The YMCA During World War I

The History of the YMCA in World War I

A YMCA “hut” near the front lines.

When I was growing up in southern California, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was a gym where kids learned to swim and I took gymnastics lessons.

We called it the “Y” and I never gave any thought to its real name.

The distinctive YMCA logo also hung on a multi-storied building in downtown San Pedro, where it was known as the Army and Navy YMCA–probably because of Fort MacArthur and the Navy ships that routinely visited.

We had a YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association)as well and I learned to play the guitar there. Eventually, I learned the YMCA was an early supporter of basketball as a simple way to keep men entertained in a healthy fashion. That was about it.


But in writing a book about World War I,  I was surprised by the amount of work done by that same YMCA. They organized canteens at the front lines in France.

They entertained troops and provided writing materials in all the theaters of war. Run by “secretaries,”  their huts or tents were the only places of respite for many soldiers on the front lines. 

They began working with soldiers before the Civil War, according to The History of the YMCA in World War I. Predating the Red Cross (founded by Clara Barton but not chartered until 1900), the YMCA provided the major ministry to the military for many years.

World War I YMCA cigarette dog

YMCA cigarette dog

During the Great War, 90% of the “general welfare” work done for the troops was through the 26,000 paid staff. 35,000 others volunteered. The troops numbered over 4 million.

Nearly 1500 entertainers met with the troops in their off hours: singers, dancers, musicians. The huts usually had a gramophone and records. Dances were organized in big cities like Paris and London.

The YMCA had its own letterhead. It sold postcards, sundry items, and managed the mail. Volunteers sat with soldiers and helped them write letters home. Some taught French classes, others, hygiene.YMCA

The British sent out YMCA workers early in the war, and they huddled near the men in the trenches of France. Oswald Chambers served as a chaplain in Egypt and wore a uniform not much different from the regular Army officers.

Morale Boosters

The organization produced pamphlets with titles like The Christian Witness in War, and The Canadian Soldiers’ Song Book for religious activities. They stocked libraries, raised money back home in the US, and generally looked out for the general welfare of the troops.

General John Pershing endorsed the YMCA on a poster that appeared everywhere:

“I have [had] opportunity to observe its operations , measure the quality of its personnel, and mark its beneficial influence upon our troops and I wish to unreservedly commend its work for the Army.”

Young men overseas for the first time, away from home and facing death in wartime, needed reassurance. The military commands appreciated the YMCA units  because of their positive influence.

In some sectors, notably Cairo, venereal disease was a continual problem and the YMCA provided alternate and wholesome entertainment.

The YMCA rented three acres of Ezbekieh Gardens to provide roller skating, movies, swimming, eats, library (300 books) and a post office. Thousands of men flocked there each night after work. Church services and lectures were also provided.

Mobile canteens

Citation: A convalescent and YMCA camp for survivors, Baghdad, Persia, between 1917 and 1919 / Harold Weston, photographer. Harold Weston pa...

YMCA camp for survivors, Baghdad circa 1918

Mobile canteens in Europe made countless cups of coffee and tea, served donuts and provided cigarettes as needed. Most of their supplies had to be paid for by the soldiers, but in some areas, notably Egypt, tea was given away for free.

In France, the YMCA made arrangements for rest and recreation centers where particularly American soldiers could leave the front and relax away from the fighting.

The YMCA arranged for tours of historic locations in Egypt, and provided humanitarian services for prisoners of war after the armistice was signed in November, 1918. Many staff secretaries and volunteers stayed on after the hostilities ended to help sort everything out.

286 YMCA workers were injured during the war; six died while serving. Who knows how many caught the flu, but those working near the front lines suffered the same poor food, lice, and constant fear as the soldiers.

Truly, it was an act of service.

To see more WWI and the YMCA-related photos, check out my Pinterest board here.


A little YMCA history: WWI Click to Tweet

Atheists in trenches if the YMCA was there? Click to Tweet

Leave a comment


  1. This is a great post, Michelle! Thanks for bringing this to our awareness.

    The Y was also active in WW2, and earned, generally, much more affection than the Red Cross, in terms of accessibility and devotion to service.

    The Y where I learned to swim was big on history – it was almost impossible to go there and not become aware of their role in the World Wars.

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