YMCA and other British volunteer organisations 1914-1918

In addition to the social support provided by the army in the form of the Army Chaplains Department and the Expeditionary Force Canteens, several other – principally religious – organisations provided facilities of enormous value to the troops.

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

Within ten days of the declaration of war, the YMCA had established no fewer than 250 recreation centres in the United Kingdom, providing a cup of tea, sandwiches or other refreshments, perhaps some reading materials. Many of these centres were at or near railway stations or other places where large numbers of troops would be passing.

In November 1914, the first YMCA contingent went to France and organised similar centres at Le Havre. Later, they were also in operation at Rouen, Boulogne, Dieppe, Etaples and Calais (the principal army bases), Abbeville, Dunkirk, Abancourt (railway junction), Paris and Marseilles. Eventually there were numerous such centres in each of the places mentioned, and another three hundred along the lines of communication. Vast quantities of refreshments were served out to troops on the move: for example, one centre at a railway siding at Etaples served more than 200,000 cups of cocoa each month.

On 30 June 1915, YMCA received permission to establish a centre within the area of army operations. It opened a centre at Aire, then the location of HQ of First Army. By the end of the year, small centres were in hundreds of places close to the front. As the pictures on this page show, some of these were very close to the firing line, providing a welcome refuge.


The YMCA staff was largely voluntary; mostly female but with some male staff who were over military age or below the medical requirements for active service. It appears that the man standing central, with helmet, in the image above is a YMCA worker. At any time, some 1500 YMCA workers were in France and Flanders alone.

June 1915 saw the YMCA open a hostel in France for the use of relatives, visiting dangerously ill men. A YMCA car met the visitors at the port and took them to see their soldier relative. There were in the region of 100-150 such visitors each day.


The Church Army

The Church Army opened a hospital at Caen as early as September 1914. Tents and later huts were provided at many camps and barracks in the UK, and gradually into all theatres of war such that by 1918 there were some 800 huts in France and Flanders, manned by more than 800 workers. Some of these were simply quiet places for reflection and escape, others provided refreshments, writing facilities, and the like.

Church Army hut

Scottish Churches Huts Joint Committee

The Church of Scotland’s Guild established 25 centres, manned by 350 workers, in France and Flanders

The Catholic Club

The Catholic Club and the Catholic Women’s League – two organisations which amalgamated in 1918 – began work at the bases in 1915 and by 1918 had established 26 centres including one at the major ammunition handling depot at Audruicq.

Salvation Army

The first “Sally Army” contingent left to join the BEF in August 1914 under “Lieutenant Colonel” Mary Murray, but having got itself to Brussels found it somewhat difficult to reach the British Army that was by then involved in the retreat from Mons. The Salvation Army presented five motor ambulances to the Red Cross in November 1914 – the first to be used by the army. Gradually more were added until finally there were 30 “Salvation Army Ambulance” vehicles and a complete section of drivers.

A large number of huts and centres similar in nature to the YMCA ones were also established, as was a “Relatives War Graves Visitation Department”. This organisation not only enabled grieving relatives to visit graves, but took photographs for those unable to make the journey.

Toc H

This Christian organisation grew from a war time development. “Toc H” is a form of signals shorthand for “TH”, for “Talbot House”. Named after Gilbert Talbot, to whom there is a memorial at Sanctuary Wood near Ypres, the old house was acquired on 11 December 1915 by Reverend Philip “Tubby” Clayton and turned into a place of quiet refuge – an “everyman’s club”, as Tubby called it. Many thousands of troops visited the old house, which is in Poperinge, for relaxation, a cup of tea, a read of the papers. For some, it became a place of religious worship as the loft was constructed into a chapel. The legend of Talbot House is best understood by visiting it, for it remains open today. A second, smaller Toc H was also opened in Ypres.


While the volunteer workers were in the main well out of the dangerous zone of the front lines, some met their deaths through enemy action (air raids, principally); others died accidentally or of sickness contracted while overseas. They are commemorated in the cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the same way as the soldiers. Here are two examples:

YMCA Church Army

Tip: medals and records of service

The volunteers who worked for organisations like the YMCA and the Salvation Army overseas qualified for campaign medals and they can be found in exactly the same way as searching for a soldier. Records of service and activities are, given the nature of the organisations and work, inevitably rather more difficult. The University of Birmingham holds the YMCA Archives

Temporary war buildings used by the YMCA, Victoria Hut, Grosvenor Gardens. IWM image Q28734.
Temporary war buildings used by the YMCA, Victoria Hut, Grosvenor Gardens, London. IWM image Q28734.


Other aspects of the order of battle

Women’s organisations