The canteen girl stood as symbol of American volunteerism and femininity in World War I. Sponsored by the YMCA and other charitable organizations, canteens were efforts to maintain soldiers' morale and to keep them from vice. InUncensored Letters of a Canteen Girl, Kathleen Morse described the challenges of dispensing hot chocolate and planning entertainments with sparse supplies. At the same time, her letters revealed the less tangible work of the canteen girls: to boost morale by providing reminders of the comforts of home and by representing the sweethearts, sisters, and mothers left behind.
MAUVAGES, NOVEMBER 2.
We are building. This proves to be a painful process, consisting largely of discovering what you can’t have and what you will have to do without. For instance, it appears that there is not enough lumber to be had in France to furnish me a complete floor, and I had set my heart on having a nice, whole, sweepable floor! French barracks, one should note in passing, are constructed of sections; the upper part of the walls containing the window sections being vertical, the lower sloping outward at an angle of about thirty-five degrees. By a process of begging, borrowing and salvaging—nobody says steal any more these days,—I have visions of getting the floor in the centre all filled in, but for the edges, under the sloping sides, I am afraid there is no hope. But I’m not going to mind, I tell the boys; I shall start a series of war gardens in the little mud-plots, cabbages in number one, brussels sprouts in number two, and violets just for my own satisfaction in three. And the boys can take turns hoeing them.
For the rest, we have cut a door in the side for general entrance, the original one being reserved for cooks, colonels and K. P.s [kitchen patrol - that is, those assigned to clean up], and across the front end opposite the stage we have constructed our store-room, kitchen and canteen. A lattice is all that separates the kitchen from the counter; this is so, in order to facilitate social intercourse between the cook and the customers, and also to enable the secretary, no matter if she is engaged in stirring the chocolate or washing the dishes, to keep a weather eye on what is going on outside. But the triumph of my hut-plan is the window-seat. Half-way down the hut we have a stove, a stove which looks as big as an engine-boiler, a stove which makes the eyes of all beholders fairly pop with admiration. “That’s a real stove,” say the boys. “That ain’t no frog stove I’ll tell the world!”And back of the stove we have a seat three sections long against the wall. Wonderful to say that seat is comfortable and what more it has sofa-cushions.“What are those pillers for?” Demanded one boy suspiciously.“Are they for the officers to sit on?”
“D’you know what this is?” asked a boy today as he luxuriously stretched his length on the window-seat. “This is the Lounge Lizard’s Roost.” So the Lounge Lizard’s Roost it is.
The yellow curtains are already up in place. They give a rather stunning effect against the black tar paper when the aeroplane camouflage curtains are let down. In each space between the windows we have tacked one of that gorgeous series of French railway posters, so my hut is brave with color, tawny orange, sharp blues, and shadowy purples.
Meanwhile the whole French populace has called, singly or in crowds, in order to see just what is going on. As for the children, I am sure they must have declared a school holiday in honor of us. The whole concern is evidently a bit puzzling to the French mind; but they have solved the riddle by terming the hut a “cooperatif,”and so I let it rest.
But you will be wondering how le diable is contriving to live with le bon Dieu.
Monsieur le Curé is quite old. There is something stern and something tragic in his face, with all his urbane graciousness. He is a refuge from the devastated area and like myself a lodger in the house, whose owners have fled this zone of armies. Monsieur le Curé was a captive for six months with the Germans and the desolate confinement wrought a little on his mind; “At times he is absent,” says Madame the Care-taker. This morning I stopped and chatted with him at his door downstairs, he called me in to show me “a souvenir of his captivity,” a little dirty-white tin basin out of which as prisoner he ate. “I learned to smoke then,” he told me. “There was nothing to do the whole day long but sit and smoke and wait for the clock to strike.”Tonight I am going to take him a little gift of American tobacco.
I am planning a house-warming with which to formally open the hut.
