How Salvation Army Girls Lifted Spirit Of WWI Soldiers With Donuts

In 1917, women of Salvation Army traveled to the battlefields of France with supplies for American soldiers. Salvationists also brought hope by cooking comfort food for the infantry — steaming hot donuts. These women became known as the “doughnut girls”.

Photo: Salvation Army

The USA sent over 4.7 million men and women to World War I. In one of the two bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century, American soldiers needed comfort and hope more than anything else. That’s why Salvation Army went all the way to military camps in France.

Huts, rest-rooms and hotels of the Army appeared wherever the American troops were stationed. Sometimes salvationists had to live right at the front line where everyone was thereatened by shell blasts or gas attacks.

They were closer to the action than many of the commanders. Salvation Army got muddy and cold, they heard mine explosions, but they were right there with soldiers.

Photo: Salvation Army

Among the first Salvation Army officers dispatched was Lt. Colonel Ensign Helen Purviance from Huntington, Indiana. She worked at a canteen hut that offered soldiers not only coffee but clothes-mending services, notions, stationery and even concerts. But these luxuries were completely gone by October 1917.

Helen knew she had to do something to lift the spirits of a trooper who had just saw his fellow combatants killed and mutilated. This soldier needed a reminder of something good and comforting that awaits him home.

The answer was found easily — donuts!

Photo: Salvation Army

Donut was a kind of goody that one could cook literally from scratch. Helen found flour, sugar, lard, baking powder, cinnamon and canned milk at their disposal, and asked a fellow officer Ensign Margaret Sheldon to help her with some home cooking.

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They patted dough into shape by hand and fried just seven donuts at a time in a small pan. There was a prayer in my heart that somehow this home touch would do more for those who ate the donuts than satisfy a physical hunger,” Helen told later.

She was right. The tempting smell of fried dough drew homesick soldiers to the hut. They lined up in the pouring rain to taste the homemade donuts.

In 1938, salvationists declared June 1 the National Donut Day

Helen and Margaret worked late into the night, but managed to serve only one hundred and fifty donuts. Later they discovered that an empty wine bottle or a shell casing were made a nice rolling pin.

The next day, Ensigns made double the number of donuts. Several soldiers asked if girls could make a doughnut with a hole in it. Helen asked an old French blacksmith to improvise a cutter. He made it from the top of a condensed milk can and camphor-ice tube.

Sheldon and Purviance used everything they could to simplify the cooking process. Sometimes they fried donuts in lard in soldiers’ helmets and served them right in trenches wearing gas masks.


When Helen and Margaret were fully equipped for the job, they fried from 2,500 to 9,000 donuts each day, as did other women working in canteens along the front lines.

Soldiers loved these donuts and soon referred to the Salvation Army girls as the “doughnut girls”, even when they brought baked apples or pies.

A donut became a symbol of the Salvation Army. Once viewed with skepticism, its huts became incredibly popular among the troops in France.

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After the war “doughnut girls” were praised in songs like Don’t Forget the Salvation Army (My Doughnut Girl). But the most important praise for Helen and Margaret was the one they got from American soldiers. They appeared in a man’s world of blood, broken bodies and shattered limbs and brought sweet memories of home.

Featured Image: Salvation Army

Sources: World War One CentennialSalvation Army Fort Wayne, WorldWar1, Smithsonian

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