March is Women’s History Month, and we’re marking it in the Library’s display case by featuring the volunteer work Rhode Island women performed overseas and at home during World War I. The case display features a Red Cross nurse’s cap worn by a Mrs. Salisbury when she volunteered on the home front as well as a blue wool Y.M.C.A. arm band worn by Gertrude Bray in France.
Miss Bray served as a Y.M.C.A. secretary, posted to a town or village in France as close to the front lines as women and Y.M.C.A. workers were permitted to be. Y volunteers were criticized for being too close to the front lines, tempting men with hot coffee, chocolate and cigarettes—and they were criticized for being too far from the front to do much good for the men truly in need. Miss Bray defended the volunteer work in a newspaper interview when she returned to Rhode Island in 1919; the clipping is recorded in her scrapbook (MSS 303, Box 1; on display through March).
She said: “The ‘Y’ would send one woman to each town. We were billeted just as all the men were billeted. The officer would give us as good a place as he could fine. Sometimes we would start in a barn, sometimes in a tent. Then we might be in some old building that had been shelled. At St. Mihiel we were under shellfire and were bombed every night and sometimes during the day.
The rainbow division was made a shock division in July and after that we went everywhere—Chateau Thierry, St. Mihiel, the Argonne woods. Always the ‘Y’ would send truck with supplies in to the front lines. Our stations were never more than five miles back and most of the time they were much nearer. Up in the Argonne one of the men, a ‘Y’ worker, established his hut just a stone’s throw from the front lines and later the kitchen of his hut was blown to pieces. I went out there whenever I could get an afternoon off and the kitchen was blown up just a few days after my last visit.
When it was possible we opened up theatres in places and arranged shows and music and movies for the men. There was always something at night for them to do. All last fall we were right with the troops and this was unusual for a combat division.
When the Forty-Second crossed the Rhine we went with them and opened a Y hut at Sinzig. We started entertainments there, arranged costume parties for the men, dances and shows of all kinds. We had a wonderful place there and one of the officers told me that after the Y hut opened in Sinzig and we had made it easy for the men to send money home, more money went through our hands than at any other time during the history of the regiment. They weren’t spending their money. They were sending it home because the Y was providing them with amusement and entertainment.”
Miss Bray speaks for herself. Look for future postings of excerpts from her letters.
–Kirsten Hammerstrom, former RIHS Director of Collections
All images from the Library of Congress Photographs & Prints Collection