Iowa Chronicles of the World War

Edited by Benjamin F. Shambaugh






by Marcus L. Hansen

Welfare Organizations and Equipment at Camp Dodge



       Three and a half million men went forth from American homes to battle in the cause of Democracy1; and behind them was a nation organized for their support from the remotest rural community to the greatest metropolitan center. They were clad in fabrics spun in the busy industrial city, fed by the grain reaped upon the quiet fields of the West, and armed with implements forged in the furnaces of a thousand factory towns. Women and children had toiled far into the night that the necessary clothes might be ready; men and boys had left the country villages to harvest grain in the twilight that the armies might be fed; and miners of coal and iron and workers beside dangerous machines had wrought the arms for their protection.

      But the men in khaki and blue did not live by bread alone, nor were the rifles and cannon their only implements of warfare. The knowledge that behind them was a nation interested in their comfort sustained them. They were protected from the evils of idleness and vice by an "invisible armor" of social relationships and habits. Likewise, the American people made a far more permanent contribution to the fighters than tons of shrapnel: they were organized to keep the conduct of the war in harmony with its spirit. "Welfare work" is the prosaic term applied to the endeavors which sought to keep the heart of the soldier in touch with the heart of the nation.

      From the April day in 1917 when war was declared, every man and woman who saw beyond the dust and smoke of battle and every child who understood the ideals of the flag was a welfare worker.2   To write the history of this phase of welfare work is impossible. The cheerful greeting and friendly smile are unrecorded; and the optimistic letter is too closely treasured. No one can recount the many ways that sympathy and cheer found to express themselves. Though they were part, and a very vital part, of the welfare work, their only record is imprinted in the memory of the American People. The pages of history will never tell the story; but it will be handed down as the heritage of the spirit of American.

      Much as the individual did to give to the soldier that optimism and contentment so necessary for his military efficiency, no amount of sympathy could rebuild the past life so abruptly broken. The chance acquaintances of the company rarely produced a group so congenial that all the varied desires of modern social life were satisfied. What would take the place of the school, the church, the library, the club, and the theater? If substitutes for these influences were to be provided the government that had called the men into service must furnish recreation, social activities, and religious services, or it must delegate the power to some agency possessing authority, experience, and equipment. Otherwise the soldier would seek in the vicinity of the camp the relaxations from army discipline which he so thoroughly craved.

     The mobilization of the American troops upon the Mexican Border in the summer of 1916 had brought the government face to face with the problem of soldier welfare. It had no recreation program of its own. For almost twenty years it had permitted the Young Men's Christian Association to engage in certain social activities at the permanent posts, but though the organization did try to cope with the situation on the Border it did not possess the means or the equipment to keep pace with the sudden growth of the military forces. As a result the soldiers sought their relaxation and pleasure in border towns -- a diversion which brought them back to camp, not with renewed enthusiasm and refreshed bodies, but with "an ingrowing staleness and tendency to mental and moral disintegration."3

     This experience upon the Mexican Border, added to observation of the armies engaged in the World War, convinced the Department of War that the efficiency of the fighting force could be maintained only by adopting stricter regulations in regard to the morality of the soldiers and by initiating a policy of repression of vice in the cities contingent to the military camps. But a more potent remedy would be applied: at all military stations there would be organized as part of the official life a system of wholesome recreation and entertainment; schools would be maintained for technical and liberal education; and club houses would be erected as a center for all social life. The erected as a center for all social life. The direction of these activities would not, as heretofore, be delegated to an organization but would be part of the army administration.4

       Before such a system could be established the United States was at war with Germany. Plans, unprecedented in their scope, were evolved for bringing into service the young manhood of the nation. But these men, thus abruptly removed not only from the pleasures of their former life but also from the safe guards of society, must not lose their effectiveness through the temptations that would meet them whenever the hours of drill were over; nor in that service were they to incur disabilities which would either throw a burden upon the community that gave them or prevent them from occupying the places which they had vacated. Accordingly, the Selective Service Law gave the Secretary of  War the authority "to do everything by him deemed necessary" to suppress vice in the vicinity of any military encampment.5

