Wednesday, November 9, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Donuts of the First World War: The Hole Story

     I thought it might be nice to give this Remembrance Week post a dose of sweetness as we prepare to reflect upon some of the more somber aspects of our wartime history this Friday. A great thing about this story is that it includes some actual testimony from our story's star, and you'll be able to tell her parts when the font looks like this. 

     Our story begins in 1917 France, where young Helen Purviance, an ensign in the Salvation Army, was sent to work with the American First Division: There were four companies in my outfit, A, B, C, D. The major would assign them in turn to take responsibility for taking our tent down, packing our supplies and loading them on top of a truck.  We would climb up on top of our pile of supplies when we moved.  We always moved at night because of the ammunition train... General Pershing wasn’t keen about women going close to the front lines. He said he didn’t want to take the responsibility for us. We told him he wasn’t. We were taking the responsibility to do this. It seemed to us that the greater their (the soldiers) danger, the greater was their need... They armed us immediately with a gas mask, helmet and a .45 calibre revolver. They instructed us to take target practice for our own protection.”

     One day, as she and her assistant, Margaret Sheldon were taking a Sunday afternoon stroll near the Salvation Army hut behind the front lines, the pair come up with an idea to whip up a new sweet treat for the soldiers: “We had been making fudge for the soldiers and we were trying to think of something else to make with some supplies we’d gotten from the commissary of the ammunition train. And the more we talked, it just spelled doughnuts... Margaret said, ‘But what about eggs?’ I said I would go see the villagers about eggs. We got the eggs. When we made the first doughnuts, we partitioned off the hut with a blanket so the soldiers wouldn’t know what we were making until it was ready."
     Ensign Purviance coaxed the wood fire in the potbellied stove to keep it at an even heat for frying. Because it was back-breaking to lean over the low fire, she spent most of the time kneeling in front of the stove"I was literally on my knees when those first doughnuts were fried, seven at a time, in a small frypan. 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,"

     The first soldier to receive a doughnut was Pvt. Braxton Zuber of Auburn, Ala., who later worked with the girls as a full-time aide: “This came about because it was discovered Zuber had lied about his age when he enlisted.  He was only 16. When he was sick and had to go the hospital, he confessed his real age. The military was going to send him home. We had a detail assigned to help us get water and things such as that. So when the Army said it was going to send Zuber home, I said to them, ‘You are now assigning me an able bodied man who could be used for other duties.  Why don’t you let me have Zuber. Until he confessed, you would have never known he was under age. You could give me him instead of sending me a different man each day."

     Soon the tempting aroma of frying doughnuts drew a lengthy line of soldiers to the hut. Standing in mud and rain, they patiently waited their turn. Although the girls worked late into the night, they could serve only 150 doughnuts the first day. The next day, that number was doubled. A while later, when fully equipped for the job, they fried from 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts daily, as did other lassies along the frontline trenches. After several soldiers asked, "Can't you make a doughnut with a hole in it?", Ensign Purviance had an elderly French blacksmith improvise a doughnut cutter by fastening the top of a condensed milk can and camphor-ice tube to a wooden block. Later, all sorts of other inventions were employed, such as the lid from a baking powder can or a lamp chimney to cut the doughnut, with the top of a coffee percolator to make the hole.
     The soldiers cheered the doughnuts and soon referred to Salvation Army lassies as "doughnut girls," even when they baked apple pies or other treats. The simple doughnut became a symbol of all that the Salvation Army was doing to ease the hardships of the frontline fighting man -- the canteens in primitive dugouts and huts, the free refreshments, religious services, concerts, and a clothes-mending service. Today Salvation Army Red Shield Clubs and USO units offer members of the Armed Forces a variety of services, ranging from recreational facilities to family counseling -- but the famous doughnut remains a perennial favorite. Nor is it confined to those in uniform. During every sort of peacetime emergency --fires, floods, earthquake, transit strikes, blackouts -- The Salvation Army's mobile canteens have provided thousands of civilians with the doughnuts that stand for the Salvationist's loving concern and readiness to help in time of need.

     In case you want to see what all the excitement was about, here's the recipe (

The Original recipe for donuts as made by the Salvation Army Lassies in WWI 
WWI Donut Recipe - Makes approximately 15 - 20 donuts 

4 cups plain flour
1˝ tsp salt
˝ tsp butter
4 tsp baking powder
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 egg
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp nutmeg

Put flour in shallow pan, add salt, baking powder, and Sugar. 
Rub in butter with fingertips. 
Add the well beaten egg and milk and stir thoroughly. 
Toss on floured board, roll to one-fourth inch in thickness, shape, fry, and drain. 
Mix the cinnamon and nutmeg with fine granulated or icing sugar and use to dust the donuts after cooking.

“I have always said that the doughnuts became known in 1847. But I do think they came into their own on Oct. 19, 1917, when Margaret Sheldon and I decided to make doughnuts in World War I.”

     I'd like to recognize the Doughboy Center, Susan Mitchem, director of the archives at the Salvation Army Headquarters, and the Salvation Army of Indiana for the information and quotes. I'd also like to mention that the Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Campaign is underway, and I encourage you all to look for your nearest poppy box and make a donation if you haven't already. One hundred percent of the proceeds go towards supporting our veterans, so it is our duty to repay them in such a small capacity. Please remember the regulations for poppy wearing: do not attach any pins or emblems into the center, wear the poppy only on a lapel or shirtfront, and be sure to purchase a new one every year. It's also not too late to begin thinking about how you will spend this Remembrance Day. Make a plan to attend your local ceremony, or at the very least to observe a moment of silence at 11:00am on Friday. If you're in Elgin County or the area, here is a list of ceremonies and events: If it's possible for you to take photos in a respectful manner or just share your experience in words, I'd love to hear about how you observe Remembrance Day and ways that this year was memorable. In the meantime, have a safe and respectful week and as always, 
     Thanks for reading, 
     Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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