An Account of the Work of the
American Young Men's Christian Associations
in the World War

William Howard Taft, Chief Editor.
Association Press, New York




vol I, pp 38-50



The days immediately following the entrance of America into the war on April 6, 1917, discovered two civilian agencies actively engaged in service for fighting men. The American Red Cross by its very constitution was an authorized national institution. The Young Men's Christian Association offered an extension of service which was accepted on the basis of its long experience in work for soldiers and sailors and its established official relationship with the Government. These two organizations represented two general phases of a single popular movement whose roots lie far back in history.

Though this record is concerned with one type of work, welfare service, the fields of activity of the two services were so closely related and the principles and conditions governing their growth had so much in common that some knowledge of the circumstances of their origin and the causes of their separate development is necessary to our understanding of the positions the two institutions came to occupy in America during the World War. Each appeared at the crisis in our history with a program covering a special phase of civilian enterprise that was not a mere device of the moment but the product of a long experience of men and women who had been working hard to embody active humanitarianism in service while their fellow-Citizens were still for the most part preoccupied with other affairs. these programs were the means by which spontaneous popular enthusiasm was transmuted into effective service



Of course, it is impossible to say when first the spirit of compassion moved human beings to turn to the assistance of comrades wounded in battle;but it is probable that the earliest organized relief agencies appeared in connection with those astounding migration known as the Crusades, that swept into a series of united campaigns the turbulent feudal barons of Europe.The same adventurous piety that misdirected so much energy to destructive purposes did inspire the formation of the earliest religious institutions devoted to the alleviation of suffering caused by war. Such orders as the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, pledged to the relief of the wounded and to the knightly protection of women enlisted in the same cause, arose during those dark and stormy days. To such religious orders must be awarded the honor of having originated systematic relief, as distinguished from mere individual effort; they stood as an unconscious protest alike against the evils of armed conflict and against the conception of religion that promoted so many barbarous struggles.

These same Knights of St. John, known also as the Hospitalers or Knights of the Hospital, the Knights of Rhodes, and the Knights of Malta, have had a continuous existence from 1070, or earlier. In 1879, the original order established regular hospital service under the Convention of Geneva. Two Protestant orders of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem derive their origin from the same source; the Prussian Johannisterordern, dating from the sixteenth century, and the Anglo-French order of St. John of Jerusalem dating from 1814. All served with honor in the World War.

The long period into which the Age of Chivalry merged (1300-1800) was the era of the professional soldier. The mercenary rose to a new position of importance; because, since the land levies owed their primary loyalty to the feudal barons, kings could be sure of having an army directly responsible to them only by hiring it. On the whole, the mercenaries were effective;because, although they were liable on occasion to desert to a more generous master, their training and experience made them formidable warriors when their interest was adequately secured. Such an arrangement, fairly satisfactory to all the parties concerned, developed into the situation where war became entirely the business of professionals who fought at the command of their sovereign employer.

Under such circumstances, there was nothing to arouse any popular interest in the general conditions of the soldier's life and all relief work remained in the hands of the religious orders. New orders like the Knights of St.George, originating in Bavaria, were established; but of greater significance is the rise and growth of the Christian sisterhoods. The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, established in the seventeenth century, is still the largest nursing institution in the world. The members of these sisterhoods devoted themselves in civil life to the care of the sick and poor, and it was by a natural extension of their service that they came to offer their aid to the sick and wounded in war. Sisters of Charity- a term now loosely used with reference to various orders-have accomplished on the field of battle a work which, both in the spirit that is its main incentive and in the results it has achieved, deserves the best appreciation that the historian may bestow.

The twentieth century mind, with its strongly secular bent, is most prone to forget that, through many vicissitudes, it was the religious impulse that kept the humanitarian impulse alive and that the first steps of secular humanitarian effort were made with support of both the Christian spirit and the technical skill of the religious institutions. The broad apprehension of social welfare that has created our splendid modern community efforts should be liberal enough to appreciate whence came alike the original inspiration for these enterprises and a large part of the present energy that makes them effective.



