Bringing "Home" to the Front

Laura Booth discovers the Army’s sweet role in doughnut history

THE first Friday in June marks National Donut Day in the United States, where more than ten billion doughnuts - or donuts - are consumed every year. Intriguingly, The Salvation Army played an unexpected role in popularizing doughnuts, having created National Donut Day in Chicago in 1938 to raise funds and awareness of its social services during the Great Depression. More importantly, Donut Day also honored The Salvation Army's 'doughnut lassies' from the First World War.

Making Donuts for the Troops

When America entered the war in 1917, the USA National Commander Evangeline Booth sent Lt. Colonel William Barker to France to find out how to support the troops on the front line. Lt. Colonel Barker's response was to suggest: 'Send over some lassies.'

The National Commander obligingly sent 11 female officers. Ensign Purviance was sent to work with the American First Division. With Ensign Margaret Sheldon she decided to lift the spirits of the troops with some home cooking. With only flour, lard, sugar, baking powder, canned milk and cinnamon available, they decided to make doughnuts, patting the dough into shape by hand and kneeling over a low fire to fry them.

'I was literally on my knees,' Lt. Colonel Purviance later recalled, '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 tempting aroma drew the homesick soldiers to the tent, where they patiently waited in the rain. The ensigns cooked 150 doughnuts that night. The next day they doubled that number, using improvised kitchen equipment, such as a wine bottle as a rolling pin and an empty baking powder tin as a cutter. When fully equipped for the job, they fried from 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts every day, along with the other 'lassies'on the front line.

They even had a blacksmith improvise a doughnut cutter to create ring doughnuts at the request of the soldiers. The soldiers soon referred to Salvation Army lassies as 'doughnut girls', with the simple doughnut becoming a symbol of all that The Salvation Army was doing to ease the hardships of the men on the front line, not only through serving doughnuts, but also through canteens in primitive dugouts and huts, the free refreshments, religious services, concerts and a clothes mending service.

The Salvation Army soon became a popular organization among the troops in France having at first been viewed with skepticism. Millions back in America became aware of the spirit of The Salvation Army for the first time. As tributes poured in, Evangeline Booth protested: 'The Salvation Army has had no new success; we have only done an old thing in an old way.' However, the American people disagreed and donated an unprecedented $13 million. On 11 November 1918, the doughnut girls climbed out of the trenches into no man's land and served fresh doughnuts to the German troops in their trenches.