Friday, September 21, 2018

American Service Organizations During the Great War

Some time ago we published this photo:

Gov. C. E. Milliken addressing new soldiers at Y.M.C.A. Hut 24, Fort Devons, Massachusetts. August 5, 1918.

And we've certainly posted a lot of photographs of members of the American Red Cross in Europe during WWI as well.

What was going on with service organizations anyhow? Well, quite a lot.  Almost too  much, quite frankly, to report on accurately.

And, moreover, why did this occur?

First of all, let's look at what did occur, although our report will frankly be incomplete.

And let's start with the American Red Cross.

American Red Cross

It should be evident from the numerous photographs of the American Red Cross in action during World War One that it played a huge role in the war.  Indeed, while not readily evident from what we have posted here, it played a gigantic role that extended to both sides of the war, with individual national Red Cross organizations playing a different role in different countries.  In the case of the Allies, the American Red Cross's role was large and partisan prior to the United States entering the war, and its medical establishment was so well developed that the American Army simply partially absorbed it in place, personnel and all.

How on earth did that occur?

The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 by American nurse, Clara Barton.  She had seen the International Red Cross in operation in the Franco Prussian War and was impressed with its humanitarian mission.

Clara Barton in 1904.

The Swiss based International Red Cross was a young organization when Barton first encountered it, existing only since 1863. It's origin has specifically been war, when its primary inspiration, Henri Dunat, had witnesses Italian casualties in the the Italian wars of unification suffering on the battlefield without attention.  His efforts resulted in the International Committee of the Red Cross, to provide relief to the victims of war of any nation, and it exists to this day.

The originator of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Henri Dunat.

Indeed, the ICRC provided nursing services to all the combatants during the First World War and continues on to this present day as a humanitarian organization.  Barton was inspired by her observations of the ICRC during the Franco Prussian War, as noted, and came back to the United States and lead the effort to form the ARC.

The American Red Cross was just one of the many Red Cross organizations that contributed nurses, hospitals and doctors to the warring nations.  It arrived in Europe well before any American soldiers did in that role.  It's important to note, however, that its services were provided to Allied nations in that context.  In later wars the ICRC tends to be associated with neutrality, and this should be how it was regarded in World War One, but it's also the case that during World War One the American Red Cross rapidly became an Allied deal.

As an "Allied deal", as I've put it, it provided a lot of emergency services that went far beyond the battlefield.  Much of what it did was of the classic Red Cross type of thing, but far beyond that.  It ran hospitals and distributed food and the like all over France and Italy.  But as the war progressed, what it came to do, while in keeping with its traditional role, became what we'd have to regard as partisan.

 Interior of operating room. American Red Cross Evacuation Hospital No. 110, Coincy, France

The Red Cross came to provide an ambulance and hospital service that existed very much in a military support role.  Red Cross ambulance drivers, all male, wore military uniforms and many, but not all, of the men who volunteered for that duty saw it as volunteering for a type of military service prior to the United States having entered the war.  Indeed, Ernest Hemingway's famous "military service" was actually Red Cross service as an ambulance driver in Italy, a role in which he was wounded.

A uniformed Red Cross ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway.  In this uniform Hemingway's appearance would have been very close to that of an officer in an Allied army, even though he was not an officer nor even a soldier.

When the U.S. entered the war the line between the American Red Cross as a humanitarian organization and the American Red Cross as a auxiliary of the medical corps of the U.S. Army became highly blurred and then actually, to an extent, ceased to exist altogether.  Given the delay in building up the U.S. military going towards the war, there was no earthly way that the services could build a medical corps of sufficient size to handle the vastly expanded military.  The American Red Cross, however, was there in place, and in fact, in France and Italy. So they were partially incorporated into the Army.

