“Canteen Girls” in World War I

World War I YMCA Canteen II

 

The U.S. entered World War I a century ago next month, and this was a dramatic event.  Up until then, the U.S. had avoided foreign entanglements, taking the advice of our first President, George Washington.  Although thousands of men had volunteered for the Spanish-American War in 1898, that was a relatively brief skirmish and had little effect on the civilian population.  But our entry into World War I would demand participation by women as never before.

American women had certainly supported our combatants before, particularly during the Civil War, when the U.S. Sanitary Commission relied on women to knit, sew, and roll bandages as well as volunteer as nurses.   But women would fill additional roles in World War I, both here and abroad.   Women became train conductors, traffic guards, telegraphers, and telephone operators;  some went out into the fields to work as “farmerettes”, while millions of housewives voluntarily gave up meat on Mondays and wheat on Wednesdays as well as knit socks, vests, and scarves for our boys in the trenches.

But hundreds of young American women wanted to do more.  These women, what many historians refer to as representative of the “New Woman”, had already been supporting themselves as office clerks, teachers, or saleswomen, and many lived independent of their families.   Mainly white and with at least a high school education, they desired to play a larger part in the war effort.

Some volunteered  for the military, where they primarily were confined to either nursing or clerical work.  Some, though, found work as “Hello Girls!”, working as switchboard operators both in the U.S. and in Europe.   Some particularly courageous women volunteered as ambulance drivers;  this was particularly risky, as they were working close to the front as well as trying to navigate muddy, dangerous roads in perilous circumstances.

Many women went to work in Europe as part of private efforts.  A woman from Syracuse, Dora Sedgewick Hazard, for example, created a hospital unit to train and place local women in nursing jobs in the Endell Street Hospital in London.  A suffragist, she was contacted by a British suffragist, Dr. Flora Murray, to help recruit an all-female nursing staff.  Eventually, Hazard made arrangements for twenty women from central New York to get basic training and then travel to London as part of the “Hazard Hospital Unit” to serve as nursing orderlies.  The first group arrived in London in July of 1918;  while most of the women returned to their homes at the end of their six-month contract, others prolonged their stay to continue to care for soldiers after the war.

Hundreds of women also volunteered to go to Europe to staff YMCA Canteens.  These Canteens were established early in our involvement in the war to provide wholesome recreational facilities for American men either stateside or in Europe.   One of the big worries about sending American “boys” abroad was that they might get caught up in immoral activities (drinking and sexual dalliances) and come home with venereal disease (my grandmother’s uncle apparently caught “the Frenchwoman’s disease” and died a few years after the war).   The Canteens were set up to provide simple, non-alcoholic refreshments, such as cocoa and doughnuts, as well as offering a safe place to read American newspapers and magazines, write letters home, read, and relax.  While some of the Canteens travelled with specific Army units, and thus were little more than a tent, others were more permanent structures.

To provide our fighting men with another reminder of home, women staffers were hired.  They first had to attend a six-week training course, in which they were given lessons in singing, dancing, first-aid and French, then they travelled overseas on a military vessel.  One of these Y girls was from Syracuse, and she wrote home to a friend of the new adventures she was having.  She also took a camera with her, and her photo album from the time period shows her sightseeing in Paris as well as visiting devastated villages and abandoned trenches.

C848 f. 431 #215
A “Y Girl” with other people during World War I in France.

Canteen work, though, was difficult;  the female staffers had little time off, and many of them suffered from stress-related illnesses.  They were responsible for the daily routine of the Canteens, which were open 12 to 18 hours every day, as well as organizing dances and concerts for entertainment.  Living conditions also were less than ideal, as the photo above indicates.  Some of the Y girls found it difficult to walk the fine line between being a friendly face at the Y and turning into a  potential romantic partner, while others chafed at the demands of male supervisors.   The Syracuse girl mentioned above eventually chose to work for the Y in Paris as a stenographer rather than at a Canteen.

The Canteens remained open even after the Armistice, providing moral support to  homesick men eager to get back to their families, and the Y girls eventually sailed home as well.   Many of them remained active in their communities, particularly during World War II.

 

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