In May 1918, Simpson County, Kentucky native James Knox Polk Lambert (1864-1960) left his Chicago law practice to volunteer with the YMCA in ministering to American soldiers fighting overseas. During his 15-month tour in England and France, Lambert witnessed the transformation of Europe: a last-ditch German offensive, the Armistice, the wild celebrations following successful negotiation of a peace treaty, and the appalling destruction left behind by the war. He kept a diary of his activities, and reflected on his experiences in a lengthier journal. Both are now part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.
After the U.S. entered the war, the YMCA was charged with bolstering the welfare and morale of American soldiers with entertainment, educational, religious and other programs. The end of hostilities, however, did not signal the end of the YMCA’s mandate. Millions of weary servicemen now turned their eyes toward home, and James Lambert and his colleagues faced the daunting task of keeping them emotionally, spiritually and recreationally occupied as they endured the logistic and bureaucratic trials of mass demobilization.
In addition to the ruin the war brought to the French countryside, Lambert was most struck by the ferocious impatience of the soldiers awaiting repatriation. “The months of January, February and March ,” he wrote, “were marked by the most intense agitation of the boys to go home.” He found most soldiers he encountered “in the grip of that mania,” unreconciled to the fact that, even at an exit rate of 300,000 men per month, it would take 7 months to get everyone home. Some of the men, observed Lambert, were obsessed with a rumor that the government was secretly plotting to keep them in the Army for life; so high was the level of anxiety that General John J. Pershing, Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, actually feared a mutiny. When Lambert suggested that the men spend their time sightseeing and enjoying some postwar tourism courtesy of the YMCA, the reply was predictable: “I have seen enough. I never want to see this country again.” For all he had seen, however, James Lambert’s experiences at the close of the Great War marked the beginning of a lifelong fascination with European history and culture.
Touring the battlefields
Click here to access a finding aid for the James Lambert Collection. For other collections about World War I, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.
YMCA Building, Bowling Green, Kentucky
In 1907, a whirlwind campaign raised enough money to begin construction of a building for the Bowling Green branch of the YMCA. Workers broke ground at 1044 State Street in June 1908, and in September about 1,000 spectators attended the cornerstone laying. As part of the ceremony, which included speeches, a military band and choral performances, officials placed a time capsule in the cornerstone.
The tin box remained there until 1985 when a fire in the building, then being used as a hotel, rendered it unfit for occupancy. During demolition, local attorney Ray Buckberry ensured that the time capsule was salvaged and its contents sent to WKU’s Special Collections Library.
Included in the time capsule were documents and memorabilia relating to the Bowling Green YMCA and the building campaign: donor lists, membership cards (including a 25-cent punch card good for 20 towels), pledge forms, news clippings, the cornerstone ceremony program, photos, and a small Bible bearing the signatures of prominent citizens involved in the building effort.
Click here to download a finding aid for this Bowling Green YMCA collection. For other collections at WKU’s Special Collections Library relating to local clubs and organizations, search TopScholar and KenCat.
YMCA Guest Book, Rennes, France, 1919
After the United States entered World War I, the YMCA played a crucial role in providing for the welfare of the troops. Soldiers both at home and overseas frequented YMCA posts, called “huts,” to relax, socialize, worship, write letters, and partake of educational opportunities. The YMCA was particularly active in France, where it also operated canteens in order to free up more soldiers for military rather than kitchen duty. The YMCA continued its work after the Armistice, serving soldiers while they endured the long process of demobilization.
A guest book maintained at the YMCA post in Rennes, France (now part of the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library), vividly documents the mood of the troops following the end of hostilities. “Nine months ago today the Armistice was signed, still here?” mused a soldier from Oregon. “We’ve paid our debt to Lafayette. Who in Sam Hill do we owe yet?” asked another from New York. Other signatories were more cheerful, expressing gratitude to the YMCA for providing amenities, such as chocolate, that they had long missed. But, as might be expected, the most common expressions were of a longing to go home “toot sweet“. . . “where they make good whiskey,” declared a soldier from Kentucky.
To see the YMCA’s Rennes, France guest book, visit WKU’s Special Collections Library. Click here to access a finding aid. To explore other KYLM collections relating to World War I, search KenCat and TopScholar.