Friday 1 July is the 100th anniversary of first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the fiercest battles of World War One. As the country commemorates this and remembers those who lost their lives, Ken Montgomery, Head of International Affairs at YMCA England, looks back on YMCA’s civilian involvement in this battle and examines what we did as a charity to support troops for the duration of The Great War…
The Battle of the Somme started on 1 July 1916 and resulted in the loss of more than one million men from both the Allies and Central Powers. The UK is taking time today to remember all of those who lost their lives and YMCA is proud to be represented at these commemorations. Our trustees were involved in Thursday’s service at Westminster Abbey, in London, and will also attend a special church service in Manchester on Friday and it is an honour for them to be asked to do so.
Yet you may be asking, ‘why – and how – was the world’s largest youth charity involved in World War One?’.
Well, one of our main duties involved the running of War Centres by YMCA civilians in France and at home. These War Centres are now more affectionately referred to as YMCA Huts and they are one of the most striking elements of our history.
Over the course of the war, YMCA volunteers operated more than 2,000 of these huts, supporting troops in battle and also helping those who were not on the frontline. It was from here that YMCA ran its soup deliveries, taking fresh rations to the frontline and it was also from here that our volunteers served more than two million hot drinks to soldiers under shellfire. With 10% of our huts also operating under shellfire, this was no easy task.
However, our most famous ‘hut’ was actually in London and it was called the Shakespeare Hut. Based in Gower Street, near Russell Square, it ran from 1916 and was used as a place for entertainment but also for accommodation for soldiers and sailors who had nowhere to go in the capital. It was reported in The Times newspaper in 1918 that up to 2,000 men were sleeping in the hut every week. After the war, this Shakespeare Hut was used as student accommodation and eventually money raised from their rents went to form the New Shakespeare Company.
For those of you with an interest in military history, this hut is now being recreated by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (now located on the site where the hut once stood) and Digital Drama with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Designed to commemorate the lives of the servicemen who used, and the women who worked at, the Shakespeare Hut, you can watch a dramatic re-enactment of the opening of this building on 11 August this year. Tickets are available on the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s website.
But it wasn’t simply through the huts that YMCA was involved in the Battle of the Somme, so too were some of our residents.
Albert Mason was a resident at Central YMCA in London. He fought and was blinded in the Battle of the Somme and, after the war, was honoured alongside 300 other servicemen and 12 women for gallantry and good work in wartime. Led up to King George V, he was permitted a moment to talk to the monarch, an honour for someone of his standing.
Another lovely story about YMCA’s involvement comes from a mother of one soldier who wrote to us to say:
‘I want to thank you for what your association has done for my boy. When the war broke out he went to the Crystal Palace for his training and found the YMCA there a boon. He was sent to Blandford to complete his training and YMCA was there. He was drafted to Gallipoli and to his amazement he found the YMCA on the peninsular. He was wounded and sent to Suez where once more the YMCA was a great help to him and yesterday I received a letter from him from Alexandria to say he was convalescing and spending the whole of his spare time in the YMCA building.’
We are honoured to be involved in this year’s commemorations. If you have any queries about our work between 1914 and 1918, do not hesitate to email me.