Putting the Shakespeare Hut into context

By Alison Horne from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

During the First World War rest huts were set up by various voluntary organisations, most notably the YMCA, the Church Army and the Salvation Army to provide services for soldiers. However, their work of spiritual regeneration through social reform and promoting Christianity began long before the war broke out. They all aimed to improve the lives of soldiers without profiteering so they were allowed by the army to continue their work with troops.  The army had traditionally provided canteens run by private contractors with the majority of the small profit being given to the Army, so the voluntary organisations slotted in fairly easily.

Soliders in garden

The YMCA, in particular, had a lot of experience of working in partnership with the army. Even in the 1890s (as the Soldier’s Christian Association) it had huts, tents and marquees in British army camps all around the world where they aimed “to keep the Troops happily employed during the hours of leisure; to relieve the monotony of Game…, (and) to provide counter-attractions to all places of evil resort.” [1]

After initially being viewed as an indulgent luxury the Army soon came to realise the importance of the rest huts in providing decent food, non-alcoholic drinks and entertainment as:

“they helped to keep men fit, prepared for battle and out of trouble while on leave. On the western front huts countered the perception, shared by many soldiers, that the object of a visit to a French city is one of two: boozing or visit(ing) the red lamp.” [2]

The huts provided an invaluable service to soldiers at home and abroad, often being the only place where they could buy food (camp food was usually very basic) and items such as cigarettes, razor blades, newspapers, stationary, candles, biscuits and chocolate.  The services offered were varied, ranging from religious services, lectures, concert parties, film shows, music recitals, games, or just a place to read, rest, socialise or take respite from military duties.

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Some even had a wives’ room where women travelling long distances to meet their husbands could wait and take refreshments. Some huts had particular purposes such as the Shakespeare Hut, or were established for soldiers of particular nationalities such as the Eagle hut on The Strand which was set up for US soldiers.

At home, the rest huts were usually set up near railway stations in large cities for use by soldiers on leave travelling to and from the front. The YMCA alone set up 4,000 rest huts at home and on the various fighting fronts. The journey to and from leave was often long, arduous and subject to long delays. The soldier granted leave had to travel to the nearest railway station, often on foot and carrying heavy equipment. In theory he was supposed to be allowed a bath and issued with clean clothes before he left but this often did not happen. The rest huts were a godsend for the men making these long and difficult journeys and provided food, a clean bed and a place to wash and shave.

For those fighting in more distant countries, spending leave at home was impossible. R Loudon stated in his wartime journal that when he and his friends were stationed in Egypt they happily made use of the YMCA hut where they could buy cups of tea and food very cheaply. He and his friends spent most of their leave “in Cairo, or Heliopolis, in the YMCA canteen, or the Empire Club, run for soldiers by Australian ladies who give their services for free. The club was a very attractive place with reading rooms and a cheap refreshment room.” [3]

As R Loudon explained, for young soldiers going abroad for the first time it could be an intimidating experience. “We were advised always to go in groups, as solitary soldiers might be robbed or even murdered and thrown into the Nile if they strayed too far.”[4] The rest huts were a safe haven for these soldiers most of whom had never travelled far before and were not very street-wise.

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Even for the soldiers on the Western Front who were able to go home for leave there were many dangers. Men collected their outstanding pay before they began their leave so they were attractive targets for unscrupulous people. On 31 December 1915, The Times reported “in a number of cases soldiers who have arrived from France with their accumulated pay in their pockets have been waylaid outside Victoria and Euston railway stations and robbed.”[5] The Times reporter referred to a number of cases relayed to them by representatives of the YMCA where they claimed soldiers had been drugged and robbed by prostitutes. The subsequent police investigation revealed no evidence of drugging and they received no direct complaints of such by soldiers, but it’s clear that they were vulnerable when drunk and were often robbed.

The YMCA and other organisations worked to help protect soldiers from exploitation but they were also part of a strong moral lobby at work on the home front. From 1915 concerns about the high rate of alcohol consumption by civilians and troops steadily increased within the church, government and temperance movement. The church and temperance movement called for the introduction of prohibition and there was a prominent anti-drink campaign in the press.

