In the early years of World War I, the conflict seemed a long way away from America’s shores. President Woodrow Wilson had pledged to do all he could to keep the United States neutral. But, finally, by early 1917, events had escalated to the point where on April 6, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany. The United States was still ill-prepared to field a well-trained army (although the Navy was able to respond to assist the British fleet). However, it would take some time for American troops under General John Pershing, to build up to the needed strength, be properly equipped and, once overseas, earn the trust of their British and French allies who had carried on bloody trench warfare for some three years.
American industry had been gearing up and had been shipping arms and other war materials overseas, with ships running the gauntlet of German U-boats that lurked off the American coastline. In Rhode Island, the Gorham Company manufactured hand grenades. Brown & Sharpe and Nicholson File made machine tools for other industries. Small naval craft, like submarine chasers, were built in shipyards around Narragansett Bay.
Rhode Island was a center of activity both for the military and for civilian contributions to the war effort, just as it would during the Second World War. The U.S. Navy had expanded its training facilities in Newport at the outbreak of the war, and by 1916, some 7,200 young men (and later some women) were in training. A year later, the numbers topped 10,000 in quickly built facilities on Coasters Harbor Island and Coddington Point. We’ve told the story in these pages of the Navy’s presence on Block Island and shared some of the activities of the Coast Defense forts.
The National Guard was quickly federalized and ordered to overseas service. Battery A of the Rhode Island Field Artillery, expanded to form the 1st Separate Battalion, RI Field Artillery, eventually went on to serve as the 1st Battalion, 103rd Field Artillery, an element of the 26th “Yankee” Division. On July 25th, nearly 4,000 Rhode Island soldiers paraded for a final time in Providence before heading overseas. To replace the departing National Guardsmen, a State Guard was mustered for home defense, consisting of militia units including the Varnum Continentals. Militiamen provided service throughout the war, including guarding the state’s key bridges.
Four divisions of the Naval Reserve in Rhode Island were sent on April 9, 1917 to Boston for training and eventual deployment. Forty members of the staff of Rhode Island Hospital also volunteered for service about the same time. Brown University donated four ambulances as civilians began lining to buy war bonds and contribute in whatever ways they could here at home. In all, nearly 30,000 Rhode Islanders would serve in the military. Nearly 700 died (many from influenza that swept across the world at the height of the conflict).
Our story this month is not about those who served under arms, but about civilians who volunteered to go overseas and offer some respite to the troops. These were the men and women of the YM and YWCAs, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, the Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board, and others who set out to, among other things, provide hot coffee and donuts, or a place where men could write letters home or play baseball.
The Red Cross, of course, was known for its nurses serving at hospitals near the front lines. Back at home, the organization supported the war effort with fundraising, wrapping bandages and helping families to communicate with loved ones overseas. This brief article doesn’t allow space to cover all the contributions of these organizations in detail, so we’ll pick two as representative: one of them with a Rhode Island connection, Gertrude Bray of Pawtucket. Born in 1888, she was a Wheaton College graduate. When the US entered the war, she was a 29-year old had has been worked for eight years as a clerk at a manufacturing company in her hometown. Within a matter of months, she had left work to volunteer overseas with the YMCA as a militarized member of the armed services (civilians who worked under the military). Bray was assigned as a canteen worker and was attached to the 167th Regiment of the famed 42nd Infantry, the “Rainbow Division”.
A journal she kept is in the Rhode Island Historical Society archives contains this January 15, 1918 excerpt she wrote before leaving for France:
After breakfast went to YMCA to clean things up. Found I had to sign up for a year instead of 9 months, they had made a mistake, so trusting the war would be over by that time I did, tho (sic) I don’t like the idea one bit. […] Really was quite homesick and still am so the thought of the year away from home sure does scare me.
Nine months later, Bray’s name crops up in an October 25th newspaper story about the YMCA’s efforts during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, which took place September 12 through 13, 1918. The article talks about how Bray and her fellow volunteers were turning out 10,000 donuts a day near the front lines for the American Expeditionary Army forces. Her bravery under fire (and many volunteers did wind up in the midst of heavy battles) earned her a commendation.
In her work at one of the YMCA “hutments” in Germany, she handled out writing materials to soldiers, helped them with their letters and offered emotional support supplemented with coffee, cocoa and the ubiquitous donuts. Hutments, by the way, ranged from well-built wooden structures to sandbagged revetments with the organizations sign hung in front. The Rainbow Division, to which Bray had been sent, earned its name because its members were drawn from units across the United States.
Bray herself earned the thanks and respect of the division troops for a special project she undertook: she began knitting the Rainbow Division insignia for members of the 167th Regiment (which came from Alabama). Using material found by the soldiers or which she was able to acquire in the nearby villages, Bray turned out numerous shoulder patches that the troops proudly wore. In her papers at the Historical Society are letters from soldiers acknowledging her kindness. After the war, she returned to her hometown and lived a quiet life. She never married and passed away in 1975.
The Salvation Army actually only fielded around 250 men and women directly overseas but their efforts gained recognition far beyond their numbers. Many supported those who went to France more here at home. Working closely with other volunteer organizations, the SA men and women provided similar services to those of the YMCA. In fact, they were so closely in contact, it was not uncommon to see a Salvation Army canteen truck that had expended its supplies of coffee and donuts pull out and be immediately replaced by a YMCA food truck. The organizations, of course, provided support to soldiers and sailors back at home. In Rhode Island, facilities in Providence and in Newport served the needs of the many servicemen passing through the state or those who were assigned to duty in the Ocean State.
The Knights of Columbus (KofC) also sent men overseas. Known popularly by the troops as “Caseys”, taken from the abbreviation of the fraternal organization’s name. The volunteers operated recreation and refreshment facilities and were perhaps best known for promoting the game of baseball as a morale booster, supplying equipment to soldiers and organizing games across Europe and at home. In fact, a number of famed professional ballplayers, themselves members of the Knights, volunteered their services and wore the militarized uniform for civilians with the K of C patch on the shoulder. Names like Johnny Evers of the Cubs, Tigers manager Hughie Jennings, and Cardinals manager Jack Hendricks were among the familiar sports figures who gave service to the troops, at home and overseas.
Here in Rhode Island, the KofC set up a recreation center on Block Island for the 300+ Naval personnel stationed there during the war (there was also a YMCA facility on the island).
Civilian men and women who volunteered to go overseas with the American Expeditionary Force demonstrated both patriotism and personal heroism. Many times they were confronted with the horrors of the war as they worked close to or even on the front lines. They supported the final victory in the best of our American traditions of service.
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