The Reninghelst YMCA

The YMCA's hut at Reninghelst was typical of many across the Western Front. A small village behind the lines in the Ypres Salient, Reninghelst was a frequent base for soldiers between stints in the trenches. It was removed from the direct threats of the front, but close enough for easy contact. About 5km south east of Poperinge, the billets in Reninghelst would have been filled with a constant rotation of soldiers. It would be these soldiers, in need of rest and refreshment between periods in the lines, who would have frequented the YMCA's hut.
The early Reninghelst YMCA - (Australian War Memorial)
The First battalion of the Gordon Highlanders were among the many to have passed through the village. Their diary recorded that they used the 'Reninghelst rest area' in January 1916 for 'route marches, training, Reninghelst fatigues, cable laying map reading, etc.' Life in Renginghelst was thus one of routine and regularity, carrying out the necessary duties and training which kept the army running. However, the Highlanders' diary admits that such periods of time were 'not particularly comfortable'.

The one saving grace for the Gordon Highlanders was the 'concerts in the evening!', as hosted by the YMCA. The so-called "Red Triangle" was of particular importance to the village, providing comfort and entertainment for both the men on training and those fresh from the trenches. The significance of the YMCA's presence in the village is suggested in its development throughout the war.

It was one of the first huts to have been established beyond the base camps in August 1915 and was the first one within the Second Army's sector. 1916 descriptions of Reninghelst always refer to a 'YMCA tent'. Rifleman Hubert Brown recorded attending Communion at the tent on 23rd January, and in August the men of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) attended a concert at the tent, at which the General Officer Commanding of the 3rd Canadian Division was also present. By 1917, however, accounts of time spent in Reninghelst all appear to refer to a more permanent hut structure., showing a developing permanence to their presence in the village.

Gerald Dennis in his memoir of the war, gave a good description of the YMCA's hut as it was on his visit on 6th May 1917. He described how it was 'shaped like a large capital letter 'T'', with 'the top cross piece' serving as the main hut and 'refreshment room', and then 'the longer piece' serving as the concert hall. This division of space demonstrates the division of roles for the YMCA. Refreshment and entertainment were the orders of the day, and the Association had a dual duty in order to provide both. The concert space also appears to have been used for the Church services.
IWM (Q 5398A)
The refreshment room was the heart of the hut. Dennis complimented the tea available as 'substantial' and 'like the old Blighty teas'. The cost, he recorded, was about six pence. Roger Stamp wrote that 'supper' was also served, with the space being open into the evenings. This would have provided the men with a place to go to help them avoid the draws of the public houses and estaminets. Arthur Linfoot also made use of the hut for dinner, travelling to Reninghelst after a whole day 'on duty' for 'something to eat' at the YMCA. He was able to get there 'on the car', making a specific effort to use the YMCA's facilities from where he was based outside of the village. This is indicative of the important contribution of the YMCA's work, at least as perceived by Linfoot, either because of the quality of supper available, or because it was of one of the few available options. The diary, unfortunately, gives no indication either way.

The refreshment room was also where the library was run from and in accordance with the routine offerings of the YMCA, board games also would have been loaned out. This room was a space for socialising and relaxation, at which soldiers could spend their downtime between fatigue duties and the trenches. It was also an attempt to appease complaints, such as those made by the Gordon Highlanders, that life at the front was uncomfortable.
IWM (5298C)
The permanency and relative safety of the Reninghelst position is indicated in the presence of the YMCA's second room, the concert hall. Throughout the war there were many touring concert groups who visited such halls, providing nightly entertainment for servicemen. Dennis wrote in his memoirs that they had seen 'our very own Divisional Concert Party' perform a show called "The Crumps" at Reninghelst. Among the most popular groups to tour the YMCA huts were the Lena Ashwell Concert Parties, who brought London entertainers to the Western Front for the benefit of soldiers. Such shows were highly popular all over the active fronts, and Jack Kennedy of the PPCLI records that they attended concerts each night that they stayed in Reninghelst.

A major perk of the Reninghelst concert hall would have been the cinema which provided popular films. It has been recorded that Charlie Chaplin films were some of the most popular during the war, providing soldiers with an escape from reality. On the wooden benches in the hut's concert room, and with the thuds of artillery in the background, it certainly wouldn't have been up to the standard of home comforts, but it still provided some light relief nonetheless.

