not the whole truth, and maybe he had chosen to return, not wanting to spend more time overseas. In his letters he is clearly homesick, missing both Mary and their children. Life in Gallipoli was certainly becoming more challenging too, as the British neared evacuation. Rix recorded that there had been daily shellfire around the YMCA hut since the incident on the 8th. He left the Peninsula on 20th December and made his voyage home at the end of the month.

It would definitely be wrong to assign a motive to Rix’s return as he does not clearly give one himself. He was undoubtedly proud of the way he was able to serve the men of Egypt and Gallipoli and of the mission of the YMCA. With him, he took a piece of Gallipoli: a wooden sign for ‘Lancashire Landing’. A post on the Great War Forum records that this is now in the possession of his grandson, James, in New Zealand.


Rix’s story is fairly typical of the YMCA volunteer in the First World War: he was a clergyman, exempt from war but with a duty to “do his bit” and guide his flock, and a Nonconformist, potentially more inclined to seek religious service outside of Army Chaplaincy. Yet, his experience is also deeply personal. Thrown in to the heat of the desert, the difficulties of the world’s largest military hospital, and the chaos of Gallipoli, he experienced a world he never could have imagined. While his time with the YMCA was short, it undoubtedly left a lasting mark on his perspective and his ministry. This can be seen in his preservation of the letters and reports which describe his war work. Such service was something not to be forgotten.


Kathryn

Read more about the YMCA's work in Gallipoli here.

Sources
Wilton Rix's archive is held at Mansfield College, Oxford. It includes: a pocket diary, letters to his wife, 'YMCA Work among the Soldiers in Egypt - Report by AH Griffiths' (27/09/1915), 'YMCA Quarters - Lancashire Landing, Cape Helles - Report by WE Rix' (December 1915).

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