America Fights in World War I: Connecting the National to the Personal

U.S. doughboys marching in World War I.

It came as a shock to the system. In 1914 Europe had enjoyed just about 100 years of relative peace, what has been appropriately termed the “Pax‑Brittanica.” There had been brush‑fire wars periodically, but since the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 no general wars had taken place. The British, serving as the “policemen of the world” throughout the rest of the century, exerted their influence to ensure wars were contained.

Then, suddenly and without apparent warning, in August 1914 the world tried to commit suicide (or so it seemed) as the most far‑reaching and devastating war in recorded history began to be fought on fields throughout Europe and in the outposts of European civilization. Germany and her allies engaged in a war of complete annihilation against France and Great Britain and their allies.

After the initial shock, the Americans quickly chose sides. Because of the historic bonds to Great Britain, most Americans favored the British and French alliance; however, a minority of Americans—particularly those with a German heritage—leaned more toward Germany. Although each set of supporters sought to influence public opinion and obtain government support for its side, this favoritism was of only moderate consequence while the United States remained neutral. President Woodrow Wilson, however, vowed to remain neutral “in word and deed” and refused to support either belligerent.

As the war progressed, a stalemate developed on the battlefield, one that drained resources and bankrupted national treasuries. Both sets of belligerents sought unsuccessfully to find a quick way to defeat the other until April 1917 when the United States entered the “Great War” on the allies’ side. Without question, the military power and economic might of the United States was a central factor in breaking the stalemate in Europe.

With the declaration of war against Germany, America began an all‑out mobilization effort. Vast quantities of resources went into this war, and this size of investment in war had not been seen the Civil War of the 1860s. For example, Governor Frank O. Lowden of Illinois immediately created on 2 May 1917 a State Council of Defense to oversee the activities in support of the war. Consisting of fifteen members representing business, labor, and other large interest groups, this council organized all of Illinois’ resources for victory. Chaired by Chicago businessman Samuel Insull, it served as a liaison between the state and the federal mobilization agencies and cooperated with such organizations as the American Red Cross, the U.S. Treasury Department, and the National Defense Council.

From its base in Springfield, this council created auxiliary committees to function in each Illinois county. These county organizations, in turn created subcommittees in virtually every community in Illinois. Among some of its activities, this agency implemented a voluntary food conservation program, directed a Liberty bond campaign which collected $1.3 billion in the state, and collected $42.5 million for the Red Cross. Other states did likewise.

In addition to other critical activities of the governors of various states upon constituents to volunteer to serve in the military. Many in the state National Guards were mobilized immediately and sent to training camps around the nation. One of the largest, in Logan, Texas, undertook refresher training on guard units and meshed them into the 33d Infantry Division, also known as the Prairie Division because its recruits hailed from prairie states. The 33d was sent to France in the summer of 1917. Other guardsmen were incorporated into the famous Rainbow Division, named thus because of the diversity of nationalities and locations of its members. This division was the most famous of the war.

Responding to the need for more soldiers, state governments undertook a drive to swell the ranks of the U.S. Army through a series of recruiting rallies. These rallies were held at the county seats during the spring and summer of 1917. Bands played, audiences sang, and speakers whipped up the crowd to a fever‑pitch of patriotism. At the height of the rally the speakers appealed to the eligible men to heed their country’s call and join the army. Amid such festivities literally thousands answered the call and signed up for military service. In all, more than half a million men volunteered for active service in the military.

There was an incredible spirit about the whole effort that bespoke a complete confidence and a certain innocence about Illinois’ ability to persevere and be victorious against a powerful enemy. There was, most importantly, a feeling that the United States was the savior of civilization and that it would be unquestionably successful. Perhaps, this spirit was best captured in a rousing war song by George M. Cohan, a Broadway playwright, called simply “Over There.” The refrain of this “fight song” announced with complete self‑assurance that the Americans were on their way to Europe, the “over there” of the title, and that “We won’t come back till its over, over there.” There was no doubt, no hesitation, no fear of defeat.

Although the volunteer efforts were useful, the Selective Service System was the method accounting for most of the men entering the military. In three major drives during 1917 and 1918 more than 1.5 million men were registered as potential draftees in the army. Only a few of these men ever saw active military service. Probably many shared an experience similar to that of my grandfather, Jeff Launius, from McLeansboro, Illinois. Launius dutifully registered for the draft but had a deferment throughout 1917 and the first part of 1918 because he was an independent farmer and had a wife and children. Then, in the summer of 1918 he received word from his local draft board that he should report to a recruiting station for a physical examination and possible induction into the army.

My grandfather reported in September 1918. Pronounced fit for service, he was told to return home and await his draft instructions. Before his draft notice arrived the belligerents had signed an armistice, 11 November 1918, and the United States began demobilization. Launius, in the end, never went into the army. He would have been willing to serve, but he did not believe he should volunteer because of his family. His experience was like many others of his time, place, and circumstance.


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2 Responses to America Fights in World War I: Connecting the National to the Personal

  1. dphuntsman says:

    Thanks, Roger; worthwhile reading, especially considering the recent excellent PBS special on the war.


  2. flylady33 says:

    Liked the poster “wake up America.” It applies to our country today.


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