The Best Service in Unusual Conditions: The YMCA at Gallipoli

At the outbreak of the First World War the YMCA was already a global organisation, with work extending across the British Empire. Late-nineteenth century imperial missions had established centres as far apart as Egypt, India and Australia. In the early months of the conflict these were mobilised for the war effort. Provisions in Egypt were expanded to provide for the arriving soldiers, and YMCA secretaries boarded ships west from India and Australia, accompanying their troops towards war.

Initially, the YMCA's work had been confined the base camps, but as of August 1915, General Douglas Haig was the first to give the green light for their work to be extended closer to the front lines; to serve the Army as close to the front as it was safe to do so. At the same time, the Gallipoli Campaign was raging, with the second major landings being made on 6th August.

At this time, the YMCA's closest operations to the Ottoman peninsula were in Egypt, where large base camps had been established for the use of the Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops. Secretary William Jessop was in charge of the Association's work here, having established the Anglo-American mission from 1913. Born in Bolton, he had travelled the world through Christian missionary work, including a posting in India and work for the YMCA in America.

Mr Jessop embarking at Alexandria (YMCA/K/1/3/32)
Increasingly concerned with the situation in Gallipoli and the need for YMCA provision there, Jessop boarded the troopship RMS Scotian in Alexandria on 7th August and journeyed the 600 miles to inspect the area himself. He arrived at Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos two days later and then on 12th August he travelled by trawler to Kephalos on Imbros, one of the two most important harbours for the supply of Gallipoli. This was also the site of a convalescent camp, filled with the sick and wounded from the Offensive. He was met by Colonel Hawker, the Camp Commandant at the landing pier and, he later reported, was made 'very welcome'. As a non-military organisation, the success of the YMCA largely depended on the access they were given by Army commanders and it was thus fortunate that Jessop was able to develop such a good relationship with Hawker.

Hawker advised Jessop on what was available on the island and agreed to provide Jessop 'with a small marquee' and 'a site within a very central part of the camp'. On Hawker's word, Jessop also travelled two hours by horseback into Panaghia, where he was able to purchase the necessities for a YMCA centre, albeit with 'prices abnormally high and very limited in both quantity and variety'.It was quite common for Greek commodities two be 'two or three times Cairo prices'. The biggest benefit of Hawker's co-operation was in the telegram he sent the military authorities, allowing Jessop's colleague from the Australian YMCA, William Owens, to also come to Kephalos, and asking they 'render him every assistance possible' in bringing the YMCA's supplies forward.
Men surrounding the first Kephalos marquee (YMCA/K/1/3/227)
Within two days he had set up the temporary marquee with 'hastily knocked together' furniture and a hand-painted sign, and opened it to the soldiers stationed on the island that afternoon. Much of what we know about this time comes from a report written by Jessop, in which he remarked that upon the opening of the Kephalos tent 'it was almost pathetic to see the eagerness with which the men viewed our preparations and the way they came to the tent.' These men would have all been familiar with the comforts provided by the YMCA from their time stationed and training in Egypt and flocked to the new attraction. Although still limited in supplies, Jessop was able to provide them with 'tobacco, cigarettes and chocolate', as well as 'stationery, Pocket Testaments, magazines'. He noted that almost all of the visitors were 'wounded and sick'. The first 'well attended' church service was held outside of the tent (owing to its small size) on the evening of Sunday 15th August. It is recorded in the YMCA archives that 'the booming of the guns on Gallipoli' could be heard as the prayers were read. With the arrival of Owens a few weeks later, the provision here was expanded to include a piano.
Some of those who attended the first service at Kephalos (YMCA/K/1/3/228)
Not content with just one tent at Kephalos, the next day Jessop met with a Greek baker and arranged the purchase of his entire bakery output to supply a canteen for the camp. He also bought a new oven, dishes and utensils for YMCA use. A military policeman was secured as an orderly for the new tent, who Jessop considered to be 'a very valuable assistant'. This was sure to have been very gratefully received by those stationed on Imbros, particularly those recovering from wounds, given the difficulty associated with getting any form of comfort or luxuries on the island. The bakery was later doubled with the addition of a second oven in order to provide food for the YMCA's operations across the Dardanelles. Many of the ingredients, however, continued to be brought in from Egypt.
The camp at Cape Helles (IWM: Q 13488)
As beneficial as this work was, it was not the closest the YMCA got to the front line. On Tuesday 17th August Jessop caught an early morning trawler the fifteen miles to Cape Helles to find a suitable location for a hut on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The Camp Commandant agreed that the YMCA could set up shop somewhere 'safe from shrapnel fire', but soon Jessop discovered that there was no such place. Shortly after he arrived the enemy artillery opened fire, with shells 'falling about the beach and the harbour'. Seeing the situation, Jessop decided that the YMCA were 'quite prepared to go where the men had to go, and would run the risk'. It is important to note here that Jessop, while establishing the Association's work in Turkey, would not be the one running the huts. He therefore made the decision on behalf of his workers that they should be content to suffer the risks of shellfire.
W Jessop (source)
Nevertheless, a suitable location was found and 'three tiny tents' were erected 'fastened end on end'. Jessop regretted that it should be so small, but said that it would 'let the men see that the YMCA is standing with them and doing its best to serve them in these unusual conditions'. To announced the arrival of the Association, Jessop was allowed up to the trenches, taking 'stationery, magazines, cigarettes and tobacco' for the soldiers. He recorded in his report that they were 'greatly touched' by such gifts which were given free of charge, and that they did recognise the sign of the Red Triangle which represented the work of the YMCA.

