YMCA World Map: Western Front Expansion

The Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) sought throughout the First World War to operate as a continual strand of support for soldiers, to be with them wherever they served. From the early days of recruitment and training to fighting at the front, its leaders hoped soldiers would develop the 'hut habit' that would lead them to rely on the YMCA for social and religious support at all times and on all fronts. 


To a large extent, this was achieved. By the end of 1918 the YMCA operated on every active front of the war, from the home fronts of the British Empire to the European and African theatres. Returning readers of my blog will be aware of my ongoing attempt to map these locations on a world map, slowly piecing together the approximately 5,000 sites operated by the YMCA. My work on this has come from a number of sources, including those mentioned in the press and marked on promotional maps distributed by the Association itself. These were particularly fruitful in finding the locations of those centres within the United Kingdom, and, through the help of others, I have been given access to wonderful maps of India and Egypt that have fleshed out those regions.


However, one major area that has thus far eluded thorough mapping has been the Western Front. Much of this makes sense. Army censors during the war prohibited the publication of accurate place names and in the years after, the nicknamed trenches and camps were largely lost to memory, reclaimed by their communities with their rightful names. Across soldiers' correspondence I have encountered numerous references to YMCA dug outs and huts being close to the front lines, but pinpointing where these are is often tricky, even when cross-referencing with their units' war diaries.


I've always thought that somewhere there must have been comprehensive lists of the huts for organisational purposes. Hints at this were indicated in the vague hut maps such as that illustrated (left) that were included in the YMCA's advertisements for funds. Locating such a list, however, has never seemed possible from the content available at the YMCA archive.


That is until my most recent visit, when I encountered the next-best thing. In March 1918 the German Army swept west in the Spring Offensive (Kaiserschlacht), reigniting a war of movement on the Western Front and capturing 1,200 square miles of land during the opening Operation Michael. The Allies' rapid retreat turned over entire trench systems to the advancing Germans, including tanks and artillery and, of our interest here, more than 100 YMCA huts.


In order to determine the scale of loss for the Association a number of memoranda were sent between the regional secretaries listing out the huts that had been evacuated or destroyed. These have been like gold for me, grouped as they are around Army region and closer area, to finally be able to map out the scale of the YMCA's operations on the Western Front. Some of the names given are those of the villages in which they were located (often with somewhat confusing Anglicised spellings), while others were taken from the English names assigned to the camps or trench features near which they were located. These latter ones are more complicated to find, but with the help of the Great War Digital trench maps I have been able to match up the vast majority, copying across their co-ordinates to my custom Google Map. There are a few more huts still that I haven't been able to place; these are generally named after their donors and therefore have no location-specific information available.

The result of all these new additions is quite astonishing. There is an enormous density of coverage across the Western Front, indicating quite how thorough the YMCA's work was for soldiers. These, coupled with those I have already located, extend throughout the British Army's positions in France and Belgium, present in most camps and centres of interest. I hope that this will be a useful resource for fellow historians of the First World War in showing the significance of the YMCA's work in soldiers' experience of the war and in demonstrating who prevalence of the organisation.


There is, however, a note of caution which must be applied when using this information. These lists show one pinpoint of time. These were huts that were present in mid-March 1918. They don't tell us when the huts were established, which was a much more gradual process that arguably reached its epoch in the immediate months preceding the Kaiserschlacht. 


At the outbreak of the First World War the YMCA established itself as a key provider of recreation and refreshments in the training camps across the UK. The War Office then granted them permission to move with the troops to the base camps and ports of France, where they spent much of 1915 developing work across the rear lines. Gradually, upon seeing the benefit of the Association's work, further permissions were granted, giving both the authority and logistical support required to establish work much closer to the front.  


A lot of this process can be pieced together through the memoranda of Regional Secretary Oliver McCowen, who oversaw the work. In one he records the first three huts to be established within the Ypres Salient in Autumn 1915 - at Bussiboom, Reninghelst, and Locre - providing a place for soldiers 'as they come back from the trenches'. By the end of the year, this list had expanded to eight, with the addition of: Ploegsteert (Threapwood Hut), Busseboom-Vlamertinghe Road, Proven, Dickebusch, Dranoutre (Canadian Camp), and Canada Huts (near Hallebast). Centres within Poperinghe and dugouts in the heart of Ypres soon followed.

The Oliver McCowen Hut, Dickebusch


But it was not until 1917 that the YMCA appears to have been able to expand their work further towards the trench lines themselves, with the huts on the Somme dating from the end of the 1916 offensive. Harold Ashford Down is our source here, who led the YMCA's pioneer work establishing bases on the Western Front. He spent the latter half of 1917 in the Ypres Salient, when he was able to take the number of huts up to 33, even amid the Third Battle of Ypres. Following the battle, the number of huts yet further increased, nearing an approximate 80, a number touted by the General Secretary Sir Arthur Keysall Yapp. The evidence behind this number is not particularly clear, yet I have been able to map more than 50 of them across the Salient through the compilation of sources.


The 1918 lists indicate that this progression was still ongoing when work was abruptly evacuated in March. They include a number of huts which were still under construction, or which were awaiting development following the allocation of funds. These I have left off my map. While they are important in the YMCA's history and in demonstrating where the Association was directing its work in early 1918, I want the world map to serve more as an illustration of the places soldiers did go while at war and the support system that was open to them.


In my map I make no claims of completeness. I have now mapped more than 1,200 locations, while estimates of the number of operational sites in the War Emergency Committee's work approach 5,000. Nor do I claim that all my locations are accurate: this is often indicated in their descriptions, but it is often difficult to pinpoint whereabouts a hut would have been within each town. Yet, I hope that the map is now reaching a point where it is representative of the scale of the YMCA's work in the First World War, demonstrating the spread of provision both across the world and within each theatre. There are pins in 37 (modern) countries, following railway lines through Sudan and Egypt, evacuation routes from Turkey into Greece, and, now, the trenches and bases of the France and Belgium. 

Click here to view the YMCA World Map in full

Kathryn

PS. The sources quoted above all originate from the YMCA archive at the Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham.

My thanks to the Pembroke College Dean of Graduates Fund which has made much of this recent work possible.

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