Mark J. Price

Behind every U.S. doughboy in World War I was a doughgirl holding a platter of doughnuts.

The Salvation Army’s “doughnut lassies” — also known as “doughnut dollies” and “doughnut girls” — served on the front lines of Europe and provided home-cooked meals for soldiers during the Great War.

The Salvation Army credits Ensign Helen Purviance of Indiana and Ensign Margaret Sheldon of Illinois for getting the doughnut rolling 100 years ago when they began to serve homemade pastries to Allied troops in France in 1917.

They patted the dough by hand, rolled it with a wine bottle, cut it into strips with a knife and fried crullers in a pan over a potbellied stove.

Soldiers lined up at the Salvation Army huts to eat the hot, fresh pastries. The doughnut lassies soon were swamped with customers and had to fry thousands of doughnuts each day to please the hungry doughboys.

Capt. Frances R. Riley, 20, of Akron, was a doughnut lassie who joined her husband, Capt. George Riley, 23, overseas in November 1917 “to engage in work for the Salvation Army Ambulance Service.”

They embarked on a 10-day voyage across the Atlantic and then traveled three days across land to reach Bar-le-Duc, France.

In a 1918 letter to her Kenmore friend Bella Krider, the wife of mail carrier William A. Krider, Frances Riley described the culture shock she experienced upon arrival in war-torn Europe.

“I was very much surprised when we reached Bordeaux to see women traffic cops and women motormen and women porters on the trains and around the station,” she wrote. “We landed in Bordeaux in the morning and got to Paris that evening, only to find the city in darkness. It certainly was weird.”

The Salvation Army stationed them near Bar-le-Duc in northeastern France, and the ravages of war were obvious. “This place has been bombarded many times and today we saw ruins everywhere,” she wrote. “It certainly is sad over here.”

Riley said she was keeping her eyes peeled for Germans, having heard so much about them in the United States, but didn’t see any during her first couple of weeks — other than a few prisoners.

She said she was happy to serve U.S. troops and was proud of her organization’s efforts in France.

“I believe the Salvation Army is the best organization at the front today without exception, because they offer hospitality to every soldier and don’t try to be above them,” Riley wrote. “Our hut looks like a tabernacle and we have four rooms at the back of it to sleep and eat for two couples.”

That winter, the mercury plunged to 20 degrees below zero and the Rileys found themselves brushing off ice from their bed blankets. Indoors, Frances wore woolen underwear, stockings, leggings, skirts and sweaters.

“George says ‘it’s a great life if you don’t weaken,’?” Riley wrote.

She had never made doughnuts before, but she was a quick study. The fried pastries disappeared as soon as they were served to troops.

“We bake pies and cakes and doughnuts for the soldiers because it is impossible to buy them in France,” she wrote. “In my first batch of doughnuts, I made about 400, and they were good, too.”

In a 1918 letter to her mother, Amanda Riel in Kenmore, Riley wrote that the U.S. soldiers appreciated the Salvation Army, and she hoped she would be able “to do the work expected of me.”

“Well, mamma, you should see me making doughnuts and pies and cookies and making cocoa, and then serving it to our U.S. boys,” she said. “It sure is a lot of fun.”

It was a glimmer of joy in a dreary landscape of air raids, bombed-out buildings and blackouts. Salvation Army personnel fled to underground bunkers during raids.

“George is up very close to the front now and if he has to, why I guess he can dodge bullets all right,” Riley wrote. “We have to wear a gas mask and all the girls have steel helmets to wear in case they need them.”

She felt that most Americans were living sheltered lives, oblivious to the carnage that was taking place on the battlefields of Europe.

“In the States they don’t realize what war is yet,” she said. “Everyone over here says that war is what [Gen. William] Sherman said it was. He said it was hell.”

In a letter to an East Liverpool friend, she noted: “Some of the boys I made pies for last week are in their graves this week. They went right from here into battle, and several lost their lives.”

The Rileys made it home safely after the war. Following their time in Akron, they served the Salvation Army in Wilkinsburg, Pa., Morgantown, W.Va., and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

In 1938, the Salvation Army established National Doughnut Day in Chicago to raise awareness for social service programs and pay tribute to the doughnut lassies of the Great War.

Doughnut shops across the nation joined the cause, handing out free doughnuts on the first Friday of June each year. Thanks to the Salvation Army, the doughnut continues to be a symbol of comfort to people during times of need.

This year, National Doughnut Day will be Friday, June 2. Krispy Kreme at 354 S. Maple St., Akron, is partnering with the Salvation Army of Summit County to hand out a free doughnut to each customer that day.

Mark your calendar — and be sure to remember the American doughboys (and doughgirls) who made the treat possible.

Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.