From October, the tent at Helles was run by Wilton E Rix who used the space to establish a canteen and coffee bar. A post-war YMCA report remarked of the difficulties in supplying these refreshments, given that there was often no water meaning 'the coffee bar frequently had to be shut down'. John Hargreave recorded in his memoir that water supply was a continual problem in the Dardanelles, with 'water-tank boats' bringing it in from Alexandria. However, this was still 'filthy water, full of dirt, and very brackish to taste'.

Late in the year, Rix's Helles tent also had another scare when an 'eight-inch high explosive shell from a Turkish gun had burst in the centre of the middle tent and completely destroyed it'. General Secretary Arthur Yapp was pleased to note that 'fortunately, it didn't damage the piano' or 'harm the gramophone'. Entertainingly, amid the 'bustle and confusion caused by the explosion, it kept on playing until it had finished the last note of the tune!' A separate report, more importantly, acknowledged that no one had been injured as, by complete luck, the middle tent had been empty at the moment the shell fell. When the commanding officer went to inspect the damage, he was pleased to see 'the smiling face of the YMCA man behind the counter'. He acknowledged to Yapp that it 'won me over completely'.
The ANZAC YMCA, marked by the Red Triangle (YMCA/K/1/8/43)
Undeterred by the risks of Gallipoli, another YMCA base was established at ANZAC Cove, near 'Reserve Gully'. Owens claimed that this location was even more dangerous than Helles, as 'we were under fire even before landing'. Jessop wrote similarly that 'no part of the beach and only dugouts on the hillside are free from snipers' bullets and shell fire'. The only suitable place to build a YMCA hut was in a 'tiny marquee', accompanied by a '30 by 19 feet' dugout in one of the gullies. Even this wasn't safe. Yapp remarked that 'one night a fragment of Turkish shell, weighing twelve and a half pounds, found its way through the roof of that dugout.' To protect it from any future damage Owens managed to acquire galvanised iron from one of the Aegean islands and had 'four Tasmanian soldiers' help him cover the roof with it.
2nd Div HQ at Rest Gully. The YMCA is down the path to the right (G01136)
While difficult, there was an obvious need for the YMCA's services in Gallipoli. Owens considered the most pressing concern to be to 'give the men something to eat' and there is surprisingly little discussion of their religious work, other than the descriptions of that first Kephalos service. In part, this is due to the sources I have found, which deal very much with the practicalities of the YMCA's work, but it is still somewhat surprising that neither Jessop nor Owens included in their reports accounts of the benefits to the spiritual life or morale of the men through their work.

The final part of the Association's Gallipoli puzzle was how to keep the huts supplied. The bakery on Imbros certainly went some way to helping, but the ingredients still needed to be transported north from Alexandria, and then the finished goods had to be taken east to the beaches, before being transported in to the huts. In solving this, a 'daily shuttle service' was established and Owens thanked Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the offensive, who 'got permission to use these trawlers for our transport'. Difficulties remained in getting hold of the necessary foodstuffs, but the trawler system allowed 'large consignments of cakes, buns, fresh fruit and vegetables' to be transported, which were then sold to the soldiers at cost price.
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Leigh Roose (source)
Of course, these trawlers required skippers. For this, the YMCA shared resources with the Red Cross. One such man was retired footballer Leigh Roose who travelled between 'Lemnos, Alexandria and Gallipoli where the YMCA had centres' to transport the all-important supplies. As the soundtrack to it all, was the relentless, ever-present bombardment. He remarked afterwards that 'you become accustomed to its tune, a permanent rat-a-tat-tat complemented by bursting shells'.

In the summer and autumn of 1915, the Gallipoli Offensive presented the biggest challenge faced thus far by the YMCA. At every front they encountered challenges and limitations: problems in access, supply, danger and communications. But these were nothing compared to the military problems of the ill-fated Eastern attack, which resulted in an evacuation in December and January. The survivors poured back in to Kephalos and then to Egypt, the hell behind them, where the YMCA waited to receive them, with the ubiquitous cup of cocoa and a friendly face.


Summary of the World War Work of the American YMCA (International Committee of the Young Men's Christian Association, 1920), p. 82.
The YM British Empire Weekly
'The YMCA on Gallipoli Heights', The Mildura Cultivator, 27th November 1915.
James W Barrett, The War Work of the YMCA in Egypt (HK Lewis, 1919).
John Hargreave, At Suvla Bay,
David McCasland, Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God.
Michael Bernard Tyquin, Gallipoli: An Australian Medical Perspective, (Newport: Big Sky Publishing, 2012).
Spencer Vignes, Lost in France: The Remarkable Life and Death of Leigh Roose, Football's First Superstar, (Durrington: Pitch Publishing, 2016).
AK Yapp, Romance of the Red Triangle.
Photo sources are all linked in the captions. 

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