Article from Stand To! Number 23, 1988
The need for the provision of canteens for the BEF was officially recognised early in 1915 and the Canteen and Mess CoOperative Society, the forerunner of the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes), was authorised to establish a branch in France. Expeditionary Force Canteens managed by the Society then came into being for the purpose of supplying small comforts such as the troops were accustomed to purchase in their canteens in peace time.
By the end of the war there were 295 canteens in operation with the BEF and the organisation had not only greatly increased its range of goods but had ventured into the management of officers' clubs such as the one at Etaples shown in IWM photograph Q10194 below. The personnel belonged to the Army Service Corps and numbered over 5,000 supplemented by 700 members of Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps, better known as the WAACs.
Divisions set up their own canteens. At first they obtained their stocks locally or from home but later from E F Canteens. Divisional canteens supplied the wheeled canteens which many brigades acquired and below these, battalion dry canteens.
Various religious bodies stepped into the breach to provide canteen and other recreational facilties for the troops. In late November 1914 the first in the field, the Young Men's Christian Association, commenced establishing centres, at first in the base camps and then on the Lines of Communication and in rest camps, army schools etc. The centres included other recreational facilities as well as canteens. Buffets were later set up at important railway junctions for the use of troops in transit. In June 1915 the YMCA was at last permitted to operate in the Army areas and by the end of 1916 was running a chain of canteens near the front along the whole of the British line. These were quite basic establishments where the troops could obtain hot drinks, biscuits, cake, cigarettes, etc. Notepaper was also available. The Church Army canteen at Poperinghe seen above in IWM photo Q10302 (taken 10 May 1918) was probably typical of these nearfront line canteens. To give some idea of the scale of YMCA operations, it can be said that the staff (largely voluntary and consisting of ladies and men of low medical category or over service age) averaged 1,500 but at times reached 1,750 and at Etaples railway sidings alone, more than 200,000 cups of cocoa were distributed monthly to troops passing through.
Other religious bodies providing canteen or recreational facilities for the troops in France and Belgium included the Church Army, the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Women's League and Catholic Club and, perhaps the best loved of all, the Salvation Army. (Source: Official History 1916 Vol 1, Chapter VI).