 American Red Cross Advance Dressing Station. Major Franciscolin, 109th Inf. 28th Division in charge, assisted by Lt. Powell Leighton, A.R.C. attached to the 28th Div. Near St. Gilles, France. Aug. 15, 1918

But only partially.  Male members of the Red Cross were given the option of entering the Army in their existing roles at a rank assigned to them by the Army, and by and large they did.  They didn't have to, however, and some chose not to.  Nurses remained outside of the Army and stayed in their existing roles in what were now Army medical facilities.

Having said that, however, that only addresses the medical support roles taken on by the American Red Cross during the war.  Other roles also existed.  Simply providing comfort, often in the form of canteens or mobile canteens (i.e., coffee and donuts) was a role that, while not exactly major, was often fondly remembered post war.  Back in the U.S., the Red Cross undertook a serviceman and family support role that would be of the type that would be undertaken by the United Service Organizations (USO) during World War Two and beyond.  

The ARC also retained a humanitarian relief role that went far beyond the areas where the US military operated, attempting to provide humanitarian relief in the Middle East, Asia and Russia.  

In the end, it's difficult to actually define what the American Red Cross did during the war, as it was so vast in nature.  Some of it very closely mirrored what it does today.  Some of it anticipated the USO of later wars.  Some of it was in the nature of direct medical support to the Allied war effort.  It's role proved key in many ways to that effort, and its hard to imagine an Allied war effort without it.

The role of the American Red Cross was mirrored by the Red Cross organizations of other nations.  The International Committee of the Red Cross occupied a cross border humanitarian role much like it would during World War Two, not taking any sides in the war and attempting to provide relief where it could.  The German Red Cross trained nurses for the German military.  British and Canadian Red Cross organizations filled a role much like that of that of the American Red Cross and were augmented by national nursing organizations that were outside of the Red Cross but much like it.

Which takes us to the YMCA.

The Young Men's Christian Association and the Young Women's Christian Association.


YMCA "girl" depicted in a common YMCA role during the war, providing coffee and reading materials to the soldier, something that the YMCA did to a vast degree during World War One.

Yes, the Young Mans Christian Association..

The YMCA, contrary to the way people commonly imagine it, is actually a religion.  A branch of the Protestant Christian religions, the YMCA and its companion the YWCA came up during the Muscular Christianity movement we've discussed elsewhere.  It's history actually dates back to 1844 when it was founded in London, England, "to provide low-cost housing in a safe Christian environment for rural young men and women journeying to the cities."  This concern was not without a foundation as the mass influx of rural youth into European industrial cities did indeed exhibit a major corrupting aspect to it.*

Given the lack of service organizations that aided and supported soldiers prior to World War Two, it shouldn't surprise us, even though it tends to, that the YMCA started filling this role fairly early. There are some instances in the United States of it taking this role as early as the Civil War, but it really commenced them in a dedicated fashion during the Spanish American War.  So it should be no surprise that it stepped up to the plate again during World War One.

During the Great War the YMCA took up its service organization role in spades, occupying a role that again would be occupied by the USO during World War Two.  Like the Red Cross, it provided aid and comfort to soldiers serving in the war in the form of what we'd regard as canteens.  It also undertook to provide entertainment, assistance with writing letters (in an era in which the literacy rates were not as high as they'd later be.

YWCA poster urging young women to work in the factories and fields during the war.

The YMCA also took a direct role in recruiting women for war work during the Great War, associating itself with Womens' Land Armies in the agricultural sector and in recruiting women to industrial work.  In this, it somewhat ironically was in the situation of encouraging the very type of thing that it originally was formed to address, in that the Land Armies and the industrial work took young women out of their homes and into urban environments.

The YMCA and the YWCA were Protestant organizations, of course.  Given that, it's not surprising that we'd find the major Catholic organization in the US also involved in the war effort, that being the Knights of Columbus.

