Monday, September 15, 2014

The Red Cross Canteen in Elmira: Fact and Fiction

by Erin Doane, Curator

During WWI, many women in the region did their part for the war effort by volunteering with the Red Cross.  Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. on May 21, 1881.  One of the main purposes of the organization was, and still is, to provide support and relief to members of the military and their families.  When the First World War broke out, the Red Cross grew into a major, nationwide organization. Membership grew from 17,000 in 1914 to over 20 million adult and 11 million Junior Red Cross members in 1918.  That year the Elmira Chapter of the Red Cross had 12,302 members from throughout the county.

American Red Cross Identification Card, 1918
Members of the Elmira Chapter were active in many different way to help the troops and their families.  They raised money to offer financial help to military families at home and sent Christmas care packages to soldiers and sailors. During the last year of the war, local members manufactured and shipped 14,928 knitted articles overseas including 8,062 pairs of socks, 4,049 sweaters, and 1,948 pairs of wristlets. They shipped 16,154 hospital garments to the Atlantic Division and manufactured 617,986 surgical dressings. 

Volunteers in front of Canteen Headquarters in Elmira, 1918
The Red Cross Canteen service in Elmira was established in early June of 1918.  Canteen volunteers served sandwiches, coffee, lemonade, cookies, candy, and even ice cream to soldiers passing through the city on troop trains. They also offered medical assistance to any sick soldiers on the trains.  In four months, 126,798 soldiers received hospitality from Canteen workers.  In a letter dated August 6, 1918, Captain Charles Talbot of the 157th Infantry expresses his gratitude by writing, “…we are grateful indeed and never shall forget your city or the sweet ladies of the Elmira Canteen.  Such hospitality makes a soldier love his country more and sends him away with a warm and tender feeling in his breast for the splendid womanhood of our country.”

August 6, 1918 letter from Capt. Talbot to Mrs. Morrow of the Elmira Red Cross

Troops receiving ice cream from Elmira Canteen volunteers, 1918
And now for a bit of melodramatic historical fiction inspired by a Red Cross volunteer’s hat in the museum’s collection.

All the men were dressed in the same dull olive uniforms but somehow he looked different. He stood just a bit taller. His shoulders were just a bit straighter. Emmeline’s eyes kept finding him of their own accord as she served lemonade to the line soldiers. She unconsciously tucked a stray wisp of hair back up under her stiff-brimmed hat and offered a brilliant smile to the next man in line.  All the Red Cross Canteen volunteers had learned to smile even though the pall of death seemed to loom over every soldier they served.

Harrison had never been so nervous in all his life but he refused to show it. He was a soldier now. He could not let his outward show of confidence slip. Each stop along the train route made him more tense. They were going to war and every mile of track that passed brought them closer to the trenches of Europe.  He had been just as excited as every one of his young friends to fight when war was declared but now reality pressed down on him.

He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders once more. As his eyes scanned over his fellows, they suddenly fell upon the most beautiful pair of blue eyes he had ever seen. His heart skipped a beat and his breath caught.  She stared back at him like a butterfly impaled by his gaze. Her pink, bow-shaped lips parted.

Emmeline felt the color rise in her cheeks but she could not look away. She felt an unlived future flash between them.  She saw their small house, the Christmas wreath cheerfully decorating the door.  She felt their baby soft and warm in her arms.  She heard him whisper her name and reach for her in the night when the war had come back to haunt him.  She blinked the sudden daydream from her eyes and he was standing before her.

The girl's hand trembled slightly as she offered him a cup of lemonade. As he reached to take it from her, his fingers covered hers. Her youthful vibrancy radiated through him like the heat of late summer’s sun.  He wanted nothing more than to take her into his arms and never let her go.

She lifted her head and tilted her chin slightly, ready for the kiss she did not realize she was requesting.  The figures around them, soldiers and volunteers, faded.  Their voices hushed to a faint buzz. There was nothing outside of the young couple as time hung in a frozen, unanswered eternity.

The train blew a sharp blast.  Soldiers sprang into motion at the barked orders from their officers.  Emmeline and Harrison gazed at each other for one more painful, longing-filled moment then he reluctantly let his fingers slip from hers.

They called it the war to end all wars. If only that had been true. 

Elmira Red Cross Canteen volunteer’s hat, 1918