In the nineteenth century, the business of making war in the western world entered upon a new phase in a new set of conditions.

The Napoleonic campaigns ended the dominance of the professional soldier, while the spread of democratic ideas made it exceedingly difficult to wage war independently of popular support. War became more of a national affair.The rapid progress of science revolutionized the whole machinery of conflict while at the same time the advance in the art of healing opened new prospects in the alleviation of suffering. The rise of modern social humanitarianism, repudiating the idea of "necessary evils, " prepared the ground for leadership in the mitigation of the needless sufferings and privations of active service. This social movement began to move out beyond religious institutions, adapting the methods worked out by Christian agencies to the use of the whole community in schools, orphanages, hospitals, and asylums.Under such circumstances the civilian community first came to understand its responsibility for the well-being of fighting men.

The work of Florence Nightingale in the British Army during the Crimean War is rightly regarded as marking a turning-point in human experience.To gain a just comprehension of what she accomplished her whole career must be surveyed. The official medical service had broken down completely It was out of the question to plead the emergency; the death-rate in certain barracks in England was twice as high as that in the surrounding civil population.This determined civilian when she landed at Scutari on Nov. 4, 1854, with her corps of 38 nurses, backed by the goodwill of the nation, slipped in through a door inadvertently left open by inefficiency; once in, she proceeded to clean house. On the field, she brought order out of chaos, building up a system that was conceived on a scale adequate to the magnitude of the problem and at the same time comprehended the details of plain cleanliness and common decency. It is quite true that the men came to kiss Miss Nightingale's shadow as she passed; one said: "Before she came there was cussin' and swearin', but after that it was 'oly as church." When she returned to England, she allowed no one a moment's peace until the whole army medical system had been overhauled and reorganized. Her report, entitled "Notes Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army, " remains an authority on the subject.

Miss Nightingale's concern was not alone for the sick. New to the war experience, she could see no reason for the soldiers' deprivation of the ordinary facilities of decency. The army dragged along a train of camp followers who lived handsomely at the men's expense. The canteen concession was in the hands of "sutlers"-individuals who conducted their enterprise for their own welfare. Recreation was in the hands of men and women of even less creditable character. There was no recognition of any responsibility for offsetting the evil influences that met the soldier on every hand. Miss Nightingale opened reading and writing rooms. She bid for the soldier's spare cash through her own system of "home remittances"; she bid for his spare time through her educational lectures. With the meager means at her disposal, she was able to point to such definite results as a marked decrease in drunkenness and a substantial amount of money forwarded to soldiers' relatives. While it is just and proper to regard Miss Nightingale as the"Angel of Mercy, " the prototype of all Red Cross nurses, it must not be forgotten that the welfare worker, too, must trace the origin of such service back to that same determined woman who persisted in regarding the fighter as a man.

The Sisters of Charity were on the field with the French Army; they were not present in large numbers, but they went ahead with their work in their customary inconspicuous manner. Since the popular movement diverged shortly after the Crimean War, the further efforts of the Sisters of Charity lie outside the scope of this history; but it would be an ungrateful omission to fail to set down the fact that they have been present in every war since and that they are still ready for such self-sacrificing service as the future may demand. It should be recorded, also, that Florence Nightingale received most of her training at a deaconess' institute and spent much time in study of the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in France. The sisterhoods, in 1854, offered the only trained nurse available for service. She enlisted good workers wherever she could find them, and the character of her work tended to stimulate the development of the nursing profession beyond the walls of these institutions; but she never failed to acknowledge her debt to them in terms of sincere gratitude.

A considerable group of officers deeply resented Miss Nightingale's "civilian interference, " backed by the authorization of the civilian officials of the War Office. It was maintained that even if the situation was as bad as it had been painted-which was not proved- the army was capable of dealing with the emergency and that it was totally subversive of all military discipline to permit a civilian, an(l a woman at that, to interfere in the field of active operations. The sharp conflict that ensued brought out the contrasts in viewpoint that have been noticed in the preceding chapter.

