'Serving the Mind, Body and Spirit: The YMCA's First World War Mission

This article is taken from a five minute presentation I gave to the Oxford History Graduate Network on 6th February 2018. It gives a brief overview of the YMCA's work in the First World War and introduces the starting point for my research. 
The Young Men’s Christian Association is an interdenominational charity dedicated to providing social service and youth development. It was established in Britain in 1844, quickly expanding through missionary networks across the British Empire and the world. Parallel, sister organisations were developed in countries such as the USA from 1855.

The YMCA considered the First World War to be its ‘supreme opportunity’ in which it could connect with and influence the young men of the British Army. Certainly, the work of its War Emergency Committee, under the control of General Secretary Sir Arthur Keysall Yapp, brought the work of the YMCA to its largest ever audience and earned support from across the military, political and religious authorities. From the outbreak of war in 1914 the Association rapidly expanded and established a network of recreation huts across the active fronts. By 1917, there were thousands of these temporary structures, from the base camps of Salisbury Plain, to dugouts on the Somme and marquees across the Sinai Desert. Soldiers recorded how the YMCA became a ‘ubiquitous’ feature of their wartime experience.

Although a Christian organisation, the YMCA was committedly non-proselytising and welcomed men of all faiths and none. It was keen to avoid the nineteenth-century missionary image of a conversionary force and instead championed a tri-fold mission to serve ‘the mind, body and spirit’ of the ordinary man. This put the emphasis, particularly in their war work, on caring for the man as a whole, not only through spiritual comfort but also through fulfilling physical needs and providing support for morale.

Image result for ymca concert ww1
In terms of the YMCA’s hut programme, this mission statement translated as the provision of a comforting, safe space which it was hoped Tommies would view as their home. If its activities were to be divided up according to the categories, it would be entertainment and education representing the mind, refreshment and relaxation for the body, and worship and fellowship for the spirit.
The YMCA won most acclaim from the authorities for their entertainments. To curb the boredom of camp and to provide escapism from the horrors of the front, the huts hosted concert parties and cinema shows each evening. Not only did these serve to entertain, with British performers travelling over specifically for the purpose, but also provided the men with an alternative to the French estaminets in which alcohol and vice were rife.

It is in this way that the YMCA’s mission for the minds of soldiers connects with that of the body. The huts were teetotal and the Association believed that there was not one duty that a man couldn’t better perform sober. Instead, they served free cups of tea and coffee, as well as hot cocoa on cold nights and Kia-ora lemon juice in hotter climes. Cakes, chocolate and omelettes could also be purchased, in addition to penny packs of branded cigarettes. A soldier could then relax in the hut space where they could pen a letter home with the provided complementary paper and envelopes, play board games, or enjoy a book from the hut library.

While enjoying such social comforts it was then hoped by the YMCA that men could be encouraged towards their ultimate mission of Christian participation. The Association was a pioneer of interdenominationalism with the British churches, and the huts would usually run a daily prayer service open to soldiers of all Christian backgrounds. In busier establishments there would often be a morning and evening service, in addition to fellowship circles, Bible studies, and discussion groups. On a Sunday they would then play host to a number of denominational communions, led by locally-stationed chaplains. Jewish chaplains were also welcome to host Saturday services in the hut. Reports and diaries suggest that all forms of spiritual work were typically well-supported and benefitted both regular churchgoers and those who considered themselves ‘lapsed’ from the organised churches.

This is a very crude break down of the overarching areas of the YMCA’s provisions. In many instances it is difficult to place activities into one distinct category. For instance, bodily refreshment could relieve the mind, and entertainments could lift the spirit. Moreover, the YMCA found that often the ‘serving of a cup of coffee to war-torn soldiers was as much Christian work as was the preaching of a sermon.’ Thus they were able to engage the practices of social religion into a pastoral care for the soldier as a whole being.


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