The Knights of Columbus

Or maybe it is surprising.  It cannot be fairly stated that there is a religious element to World War One.  All the warring nations in Europe were Christian nations. And confessionaly we would find that there were Protestant and Catholic nations on both sides, more or less.  The United Kingdom, at that time comprised of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and therefore was the home of two of two official Protestant faiths and one large unofficial Catholic one.  Germany was likewise split between Lutheran based Protestantism (it's somewhat more complicated than might be imagined in that area) and Catholicism, although Protestantism was heavily favored by the German crown.  The Austrian Empire, on the other hand, was nearly uniformly Catholic save for some regions that were Orthodox.  Italy was uniformly Catholic.  France was a Catholic country in culture and in faith although the French governments had been aggressively secular for a long time.  Imperial Russia was officially Orthodox but it had, on its western fringes, a large Catholic population.  The United States had no official religion at all, but had a majority Protestant population with a large Catholic minority (and of course minorities in additional Orthodox and Jewish populations).

The Knights of Columbus taking convalescing wounded on a tour of Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, and particularly for countries like the United States and Canada (and the United Kingdom), confessional differences were very real and there was a real concern that minority Catholic soldiers in the US (and Canadian) armies would not have support facilities that reflected their faith.  The Knights of Columbus stepped up to the plate.

Indeed, the Knights were active prior to the United States entering the war.  They'd become involved early due to the concern noted above for Canadian soldiers.  This followed with the organization organizing support facilities for Catholic National Guardsmen who were mobilized to serve on the Mexican border during the Punitive Expedition.  So the organization had a head start for the American involvement in the Great War.

The role played by the Knights was similar to that played by the YMCA and the Red Cross in terms of rear area support.

The National Civil Federation

The National Civil Federation was a business organization that was founded in 1900 as a business organization dedicated towards working to resolve labor disputes.  Gigantic labor disputes have become so rare in the United States over the years that we've forgotten they even existed in the form that they once did. We've seen some of that story here, but suffice it to say they could be quite extreme in comparison to what we've seen for the past several decades.


The National Civil Foundation and the American Red Cross together formed the wartime National League for Women's Service which contributed the Women's Motor Corps to the war effort.  Perhaps the Women's Motor Corps is what it is best remembered for in the Great War context.

The WMC wasn't the only thing the National Civil Foundation did during the Great War, however.  It also operated domestic support facilities for soldiers.

Youth Organizations

The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts rather obviously contributed to the war effort through various efforts, including patriotic displays.  Both organizations, which we've discussed before, had martial origins in addition to being party of the Muscular Christianity movement.  That martial origin was particularly evident with the Boys Scouts which, as earlier noted, had a heavily military appearance at the time.

J. C. Leyendecker poster noting the Boy Scout's support of the Third Liberty Loan.

Some of this would repeat during World War Two, but not nearly to the extent that had been seen in World War One.  The Red Cross was of course highly active.  Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts reprized their earlier role.  But by World War Two the Army itself was prepared to take on the medical role that had fallen to the Red Cross and much of the home front support came from a new organization, the United Service Organization, which still exists.

It's interesting in that its a missed part of the Great War in a way.  World War Two, particularly in the United States, grossly overshadows the story of World War One so the huge civilian mobilization that the first war had seen has largely been lost in the mists.  But it says something about the war itself.  There were those who avoided it, to be sure, but the extent to which the civilian population self mobilized is truly remarkable.


*This strays way off topic, but the corrosive influence of large cities had long been noted and indeed was observed to be a primary facdtor in the destruction of democracies by Thomas Jefferson, who felt that large cities always gave rise to mobs and always ended up destroying democracies.  Indeed, in his writings he felt that the American democracy would ultimately fall prey to that fate and that it could only be staved off so long as most Americans were Yeomen Farmers.

The same factors noted by the founders of the YMCA and the YWCA lead to the formation of a
German Catholic organization with the same (male) focus, but whose name I unfortunately cannot now recall.  It also lead to a vareitiy of movements that sought to address or even redirect the forcdes that were in play.

1 comment:

Sheryl said...

It's fascinating how many different organizations provided support to soldiers in one way or another during WWI. I was aware of the involvement of the Red Cross - but had not previously realized that the various religious voluntary associations also had a role.