With Remembrance Day upon us, and marking 100 years since the end of the First World War, we pay tribute to the amazing work done during the war. Many millions of soldiers have served in war, and many lost their lives. Yet there were others who made brave contributions at the front, without even entering to battle. The Salvation Army was one of these groups.
During the First World War the Salvation Army played a vital role, not just keeping the home fires burning, but in supporting the morale of troops on the front line. The Salvation Army groups of many allied countries sent representatives to war ravaged countries, including France, where they set up canteens, rest facilities and hostels. Often these facilities were not far from the front line, and the Salvationists were themselves in great danger, but they served as friends, confidants and comforters to many troops despite the danger.
Salvation Army officers served as military chaplains. It was quickly realised that a significant advantage of Salvation Army chaplains was their ability to quickly assimilate because of the understanding of a military system.
Many of these chaplains were, in essence, first-generation Christians, having a personal experience of God through The Salvation Army. Some had come from “earthy” backgrounds and consequently could identify closely with the soldiers.
One of the unique characteristics of the early Army was that it spoke the same language and understood the common man. No doubt for many soldiers, some of them little more than boys, there was a sense of comfort and security about a man who could identify with and relate to them, yet still have that sense of being God’s representative.
Salvation, WWI and Doughnuts
When the news of America’s entrance to WWI first came, Commander Evangeline Booth sent a small contingent of workers to France to prepare for their work with the army and these Salvationists were there to greet the first United States troops upon their arrival. From then group after group of Salvationists sailed for France and established huts and relief stations behind the lines.
As a rule a group consisted of a man and wife (frequently the parents of a soldier) and four or five young women helpers. The work of these people was, as always, primarily religious, but a tremendous amount of relief work could be done as well. The young women cooked pies, cakes and other American foods in surprisingly large quantities, winning their way into the soldiers’ hearts by the well-known route. They carried coffee and sandwiches to sentinels on duty throughout the long hours of cold, wet nights.
One American newspaper reported: “They gave hot coffee to wounded men before they were taken on the tedious painful journey to a hospital further back. And, most of all, they gave comfort and courage to sick, weary and discouraged men.
“It is the women of the Salvation Army who are doing a large proportion of this work at the front. They are the only United States women who are carrying on work among the soldiers within range of the enemy’s guns. They are, in every case, women who have been brought up in Salvation Army families, and who have been trained for Salvation Army work. This training and their vast experiences among the sorrowing poor at home, fits them as almost no other training could, for the very work they are doing.”
One such young woman was Ensign Helen Purviance, attached to American First Division. Her job, along with the other Salvation Army “lassies” was to spread the “word of God”, provide entertainment and support the troops in any way she could. One of her fellow lassies, Margaret Sheldon, acknowledge that “We know that the boys need more than sermons and songs. They miss the care and the kindness of home and we want to give them a little of something as near like as possible.”
Bunkered down in their tent near the WWI front line in Montiers, France, In August 1917, as fighting raged around them and rain drummed down incessantly for weeks on end this couple of US Salvation Army lassies found that the camps had enough flour, grease, sugar and baking powder and hit on the idea of providing hot doughnuts to the drenched, war-weary soldiers. Essentially, they became the “Doughnut Girls”.
And, if necessity is the mother of invention, these Salvo women can literally claim to take the cake.
Using a wine bottle as a rolling pin and a baking powder tin as a cutter they fried doughnuts, seven at a time, in soldiers’ steel helmets on a 45-cm stove. Working late into the night they were able to make 150 doughnuts on the first day. The next day the number was doubled and continued to increase day by day.
After several soldiers asked, “Can’t you make a doughnut with a hole in it?”, Ensign Purviance had an elderly French blacksmith improvise a doughnut cutter by fastening the top of a condensed milk can and camphor-ice tube to a wooden block. Later, all sorts of other inventions were employed, such as the lid from a baking powder can or a lamp chimney to cut the doughnut, with the top of a coffee percolator to make the hole.
A while later, when fully equipped for the job, they fried from 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts daily, as did other lassies along the frontline trenches.
When word got around up to 500 soldiers at a time queued up for their treat in ankle-deep mud outside the Salvos’ tent. The doughnut gave these soldiers a little piece of home in every bite and took away the troubles of war.
Among thousands of letters and messages of thanks from grateful servicemen, the following is typical: “To the good ladies and gentlemen of The Salvatation Army: Will you permit me to express my thanks to The Salvation Army for what it did for me and the men of my company while serving overseas. It would be absolutely impossible for me to tell in words what I feel in my heart . . . Did you ever meet a real angel? I did, and she had two big baskets of doughnuts within 800 yards of the firing line and, believe me, it was real firing line. I myself ducking like a monkey in a hail storm, and the angel only smiled.”
When the world went to war, The Salvation Army was there.