The government, although not in favour of prohibition, took steps to reduce alcohol consumption with the introduction of the Licensing Laws. This failed to satisfy The Strength of Britain Movement which continued to call for prohibition. There were real fears on the home front about moral breakdown and the disintegration of society. In a letter to The Times dated 25 January 1917, D Paton of Glasgow University, writing in support of prohibition, asked, “Are those who have given themselves at such sacrifice of their country to be exposed to the very real danger of temptation to drinking and drunkenness?”[6]

One of the reasons why rest huts were popular with the army, government and general public is that they were a seen as a positive environment and a good alternative to pubs, estaminets (French cafes selling alcohol) and brothels. Rest huts were imbued with upper and middle class values and viewed as respectable places for soldiers to visit and a way to keep them off the streets and away from trouble. During the First World War the rate of venereal disease was very high and was a cause for concern for the army as 80,000 British and Dominion soldiers needed treatment for it in 1918.[7]

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Another reason for the popularity of rest huts on the home front was the fact that they allowed the public to feel they were part of the war effort in raising money to build them and in volunteering to work in them. As the war progressed the divide between civilians and soldiers grew as civilians couldn’t really understand what was happening on the fighting fronts or what terrible conditions the troops were enduring. Newspapers were heavily censored and gave a distorted view of life at the front. Soldier’s letters home were censored by the army which obviously discouraged explicit accounts of life at the front.

Perhaps more importantly, many soldiers just didn’t want to tell their families and friends at home what they were going through as they didn’t want to worry them. As RI Smith wrote in his journal “I never told them anything of the hardships we endured. I loved my mother too much to cause her any anxiety.”[8] Tom Macdonald described his experience of leave:

“When I walked the old streets and met old friends, the first thing they would say was, ‘When are you going back?’ and ‘Do you like it over there?’ They had no idea of the conditions and it was stupid to try and explain.”[9]

There were reports of some soldiers even returning to the Western Front early because they felt so alienated at home and they missed the comradeship of their fellow soldiers.

The fact that the majority of the YMCA workers were women probably helped to reduce this growing divide. In publicity campaigns the YMCA described it’s huts as ‘Homes Away from Home’[10] and The Salvation Army advertised its huts as being run by “’motherly women’ volunteers. [11] The YMCA recognised the value in employing women and 350 women worked in the Shakespeare Hut alone:

“What a difference it makes to the atmosphere of a canteen of the YMCA, when she serves behind the counter, taking a sisterly (if young) or motherly interest (if of maturer years) in the men and never once have I found it abused and the roughest of men are most chivalrous and an oath is never heard inside, however prevalent they may be outside.”[12]

A lot of effort was put into making the huts look homely with the inclusion of curtains, tablecloths, plants, flowers, pictures and other touches to give them a domestic feel. The voluntary organisations, government, army and general public were keen to keep soldiers away from vice and immorality. The war bought about so many dramatic changes in a short space of time that a real fear of moral decay grew on the home front. Receiving care through the rest huts and other services such as station buffets and leave clubs was vital for the troops but also important to the general public, as they needed to feel they were giving care to soldiers and showing solidarity with the front.

The rest huts of World War One provided an essential service to soldiers and helped to keep up morale in the most difficult of times. On a practical level they were a space to rest, sleep, eat and wash and shave. However, they also tried to satisfy the need for entertainment, education, culture, welfare and spiritual support, companionship and be a respite from the horrors of war. The YMCA clearly did its best to live up to its motto of ‘Mind, Body & Spirit’ in its attempts to fulfil these needs in the men who used their services.

[1] Leeds University Library, Liddle Collection, YMCA Papers, Executive Committee of the National Council of YMCAs, ‘National Plan of Campaign’ work now being planned, 9 August 1914. Quoted in Reznick, p.19
[2] Leeds University Library, Liddle Collection, Papers of Signaller J Cockcroft, Cockcroft to an unidentified individual, 14 July 1917. Quoted in Reznick, pp20-21
[3] [4] Imperial War Museum Loudon, R, journal – 87/17/1
[5] The Times, 31 December 1915
[6] The Times, 25 January 1917
[7] Fuller, JG Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, p.75
[8] IWM Smith, RI, journal – 86/36/1
[9] Tom Macdonald quoted in Brown, M, ‘Take me back to dear old Blighty!’ Tommy Goes to War, (Tempus Publishing Ltd., 2001), p.157
[10] Reznick, J.S. Healing the Nation, pp 21
[11] McKenzie, F.A. ‘Mothering the Men in Serving the King’s Men: How the Salvation Army is Helping the Nation, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1918), 11ff. Quoted in Reznick, p.22
[12] Gadd, A.J. Under the Red Triangle, (Gateshead: R Kelly, 1918), pp.14. Quoted in Reznick, p.23

Image credits: All YMCA images supplied courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

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