Leading the Way in War Work
Several women's organizations in St. Louis played pivotal roles in leading war-work efforts on the home front during World War I. Without these groups' backing, troops connected to the St. Louis region may not have retained the strength and morale needed to achieve success in the war.
The Women’s Troop Train Service of the YMCA operated refreshment stands or “huts” at major railway stations across the nation during World War I. By early 1919 the Troop Train Service Committee in St. Louis had encountered 1,600 trains and ministered to more than 600,000 soldiers and sailors who’d passed through Union Station on their way to camp or the battlefront. The dedicated women labored in heat, cold, rain, and sunshine, going down into the railroad yards and bringing the men up to the hut. If the men were unable to walk, the women carried sandwiches, candy, coffee, cocoa, cigarettes, and any other required items down to them. The committee eventually expanded its service to meet and cater to the needs of every train that passed through St. Louis, with the goal of providing not only food but also a diversion, something the women felt was much needed after the soldiers’ long journey and the grind of war. It was believed that St. Louis was the only large city in the country to have such a committee. The Troop Train Service Committee received substantial aid and support from a larger women’s group called the Women’s Auxiliary of the 12th Engineers.
The Women’s Auxiliary of the 12th Engineers was formed in alignment with the 12th Engineers Regiment, a division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was headquartered in St. Louis. Just as the 12th Engineers was among the first to embark for service in Europe, the 12th Auxiliary was among the first of its kind in the field of war work in America. The Auxiliary’s main goal was to offer support to its affiliated regiment, and the women accomplished this goal mainly through fundraising efforts. Proceeds of one such effort were used to send Christmas care packages that contained a box of candy and a pair of bed-socks, because the women had received reports of “severe cold and inconceivably short blankets” from France, where the 12th Engineers was stationed. Humorous city rivalry was sparked during this project. The Kansas City Auxiliary substituted sleeping caps for bed-socks in their boxes, and they jokingly accused the St. Louis women of suspecting their men to be “getting cold feet.” The St. Louis women defended their bed-socks and jovially shot back with a statement that they preferred their men to remain “cool headed.” St. Louis Auxiliary members were also trailblazers in facilitating extraneous efforts to be present in New York City to welcome their soldiers at the first port of entry.
The St. Louis–originated Missouri Women’s Club of New York City coordinated efforts with the Auxiliary for a welcome program for the 12th Engineers. The arriving men were in a rundown and beaten state, numb and hardened from the long, endless months of army service. Upon seeing the women’s welcome ship, one of the men said the sight “brought a lump into my throat that made me realize that I was still human.” The loud cheers from the soldiers on the homecoming military vessels were a testament to the value and appreciation that the troops felt for the women’s groups’ tireless efforts.
To see additional images from the photo collections featured in this post, check out the Louise S. Bailey Collection, the St. Louis 12th Engineers Regiment Collection, and the Grace Lee Swacker Collection.
—Mehnaz Ahmad, Photographs and Prints Intern