The YMCA supplied British servicemen away from home in the UK and overseas with a place to eat, drink, relax, and write letters home. As American troops arrived in large numbers, the organisation committed to supplying a home from home for them in England’s capital. Operating from mid-August 1917, the YMCA’s Eagle Hut was officially opened on 3 September by US ambassador W.H. Page.
The Eagle Hut was established by four American businessmen based in London: E.C. Carter, Robert Grant, Grant Forbes and Francis E Powell. It stood at the point where the Indian High Commission and some of Bush House now stand, slightly west of the bottom of Kingsway on the north side of Aldwych. The Club could serve up to 5000 meals a day (it was calculated that 134,556 meals were served in February 1919 alone), provide a bed for overnight stays and was run by 800 volunteers, most of them women. It also organised sightseeing tours and entertainment trips for men who found themselves alone in a strange country. Keen to foster a sense of camaraderie among the various North Americans in the capital, one feature of the Eagle Hut was a huge map of the United States on one wall. Visiting soldiers and sailors could stick a flag into their home town enabling them to link up with other men from the same area, with announcements by an attendant with a megaphone proclaiming the most recent connections.
In recognition of Independence Day in July 1918, together with a number of other events around the capital (including a baseball match held at Stamford Bridge between the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy), King George V and Queen Mary visited the Eagle Hut, inspecting a guard of honour lined up by the hut's entrance.
Eight months later, the Eagle Hut was the scene of an extraordinary disturbance on 9 March 1919 in what was to become known as the Battle of Bow Street. A group of soldiers and sailors - some American and some British overseas men - were playing dice on the street outside the Hut, despite being previously warned they were breaking the law by gambling.
When two of the men were arrested and taken to Bow Street station, a crowd followed demanding their release. The situation rapidly deteriorated and a riot ensued as missiles and sticks were hurled at police who in turn retaliated by charging the crowd with batons. Estimates about the number involved range from between 1000 and 2000. About twenty men, including seven policemen were injured and eleven Americans were handed over to the American military police to be tried by court-martial.
That evening, American soldiers were transferred from the Eagle Hut to other quarters and all American sailors were ordered to report to their ships. Four Canadian servicemen appeared at Bow Street Magistrates' Court charged with riot, and six other servicemen who were injured in the riot were kept under guard in hospital before a later appearance in court. It was an inauspicious episode for the Eagle Hut which had been an otherwise hugely positive addition to wartime London.
The Eagle Hut finally closed its doors in August 1919.