The Catholic Women's League In WW1 & WW2

If you thought the Catholic Women’s League was only interested in helping Catholics, think again. Bernie Townsend, Chairman of the Services Committee of the league, explains just why the charity received recognition from the British, French and Belgian governments in the First World War and was found in every theatre of war in the Second.

The CWL was founded in 1906 by a remarkable lady called Margaret Fletcher. She was born in Oxford in 1862, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, and in her 30s she decided to become a Catholic. She was received into the Church in 1897. The Suffrage movement had begun, but Margaret saw many dangers in it. In 1906 she obtained permission from the Catholic hierarchy at that time to form a league of Catholic Women, insisting that the League needed women with balanced common-sense, and it should ‘utilise the average woman in convincing the Catholic world that businesslike methods and intellectual gifts are excellent weapons in the service of God’. The motto is CWL – Charity, Work and Loyalty. She died in 1943 at the age of 81 and is buried in the churchyard at Begbroke Priory near Oxford. The CWL quite quickly spread round the country and with migration (and the war effort by the ladies of the CWL) around the world.

CWL Services Committee
At the beginning of the First World War an appeal was made for, among other things, a Catholic recreation hut for the Forces in Boulogne, and the immediate and generous response from members of the public made it possible for the League to obtain and open a hut there. Just to give an idea of the fundraising capacity of the CWL, in April 1915 they were asked to furnish details of the financial aid they had been able to give to war needs so far. The list was a formidable one: Red Cross Work, £1,165 2s 5d; Refugee Work, £7,392 15s 1d; two Motor Ambulances, £506; Recreation Hut for Soldiers (Boulogne), £995; gifts in kind for same, approximately £350 –  making a total of £10,408 17s 6d. This was a very considerable sum in a short space of time in those days, and thus the first Mass was said in the Boulogne Hut on Palm Sunday 1915, when about 80 Catholic soldiers attended. The hut was in the charge of Mrs Baynes, who was assisted by three other members of the League.

The earliest hut in England, opened in 1916, was at St Peter’s Hall, Westminster, on the site of what is now St Paul’s Bookshop beside Westminster Cathedral. This was a canteen open 24 hours, organised by members of the League, for troops passing through London. In June 1917, Cardinal Bourne unveiled and blessed a beautiful war shrine erected outside the hut by the workers in memory of all those men who had used the hut and fallen in the war. The General of the London District and his staff attended the ceremony.

It soon became necessary to form a special committee to plan and organise the work of the growing number of huts. This was called the ‘Huts and Canteens Committee’. The West Riding Branch of the League, now the Leeds Branch, opened a large hut and chapel for the Northern Command Depot transit camp at Studley Roger, west of Ripon, North Yorkshire. It was staffed by CWL members who worked round the clock to provide over 1,000 meals a day for the men camped there. This became known as the ‘English Mother Hut’. At the end of the Great War, the hut was sold and the branch erected a Wayside Crucifix on the site, bequeathed by the then Marquis of Ripon. The huge plinth, on which there is a memorial dedication, was also a gift from the Marquis. Every year since 1920, members have organised a pilgrimage there on a Thursday nearest to the feast of Sts Peter and Paul (29th June) and July 1st, the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

There were many other huts opened during WWI and by the end of 1918 the League had 35 huts, not only in England but on the war fronts in Europe as well, all staffed by League members. They were outstanding in that, though they provided meals, the Forces’ spiritual needs were also catered for. Holy Mass was celebrated on Sundays, some huts having permanent altars. The friendly and Christian atmosphere was appreciated by British, Belgian, French and Canadian troops and Chaplains returning to their own countries were instrumental in urging the founding of the League there.

At the end of 1916 it was announced that Mrs Baynes, Director of the Huts in France, had been mentioned in despatches by Sir Douglas Haig - perhaps the first of many national honours later to be bestowed on League members. In 1919 Cardinal Mercier started the League for Belgian Women, and in 1920 the Canadian League was formed. These Chapel Huts, Canteen Huts and Clubs had been erected and equipped by funds acquired through gifts, loans, entertainment and proceeds from canteens. The objects ever in the minds of those responsible for this work were threefold:

1. To give to Catholic soldiers spiritual help, and that atmosphere of peace and goodwill inseparable from the true Catholic home.
2. To give to all the heartiest of welcomes, the best of everything materially, together with perfect freedom and independence of action compatible with compliance to certain necessary rules for the welfare of all.
3. To run the Huts on thoroughly sound business lines, not regarding profit making as an object to be aimed at or even desired.

