Our last blog post profiled the Eagle Hut in Aldwych, which provided accommodation, food and friendship for American soldiers and sailors who found themselves on leave in the capital. But the Eagle Hut was by no means the only one of its type. Huts of all kinds, many of them affiliated to the Y.M.C.A., proliferated around London during the Great War to the extent that The Tatler magazine's gossip columnist, Eve, commented on the phenomenon. Bemoaning the changes to beautiful St. James's Park she wrote of, 'huts, huts all the way,' suggesting that the most recent addition, a hut for the Ministry of Shipping, 'almost vies with Buckingham Palace itself.'
Almost every available square foot of greenery in central London was comandeered for war purposes, often in some of the most prestigious locations. In Sloane Square, the Bibesco Hut provided meals for many of the men stationed at the nearby barracks in Chelsea; a hut for American officers, in London, named the Washington Inn, was quickly erected in the leafy shade of St. James's Square and in exclusive Grosvenor Square, the Victoria Rifles, a Territorial regiment, took up residence. 'I suppose you don’t bargain for a perpetual smell of onioned stew when you scheme – and pay – for a Grosvenor Square residence,’ wrote Eve mischievously. In the nearby Grosvenor Gardens, there was the Bryant and May hut, presented by the famous match-manufacturing firm and opened by Queen Alexandra. At Victoria, a brewery was taken over to provide shelter for the men coming by train into the station from the Continent, and other huts were funded by a wide-ranging body of charities and companies including the Bank of England and the Variety Artistes' Fund (a hut in Rouen in France was even provided by the 'Dogs and Cats of Great Britain,' in a scheme masterminded by one lady, Miss Maud Field of West Berkshire).
Margaret Chute, a journalist writing for The Graphic magazine on various aspects of London at war, described in an article entitled, 'Chariots of the Brave,' on 30 December 1916, the impressive operation carried out daily by the Y.M.C.A., which endeavoured to find a space to lay one's head for every one of the estimated 1,600 soldiers arriving daily in London.
As London's after-theatre traffic had ebbed away, and the city was sleeping or supping, Miss Chute reported on, 'the Y.M.C.A. Night Motor Transport Column, rolling away to carry out its nightly duties.' The drivers, many of them women volunteers, had a two-fold purpose. Some of them headed to various London stations to meet soldiers and sailors arriving on late trains, driving them, free of charge to the nearest hut - or at least the nearest one with available space. Drivers would enquire to see if a hut could accommodate the latest arrival and if not, would take them on to some other resting place. Another branch of the Transport Column, would patrol London's streets, along prescribed routes, in order to scout for lost of strayed soldiers, 'chiefly Colonials, who find themselves far at sea in the sleeping metropolis.' Offering help and guidance, they again, would take anyone without a place to stay to the nearest hut.
The article was accompanied by a map, issued in January 1916 by the Civic Survey of Greater London for use by the City of London National Guard who would also help and guide lost soldiers (though the paper noted that since its publication many more huts had been built). The paper also carried two illustrations by the artist Edgar Wright, one showing a female driver and her co-driver, picking up a soldier, laden down with his bags and great coat. The second image gives an impression of the interior of a Y.M.C.A. hut and shows men sleeping in any available space. While some early arrivals were lucky enough to secure a bed, others make do with chairs and many huddle up together on the floor. Margaret Chute's description of the hut at Waterloo, notoriously the most busy, is incredibly vivid:
'Two steps lead to the door, and even here men are assembled. Pushing open the door, it is necessary to step over a figure stretched on the floor to get inside the hut at all. Once inside, behold a scene of unimagined strangeness. Like a battlefield, the hut stands with dimmed lights, and everywhere men stretched out, asleep. Here one knows they will wake again, to work and hope.
But the sight of those still figures conjures up a vision of other scenes, where the sleepers will never wake...Under the billiard table they lie like flies, and even on it; while many have secured long tables, and lie with their caps as pillows. Round the stove a ring of sleeping men, in chairs or on the floor, with one man, head in hands, staring into the Unknown...
Armed with blankets, four Australians pick their way over the figure-furrowed floor, looking for vacant spaces - and the looking takes long.'
It was a routine that repeated itself across London night after night during the war, as huge numbers of men passed through the capital, on their way to or from the Front, for what was often an all-too-brief period of leave.
Accommodation may have been a little Spartan and basic, but the camaraderie of the huts and the support offered by the Y.M.C.A. infrastructure ensured that it was rare to find soldiers in London sleeping rough. And of course, there were other delights on offer across the city - nightclubs, theatre and restaurants (for those who could afford them).
Moving back to the famous Eagle Hut, we have recently scanned this postcard showing a view of the hut, with the Church of St. Clement Danes clearly visible behind the complex. The postcard was sent by an American soldier to an address in Cherry Chase, Massachussetts in January 1919 when many Americans still remained in London. The message was brief, but to the point.
'Leaving "Blighty" on the 8:20 tonight but surely don't like to go for this is SOME town and I have been having SOME time.'
Clearly, for this 'Doughboy' and many others who spent time there during the Great War, London and its Y.M.C.A. huts offered everything a soldier might possibly need.