In times of peace popular interest in the fighting forces as a rule runs very low. When in a period of emergency the veil is lifted, the sensitive civilian conscience is appalled by the hardships and moral dangers to which the thoroughgoing military mind is entirely pure . The brutality of war is seldom apprehended by the populace a hurls defiance to its enemies; it is regarded by the military professional as one of the standard elements in the situation. A certain amount of hardness is necessary in the business of making war. The whole civilian effort on the field becomes an outrush of compassion resulting very frequently in failure to appreciate the supreme preoccupation of a commander with the definite task of defeating the enemy.The civilian grows impatient over red tape, forgetting that the fighting establishments must be built up on the basis of orderly procedure and that even triplicate forms are of considerable importance at times. That some officers prefer to be correct rather than right is only one more proof that the insignia of rank are attached to human shoulders. A fundamental difficulty in cooperation of this kind is the inevitable massed resistance of a professional caste to the interference of amateurs; it is the same in business, in politics, and in religion. Miss Nightingale had to fight this at every step, but this has been the lot of all reformers.

The contrast between the civilian and the military mind must not be overstressed.Miss Nightingale could not have won through if there had not been on her side officers who not only appreciated the value of her work but also understood and welcomed the corrective of the lay mind. The two generations that have passed since her day have witnessed an extension of the civilian function that never could have been realized without the support of broadminded professionals.Even more striking than the service performed in the World Tar by relief and welfare organizations was the continued approval and support of their efforts expressed so forcibly by the commanders-in-chief and the leading generals of the Allied Armies.

This military approval has been granted for two leading reasons among others.

First of all, army and navy men have not been completely insulated from the life of the world; many of them have thoroughly sympathized with the humanitarian movement of the last three-quarters of a century. The relationship between officers and men is greatly improved as compared with the conditions existing in 1850, and many officers yield to no relief or welfare worker in the matter of concern for the well-being of men under their command.They know better than the civilian how monotonous and how arduous is the daily routine, what pain must be endured in the field under the best circumstances;they understand the moral dangers that beset these concentrations of young men in the fighting forces and they have felt the peculiar power of the temptations. Thus, they welcome all national relief and welfare work because it tends to make the lot of the fighting man happier and more secure. Even beyond the charmed circle of the commissioned, many an old-time sergeant, hard-boiled enough to suit the most robust taste, recognizes in his own distinctive manner an alliance with the civilian societies in dealing with those closer matters which are of such prime concern and importance to the"non-com " but which. generally, are beyond the ken of the newly created second lieutenant.

The second leading reason for military approval of these civilian services is found in the recognition of their military value. Relief and welfare work represent a humanitarian movement on the part of the community; in so far as they achieved their direct personal ends, they were satisfied. The military leaders, however, were bound to study the effect upon the main business in hand. Some have disapproved strongly, maintaining that the well meant efforts of the civilian agencies tended to impair the fighting efficiency of the men. As certain skeptics were sure Miss Nightingale was "spoiling the brutes, " so in the Spanish-American War there were American officers who were convinced that the comforts offered to wounded men by the Red Cross agents would make them unfit to bear hardship in the field. Such, however, is not the opinion of leading officers in America, Great Britain, and France.The general aims of relief and welfare work have been approved on the ground that they help keep the army and navy in fit condition.

