The Cobham (YMCA) Hut in Flanders

Cobham Remembers

As reported in the Cobham Parish Magazine in February 1916, the idea of a place where soldiers from the front could find some rest and relaxation originated from a letter received by Edwin Cawston from a Captain Wreford Brown as follows:

Sitting here in my tent looking out in a sea of mud and deluge of rain, thinking of my men who have been marched out five miles to a fatigue at which they will find it quite impossible to work, it strikes me that what is really wanted out here is some place adjoining each camp where the men can adjourn for a meal of sorts; in fact a YMCA hut or tent, any place in fact where they could get warm, and perhaps dry their clothes. It would be a really grand work if something of that sort could be organised.”

A man of decisive action, upon receipt of this letter Mr Cawston notified the Secretary of the YMCA that if a hut could be erected in that neighbourhood, he would guarantee to raise the funds to pay for it. Arrangements were then made to start the building, a site having been approved by the Military authorities, and a letter dated 9th January from France said: “the hut is now being built on the site chosen in the Ypres salient, on a spot surrounded by men and where the whole country is a mass of mud and water. I shall write to you later when the hut is in full running order.”

A list of subscribers towards the £600 needed included Sir Henry Samuelson of Hatchford Park (£50) and Mr T Sopwith (£20).

The hut was officially opened on 22nd February, 1916 by Brigadier General Carroll of the 17th Brigade of the 24th Division. A vivid report of the event was sent back in a letter to Mrs Cawston.

Long before the time of opening which was fixed to take place at 5.30 p.m., a long queue of men, four deep, was lined up waiting for admission, and in ten minutes after the door was opened, not a single inch of space was left unoccupied, so dense was the throng that over 100 officers, for whom seats were reserved near the platform, had to make their entrance by way of the nearest window to their seats, much to the amusement of the men, and the officers themselves. At 5.30 prompt the General briefly declared the hut open, then immediately followed a first-class concert given by Mr Harrison Hill and party who were chartered for this work by HRH Princess Victoria.”

The concert was unique in many respects; this was the first concert given by civilians so near to the actual firing line, and I assure you every item was enjoyed to the utmost extent, encore after encore being demanded by the men. Also a more than ordinary heavy artillery bombardment of the line had been in progress all day and continued through the whole entertainment; so loud was the cannonade that several of the items were rendered absolutely inaudible to more than half of the audience! In spite of all this the men greatly enjoyed the proceedings and at the close gave three hearty cheers in expression of their gratitude for the splendid prospects of “Somewhere to go” during the time they are out of the trenches and the inevitable mud.”

I have endeavoured to draw you a word picture of the great boon these places are to our brave fellows.”

Every night this hut is so densely packed that there is no room to move about and hundreds are compelled to return to their billets being unable to get in. Sundays are devoted to Services, C of E, Wesleyan, and in fact all denominations. On Sunday next I shall commence my P.S.A. Bible Classes, and every Sunday evening we have our favourite service of all, a free and easy sing-song, at which the men revel in their favourite hymns and the perfect eagerness to hear ‘The Message’ is encouraging to the utmost degree, and the words of appreciation one may hear afterwards is something to be treasured among the most sacred memories of this great work.” Victor Wm. Kane, Leader-in-charge.

Up in the salient” wrote an officer “ the life a man leads is a terrible strain, and he is apt to get run down, depressed – and this to my mind is fatal. If a man gets like that, he takes less care of himself and probably gets picked off…The money spent by you people at Cobham will bear good fruit. It will keep many a man on his legs. I can assure you, it positively saves men’s lives…This is a hard war – far harder than anyone at home can possibly realise. It is positively miraculous how anyone can possibly come safely through a real bombardment…. A hut of this sort is an absolute God-send – bringing comfort, and change, and cheer. I hope you will let the givers know how much appreciated is their generosity.”

On Boxing Day 1916 the Hut was beautifully decorated with holly, ivy and mistletoe. 700 men responded to the invitation to present themselves at the counter and draw tea, cakes and cigarettes. At 6.30 the counter was closed and a first class concert was given with the aid of the Regimental Band. “I know you will be glad to hear how the little event passed off, how crowded the hut was, and how thoroughly the men enjoyed themselves.”

At Christmas 1917 Mr. Cawston arranged that on Christmas Day those who visited the Hut received refreshments, etc., without charge. The Manager wrote expressing the men’s enthusiastic appreciation of this kindness on the part of ” their host.” And he adds “It was a great joy to be able, in some small measure, to bring a little pleasure and brightness to the brave men who visited our Hut on Christmas Day. Every man who came into the building on that day was heartily welcomed and the counter was thrown open, and each man received free gifts of tea or cocoa, biscuits, chocolate, apples, and cigarettes. Many of the men were just down from the line, and you can imagine how they appreciated this kindness. There was Service in the Hut in the morning, with a sing-song and games in the afternoon, followed by a grand ‘concert by a Divisional Concert Party in the evening. The Cobham Hut continues to be crowded day and night, and I can assure you that it never did better service than at the present time.”

Who was the benefactor behind this initiative? Born in Clapham Park, London in 1866, the son of a stockbroker, Edwin Cawston emigrated to the USA where he established the Cawston Ostrich Farm in California, the first such in the USA and the basis of his fortune. As well as producing the feathers prized amongst the fashion conscious ladies of the time the farm became a great tourist attraction featuring bare-back ostrich riding by the farm workers.

He returned to England in 1901 and the 1911 census records him as living in Leigh Court, then off Leigh Hill Road, with his third wife, Edith, and two children. A son by a previous marriage, George, then a boarder at Sandroyds School, subsequently served as a Second Lieutenant with the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and then the Royal Air Force and died in 1918. During the war years Edwin is mentioned many times in the Parish Magazine as chairman of various wartime committees and donating to good causes. He died in 1920.

Source: Cobham Parish Church Magazines 1916-18

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