MAUVAGES, DECEMBER 29
Tonight we gave a party: hot chocolate and cookies for the whole camp. Every Sunday before the Big Push came I had been serving hot chocolate free but I had been staggered by the thought of trying to make chocolate for seventeen hundred men on my little stove that is just big enough to sit on, over a fire which has to be coaxed with German powder sticks and candle ends before it will burn, and serving it in our sixty odd cocoa bowls. This morning, however, I had an inspiration. I consulted the detail, they approved. Accordingly we sent requests to three of the battery mess-kitchens, asking that they should each furnish us, at five-thirty, the largest container they possessed full of hot water. Then we asked the mess sergeants to announce the party at supper and tell the boys to bring their mess-cups. The sentry at the street corner was also instructed to let no one pass without his mess-cup. Then we started in, heating all the water we could manage, making chocolate paste, opening whole cases full of canned milk.
At six o’clock the fun, per schedule, began. The boys lined up from the counter to the stage. But instead of a single line, it soon became evident we had two, one coming and one going, which together formed an endless chain like a giant wheel which kept slowly but surely revolving. After the second or third time around a boy would begin to acquire a slightly sheepish look and endeavor to avoid my eye, but when they found that all they got was a grin and “I’m glad you like it!” they grinned back unashamed.
“I can’t stop,” joyfully explained one lad to me, “I’m in the line and I can’t get out; I just gotter keep on coming round.”
“Oh boy! but that’s the best thing I’ve had in France!” declared another.
While a third announced; “Gee, but I’m full all the way up! If I drink another drop I sure will bust”—a confession which may have contained more fact than fancy, for some of the boys did drink so much that they got sick right then and there. It was an orgy. And when the last of the four huge containers had been drained to a drop, why everyone, I believe, for once had had enough.
“You’ve got all the business in town right here tonight,” one of the boys informed me. "I just took a look in at the cafés. Every one of them is empty.
Personally I feel that the party was a Great Success. We shall have to have one just like it every Sunday.
MAUVAGES, JANUARY 1, 1919
Since the spirit of rebellion is abroad I have been managing a little mutiny of my own. It came about in the matter of Sunday movies. Up till the present we had been accustomed to having a service every Sunday night, but since the artillery moved in we have been furnished with a full-fledged morning service by the regimental chaplain, in view of which I had set my heart on having movies in the evening rather than a second service. I based my position on the grounds that, since to my notion at least, the main end of the work over here is simply to keep the boys away from the things that would hurt them, on Sunday night, the most dangerous night of all the week, this could best be done by drawing them to the hut with a movie show; always provided that their “religious needs” had been supplied earlier in the day.
The movie machine was at the hut, I had found an operator in one of the batteries, a little Jewish boy who bragged of long experience in the states; all I wanted was a film. I went with my request to the office. My logic it seemed to me was unassailable. But the office couldn’t see it that way. After much debate we agreed to disagree in theory. In practice I carried off my film. But I did it with a sinking of the heart. My relations with the office have always been quite cordial, this was the first incident to cast a gloom over them. Anyway, I thought, we’re going to have those movies! I advertised the show extensively.
Sunday night came. The hut was thronged. I was feeling rather particularly pleased with things. We had ministered to the boys' souls in the morning, fortified the inner man with free hot chocolate at six o’clock, now we were going to finish out the day by satisfying their romantic cravings with a film drama of love and adventure.
But oh! For the pride that goes before the stumbling-block! When it came to the test it seemed that the little operator, for all his bragging, couldn’t make the movie machine go. Perhaps it was because the lad didn’t understand the foreign make, perhaps it was because the machine needed to be talked to in French, or perhaps it was just because the project had been unblessed from the beginning; I don’t know. We had half the camp ganged around the machine, offering to take a hand. Everybody was criticizing and advising, which, I suppose, added the last touch to the little operator’s confusion. After waiting an interminable time in the dark we witnessed a few feeble flickers on the screen and then darkness once more. The audience dribbled disgustedly away. They probably made up for their disappointment in the cafés.
This morning the driver stopped at the hut to take the machine away. “Have a good show, last night?” he asked. . . .
I am on my way home at last. I am waiting here for my sailing. This time I am really going all the way through. Now that I am on the brink of the retour au civil [going back to civilian life], as the French say, it seems very odd. For eighteen months I haven’t worn white gloves, or silk stocking, or a veil, no, nor even powdered my nose. And the worst of it is, these things don’t seem to matter any more. Even a uniform, and a homely uniform at that, has tremendous advantages as part of a working scheme of life. As one girl remarked;“You don’t have to spend any time thinking: Shall I put on the pink or the blue tonight? The only question is, Do I or do I not need a clean collar?”
