Keeping the soldiers safe and sane

Date: 29 January 2021

Kathryn White, 25, is a PhD student from the University of Oxford (UK). For the past five years, she has been studying the work and impact of YMCA during the First World War I (WW1). A fascinating journey through History, that she shares with us.

It all started when Kathryn was doing her Masters on religion during WW1 at the University of Birmingham in 2016: “They have a huge YMCA archive section  of photographs, diaries, letters,  meeting minutes and artefacts… there is so much to explore. I spent hours there”, she explains.

Her interest in the YMCA kept growing, and she decided to pursue a PhD on “the social experience of religion for soldiers in the First World War through the case study of the YMCA”. Kathryn shares: “I had heard of the YMCA, but I never considered looking at them from a historical perspective. Through my research, I discovered how much they were part of the lives of soldiers. YMCA was supporting them through faith, education but also entertainment. They really had a holistic approach to care for their bodies, minds and spirits.”

A safe and warm space

The YMCA recreational facilities were the key spots for soldiers to rest. Kathryn describes: “Canteens were indoors. Soldiers could get tea, coffee or hot chocolates. They could also buy cigarettes or matches. They could get free paper to write to their families”. A quiet break within the chaos.

But the YMCA was doing more. Kathryn says: “They also led educational activities. For instance, some teachers from Cambridge toured the huts  to give lectures. YMCA was also organising concerts and musicals. And of course they held church services and Bible study groups”.

What is so fascinating about what YMCA did during the war? “They were not doing a missionary work as such. It was not about evangelising, but about supporting the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of soldiers, with a Christian ethos”.

“It is going to be OK by tea time”

Despite the harsh conditions, YMCA could sometimes provide some glimpses of hope and humour. Kathryn shares this story: “In 1915, in Gallipoli in Turkey, one of the YMCA recreational facilities got bombed and collapsed. The Army came to check if everybody was OK. Wilton E Rix, the YMCA person in charge, was standing in the middle of the rubble. He confirmed that the gramophone was still working, and just replied “It’s going to be OK by tea time”. This was how YMCA was perceived at the time: a resilient organisation capable of standing and caring for others despite the context”.

More information