If the refreshment room was the heart of the YMCA, then the concert hall was the soul. Not only in the entertainment it provided, but also in the spirit of its provision. The YMCA, true to its Christian ethos, made it its mission to provide wholesome entertainment for soldiers; to maintain their morale without sacrificing their morals.
Conjuring in a YMCA Hut (Australian War Memorial)
Amidst the music and film, addresses were also given to the assembled crowds. Rev. Cecil Edwards records one such address being given by Senior Chaplain Cue in Reninghelst on the evening of Monday 16th October 1916. Although he doesn't note the content of Cue's words, these speeches  usually carried an uplifting tone, to motivate and inspire soldiers. They often served both to provide religious teaching and morale boosting encouragement. The addresses carried the message of the YMCA's mission, of personal and relational religion and moralistic lessons from a Christian standpoint. Care for one's neighbour and the importance of love were pertinent messages, whether or not they were directly connected to Christianity and the work of God.

Over the course of the war there were at least four rest camps based in the vicinity of Reninghelst, meaning there was a constant stream of soldiers visiting the YMCA and was a popular place for soldiers at a loose end in the evenings. Wilfred Sellars, like Linfoot, travelled to and from Reninghelst by motor bus. Due to the presence of the camps, the village was well-connected with the front line via the transport network, with a light railway being built to connect the rear supply lines with the front. The Herts Battalion were among the many who entrained at Reninghelst for Zillebeke using this railway.

The light railway also served as a reminder that the village was not so far removed from the war. It was, after all, mere miles from Ypres and the booming of artillery would have provide the bass line to any concert. Hubert Brown notes that it was quite possible to take communion at Reninghelst on a Sunday morning and to be in a working party in Ypres by the afternoon.

While the service Brown referenced attending in January 1916 was an Anglican communion, Sellars had previously attended Catholic masses in the same venue. The YMCA opened its facilities for use by any locally-stationed chaplain and was committed as an Association at large to ecumenical worship. All soldiers would have been free to attend all services, and the YMCA made a deliberate effort to provide open and non-denominational ministry for men of all faith backgrounds.
The officers' hut (IWM Q 5398F)
In 1917 the YMCA expanded again in Reninghelst, opening a smaller hut for the use of officers. While they were welcome in the main hut, and there are certainly hundreds of references to officers both attending concerts and using refreshment rooms in all YMCA huts, the dedicated hut was hoped to draw particularly the young officers away from the temptations of alcohol in other officers' establishments.

To make any of this worship possible, the YMCA hut needed a leader. The man for the job in Reninghelst was the United Methodist Reverend Alfred Wilcox. Born in Carmarthen, his family travelled around South Wales and South-West England during his childhood, and by the time of his ministry training in 1911, he was resident near Bristol, before settling in Morchard Bishop, Devon with his wife Ida. The reason for the family's itinerance was his father's job as a stoker on Great Western Railways. This background certainly would have influenced Wilcox's work with the YMCA. The overwhelming majority of YMCA workers were recruited from the middle classes. Wilcox was certainly privileged, he had after all been afforded the opportunity to take holy orders, but his working class background would have influenced his perspective and informed how he connected with the soldiers. A childhood shared between England and Wales, rural Carmarthen and urban Bristol, also would have broadened his perspectives and introduced him to a diverse mix of people, useful for his placement in a busy hut close to the front lines of war.

Wilcox also had the benefit of youth. Aged 26 at the outbreak of the war, he would have been the same age as many of the soldiers, which would have helped him to engage with them and understand them on a peer to peer level. He could have also avoided the "stuffy" image of many clergy at the front, which notably afflicted many chaplains.

As a cleric, Wilcox would have been exempt from any commitment to military service, but it is unclear how his Methodism influenced his decision to join the YMCA, particularly without sight of any of his writings. The Methodist movement was split during the First World War between conscientious objectors who opposed the war, and those who viewed it their duty to fight. A large number of Methodists - both clergy and laity - became involved in the YMCA's work, as a way to support the war effort while upholding their religious values. As work with the Association was assured to be non-combatant, it became a form of service in which Christian responsibility could be carried out alongside providing another means to continue missionary work with the soldiers.