From the strictly military point of view, it is this judgment that justifies permitting the civilian societies within the zone of active operations.Throughout all the centuries of war, the conservation of the fighting temper has been a problem ever present to the mind of commanding officers; in the World War, it became a matter of absorbing moment. On this question of the maintenance of morale, this history touches with the greatest diffidence;the considerations involved are exceedingly complex, and a complete account belongs within the province of a purely military work. Morale is not a magical creation of bandages, sweaters, chocolate, cigarettes, and vaudeville shows.It depends, first and foremost, on the character of the fighting men. Napoleon's armies, for example, remained firm under the inhuman strains to which they were exposed because they were composed of highly intelligent soldiers thoroughly committed to the cause for which they were fighting. The fighting spirit of his great veterans disappeared at last simply because the men were exterminated.American confidence in the warriors we sent to France or set to guard the dangerous sea-ways was based fundamentally on our belief in the courage and constancy of the boy themselves. Then, of course. morale depend upon a whole range of purely military conditions- proper training, adequate equipment, food and shelter, sanitation. effective leadership, and all the rest. Thebes of men will finally lose their stomach for combat if they are compelled to fight hungry and barefoot and short of ammunition, for commanding officers in whom they have lost all confidence. Many other elements are involved such as belief in the cause and the assurance of the support of their own people. Wavering national resolution leaves the army and navy hanging in the air. But, again to emphasize the heart of the matter, morale measures are designed simply to stimulate and to conserve a spirit that is the essential possession of the fighting man himself. We know that fine armies composed of brave men melted away in the World War because they were subjected to impossible strains both physical and moral, but we also are quite aware that certain forces in fairly advantageous positions proved ineffective through plain lack of intelligence and resolution.

No relief or welfare leader imagined that his organization supplied the power that won the war, and no military leader ever relied on these agencies to such an extent. Nevertheless, the military leaders did welcome these agencies as allies in the work of keeping men physically and morally fit.They were called upon to assist in providing extra comforts, physical and mental relaxation, and spiritual refreshment whose purpose was to relieve as far as possible the abnormal strain that developed to such disturbing proportions under the new conditions in the World War.

In order still further to guard against misunderstanding one other point must be emphasized.

The development of measures to promote the well-being of fighting men has not been, since 1860, wholly in the hands of civilians. Even before setting aside altogether those reforms that owe their accomplishment to popular movements, the military and naval establishments themselves have dealt in a large way with the human problem. All improvements in housing, sanitation, and equipment have played their part in mitigating the hardships of war. The A E F probably has no very pleasant recollection of its ocean voyages, but what would these trips have been in the accommodations of two generations ago ? Compare a modern camp like Camp Dix with those barracks where the death-rate was double that of the civilian population. The modern battleship is something quite different from its predecessors. The improvement in all services of supply have utterly changed the conditions of active combat. The manner of conducting field operations has in itself greatly reduced the excessive hardship of battle. In the World War, many new military measures were adopted to protect the forces from the bloodsuckers who drew their sustenance from the vital energies of the fighting man. The medical corps of today would probably please even Florence Nightingale.

Most of these improvements have been made during the period when civilians sleep; they are the professional warriors' contribution to the task of mitigating the horrors of war. While it is impossible here to trace the truly fascinating story of technical progress, every word of this history is set down with a full realization of how large a part the establishments have played in the difficult enterprise of humanizing the life of the fighting man.



The work of Miss Nightingale became widely known throughout Europe and America within a very few years. The story of its success acted as a strong incentive to those whose minds were turning in the same direction, and her methods encouraged imitation because they were so splendidly direct.

Henry Dunant, of Geneva, Switzerland, was with the French Army as an observer at the bloody battle of Solferino in 1859. It is believed that the extraordinary slaughter of men in this engagement completely unnerved Napoleon III and hurried him into the rather unsatisfactory treaty which he concluded with his enemies soon after. The horror of the experience moved Mr. Dunant to action. He knew of the pioneering effort in the Crimean War and determined to make the example effective in a larger way. His vivid treatise "Un Souvenir de Solferino, " (Geneva; 2d edition, 1862), became a kind of campaign document as he set out to arouse the public opinion of Europe. The result of his strenuous labors was the Convention of Geneva in 1864, called by the Swiss Government. Its aim was to bring the governments of Europe to an agreement which would make possible more humane treatment of the sick and wounded in war. The civilian appeared in a new rôle---the framer of rules of war that would permit workers unmolested to serve the wounded on the field of battle and that would guarantee some security for hospitals and ambulances. The International Red Cross Treaty was drafted at this convention and subsequently submitted to the various governments represented. More than forty nations have accepted this treaty, thus becoming in principle supporters of this humane code designed to mitigate the "needless severities" of war. Revisions proposed in 1868 and in 1874 were not adopted, but a fully revised treaty was accepted in 1906; and by the Hague Convention of 1907, its provisions were extended to maritime warfare. At the first convention in 1864, the Red Cross-the Swiss flag with colors reversed-was adopted as the emblem protecting relief work in the field.

