Marguerite Marsh (Emily Webster in Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace), ca. 1913 (photo from Maud Hart Lovelace’s Deep Valley).
Firing on the First World War’s Western Front ended on Nov. 11, 1918 at the eleventh hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. As the world commemorates the centennial, there are hundreds of stories of men and women who served.
This is the story of Marguerite Marsh, a Mankato woman who answered the call when the United States branch of the YMCA took a bold step and opened its service to females for the first time in July 1917. She was born in Mankato on Independence Day in 1890. Her mother died when she was only eleven years old and her father left her in the care of her elderly grandparents, John Q. and Sarah (Hanna) Marsh (early pioneer settlers). Sarah Marsh died two years later leaving Marguerite alone to care for her aging grandfather. Marsh graduated from Mankato High School in 1909, was an active member of the First Presbyterian Church working with the youth. After the death of her grandfather in 1915, she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and studied home economics.
When war was declared in 1917, the YMCA immediately volunteered its support at home and abroad. They organized canteens at the front lines in France, giving soldiers a place where they could get away from the harsh realities of the war. These canteens were huts or tents set up to provide coffee, writing materials, books, gramophone and records or moving picture shows several times a week for the soldiers. Nearly 1500 entertainers met with the troops in their off hours.
Marguerite Marsh YMCA WWI service card
Some Americans thought that women would not hold up to the physical and mental strain of war work. However, many women stepped up to the challenge, including Marguerite Marsh. She enlisted with the 82nd Division in November 1917 and served with 13,00 YMCA workers in France. Marguerite was assigned to a YMCA café at Tours, France, and was later given the rank of Secretary in charge of a canteen at Gondrecourt, with the First Army school.
Back in Mankato, the First Presbyterian Church published a newsletter, Our Church Life. In addition to church news, it contained letters and news about servicemen and women from the church. This newsletter was gratefully anticipated by the soldiers and kept those at home informed of their fellow church members. Below are excerpts from news and letters written by Marguerite and published in Our Church Life.
A telegram Marsh sent to the Rev. Paden on Dec. 11, 1917, describes her hopes to depart for France on Dec. 19. Soon after arriving she first worked canteen service in the largest café at Tours, outside of Paris, serving three meals a day in addition to other duties. “Before leaving Paris, some of the group visited the American Hospital there. We could hardly get away. Though there was no one there from our part of the United States, we were welcomed like long lost friends. The boys were all eager to see anyone from America.”
April 16, 1918, she sent a letter from “Somewhere in France.” The weather cold and damp and she was rooming with a friend at the YWCA Hostess House. Marsh wrote that she was eager for “real canteen work” at one of the barracks.
May 17, 1918, she wrote about being “muchly excited” over the granting of their repeated request to be transferred nearer the front and their preparations for the approaching transfer—to what point she did not know.
Our Church Life published a report from her aunt, Mrs. John R. Beatty, about her receiving a letter from Marsh’s superior officer regarding her work: “She is doing really good work here and is a credit to her country and to her family.”
Marguerite most likely dresses similar to the woman in this poster designed by Neysa Moran McMein in 1918, “One of the Thousand Y.M.C.A. Girls in France.”
Marsh wrote in July 1918 about the few weeks she had spent starting a canteen 28 miles from the front: “Starting a canteen means bushels of work…We furnish the boys stationery, envelopes, pens and ink—free. The writing tables are in use most of the day. A bunch of boys who came in recently from the South and can not read and write so we are arranging classes for them. Last Sunday afternoon I watched an air battle at some distance. We never know whether it is a practice fight or a real one.” Several weeks later she writes about the abandonment of the canteen and her transfer to a large canteen at the divisional headquarters.
Writing on August 23, 1918: “Back again and working harder than ever in a hut which serves thousands of men. I never saw so many hot, dusty boys in my life. They come in on trucks so white with dust that they bear no resemblance to human beings…There is a beautiful full moon and we are congratulating ourselves on our escape from the air raids. We have had bombs to the right of us and bombs to the left of us but so far have remained untouched.
I am writing to the accompaniment of a beautiful band which is playing on the shady side of the village street. There is something incongruous about that band. It has played each afternoon for a week. It gives me a queer feeling. Even as I write, the sound is drowned by the rumble of army trucks. Music gives war a stagy effect which it is far from having. It is quite too real.”
In her Oct. 21, 1918, letter she made an admission: “I am ashamed to tell you how comfortable I am. I have a room all to myself, with two other American women in the same house—‘Y’ workers also. The canteen work is very hard but with such comfortable living conditions, I don’t mind. I work every night until ten or half past. The cook from one of the Company messes made doughnuts for us yesterday afternoon and last night we were just swamped.”
“We had Billy Sunday’s trombonist at our hut Sunday evening. He gave such a straightforward talk which did us all good. We lead such double lives over here. Underneath, our hearts ache for the boys suffering in the hospitals or standing in the cold mud of the trenches; at the same time we must joke, play around with, and try to help keep up the spirits of the boys in the back areas who are waiting their turn.”
“The other day, on one of the few sunshiny afternoons which we have had, Miss Tyler and I went up on the hill back of the village. In the distance and outlined against the sky, was an apparently never-ending line of French artillery, appearing over the edge of the hill, passing across a long straight stretch of road where according to French custom, trees were set a regular intervals. I was fascinated with the picture which they presented, but Miss Tyler said that she had seen so much of the horrible side of war that she could see nothing picturesque about it. It seems as though it must be over by spring.”
U.S. World War I transport ship, USS Sierra
Three weeks later, November 11, 1918, armistice was signed. Demobilization took time and Marguerite returned to the states with the 82nd Division. They departed Bordeaux, France aboard the troop transport ship USS Sierra on May 9th and arrived in New York on May 21, 1919.
During WWI, the YMCA had assumed military responsibilities on a scale that had never been attempted by a non-profit, community-based organization in the history of our nation and would never be matched again.
Marguerite enrolled in a hospital training course at the Presbyterian Hospital in connection with Columbia University in New York. She married Myron Wilcox in New York in May 1923. They moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where Marguerite gave birth to a son, John Marsh Wilcox, on January 31, 1925. Just two weeks later, Marguerite died in Iowa City, at the age of 35. She is buried near her grandparents in Glenwood Cemetery in Mankato.
From her obituary in the Mankato Free Press: “There are lives made stronger by adversity. For Marguerite Marsh, one after another the home ties of her girlhood were broken by death. Through it all, she preserved her brave faith, the sweet poise of character that carried her through to a fine womanhood in a happy home of her own.”