Canteen Units

In the summer of 1917 three canteens for the French soldiers were opened by the SWH. The one at Soissons was connected with Royaumont, and was part of the work undertaken by the hospital. The two at Creil and Crepy-en-Valois were under the supervision of Miss Jack. Edith Taylor running the canteen at Crepy-en-Valois on a day to day basis.  The canteen at Crepy was located right in the train station and it was common for 15,000 troops per day to be on the move.    The object of the canteens was to provide the soldiers with a hot drink or a quick bite to eat. The soldiers would arrive by train, bound for the front line or returning on leave. Often the men had gone days without food. The site of smiling faces with their 1200 litre basins filled with coffee or soup must have felt homely and welcoming, especially for the lads heading to the front. Trains arrived from all over the front, Dunkirk, Soissons and Fismes bringing troops from all over the world, French, British, Canadian, American and many from the French Colonies. Heavy work lugging the boiling cooking pots around, freezing cold as they were largely  in the open and clouds of smoke coming from the six stoves usually stoked by the men. During December 1917 194,000 soups and coffees were served. The authorities embraced the idea warmly and for the Poilu an important respite. Major German offensives took place during the summer of 1918 and Crepy was shelled and the town blown to pieces. All that remained of the canteen was a sign hanging on a post ” Cantine des Dames Ecossaies”  service in September 1918.  The canteen at Soissons was under the command of Miss Ivens. The soldiers were in desperate need for a food station as the town of Soissons had for some time been blasted from heavy artillery. Although the Military Authorities provided sleeping accommodation , there was no canteens and the shops were all closed down, the men arriving in their thousands either heading to the battlefront or returning were tired and hungry, they also received no rations until the joined their unit.    For many of the women who volunteered to leave Royaumont and travel the 2 hours up to the town,  it was the first time they had experienced shell fire. Astonishing that they found it frightening and exciting at the same time. As they drew nearer Soissons the road was camouflaged on both sides and overhead with branches, shells burst near by and the town empty of its people. The canteen was set up in a disused schoolhouse, the canteen was in operation during late 1917. Being so close to the action was certainly an interesting time, with nightly air raids and having to bunk in the cellars. And although they were never hit, there were plenty of near misses. The canteen at Creil at the end came in for heavy attack and scarcely not a night passed without the bugles warning notes. By May 1918 the  bombing was steady and in early June it was fierce. Night and day French troops and lorries laden with guns thundered into the little town enroute to the front and at night came the roar and throbs of the Gothas. The rattling of the air-aircraft, the screams from the engines of our own aircraft. On the 9th of June the decision was made to put out from Soissons and retreat. After eight months of work the shutters went down, the unit with the soldiers and the few remaining civilians sadly left their town and headed for Paris.