Grandfather and his Sam Browne This is very long
Now if I had titled this, "What the WMCA did in World War One", would anyone bother to read it? But the "Y" did amazing things in that war, and in our more sophisticated world, and the many wars since, their deeds seem to have been forgotten.
It was a time of great patriotism. The ladies were getting together to knit stockings and make bandages for the troops. So many young men had enlisted to serve their country. Grandpa was 45 years old, too old for a soldier. His had a small photography studio, someone else could take it over. He enlisted in the YMCA and was posted mainly in Paris. I have some of the letters that he sent home to my mother. Unfortunately, some were lost. They are extremely fragile as they were written on cheap paper supplied by the Y. When I first inherited them, I transcribed them, delighting in the slang of the day. They do not tell of battles, but are directed toward home. He had a pixie sense of humor. "So, Leone (my mother), I see that you are studying art". (Arthur, her than boyfriend, soon to become my father)". They are the letters of a man very engrossed in his work, but always eager to hear from his loved ones. The letters have references in them that intrigued me enough to research that time. What would we do without the Internet?
The soldiers(?) of the Y, men and women, were called "secretaries". I have not been able to find out why, they certainly were not doing clerical work. An Internet article intimates that perhaps it was an honorific, like using the term, "Secretary of State". They were there to help the service men. They were in the training camps (in spite of the Spanish Flu epidemic that killed so many recruits), they rode the trains with the "doughboys" (the GIs of that day) to the embarkation point, they traveled on the ships that would carry them over the Atlantic Ocean where submarines were waiting to sink any American ship they could find. (The soldiers on the other side were suffering also, I would bet that they did not want to be there either. The only people to want war were those making money off of the sale of arms and ambitious leaders, safe at home. The Y men would do things like counseling, providing supplies, helping those that got seasick, and trying to keep up morale. When it was time to disembark, another Y man would be there for them. They were also in the prisoner of war camps.
For so many soldiers, that war was waged in trenches under terrible conditions. There was death all around them, mud, vermin, and, of course, lack of sanitation. A man might get "trench foot", so dangerous that they might lose their feet. More than 50,000 men were killed and almost a quarter million wounded. They fought under those conditions for many weeks before their time came for relief. So where were they to go? France did not want a bunch of "Yanks" looking for a good time, roaming the countryside. England did not want them as they had their own soldiers to worry about, plus soldiers from their colonies that were on leave. When the men heard that their leave was to be supervised by the YMCA, they were angry. Would they be expected to march in parades or to be preached at by that Christian Association? They got a wonderful surprise instead.
The Y had what they called, "The Program". They would take over, perhaps a large country estate or a resort and rehabit for the soldiers. There was no discrimination as to rank, the first man that arrived at the door might get the bridal suite, the rooms were all made as comfortable as possible. The men could sleep as late as they wished and there were the, oh so welcome, bathing facilities. When they awakened, they found their uniforms had been freshly laundered and their boots cleaned and polished. The dining room, always available, was set up with linen tablecloths and napkins. They ate off of china dishes and shiny silverware. They could have anything they wanted to eat.
If the soldiers were religious, there was a little chapel, if they were readers, a library. There was a little post office on the premises. Grandpa wrote that some of the soldiers came from rural areas and did not have education available to them. The Y men (and women) would write letters for them and see that they got to their loved ones back home. There were sports activities, hikes in the countryside, and if there were a lake, rowboats. Everyone looked forward to the evening activities; there were games that were great fun. Perhaps the most important thing the Y men and women did for these men was to just listen to them for as long as they wanted to talk. This was a time of great release and much happiness for these weary soldiers and they were different men by the time they were to leave.
Grandfather wrote that he was at one of the resorts on Valentines Day. There was a dance with a band, and girls. He took over the hot chocolate bar to let the young ladies who ran it, dance with the soldiers. He said that business was so brisk, that he was almost as tired as the soldiers.
He seemed to be bringing supplies and/or inspecting the different set-ups, and always taking pictures. I think that in some early letters that were lost,he probably told more about his work. He wrote about one of resorts run by African Americans. The Y itself was not prejudiced, but donations coming from back home seemed to set the tone for segregation, as that was the way America was in those days. Grandpa wrote how gracious these people were. They were famous for their donuts and he told how his Sam Browne was groaning when he left. The Y men and women wore uniforms. The Sam Browne was what they called their belts. The term was first used in the time when officers used their swords in battle.
A typical day? There were four Y men traveling through the Alps to get to another camp. He wrote of constant rain and how they "pulled down" the windows, which were probably made of isenglass in the automobiles of that day. The car stopped abruptly near the edge of the mountain road. The four got out of the car and pushed it to a safer place. They raised the hood, tightened and wiggled everything they could reach - nothing helped. Finally, in desperation, another look, and there was the problem, the gas tank was M.T. There were no other vehicles on their road under those wartime conditions. Grandpa always carried a tripod, the glass plates they used at the time to capture the images, chemicals to develop the pictures, and, of course, several cameras. All of the men had their luggage as well. It was a bit of a chore toting all that equipment down the mountainside. Still, he made the story funny in retrospect.
It was interesting to read his little vignettes of life in Paris, couples kissing on the streets, the ladies wearing rings on all of their fingers and thumbs, smoking so prevalent that if he stopped to aid someone, they would insist that he take a package of cigarettes in return. (He did not smoke.) He described the main train station as quite chaotic. There were cars, trucks, and horse-drawn vehicles clogging the streets leading to the station. When the station master saw that there was a Y man standing in line, he was escorted to the front of the line of passengers and given a first class seat, that is how respected they were in France at that time. The rural areas that he saw were very poor. He described the dirt floors, the absence of anything near a luxury, and how hard the women worked. He wrote that if France were to come back to its former self, it would be because of the women.
The Y men and women were explicitly told that they could not go anywhere near the battles being raged, but their goal was always to serve the troops. Grandpa was probably trying to take pictures, or bring supplies that were not available to the men otherwise. He had a deep, persistent cough all the rest of his life. Grandma told me that it was caused by mustard gas. 286 men and women working for the Y died, two women and four men were killed in action.
And then, the letter saying that he was in charge of setting up "The Program" in Metz. It was going to be exciting and that he would have much to tell in his next letter - that letter is missing - darn! But the next letter that survived, told of how he now had 17 people on his staff and his work was at last becoming easier. It would have been so wonderful to have all of the letters and to have been old enough to have asked questions about this period in his life. I was still so young when he died.
Finally, the war was over. There were many thousands of men ready to go home. There was often a long waiting period before they could all be accommodated. The Y set up schools to provide education during the wait, many bright, well-educated soldiers waiting to go back to America, taught in the schools. And then the Y men and women were also going home. Grandpa was asked to stay longer to help wind things down. His urge was to go home; he said that he would stay if they allowed his wife to come over and be with him. Strings were pulled and the papers were ready for her in a short time. I have the letters from the Y executive in Paris written to Washington and the approval of someone there. Grandma got to see a lot of France.
The photos that he took over there were the property of the YMCA, so there are just a few personal ones that he brought home. When I contacted the Y office in New York many years later, pictures attributed specifically to him, could not be located. But when I see the old faded, sepia photos on the Internet, taken under such rough conditions, I wonder if they were his work. I have a picture of Grandpa sitting on a canon after the war was over. He said that these big monsters were parked everywhere along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees; peace at last.
At that point, the government Armed Services command took over and they have been in charge of R & R (Rest and Recreation) for the troops ever since.