It is fortunate that the founders of this movement did not rest on their oars at this point. They recognized that something more than signing a treaty was necessary to give full effect to the agreement. Plans were made at once for the creation of national Red Cross Societies, approved by the governments, organized for the purpose of providing equipment and workers to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the treaty. An International Committee of the Red Cross, with headquarters in Geneva, was established as a clearinghouse, but of set purpose no standard plan of organization was imposed;it was wisely foreseen that the work could succeed only if developed along national lines, with each country free to devise that form of operation best suited to its character and needs. Though the sanction of the government was expected in each case, the Red Cross Societies were designed to be popular agencies. "The Red Cross means not national aid for the needs of the people, but the people's aid for the needs of the nation.'' The societies have in general adhered strictly to their original purpose; they remain channels through which pours the energy of popular service.

The fighting man reaped early benefit from the new agent of relief. The societies were busy in the Franco-Prussian War (1870); the international touch became effective at once, for neutral nations poured in supplies of all kinds. It is no exaggeration to say that in every conflict since that date, the beneficent hand of the Geneva delegates has been felt.

The United States of America, preoccupied by the Civil War and separated from Europe by an ocean much wider in those days than it is now, did not join the movement, though American delegates were present at Geneva.

In the meantime, however, the United States Sanitary Commission was demonstrating in the Civil War the capacity of the American people for conducting the best type of relief work. This Commission gathered in the scattered efforts of the large number of "Soldiers' Aid Societies" that sprang up throughout the North on the outbreak of hostilities. Its president was the Rev. Henry W. Bellows, D.D. The United States Government, which looked upon the activities of the unrelated societies with some apprehension, finally recognized the united effort expressed in this Commission.

This work received the hearty support of the people. Its workers were recruited from all professions and gifts poured in from every source. Altogether over $3,000,000 was received in cash contributions for general support and more than $9, 000, 000 worth of supplies were donated. Its activities covered the whole range of supplementary medical and sanitary service.

In 1882, the United States signed the Red Cross Treaty. There ere reasons for this delay. Among them was a general disposition in official circles to feel that, after all, it was an affair for Europe--- a continent a long way from America. Not a few, too, feared the possibilities of an "entangling alliance." However, there was really no active opposition to participation;and when official inertia had finally been overcome by the persistent efforts of Miss Clara Barton, Congress took the necessary action. The formation of a national organization was, of course, deferred till the action of the Government seemed assured; but early in 1881 the prospect of early action appeared so favorable that the American Association of the Red Cross was formed on May 21st. Meanwhile America's delay in participation had deprived her generous citizens of the privilege of helping in Europe. During the Franco-Prussian War, Americans made lavish gifts which were largely if not wholly wasted because of the lack of an authorized agent to handle the distribution.The American Red Cross received full recognition by Congress and President Arthur consented to act as President of the Board of Consultation. The Society has been maintained always as an agent officially recognized by the Government of the United States.

Largely through American influence, the societies of the Red Cross extended their sphere of action to cover relief in time of national calamities-fire, floods, earthquakes, and pestilence. Other undertakings, too numerous to set down here, have been put in hand by this institution, which has secured and maintains a firm hold on the affections of the American people. Its auxiliary societies are found in every community in the country.

During the Spanish-American War the American Red Cross rose nobly to its opportunity.

In the World War, the Red Cross crowned its earlier achievements with a service whose magnitude startled the whole world This romantic story must be read elsewhere. The Society stands without question today as the most productive of all social efforts to bring the organized moral sense of mankind to bear on mitigating the horrors of war. The character, the methods, and the achievements of the Red Cross have largely determined the nature and limits of civilian relief work in war time. There is, as has been said, no sharp line of demarcation between relief and welfare; and the Red Cross Societies have in the course of the day's work done much that would be classed as purely welfare work. Dire need must supersede all formal agreements.But the main emphasis of this work lies in its chosen field and its position in the American forces was defined accordingly. The basic soundness of Red Cross principles commends the institution to the support of every friend of humanity.



