Over the last century, there have been some crazy deliveries made to war zones to raise morale—usually beer. Whether it’s the Royal Air Force hauling it in their fuel tanks, a vet dropping it off in Vietnam for his buddies, or one soldier surrounded by German forces ferrying it in his helmet into a makeshift hospital for his wounded friend, there is nothing troops appreciate as much as a risky beer run.
Well, maybe not quite nothing.
In 1917, the women of the Salvation Army were sent to the front lines of the western front with the American First Division. Knowing that what the troops probably missed the most was the kindness of home, they devised a way to bring that to them. And what says American homefront better than fresh pastries?
Donuts are great motivation to make it through somewhere you don’t really want to be. Ask any kid who’s ever sat through a Sunday church service.
They had planned to make pies and cakes, but very quickly discovered that the camps really didn’t have the capacity for that kind of baked good. Donuts, however, were made with basic ingredients and, most importantly, were fried, which made them a lot easier to cook anywhere with a pot and some oil.
Only miles from the trenches of eastern France, a few women started making donuts—at first only 150 a day, which was way too few for the number of troops who began to line up to get the treats. They quickly managed to double that amount, and once they were fully equipped, they could make between 2,500 to 9,000 donuts per day.
That’s a lot of happy soldiers.
The troops, who would stand in line everyday to pick up their donuts, got more than just a warm, fresh pastry. They got a reminder of home, often reminiscing on their childhoods as they ate. Every bite was a little bit of peace in a place often described as hell on earth.
The impact was so immediate at the first location that volunteers all over Europe began to make donuts as well, and even the folks at home heard about it. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was quoted as saying, “Before the war I felt that the Salvation Army was composed of a well-meaning lot of cranks. Now what help I can give them is theirs,” after he returned from serving in France.
The “Doughnut Lassies” or “Doughnut Girls” eventually expanded to making other baked goods when people stateside started sending more supplies, but the name stuck, and the American Expeditionary Force was nicknamed “the Doughboys” along with them. With their popularity, the Salvation Army also became the most popular organization among the troops in France, cementing their place in American culture.
The Doughnut Girls inspired songs written by the soldiers they were serving, and are mentioned in the official Salvation Army song, written in 1919, two years after the first donuts were fried.
Of course, the Salvation Army didn’t get all the good publicity; donuts themselves went from a fun treat to an American staple, creating a huge boost in demand even at home. We’ve all got the Doughnut Girls to thank for inspiring the popularity of one of everyone’s favorite treats.
Soldiers lining up to get their donuts.
Across the western front, stations of as few as two women apiece could create enough baked goods to feed an army, and though the Salvation Army only sent a total of 250 volunteers, they had a huge impact on the soldiers’ wellbeing. In fact, Helen Purviance, one of the original Doughnut Girls, reportedly cooked at least a million donuts for the boys in France.
They were also only one of many organizations that brought women into the war effort, often risking their lives to do so. The Doughnut Girls carried .45 revolvers and sometimes cooked through shellfire or while wearing gas masks, due to their close proximity to the front lines.“Can you imagine hot doughnuts, and pie and all that sort of stuff?” one soldier wrote, in a letter that was published in the Boston Daily Globe, “Served by mighty good looking girls, too.”