As a long-time champion of physical health and moral goodness, the YMCA easily found national purpose in the First Great War. It was all but destined. A newly tasked "arm of the Federal Service" by "executive order of the President," the Y became "militarized." Apropos, the Y forged deadly assassins in its religious furnace. Charged with the vital task of keeping the American Expeditionary Forces in shape, the Y not only sought to build character, but to train efficient and effective killers. Here's a brief tale of how they did it.
For the Y (and therefore for the American Expeditionary Forces), boxing and hand-to-hand fighting was the chief instrument of entertainment, death, character-building, and international unity.
Being a thing already there, naturally, boxing spoke a kind of universal language, which was particularly befitting the new global, geopolitical context. "Nations which where formerly opposed to the sport are now encouraging it as the World War brought the nations together," one Y paper article claimed, as "they saw the benefits of boxing to soldiers and sailors." Boxing was well on its way to becoming "one of the greatest international sports," claimed YMCA proponents, but we must always remember to "KEEP THE SPORT CLEAN."
Boxing was a lot of things for the Y and the AEF. By the end of the War, boxing fans were legion and amateur boxers were commonplace. In just the five months between Armistice and the 1919 Inter-Allied Games (hosted by the Y and the US military) boxing competitions saw almost 7,800,000 spectators and over 730,000 participants. The lessons that boxing had (that the Y taught) stretched untold distances and stimulated countless imaginations. In the words of "Y man" and Inter-Allied Games middleweight champion, "If Jesus Christ were living to-day I believe he would take up boxing." Or as General Pershing told the audience at the Inter-Allied Games before the boxing and wrestling finals, thanks to the YMCA's boxing instruction programs "two million [American] men are going to carry back home a better notion of what a clean sport should be."