While relief work was developing in the hands of the semi-official societies of the Red Cross, welfare enterprises entered the field from a different direction. As has been indicated, there was much individual effort in behalf of the soldiers and sailors of the western nations; but character and purpose of welfare work up to the present day has been largely determined by the experience and achievements of the Young Men's Christian Association. Reserving till later any account of the main developments of this society as a civilian organization, it is the purpose here briefly to summarize its war experience.

The Y M C A originated in London in 1844. Within a few years, this society of young men organized for mutual improvement on a distinctly religious basis had spread over Europe. Henry Dunant was president of the Geneva Association in 1859 and it may be said that through him the institution first came into contact with the war situation. The movement was planted in America in 1851, and in the Civil War first played any definite part in welfare work

The American Civil War was fought under conditions that involved popular interest of the highest intensity. The sharp moral tension of the preceding decades ended in a fratricidal conflict fought on no distant field but upon a wavering line stretched across the heart of the country. Every community in America was bound up with some sector of that line.

The Young Men's Christian Association was at this time a small group of local organizations federated loosely under their Central Committee.It held practically no property and employed no professional workers. The aim of the local organizations was largely evangelistic; they drew their impulse from the evangelical churches, which were in 1860 on the crest of a great wave of expansion and missionary zeal. The leaders of the New York Association saw in the volunteers who poured through their city a body of young men, drawn away from home to face the uncertainties and temptations of a soldier's life, in urgent need of spiritual sustenance. Realizing the extent of the undertaking as a result of their first efforts, they persuaded their Central Committee to call a convention. Fifteen Associations in the Northern States responded; and the Convention in October, 1861, created"The United States Christian Commission" to represent not only the Association but the whole Christian community. The Christian Commission was composed of twelve members; its chairman was George H. Stuart of Philadelphia, the chairman of the Central Committee of the Young Men's Christian Association federation.

Thus while the United States Sanitary Commission, which was itself heartily supported by the Christian constituency, turned its attention to relief work, the Christian Commission projected welfare activities-conceiving welfare, of course, in the character of the evangelical mission. The "delegates, "for by this name the workers were known, preached, held private interviews, and distributed religious literature. They represented the deep interest of that very large part of the community which regarded spiritual welfare as the matter of prime concern.

In the face of actual conditions, however, the work broadened almost immediately. These earnest evangelists recognized the need of "benefits for both body and soul." The 4, 800 delegates-all working without salary-addressed themselves to all sorts of social needs and assisted very actively in strictly relief work. They established tents as social centers, provided stationery and periodicals, and rendered all the thousand and one personal services that lie in the path of the civilian welfare worker.

pp 58-59:

The original program of the earliest days was steadily broadened. The conception of ideal manhood as a harmonious development of body, mind, and spirit transformed the actual work; physical, educational, and recreational facilities were extended to supplement the specifically religious activities and the spirit of service for all grew so as entirely to overshadow even a very proper zeal for the organization itself. All lesser aims became gradually lost in the large purpose of endeavoring to surround the fighting man with the opportunity for activities corresponding to the best elements in a sound home environment. The Y in the field has sought to serve no sectarian purpose;its facilities have been offered freely for worship of all kinds, and, needless to say, no discrimination has been made in the ordinary service it has performed.The point of development to which welfare work was brought in its hands on the Mexican Border represents the fruit of a long-continued effort through the years when there appeared to be no other agency willing to carry the responsibility. By the time America entered the World War, welfare work was defined in terms of the methods of this organization.

So much of history has been reviewed to show the historic processes through which the civilian services of relief and welfare developed. If the question be asked, "Would it not have been possible for the Red Cross to carry on most welfare activities?" the historian must simply answer, "It did not happen so." The field was divided by a long process of experience.