Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Draft Board Wants to See You

From: The Oregon Secretary of State

Poster informing that all males between the ages
of 21 and 30 years must register for the draft

Settling on a Draft

With the declaration of war in April 1917, American leaders had to make decisions about how to mobilize millions of men for military service. Many people, such as former president Theodore Roosevelt, held a romantic attachment to voluntary military service. And, certainly, America's experience with a system of conscription or compulsory military service during the Union draft during the Civil War was seen as an example of how not to raise an army. That draft resulted in gross unfairness through the hiring of substitutes and other dubious actions, spawning protests and riots.

In the end, President Wilson and his advisers settled on the draft as the only efficient and democratic way to raise a large army. In contrast to the Civil War draft, Wilson sought to spread the obligation for duty among all qualified men, regardless of their social or economic standing. The Selective Service Act required all males from 21 to 30 go to their election precinct polling place to register in early June 1917. Men who failed to register for the draft risked spending a year in jail. Nine million American men registered in early June.

No Excuse for Failure to Register

Subsequently, men were expected to appear when they turned 21 years old. In 1918 draft ages were expanded to include those aged 18 to 45. By the end of the war, more than 24 million men registered for the draft with almost three million being inducted into the Army.

The Selective Service Department set up district boards in Portland, Eugene, and La Grande. Each of these had jurisdiction over a number of local draft boards. Because of Portland's size, it included the local board divisions. Marion County had two. Otherwise, the boards were located in each of Oregon's county seats.

Draft Registration Card

Registering for the draft was a long and bureaucratic exercise. Numerous forms and cards waited for completion. A 16-page questionnaire walked through nearly every aspect of a registrant's life. Failure to fill it out within seven days could result in a "fine or imprisonment for one year and may result in the loss of valuable rights and immediate induction into military service."

The first, and probably most important, question confronting the registrant was that of making a claim for exemption or deferred classification from the draft. The law held that "the names of all men liable to selection for military service shall be arranged in five classes in the order in which they can best be spared from the civic, family, industrial, and agricultural institutions of the Nation." In simplified form, the system included:

Class I: Every man in this class was "presently liable for military service." These included most single men, unskilled laborers, and certain married men.

Class II: These men were "temporarily deferred" from service until Class I was exhausted. They generally included certain married men with dependents and "necessary" skilled labor.

Class III: These men were "temporarily deferred" from service until Class II was exhausted. They generally included certain men with dependent infirm or "helpless" relatives as well as certain types of government workers and other "necessary" workers.

Class IV: These men were "temporarily deferred" from service until Class III was exhausted. They generally included men with families that were "mainly dependent on his labor for support" as well as merchant mariners and managers of "necessary enterprises."

Class V: These men were "exempted or discharged" from service. They generally included legislative, executive, or judicial officers of government, ministers, aliens, the "totally and permanently physically or mentally unfit" as well as the "morally unfit."

A separate line allowed for a claim of exemption based on religious convictions against participating in war—the conscientious objector.

The rest of the 16-page questionnaire asked detailed questions, 32 on dependents alone, related to supporting claims made for exemption or deferred classification and required affidavits in support. Legal advisory boards, consisting of "disinterested lawyers and laymen" were available at draft board offices throughout Oregon to advise registrants on the "true meaning and intent" of the law. View the  draft registration questionnaire here: PDF Questionnaire

Your Local Draft Board

Once the forms and questionnaires were completed, the local draft board would begin processing the registration and a folder would fill with the resulting paperwork, noting each step of the process. If the registration progressed to the point at which the registrant were ordered to report for a physical examination, the report of the examining physician would be included, as would the report of the medical advisory board. Twenty-five of these boards scattered throughout Oregon examined records and determined the physical qualifications of the registrants. They had four choices: qualified; qualified but deferred; qualified for limited service; and disqualified. The medical board's decision was forwarded to the local draft board, which ruled on the same criteria. If the individual appealed the action, the district draft board would rule.

Local Board Classification Card
Registrants who passed the physical examination would be ordered to report for service. If they failed to report, they first would be listed as delinquent and later as deserters who were to be "apprehended." Those who reported as ordered eventually would find themselves at mobilization camp where they would be either accepted, rejected, or discharged.

Of course, for those not immediately inducted into the military, there were continuing responsibilities related to the draft. If any change occurred that could affect their deferred or exempt status, they were to report it to the local draft board within five days. They were also required to examine "from time to time" notices posted by the local draft board in case changes to the system affected their status.

Results May Vary

The public voiced little opposition to the draft over the course of the war. Some of this could be attributed to fear of criticizing a government that was beginning to crack down on "disloyal" rhetoric. But most Americans saw the need for the draft and believed that, while not perfect, the classification system generally was fair. Certainly, as with any system of its size and complexity, favoritism, bribery, intimidation, and other forms of corruption occurred at local draft boards. But the system held up even as it lowered the draft age from 21 to 18, thereby edging closer to the sight of "taking boys from their mothers' arms."

Opinions differed on the quality of the soldier produced by the draft. Overall, consensus holds the drafted soldiers fought just as heroically as the two million men who enlisted in the various armed services. But at least one Oregon man, Martin Luther Kimmel, who had enlisted in the Army held a different attitude:

"These conscripts are generally of an inferior class, largely Greeks, Italians & men of low mentality and little schooling. I should judge from the 60 or more who have been assigned to Bat [Battery] A that the selective Draft had been carried out so as to take the poorest stuff they could find. I would very much like to know the truth about the draft. I know that some good men were selected under it but I am afraid that it was not carried out impartially & uniformly in a truly fair manner. The selection of men & the exemptions gave a large field for preferment & partiality on the part of the Boards and all the evidence I have seen points to the fact that they exercised both."

How the News Came

The President of the United States, 

To: Joseph W. Doakes,

Greetings: Having submitted yourself to a local board composed of your neighbors for the purpose of determining the place and time in which you can best serve the United States in the present emergency, you are hereby notified that you have now been selected for immediate military service.

You will, therefore, report to the local board named below at: 48 South Grand Avenue at 4pm, February 16, 1918 for military duty.

From and after the day and hour just named you will be a soldier in the military service of the United States.


  1. Very good article! I only became aware of the 16 page questionnaire until two months ago, while I was researching the circumstances surrounding the drafting of my grandfather's two brothers in Omaha, NE in the summer of 1918.

    As best I can tell, the five classes and the 16 page questionnaire were not part of the original draft rules. The five Omaha, Nebraska draft boards reviewed the draft registration cards completed on 5 June 1917 and then interviewed/inspected the men in their order number. The Omaha boards seemed to have some latitude in whom they selected.

    While the initial 687,000 draftees were being selected and leaving for camp, Provost Marshal General Crowder developed the five classes and the 16 page questionnaire. These new development were announced on 10 November 1917. The Associated Press explained the new procedures in a long article published in the Omaha World-Herald, 11 November 1917, pp. 1 and 4, and presumably in most major newspapers.

    Local boards were ordered to mail the questionnaire to five percent of their registrants each day. The process of classification was to begin 15 December 1917.

    The AP noted that “War department officials estimate that the whole process can be completed within 60 days. This means that no second [draft] call will be made on the draft forces before the middle of next February as the period for classification will not begin until December 15.”

  2. I loved the opening of the draft letters directing you to report for a physical,
    I got mine while in Parris Island!