Hot doughnuts and the front, Rhode Island and the First World War

In keeping with the Society’s year long theme of Rhode Island at War, I decided to spotlight the Gertrude C. Bray Papers, MSS 303 in this blog post as well as a physical exhibit housed at the RIHS library from April 18 – May 25. This collection not only highlights the sacrifices of the men who were called into action during World War 1 but also the men and women who provided  much needed relief to the soldiers through staffing YMCA canteens across France and Germany.
But first a little background…
On February 3, 1917, President Wilson announced to a joint session of Congress that the United States had broken diplomatic relations with Germany[1] and on April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. A month later, President Wilson signed the Selective Service Act which provided the means for raising an army of men between the ages of 21 and 31. By June 5, Rhode Island had registered 53,634 men and the state was ordered to furnish 1,801 to the new National Army[2]. According to Rhode Island History, when war was declared in April, “…the state contributed 28, 817 troops, of whom 612 died.”[3]
Because of this, Rhode Island was left without a National Guard.  In the Guard’s place, the protection of the state came under the independent and chartered organizations such as the First Light Infantry and United Train of Artillery [4].

 Events local to Rhode Island during World War 1[5]

February 10, 1917:
Brown University contributes 3 ambulances to American Field Ambulance Service in France
February 17:
Military guard is established at principle bridges of state
March 23:
War Department orders Battery A to recruit to full strength
April 9:
Four divisions of Rhode Island Naval Reserves leave for Boston for training ships
May 5:
Forty staff members of Rhode Island Hospital volunteer for service in war
May 21:
Miss Helen Sweeney, Providence, enrolls as yeoman in United States Navy
June 15:
Rhode Island subscriptions to Liberty Loans total nearly $26,000,000
July 4:
Celebration of Fourth of July in Providence quietest in years on account of war
July 14:
Several registration delinquents are held for Federal Grand Jury
July 25:
Rhode Island troops make final parade in Providence before going to camp, with 3,898 in line
August 8:
Thomas Healey of Providence is first Rhode Island alien to volunteer for new National Army
August 14:
Providence Journal starts tobacco fund for “Our Boys in France”
August 24:
William G. Rich, a Woonsocket lawyer, is arrested by Federal authorities on charge of making false statements to help J.H. Williams evade the draft
September 5:
Rhode Island first increment of new National Army, 111 in all, leave for cantonment at Ayer, Massachusetts
September 23:
“Camp Library Week” opens a campaign to provide reading material for army cantonments
September 24:
United States grand jury indicts 16 as alleged draft violators and 11 for supplying liquor to men in uniform
Gertrude Cottrell Bray (1888-1975) was the daughter of Ferdinand and Mary T. (Cottrell) of Pawtucket, R.I. and was a graduate of Pawtucket High School and Wheaton College (1909). Prior to her deployment to France, Bray worked from approximately 1909-1917 as a clerk for William H. Haskell Mfg. Co. , a nut and bolt manufacturer located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A letter sent to Bray from her former employer gives us a sense how the nation pulled together in an effort to defeat the German Army and to give support to one of their employees.
MSS 303, Box 2, Folder: February-March 1918
On January 26th, 1918, Bray began her service as a militarized member of the Armed Services YMCA of the American Expeditionary Force in France and Germany. As a canteen worker, Bray was attached to the 167th Regiment of the famous 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division under Colonel Douglas MacArthur.
The following excerpt is from a journal kept by Ms. Bray prior to leaving for France:
Jan. 15th [1918] “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 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.”
MSS 303, Box 1
MSS 303,Box 2, Folder: February-March 1918

MSS 303,Box 2, Folder: February-March 1918

10,000 doughnuts a day

According to a news account dated, October 25, [1918], Bray along with fellow YMCA workers, Mary Holiday of Indianapolis, IND and Mrs. Edith Knowles of Phoenix, AZ, cooked 10,000 doughnuts a day near the front line of St. Mihiel. This was known as the Battle of St. Mihiel and took place on September 12-13, 1918. For her bravery under fire, Bray received an honorable mention and commendation. In Ms. Bray’s regular YMCA job she supplied cocoa, coffee and writing paper to soldiers as well as entertainment, help writing letters and moral support in the “Y” hut at Sinzig, Germany.
MSS 303, Box 1, Folder: Diary, scrapbook, misc.
Box: Misc. Photos 1 of 2, Folder, Beckwith and Bray photos
The Rainbow Girl
In yet another example how dedicated Bray was to her YMCA service, she began to knit, in silk, the insignia of the Rainbow division for the 167th Alabama Regiment. The insignia was made up of red, yellow and blue stripes and was knitted with silken floss in rosettes. Soldiers would bring her silk and she would also go out in in the German villages and procure the material she needed. In her papers, there are many letters from soldiers asking and thanking her to make the insignia for their uniform.

42nd Infantry Division (United States) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

[1]. Woodrow Wilson Urges Congress to Declare War on Germany – Wikisource.
[2]. Selective Service Act, p. 155. Providence journal almanac: a valuable reference book for Rhode Islanders. 1918. Providence, R.I.: Providence Journal Co.
[3]. Rhode Island History: Chapter 7.
[4]. R.I. Milita, p. 32. Providence journal almanac: a valuable reference book for Rhode Islanders. 1918. R.I. Providence, R.I.: Providence Journal Co.
 [5]. Ibid. Events local to Rhode Island, p. 148-152
Gertrude Bray Papers. MSS 303.
Rickard, J (10 August 2007), Battle of Saint Mihiel, 12-13 September 1918,
Further reading:
Dowling, Timothy C. 2006. Personal perspectives. World War I. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO.
The History of the YMCA in World War I.
42d Infantry Division History.
Somewhere in France…part 1.
Somewhere in France…part 2.
The Stars and Stripes, 1918-1919:  Women and the War Effort.
YMCA ARMED SERVICES DEPARTMENT: An Inventory of Its World War I Records
Written by former RIHS staff member, James DaMico, Special Collections Curator

5 thoughts on “Hot doughnuts and the front, Rhode Island and the First World War

  1. I am Gertrude Bray’s niece; she was one of my dad’s sisters. My aunt was very independent (way before women’s liberation became a movement in the 1960’s) and fiercely loyal to her family and the people she cared about. I’m glad for having known her.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear from you! We have done a couple of posts and small displays using Gertrude Bray’s materials, and we are so pleased to have the good fortune to care for them. She was clearly a strong, interesting woman.

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