It can justly be claimed that these three objects had been achieved, and the proof lies in the approval shown by the chaplains and soldiers, and by the satisfactory state of the accounts, which showed that all huts and clubs were financially sound and with a balance on the right side! It is worthy of note that the war work of the CWL from 1914-1918 received official recognition from the British, French and Belgian Governments.
When peace came in 1918, the League began the adoption of ruined villages and churches in Europe. The huts in France were donated for use in shattered area and vestments were provided for use in those churches still standing. Of course, there were other organisations running canteens for the Forces, notably the Church Army, Church of Scotland, the YMCA and the Salvation Army and they, on many occasions, worked together very amicably and helped each other out, particularly in WW2.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the Committee sought and obtained permission from the War Office to resume the running of the canteens. A new appeal was launched for financial aid, and by December of 1939 there were three canteens working. A few months later, no less than 11 huts had been established, including three in France, and there were more requests coming in. The first Mass Hut was opened by the Harrogate Section of the now Leeds Branch of the League, with funds raised by the sections of the branch, and was dedicated in October 1940. This was at Pennypot Army Camp, two miles west of Harrogate town centre. Vestments and altar cloths and linen were provided by members of all sections and parishioners and there were gifts of a chalice, tabernacle and altar candlesticks. A young Catholic Chaplain, who accompanied a contingent of soldiers returning from Dunkirk, contacted the local Section of the League and asked that some place be provided for the men. Within two weeks a CWL Club, using an empty café, was opened by the local mayor. A non-Catholic soldier was so delighted with the facilities that he wrote to the Catholic priest of his own home town, requesting that prayers should be said for all the League members involved in this work.

The Rome Club was in the grand surrounds of the old Scots College and Pope Pius XII paid many unofficial visits there. He admired the work of the staff and once asked where the League managed to find such people? The League members, now in uniform under the auspices of the Council for Voluntary War Workers (CVWW), went where the war went. They travelled with the Eighth Army to North Africa, Italy, Jerusalem and were in Vienna, Athens, Iceland, Malaya and Singapore.

A branch of canteen work which was an immediate success was the mobile canteen. This was in service in the war stricken areas, and was on the road from 7am to 7pm with only a short break. It was manned by a team of eight. Besides tea, of which 160 cups could be served at a time, all piping hot, the mobile canteen provided cakes, pies, doughnuts, chocolate and Woodbines. The mobile had other uses, too, on occasion, as on the day when the staff gave a lift to hospital to a young Australian, who had broken his kneecap in a bad road smash. Mobile canteens were costly but were the first objectives and assigned where Troop Centres were concentrated. An entire journal could be devoted to the work carried out by the stalwart voluntary teams who, when the war became more vigorous, were repeatedly exposed to bombing raids by the enemy when the mobiles were taken to the gun sites, particularly on the East Coast.

In the Middle East conditions were often hazardous and unpredictable as the fortunes of war fluctuated, and at times it was expedient to evacuate within a few hours notice from the Army authorities. This theatre of war was no simple task for the leader and her staff, but it is worthy of note that no fatal casualties were suffered among our brave and fearless young women. In 1945 the League was asked to send mobile canteens and set up clubs for the services personnel in India and Burma. By the end of 1945, no less than 180 canteens and huts were operating simultaneously at home and abroad. The commitment demanded efficient management and an army of members to staff each individual canteen. All Chaplains spoke highly of their value to the morale of the Forces, who were sustained by the homely atmosphere that was the predominating feature of CWL establishments.

This picture was taken in January 1946. It shows a 12-piece orchestra playing at the ‘Blarney Stone’, the Catholic Women’s League canteen at Verden, near Bremen, North West Germany, where 2,500 Allied troops bought 3,000 cups of tea each night. A Miss Tynan of Dublin and a Miss O’Kane of Preston were in charge. A book entitled ‘The CWL from the Beaches of Normandy to Berlin, August 1944 to July 1946’ by Mary Critchley-Salmonson OBE, Controller General of the CWL Huts and Canteens in North West Europe, reads as if the whole affair were a joyous adventure. It is a story of her personal experiences and contains many shrewd and amusing comments on the general situation as she saw it on her numerous journeys across France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. It provides a factual narrative and a wealth of historical interest. Mrs Critchley-Salmonson was entirely fearless and often went where angels feared to tread, and it is due to this gift that she was able to get things done when it seemed an impossibility to others. She was Mentioned in Despatches and awarded an OBE in 1946.

As one of the approved philanthropic bodies, the CWL had to work on an undenominational basis and provide welfare amenities for all who might come to the clubs. This was understood, accepted and faithfully carried out. But from a purely Catholic organisation something extra was expected, both by the Catholic officers and men who visited the canteens and clubs, and by the public who so generously contributed to the funds of the League. To remain officially undenominational for general purposes and yet provide that indefinable something which the Catholic soldier expected, was no easy matter. Yet it was done, and done with a fine discernment by the ladies who worked so devotedly.

To find out more about the work of the League today, visit their website

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