In September of 1917, the North Dakota Regiments left the state to the training camps in the East. They found comfort there in the YMCA huts in the large cantonments. These huts provided an escape from the rigors of military life for the homesick boys -- many had never been away from their families before. By the end of January of 1918, the First and Second North Dakota Regiments were on the battlefields of France and most of their companies had been stripped and transferred to other regiments. This eroded the camaraderie and support of longtime friends.
E. H. Tostevin wrote home from a YMCA hut somewhere in France, near enough to the front to hear the guns boom. He said his surroundings brought back the memories of the old town hall with the air reeking with tobacco smoke and other odors. Frayed bunting, calendars, highly colored posters all helped to add a little cheer. The YMCA hut was a wooden building , 50 by 100 feet, with 48 tables lining the walls, sitting six at a table. Cheery open fireplaces, books, magazines and phonographs provided refuge away from the front.
He wrote that a shadow of gloom spread over the North Dakota boys from the loss of two of their comrades, but that the men were forgetting their hardships and the gnawing hunger for home as there was music in the air. The North Dakota 164th orchestra cut loose with popular hits from a year ago, music that the boys remembered. It brought back fond memories of when they danced back home with their own special girl, and yet, Tostevin said that it seemed to soothe rather than augment the longing for when peace shall send them back to their loved ones.
He recalled a night when there was no special program so they instituted what the Tommies, or British troops, called a “sing.” They passed around sheets of paper containing song lyrics and the orchestra provided the music. For two hours, almost 500 soldiers sang old favorites such as “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Rock of Ages.” So popular was music at the front that Brigadier General Hunter Liggett, commander of I Corp of the American Expeditionary Force, refused to allow the North Dakota Second Regimental Band to be split up, stating, “That band is worth a million dollars to the United States Army.” But to the North Dakota soldiers, in the YMCA huts at the front, it was worth more than that; it provided a vital link to home.
Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis
Valley City Weekly Times-Record, February 28, 1918.
Emmons County Record, March 14, 1918.