One hundred years ago today, on April 12, 1917, a group of eleven Salvation Army officers stepped onto a ship to sail toward war-torn France and the trenches of World War I. This dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean would be retraced by millions of American soldiers in the wake of the United States’ decision to join those fighting tyranny in Europe. These Salvation Army officers traveled to France not to fight, but to join the support network American soldiers would need to get through the “war to end all wars.”
When the U.S. officially entered into the war, The Salvation Army’s U.S. National Commander, Evangeline Booth, decided to assemble leaders within the organization who would direct efforts to help meet the needs of our young soldiers. Salvation Army service centers and hostels were set up near military camps across the country so as to better serve the young men training to fight. Commander Booth also sent a high ranking Salvation Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Barker, to France to determine what needs could be anticipated overseas. His response was a request to “send over some lassies,” so Commander Booth dispatched the aforementioned hand-picked group of eleven officers, which included four women.
Set up on the front lines and in staging areas behind the front, The Salvation Army began the service of ministering to American soldiers in desperate circumstances. They prayed with these homesick and depressed young men, offering comfort and a shoulder to lean on on the worst of days. Regular church services helped to introduce some sense of normalcy in the soldiers’ lives. The officers also prayed and sang during daily burials of soldiers. After praying over the Americans who had lost their lives, the Salvation Army officers would turn to the young Germans who had also fallen, offering prayers for countrymen and enemies alike. As more Salvationists made the journey to Europe, Salvation Army hostels, huts, and rest rooms popped up across the front lines. The Salvationists helped by mending uniforms, assisting medics, and offering hot coffee or cocoa to the soldiers.
It was Ensign Helen Purviance, a native Hoosier from Huntington, Indiana, and her fellow Salvationist, Margaret Sheldon, who came up with the idea that would forever define The Salvation Army’s role in Europe during WWI. Serving with the First Division of the American Expeditionary Force, they decided that nothing would help the young men more than some good home cooking, but dwindling food supplies meant getting creative. Looking at the flour, lard, baking soda, sugar, canned milk, and cinnamon at their disposal, Helen and Margaret decided to try their hands at making donuts. Using a bottle as a rolling pin and whatever tins and tubes were available to cut holes, the young women made the first batch by hand and fried them on a tiny pot bellied stove in their hut.
“I was literally on my knees when those first doughnuts were fried, seven at a time in a small fry pan,” Helen later recalled. “There was also a prayer in my heart that somehow this home touch would do more for those who ate the doughnuts than satisfy a physical hunger.”
Word spread quickly, and before long soldiers were lined up awaiting this special treat. Helen and Margaret were able to fry around 150 donuts that day, but more than 2,000 soldiers, drawn to the smell of fresh donuts, had lined up in hopes of getting one. The donuts were so popular that The Salvation Army expanded production, handing out thousands of the delicious hot donuts around the clock from tents and trenches across France. At the peak of production, the young women set to the task of frying donuts were churning out up to 9,000 donuts every day. Every donut was served free of charge with a mug of hot coffee and a blessing.
These young doughboys affectionately nicknamed the Salvation Army women “donut girls” – a name that stuck and is still used today. Helen Purviance served for two years as a Donut Girl on the war front. During that time, she slept and served in tents, huts, or often under a stretched piece of canvas.Two of Helen’s brothers would eventually make their way to battle, too. In fact, one of her brothers, upon discovering that his sister had beaten him to the front line, remarked, “Sis, you’ve spoiled it for me at home, for I’ve got to tell them now I found Little Sis there when I got there.”
Helen and her fellow Donut Girls kept a steady stream of hot coffee and donuts available for the soldiers, but they also read them letters from home and attended to shell shocked and gassed men in the infirmary. By staying close to the action, the women were often in the direct line of fire. On one occasion, Helen was speaking with some doughboys in her hut when a plane dropped a bomb just ten feet from the front door. In a miraculous turn of events, it did not explode. In spite of the dangers they faced on a daily basis, every single Salvation Army Donut Girl survived the war.
The services provided by these brave young women were recognized throughout the leadership of the fighting forces. Helen share one conversation upon her return to the U.S.: “I kept my hut open all night because ammunition men have their hardest work to do at night. One night the General came to see me and said, ‘As a result of your warm hut and hot chocolate, I find that my men have fewer accidents and repairs because they are so anxious to get here.'”
After the war ended, American soldiers returned to the United States with a new love of fresh donuts, sparking a boom in the popularity of the treat back home. The Salvation Army continued to serve veterans on American soil and headed back overseas with troops when the U.S. entered WWII in 1941. Today, The Salvation Army sends care packages to soldiers serving around the world and deploys ministry teams to bring hope to men and women bearing the flag of freedom.
As for the Donut Girls, they came home and continued their good work with The Salvation Army. Helen Purviance went on to have a long career in The Salvation Army, eventually earning the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and serving on the East Coast in New York and New Jersey. In 1938, the first National Donut Day was established in Chicago to honor the legacy of the Donut Girls and raise funds to help Americans suffering during the Great Depression. The tradition continues today, with June 2 marking the 79th Annual National Donut Day.
On April 6, the Donut Girls made a reappearance at the Indiana World War I Centennial Kick Off Ceremony at the Indiana War Memorial in downtown Indianapolis. Organized by the Indiana World War I Centennial Committee, the event welcomed Hoosier veterans to the memorial to hear from speakers like Brigadier General J. Stewart Goodwin, Salvation Army Indiana Divisional Commander Major Bob Webster, and Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. The Donut Girls joined WWI doughboy reenactors to greet guests, pin roses on veterans, and, of course, serve coffee and donuts.
The Indiana War Memorial Museum is also home to a special exhibit honoring the legacy of Salvation Army Donut Girls and Indiana’s own Helen Purviance. We encourage you to take time during this Centennial year to visit the museum and learn more about Indiana’s role in WWI and how The Salvation Army’s Donut Girls helped to bring a little of the home front to our soldiers on the front lines.
(Additional photos from the Indiana World War I Centennial Kick Off Ceremony can be found on Flickr by clicking HERE.)