By Michael Page (Surrey History Centre) and Sue James (Sutton High School)
The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded by George Williams in London in 1844 to minister to the practical, spiritual and intellectual needs of the multitude of young men flocking to the capital and within a few decades the organisation had spread across the globe. During World War I the YMCA provided rest and refreshment facilities to troops on the frontline or at home in military camps and railway stations through a vast network of huts and canteens. The YMCA centres were staffed by approximately 1,700 volunteers; many were women coordinated by the YMCA Ladies Auxiliary Committee.
One such woman was Constance Elsa Chambers-Smith. Elsa was born in 1892, in Dalton-in-Furness, to Charles Chambers and Sarah Ann. Charles was a lawyer and civil engineer, who worked for Sutton Urban District Council and his daughter was admitted to Sutton High School in October 1897 at the age of five, when living at Thirlmere, Sherwood Park, Sutton. In 1911 the family home was Daneghyll, Camborne Road, Sutton. Elsa left the school in 1909 but for the spring 1917 edition of the Sutton High School magazine she contributed a wonderfully vivid article describing her work ‘With the YMCA ‘somewhere in France’’.
I have been for the last ten months at the YMCA Headquarters at the Advanced Base of the British Armies in France, this being the nearest place up to the Line that any women (with the exception of a comparatively small number of nurses at the Field Dressing Stations are allowed to go. All the YMCA Huts in France are controlled from this town, each group of huts having a local headquarters, and the whole of these local headquaters being supervised from the Advanced Base. The huts number several hundred spread over a large area, back to a hundred miles or more behind our lines; and they extend to in front of our own guns, in the shape of ‘dug-outs’ in the front line trenches.
As you no doubt know, the YMCA is doing great work. It has followed all our Expeditionary Forces in France, Flanders, Salonika, Egypt etc, and provided huts, where our men are made welcome when off duty – irrespective of creed or social position – and where they can be out of the mud and rain or the hot sun to write letters, rest, read the newspapers, magazines and books. Recreation inf the form of billiards, chess, draughts, dominoes and so forth are provided, and concerts and lectures are organised at frequent intervals. Refreshments are always on sale, practically at cost price; as also many kinds of smaokes and the necessaries the men require, such as bachelors’ buttons, indelible pencils, soap, shaving sticks, bootlaces, nail brushes, to mention only a few of the many lines stocked; and it is the first and by no means easy duty of a new worker to klearn the prices of all these articles. Writing materials are provided free; and to show how this latter feature alone is appreciated, I may mention that the cost to the YMCA for stationery alone for the men is close on £1,000 a week. One hundred thousand men, it is estimated, use our huts daily, and as many as 27,000 penny tickets for various requirements have been sold in single huts in a day.
None except those who have been at a Base Camp can realize what a boon these huts are to the soldiers, and also the men who are continually passing through the towns. It is difficult to describe how monotonous this camp life is for our soldiers in a foreign country, with practically no distractions to relive the tedium of the daily routine. These camps are often towns consisting of bare huts or tents in quagmires of mud, or they may be a cluster of tents near a small village miles away from anywhere; or again, they may be ‘rest camps’ for men down from ‘the line’ with a contually changing population; or perhaps they are huge convalescent camps, to which men who have not had a ‘Blighty’ wound are sent when they leave a Base Hospital, to be made fit again as soon as possible. Wherever he is, however, Tommy is a wonderfully cheerful soul, although he does ‘grouse’ a good deal at times; and he deserves all the help we can give him in the way of comforts and distractions.
There are some seventeen huts within a radius of this town, most of them situated in the camps round about. The most interesting huts, however, are those at railway stations, for there one comes in contact with every kind and class of men from all parts of the Empire who are on their way to or from the Firing Line, or are being transferred from one part of the Front to another.
I was serving at one of these huts the other night. It was packed with men who had arrived from the Line, and who had to wait till four o’clock the next morning for their train to take them to another part of the Front. They looked dog-tired, and were of course muddy and dirty beyond words, with their steel helmets on askew (they very seldom are on quite straight!) and their packs on their backs. The first thought was of course to get some of the hot tea or coffee (which is always ready in huge urns) together with some bread-and-butter, sandwiches, cakes, etc, and they quickly formed up in a long queue to await their turn. Their inner wants being satisfied , they lay down on the floor to snatch a few hours’ sleep, and soon the whole floor of the hut was nothing but sleeping men.
One of the things one realizes so much more here that at home is the tremendousness and magnitude of the War. There are seemingly such inexhaustible numbers of men and quantities of material everywhere.
When I was pouring out about the 20th bowl of tea the other evening, some New Zealanders came along from the train and spoke to me in broken French (as so many men do who have been ‘up the line’ for many months and out of reach of the Red Triangle). They could hardly believe their ears when I replied in English. They told me they had not spoken to an English girl ever since they left New Zealand eighteen months previously. One often comes across men who have similarly not seen an English girl for many months. I was giving tea and cigarettes on a Red Cross train not long ago. One of the men called out ‘Oh! Do say something. We’d rather have an English girl speak than the cigarettes’, and that means something from a Tommy to whose heart ‘fags’ are very dear.
The huts are visited at intervals by Concert Parties organised by Miss Lena Ashwell, the expenses of these parties in France being borne out of YMCA funds. The artistes are received with storms of enthusiasm and delight, and the men crowd the huts to suffocation to hear them, even climbing on the rafters and blocking up the window openings; and as they all smoke, the atmosphere at the end of half an hour can be better imagined than described. The Association also brings out well-known lecturers and entertainers, who are also greatly appreciated.
The men organize debating and literary societies, concerts and ‘sing-songs’, which are also held in our huts. They very much enjoy hearing one another’s efforts (some – although not all! – of which are first class), and will applaud to the echo the performance of a favourite ‘pal’ which they have probably heard a dozen times before. At one of these concerts I was greatly surprised to meet a Suttonian – an officer in the Royal Engineers – who has organized an excellent pierrot troupe among the men of his unit. As may be imagined, we had a long talk about mutual friends at home.
We have built cinemas in many places, and the profits from these are devoted to work for disabled soldiers in England, employment being found for 1,000 each month.
One part of our work which is not generally known, is the provision of hospitality free of cost to the relatives who come out to see soldiers in Base Hospitals, who are too dangerously wounded to be removed to ‘Blighty’. Some of these people have never previously left their native villages, so that they have to be looked after all the time. We meet them on their arrival by the boat and look after them until their return, entertaining them at one of the numerous hostels provided for the purpose at the various hospital centres.
One of the hospitals near here which I visit is a large one under canvas. Each ward is a huge tent with a wooden floor, and lit by electric light. The patients are always so pleased to see visitors. They like to tell of their experiences and how they were wounded, and where, and all about their homes and their families. Near to the hospital is the British Cemetery, where over 1,000 British soldiers lie buried. The graves, beautifully kept, are in long rows, each having a plain wooden cross, giving the man’s name and regiment. On some, however, are just the pathetic words, ‘Unknown British Soldier’.
I can truly say that I shall never forget the experiences I have gained out here. There is so much that one cannot write down, and so much which it is not permitted to write if one could. I shall always be grateful for having had the chance of seeing and doing what I have seen and done. The memory will remain with me always.
After the war, Elsa married Pierre Henri Larue in Marylebone in 1922.