The Spirit of Victory: Robert Baden-Powell and the YMCA

'To do good rather than be good' was how founder of the Scouting Movement, Lieutenant-General Robert Baden-Powell described the First World War work of the Young Men's Christian Association. In a 1916 letter he hailed their active principles, which impressed upon the men of the British Army the same ethics and principles of duty and responsibility which he advocated with the Boy Scouts.

Baden-Powell's involvement with the YMCA dated back to the decade preceding the First World War when he was developing his scouting ideas. After his return from South Africa in 1903, following the Anglo-Boer War that had made him a public hero, he set about developing the manual that would become Scouting for Boys: a guide for young boys on 'good citizenship'.

Prior to its periodical publication in 1908, Baden-Powell worked with the YMCA to test out his ideas through a series of discussions with the Association's secretaries. It can therefore be seen that both parties had very similar motivations and principles, working towards the common goal of promoting moral education and strong citizen values in the young men of Britain. Allen Warren has identified the key original scouting emphasis to be on 'personal character development, individual responsibility and public service', all of which were also encouraged by the YMCA.

The Association went as far as to sponsor Baden-Powell's promotional lecture tour in late 1907 and to support the first experimental camp for boys on Brownsea Island, with joint YMCA Scout Troops being established in the following years.
Image result for robert olave baden-powell
Sir Robert and Olave Baden-Powell
This fundraising offered to the Scouts would be repaid during the First World War, with Baden-Powell taking an active role in supporting the YMCA's army work. His celebrity status meant that he was perfectly placed to promote the Association, both as a War Hero with connections British High Command, and as Chief Scout, invested in moral education.

At Easter 1915 Baden-Powell first visited the YMCA's huts on the Western Front. He had embarked on the 10 day trip as honorary Colonel of the 13th Hussars, but made plenty of time for the huts, reporting back soon after in an article for The YM British Empire Weekly. He needed no convincing of the value of hutwork and encouraged all support necessary for the hut network 'to get up nearer to the front'. Months later he conveyed the same sentiment in a letter to Lord Edmund Allenby, soon after he was promoted to command Third Army, impressing upon him the 'increasing' demand among soldiers and the pressing need for fundraising.

The first of the huts funded through Baden-Powell was opened on 7th October 1915 at Val-de-Lievre, near Calais. He co-ordinated sponsorship from The Mercers' Company, leading to the premises being given the pub-like name 'The Mercers' Arms', although of course, it did not sell alcohol.

Baden-Powell's commitment didn't just stop at setting up the hut. His wife, Olave, went out to France to run the hut alongside a team of seven others. To do so, she had to leave their young children, Peter aged one and Heather just four months, with her mother yet relished the opportunity 'of doing something real at last towards the war effort'. Her job in The Mercer's Arms was, she recalled in her memoir, as 'a barmaid', 'dispensing chat and sympathy along with cocoa and cigarettes', the latter of which her husband had previously campaigned against. On reflection, she considered that 'maybe the chat was the most acceptable service' she offered to soldiers.
The Etaples Scout Hut (source)
On 1st January 1916 the Baden-Powells opened another hut, this time at Etaples, with Robert appointing his wife to be in charge. Unfortunately, she was unable to stay there long as she contracted the 'flu and was forced to return to England. The Etaples hut was decorated with reminders of the Scouting Movement, including banners and a portrait of its founder. Despite being one of the 33 YMCA huts at the base camp, the Scouts Hut was seen to be popular with soldiers, expanding by the end of the year to include a dedicated concert hut and the following year was greatly improved with the addition of electric lighting.

Later Scout-sponsored huts included a cinema at the Rouen base camp. Young Scouts back in Britain were encouraged to fundraise in hut drives, in turn being taught to "do their bit" for the war effort and in aid of the national cause. Baden-Powell toured the country with the YMCA's General Secretary Sir Arthur Keysall Yapp, appealing for funds.

Throughout the war, he continued to do what he could to support the YMCA, including contributing a short chapter to Told in the Huts, their gift book published in time for Christmas 1916. 'The value of the YMCA huts at the front does not lie merely in their supplying the creature comforts to the soldiers' he explained, although elsewhere he did note that their 'success ... has been largely due in the first instance to their material value'. He considered that 'a greater still value lies behind, since they tend to keep bright in the men that splendid spirit which is just now so conspicuous at the front.' Such a spirit, based on active moral principles demonstrated in the hut environment he believed was 'going to pull us through to victory in the end'.

The argument of Baden-Powell's piece is summarised in his accompanying sketch which was captioned "We are downhearted - I don't think!". This phrase is a twist on Arthur Boyton's 1914 song 'Are we downhearted?' to which every answer was a resounding 'No!'.

As much as morals, the significance of the YMCA's work for Baden-Powell was its immediate impact on morale. It was the comforts of the hut home which could divert men's minds away from the war's 'terrible strain on mind as well as body'. As a man of great military experience, he recognised the importance of this work and its benefit to the army's war aims.

But this support also helped to provide the moral education and guidance to young men that he had campaigned so hard for through the Boy Scouts. The congruent work of both the YMCA and Scouting Movement are indicative of what Olive Anderson and Warren have described as 'Christian militarism'. While scouting was not an overtly religious organisation, it was nonetheless concerned with 'moral and spiritual welfare' in much the same way as the YMCA was through their mission of social religion. Christian morality and lessons of personal duty and responsibility were common to both, working to improve the lives of young men both across the country and throughout the army.



Allen Warren, ‘Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the Scout Movement and Citizen Training in Great Britain, 1900-1920’, The English Historical Review 101 (1986), pp. 376-398.


  1. Thank you for that article on B-P & the YMCA.
    While on, you might like to have a quick look at

  2. Another thought . . . in the years just before WW1 there was a feeling abroad in Britain about "the sad state of the Youth of today" (plus ca change !) which prompted - well, see for yourself ;-)