by Mary Goljenboom
In 1917, after the US had entered World War I, the American Red Cross put out a call for volunteers to run canteens in France. Mary Vail Andress answered. She easily met the requirements. At 34 years old, she was in good health and on the young side of age the prerequisite. Having operated a school in Paris for American girls until war had broken out in 1914, she already spoke French. She was able to pay all her own expenses. While she had no experience with the American Red Cross (ARC), she knew the service sector: in addition to running her school, she’d also worked for the New York Settlement house. Quickly selected, by late summer, Andress was in France with ARC’s Canteen Corps.
Canteens provided weary soldiers with rest and refreshments. The Red Cross worked with officials of both the French military and the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) to open, staff, and supply canteens where they would most benefit soldiers: both at railway stations to serve soldiers in transit and, more dangerously, just behind the battlefront. No matter the flag under which the allied soldiers served, they could find hot or cold drinks, sandwiches, candies, chocolates, cookies, fruit, and a place to relax at an American Red Cross canteen.
It took some persuasion for Andress to get an assignment in the field. She initially worked in Paris as the assistant to the director of the canteen service, according to Edward Hungerford in his book With the Doughboy in France (1920). Her desire for more active duty was eventually granted. After completing several short-term jobs at canteens in Épernay and Chantilly, she was assigned to direct a small French railway canteen at Toul, on the Moselle River in northeastern France. She arrived in January 1918.
Toul, because of its location on major rail lines and closeness to battlefields at Nancy and Verdun, was becoming an important military center for transporting soldiers, supplies, and equipment. Later that year it would become the headquarters of the US Second Army. Toul often was the last canteen for soldiers headed to the German front and the first for those leaving the battlefield with injuries or on leave.
It was clear to Andress that the little French canteen at the railway station would need to be re-outfitted to serve more soldiers—many more. She envisioned facilities like those in Paris and Épernay, where she’d been assigned earlier. There soldiers could buy (at minimal cost) not only snacks, sandwiches, and drinks, but also full meals of soup, meat, vegetables, salads, bread, cheese, and eggs. These canteens had sleeping rooms, showers, recreation areas, and rooms for letter-writing or reading. Andress wanted to offer the soldiers stopping off at Toul all these services and comforts. The question was, How?
Her solution was multi-pronged. To give increasing numbers of traveling soldiers easier access to the railway canteen, she moved it into a 50-foot tent in the railway yard. This took copious amounts of persuasion, but Andress kept at it until she secured the necessary authorizations from railroad, military, and Red Cross officials.
She found and rented a three-story apartment house a short walk from the railroad station. This was converted into a rest house. Twenty-five beds for officers were on the first two floors and eight more for enlisted men on the top floor. Food and showers were also available.
The building that became her main facility, the Hôtel de la Gare, was across the street from the train station. Andress rented it and then adapted it for the needs of soldiers. In the basement, she added showers that could accommodate up to sixteen men at a time. The kitchen produced full meals, thick sandwiches, hot dogs, doughnuts, cookies, and coffee brewed in ten-gallon marmites. Soldiers could buy candies, chocolates, and chewing gum, and canned goods like jam. Other items—toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and blades, soap, towels, combs, brushes, handkerchiefs, underwear, socks, sweaters, cigarettes, playing cards, checkers—were also available, some at minimal cost, some given away. There was a writing room with stationery, postcards, pencils, pens, and ink, as well as a reading room with as many newspapers, magazines, and books as could be collected. There were 400 beds plus a system for announcing trains so that sleeping soldiers didn’t miss their departures.
Andress and her growing staff worked tirelessly to get each venue operating. Demand was high. By June, during the build-up for major military campaigns conducted in the summer and fall of 1918, the Toul canteen was serving 3,000 troops a day. Days were filled with cooking, baking, cleaning and—above all—friendly and upbeat conversation with soldiers. Shifts could run ten, twelve, fourteen hours or more. The search for supplies and provisions was endless, keeping Andress’s supply officer on the road between ARC warehouses, French and AEF commissaries, and local markets. A new, enlarged canteen was built in the plaza in front of the railway station and a small one placed in the yard on one of the platforms to serve those not able to leave trains. Sometimes even the nighttime was overactive with the sounds of artillery at the not-too-distant front.
As busy as Andress’s Toul operations were during the war, their biggest test came after the November 11, 1918 armistice. For months, hundreds of thousands of AEF soldiers returned from battlefields, passing through Toul as they headed to French ports and home. Shortly after the armistice, 11,000 arrived in a single day. After that, it averaged 6,000-7,000 daily for months, according to Carter H. Harrison, an ARC manager at the Red Cross hospital in Toul who tells much of Andress’s story in his memoir With the American Red Cross in France.
The Red Cross Bulletin of July 1919, published highlights from a year-end report about the Toul operation, and the article was subsequently reprinted in newspapers across the country. The 1.6 million soldiers who passed through the canteen during the previous eleven months had eaten 1,561,625 well-filled sandwiches, 461,114 doughnuts, and “oceans of coffee, chocolate, and lemonade . . . and pyramids of ice cream” as well as plenty of other food.
The article said that Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, had inspected the canteen and complimented its management. While the article did not mention Mary Vail Andress, the AEF had noticed her extraordinary effort and responsive administration. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her initiative and for displaying “marked foresight and sound judgement, with untiring personal devotion to the interests and comfort of those whom she served.”
In an exceptional salute to her work, Gen. Pershing himself presented her with the medal.
Mary Vail Andress’s Distinguished Service Medal citation:
For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services. On her own initiative she organized and efficiently developed and administered the work of the American Red Cross at Toul, France. Under her wise supervision this work grew from the ministering and supplying of small comforts to soldiers passing through in hospital trains to an undertaking of extensive proportions, which has aided and cheered thousands of men in the service. In the performance of her exacting tasks, she has displayed marked foresight and sound judgement, with untiring personal devotion to the interests and comfort of those whom she served.
Congressional Medal of Honor, The Distinguished Service Cross, and the Distinguished Service Medal Issued by the War Department Since April 4, 1917 up to and including General Orders, No. 126, War Department, November 11, 1919, Compiled in the Office of the Adjutant General of the Army, 1919 (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1920), p. 840
With the American Red Cross in France, 1918-1919 by Carter Henry Harrison
With the Doughboy in France; a Few Chapters of an American Effort by Edward Hungerford
The American National Red Cross Annual Report For the Year Ended Jane 30, 1918
The Red Cross Bulletin, vol 3: Jan. 7, 1919 p. 7; Jul. 7, 1919 p. 8
“Army Canteens Conducted by American Women”. Washington, D.C., 28 Oct. 1917 via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from the Library of Congress
“Great Quantities of Food Handled at the Canteen“. Maysville, KY Public Ledger, 28 June 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers
Captions are based on information provided by the source and information in The Catalogue of Official A.E.F. Photographs Taken by The Signal Corps, U.S.A., War Department Document No. 903, 1919, accessible via Internet Archive or HathiTrust .
National Archives Identifier: 20804532
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-16624
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15425 (digital file from original)
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15426
National Archives Identifier: 20803806. Another version is in the collection of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-anrc-15423
National Archives Identifier: 20803812
A version of this article originally appeared in our newsletter on historic businesswomen, The Registry, in 2016.
Copyright 2019 Ferret Research, Inc.