Somehow I feel a little unfitted to go back to a civilian existence once more. The same feeling one finds expressed continually among the boys.
“When I get back home, if I see a line anywhere I’ll go and stand in it just from force of habit,” remarked one boy, grinning ruefully.
But most often this feeling takes the form of a pathetic and wistful fear.
“I’m afraid I’ll shock Mother when I get home.”
“They won’t know what to make of us, back home, the way we’ll behave.”
“I reckon I’ve forgotten how to act civilized.”
And over and again they confess to a shame-faced apprehension lest they should unguardedly relapse into the language of the army and so frighten their women folk!
A famous French surgeon confided to my friend, the English Lady:
“In that first year of the war when we were allowed no permissions [leaves] we became like savages. The first time that I returned home I was afraid. I was afraid all the while, afraid before my wife, before my children,—afraid that I would act the beast.”
If by coming to France, we women who have had this privilege have discovered the American doughboy, the American doughboy, by coming to France, has discovered America. I don’t know who first said; “After I get back, if the Statue of Liberty ever wants to see my face again, she’ll have to turn around,” but whoever did, uttered a sentiment which has been echoed and re-echoed all over France. The doughboy has been to Paris, “the City of Light,” he has amused himself in the playgrounds of princes along the Riviera, he has visited the chateaux and palaces of kings and queens. And though he admits it is all mighty fine, in the face of everything he holds staunchly to his declaration of loyalty;“I’ll tell the world the little old U. S. A. is good enough for me!”
At times perhaps his patriotic enthusiasm has outweighed his manners. Again and again a French villager, evidently echoing some doughboy’s dissertation, has asked me a little wistfully;
“America bon, goode! France pas bon, no goode! Hein?”
“Anyway the war has done one good thing,” I used to say to the lads in the canteens, “it has taught you to appreciate your homes.”
“I used to want to get away from home,” confided one boy to me, "but when I get back there again I’m just going to tie
myself so tight to Mother’s apron-strings that she’ll never get the knot undone.“
”Say, when I get back,“ declared another lad as he helped me wipe the dishes, ”my mother’s going to find I’m just the best little K. P. she ever knew.“
”When I get home, I’m going to lock myself in the house and then I’m going to lose the key and stay right there for a month," announced another.
“Who’s in your house?”
“Just Mother. She’s good enough for me.”
Sometimes I have thought that three things have stood as concrete symbols of all that was desirable to the American boy through his ordeal over here: a dollar-bill, the Statue of Liberty, his mother’s face. And only a shade less touching than the doughboy’s realization of all that is implied by “Mother;” is his attitude of chivalrous idealism toward the American girl. Once I ventured to say something in praise of the women of France.
“But they’re not as fine as our girls!” came the instant jealous rejoinder.
“No Mademoiselles francaises for me, thank you. I’ve got a little girl of my own back home!”
“Our American girls, they’re as different from these French girls,” declared a tall Virginian, “as day is from night!”
“I’ve laid off of lovin‘ while I’ve been over here,” confided one little engineer, “but, oh boy! My girl’s goin’ to get an awful huggin' when I get home!”
The most pitiful and hopeless cases that I have seen over here were boys who had taken to drink because their girls at home had proved inconstant. “That man never touched a drop,” confided the buddy of one of these to me,“ until he got that letter from his girl telling him that she was married to a slacker [a man who evaded military service].”
Not that the doughboy’s conduct has always been above reproach. “Single men in barracks,” as Kipling once remarked,“don’t grow into plaster saints;” and he has been sorely tempted. But in his heart he has kept an ideal. It has stood between him and utter darkness. In this ideal he has put all his faith. If he loses it, he loses everything. Those women back home, I wonder, do they really understand?
Source: Katharin D. Morse,Uncensored Letters of a Canteen Girl, (NY: Henry Holt, 1920), pp. 168–70, 204–05, 210–11, 262–65.
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"No Negroes Allowed": Segregation at the Front in World War I