       But suppression alone could not accomplish the desired end, and to provide within the camp recreative opportunities which would diminish the tendency to run off to town in every moment of leisure, a Commission on Training Camp Activities was appointed under the chairmanship of Raymond B. Fosdick. In the multitude of urgent problems pressing in upon the War Department for solution, it was impossible for this Commission to create the machinery necessary to carry on so widespread a task. Hence the decision was made to turn over these activities to organizations which had been engaged in similar work in American cities, leaving to the Commission the supervision and Coordination of the different groups, and giving it authority to create machinery to meet needs which no established body seemed fitted to undertake.6

       The Young Men's Christian Association was the first organization to receive official permission to engage in welfare work in the army camps. An order by the President issued on April 26, 1917, enjoined all officers "to render the fullest practicable assistance and co-operation in the maintenance and extension of the Association, both at permanent posts and stations, and in camp and field."7  This order followed the precedent established during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War when similar authority had been granted.8

       In June, 1917 the United States definitely authorized the establishment of a National Army cantonment, to be known as Camp Dodge, on the site of the former camp grounds of the Iowa National Guard, about ten miles north west of the city of Des Moines.9   Units of the Guard were immediately ordered there for engineering and police purposes, and on July 25th the Young Men's Christian Association erected a tent in which to carry on the activities that it was accustomed to direct whenever the annual State encampment of militiamen was held. A
comprehensive building program was evolved, the first building being started in the latter part of August. As this structure was not finished until after the first contingent of drafted men arrived on September 5th to form the nucleus of the Eighty-eighth Division, a second tent was placed in service early in September.10
      In the meantime, the organization of the camp work of the Association was proceeding. Arthur B. Dale arrived to take general supervision of all activities as Camp Secretary. With him were associated A. C. Trowbridge as Educational Director, James M. Stifler as Religious Director, and E. T. Bozenhard as Athletic Director. The plans called for a building for each brigade (approximately 5000 men). Each building was to have a staff consisting of a Building Secretary who had general charge of the work, associate secretaries for educational, recreational, and religious work, and two general assistants.11
      When the first drafted men arrived, there were twenty association secretaries ready to serve them, and as the tent quarters provided inadequate accommodations a moving picture screen was erected out of doors where picture shows were daily presented.12    Two brigade buildings were opened in September, two in October, four in November, 1917, and one each in April, July, September, and October, 1918. With one exception, these buildings or huts, as they were called, were all of the so-called "E" type.  This plan consisted of one large room, approximately 50 x 120 feet, to be used for public meetings. At one end was a stage with committee rooms on each side, while at the other end was a moving picture booth. Along the walls were arranged writing tables. A smaller room to be used for social purposes adjoined the auditorium. Here in addition to the ever present writing tables were the victrola, the watr cooler, easy chairs around the fire place, magazines, and a book-self. In the passageway connecting these two rooms was the service desk where writing materials were available, stamps sold, and express and parcels-post packages recieved. One building of  the "F" type was completed in September, 1918. This structure differed from the others in that it possesed no attached social room. The service counter, bookshelves, and writing tables were located at the end of the auditorium oppisite the stage. 13  The were two other permanent buildings used for Association work, both located on Depot Street. The central offices of the organization were placed in the Headquarters Building which was ready for use in October, 1917. Two months later the Auditorium, planned to be the great central meeting place in camp where plays and concerts that could not be staged in the brigade buildings would be produced, was opened. In the summer of 1918 this structure was pressed into a service for which it was not planned. The Eighty-eighth Division was about to move.

        These buildings composed the permanent  equipment of the Association at Camp Dodge.




-source: Iowa Chronicles of the World War, Edited by Benjamin F. Shambaugh. WELFARE WORK In IOWA, by Marcus L. Hansen.  Published at Iowa City in 1921 by The State Historical Society of Iowa. Page 1-8.