It is not known when Wilcox arrived in Reninghelst, although this was likely to have been in late 1916, around when the YMCA was formalised from a tent to the wooden hut.

Wilcox and his other hut staff would have been particularly busy from May 1917 as men arrived in preparation for the Third Battle of Ypres. On 7th June, as 19 mines were blown from the Messines Ridge, Reninghelst would have felt uncomfortably close. It was a mere 9km away. Men would have continued to pour through the Reninghelst billets and the YMCA throughout the summer on their way to and from the battle. Soldiers would have arrived for rest and refreshment fresh from the trenches, and returned after a period in billets via a communion service in its worship space. The village was also the site of a number of field ambulances, meaning many wounded men as well as those of the RAMC would have used the YMCA's facilities and been part of Wilcox's ever-rotating congregation.

Such proximity to battle put the YMCA workers in danger, but their work would have also felt more important than ever under such tense conditions. Regional YMCA Secretary Barclay Baron remarked of how uncomfortably close it was to the formidable German positions on the Kemmelberg. The sounds of battle would have been omnipresent: the firing of guns, the bustle of resources and men being brought forward.

Still, the YMCA persisted with its work, helping the soldiers and providing them with homely comforts. The 17th August would have been a day just like any other, but it was to become a tragedy for the Reninghelst hut when a high explosive shell landed in the hut, and striking Wilcox with a piece of shrapnel.

The Red Triangle Bulletin, the YMCA's new supplement, reported that 'after lingering for twenty-four hours' he died from his injuries, on 18th August 1917. He was then buried with in Reninghelst Military Cemetery, close to where he had run his hut. The Bulletin stated that this had been done with  'full military honours', perhaps a mark of appreciation from the soldiers he served.

Barclay Baron, as part of his oversight of the Ypres area, visited Reninghelst on 28th April 1918, during the German Spring Offensive, and noted that it was 'badly damaged, empty and forlorn'. The comforting days of Reninghelst were now long behind it, and the area had been evacuated ahead of the German advance. Curiously, Baron describes the death of a YMCA secretary here as being 'last week'. Michael Snape, in his edited volume of Baron's memoir, thinks it is likely that he was referring to the death of T Trueman, who was buried in Dranoutre in March 1918. There certainly  is no record of any fatalities during April, close to when Baron visited.

I think it is more likely that Baron's description fits the death of Wilcox, and that he incorrectly noted the passing of time in his post-war memoir. Baron described the Reninghelst 'hut leader' as 'a charming undergraduate, tall, handsome but consumptive-looking'. He wrote that his death had been caused by 'a jagged shell-splinter that gashed him as he sat at night totting up his accounts'. None of this counteracts any of the known information about Wilcox, so it seems to me to be a sensible fit. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any photos of him to compare against Baron's description.
Australian War Memorial
In July 1918 the 12th East Surreys found the YMCA abandoned still, and that the 'occupants had apparently not stayed to remove all the contents'. They 'went round with a few sandbags and filled them full of books from the YMCA library' salvaging what they considered to be 'a good collection of books' for the battalions use. It seems unfortunate, that in leaving the YMCA hut, its workers were not able to take with them all the things that had made it such a home at the front.
Reninghelst c.1918 (Cadbury Research Library YMCA/K/8/1/218)
And so it was, that the Reninghelst YMCA, which had provided such comfort, joy and support throughout the war and during the horrendous fighting of the Third Battle of Ypres, was no more. A hive of activity and centre for entertainment, by the end of the war it had been deserted and destroyed. But such was the work of the Association throughout the war, marked by its transience to move where it was needed behind the front line. Such dedicated work was not done without risk, and the realities of war were all too apparent here with the death of Rev. Wilcox. His philanthropic service and religious duty were not in vain and he is remembered alongside those men he cared for in Reninghelst New Military Cemetery to this day, as well as on his village's war memorial back in Morchard Bishop.


John Aston and LM Duggan, The History of the 12th Bermondsey Battalion East Surrey Regiment, (Naval and Military Press, 2005).
Michal Snape (ed.), The Back Parts of War.
Gerald Dennis, A Kitchener Man's Bit: An Account of the Great War, 1914-18, (Solihull: Helion and Company, 2016).

No comments: