The YMCA in Exeter was doing well in 1914, with over 100 men accepting an invitation to a social gathering at our King’s Lodge Headquarters. We were doing so well that Arthur E. Brock was even asking for houseplants:
“By the generosity of the subscribers the Exeter Y.M.C.A. is now on a sound basis, and doing excellent work among the young men of the city. The premises having been thoroughly renovated are most attractive, but we feel that a few palms would make them more homelike and cheerful. I am writing in the hope that, possibly, some of your readers who have greenhouses would be able to spare us just one hardy palm. If so, we shall be grateful, and on receipt of a postcard, will gladly send to fetch it.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 28.1.1914)
Yet, the YMCA in Exeter, like the rest of the country, had a sharp shock to the system when Britain went to war in Europe. Nobody but an interested few registered the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, but as diplomacy failed and negotiations to avoid war went on, more and more people became interested, gathering outside the Western Times Office at 226 High Street to hear news.
On the 4th August 1914, a crowd waited for the latest headlines to be posted in the window. The Western Times described the scene after the midnight announcement that Germany had declared war – ‘A tremendous cheer was raised, and then all heads were bared while, by general impulse, the National Anthem was sung’.
It is a strange image to look back on, men throwing their hats and singing, when soon the ravages of war would be so severe that come the second world war – the first having not ‘ended all’ as promised – conscientious objectors would rally that ‘King and country were no longer enough.’
Nonetheless, upon the announcement of war YMCA Exeter sprang into action and our war effort began…
Mr H. W. Michelmore wrote to the local newspaper on the 7th August, 1914, that all were welcome to join in united prayer daily at Kings Lodge. On the 8th August, an appeal was issued for 100 sewing machines so that women could sew for the war effort. Then on 11th August, it was announced the YMCA would open its doors to all servicemen in uniform.
Later, by February 1916, 50,000 letters had been written by troops who used free material provided at our King’s Lodge HQ and 450 pocket New Testaments had been distributed. We were also providing accommodation for soldiers, who looked “upon the building as their home from home”.
During the period, we had even made a financial appeal to help us cover all the extra cost incurred of supporting the troops.
Simultaneously, across the country, other YMCAs were highly regarded for their support for soldiers… “It is quite impossible to over-estimate the excellent work being accomplished by various Y.M.C.A.’s in different parts of the country during the present crisis.” (Devon & Exeter Gazette 18.12.1914)
So, whilst well know Evangelist and Lecturer Mr Gipsy Smith questioned Exeter Y.M.C.A over our fundraising contribution, we were anything but disengaged from the war effort on the home front!