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

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Great War Comes to Wisconsin
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

The Great War Comes to Wisconsin: Sacrifice, Patriotism, and Free Speech in a Time of Crisis

by Richard L. Pifer
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2017

The War was Over There but the Doughboys who comprised the American Expeditionary force were drawn from the cities, towns and farms across America. Few came from a state as lukewarm in its support of the War as those from the Badger State. The Great War Comes to Wisconsin is their story and that of those left at home.

Wisconsin Senator Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette with His Family

More than most other states, Wisconsin had a population derived from Germany, Poland, and Scandinavia, nationalities inclined to be either neutral or pro-Central Powers. In addition to ties of consanguinity the immigrants brought traditions of socialism, with its pacifistic tendencies with them. Political support for the war was weak in the Midwest in general and nowhere more so than in Wisconsin. Dubbed "The Traitor State," its Sen. Robert LaFollette became the voice and face of opposition to American involvement in the war. However, once the decision to enter the war was made many Wisconsin residents followed the colors and none more famously than the 32nd Division, "Les Terribles."

The Wisconsin National Guard got its first taste of war in 1916. When the regular Army invaded Mexico in search of Pancho Villa, Guard units from across the country were called into federal service and moved to the border to support the invasion. From across Wisconsin, 4,500 Guardsmen and recruits were sent off with parades and bursts of patriotic fervor as they left for Camp Douglas to be mustered into federal service.

The Wisconsin Guard was better prepared than those of many states for mobilization but deficiencies in supply and training persisted. At the conclusion of their five-day July train trip from Camp Douglas to San Antonio the troops learned that their Wisconsin issued wool uniforms did not wear well in Texas' midsummer heat. With virtually no action in Texas the six-month stay degenerated into training and boredom. Although the reason for the maintenance of the force along the border was unclear to many, including Gov. Philipp who began asking for the return of the units in October, the fear of an eruption into all-out war between the United States and Mexico may have been behind the extended deployment. It was not until February 1917 that the southern threat was receding and the troops were home in Wisconsin. By July 15 they would be back in federal service.

With the Declaration of War on 6 April 1917, the nation turned to a draft rather than volunteer units to raise the wartime army. While blacks served in segregated units, Wisconsin Indians were integrated into white units. Wisconsin's men—118,000 (about 5 percent of the population)—served mostly in the Army, with the largest concentration in the 32nd Division. The 32nd was initially formed by merging 15,000 Wisconsin guardsmen with 8,000 from Michigan, perhaps a latter-day version of the Iron Brigade of Civil War fame. On 2 August the Guard units arrived at Camp Douglas en route to Camp MacArthur in Waco. By late January and early February the movement to Europe began. Thirteen of the first to go were killed when the troopship Tuscania was sunk by a German submarine off Liverpool. In late March, the division was reassembled for more training in France.

Men of the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division, August 1918

On 30 July the 32nd rotated into the front line in support of the Aisne-Marne offensive. Between then and 6 August the division crashed through German defenses and advanced almost 12 miles along a two-mile area between the villages of Cierges and Fismes. The cost was high, 777 killed or died of wounds, 1,153 severely wounded or gassed, and 12 missing. In five days of incessant fighting commencing on 28 August, the 32nd gained a bridgehead across Vesle River. On 30 September they were back in combat for another 20 days against the strongly fortified Kriemhilde Stellung (position). Spent by their exertions, the 32nd was moved into reserve until the Armistice.

Wisconsin suffered 8,000 casualties, including 1,800 who never returned home. The 32nd suffered the third highest casualties among American units. By the end of the war, between losses and replacements, it had transformed from a Wisconsin-Michigan unit to an American division. Its mission completed, the 32nd began its homeward trek on 20 April 1919 and all were in the States by 20 May.

The story of Wisconsin in the Great War is more than the 32nd, and The Great War Comes To Wisconsin also covers the development of the state in 1914, the responses of the ethnic groups to the rising crisis and the political struggles, in-state and in Washington, between the pro- and antiwar factions. The struggles between Republican Senator LaFollette, Rep. Esch, and Governor Philipps, and Socialists Berger and Horn and supporters of the Wilson Administration, set the stage for clashes between free speech and patriotism in wartime Wisconsin and America. I recommend this for anyone with an interest in the effect of the war on America's warriors and its home front.

James M. Gallen


  1. It's fascinating to get a good glimpse of "local" histories of the War. My wife grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and their neighbors were the Gundersons. Solon Gunderson was killed in combat in 1918 and is mentioned in James Nelson's The Remains of Company D. He's buried in Mindoro, Wisconsin.

  2. My uncle was Michigander in 32nd Div, 125 INf Reg, Co E and was wounded on 30 July 1918 at Cierges. He was wounded again in October at the Argonne-Meuse. Did not recover until Armistice and then sent to Germany
    with occupation forces. Sent stateside in February 1919 and discharged. Died of Tuberculosis and lung disease from gas attack four years after The Great War. What was so great about it?????

    Some units of 32nd may have been idle up until the Armistice, but 125 th Regiment was not.

  3. My grandfather (also from Michigan) served with the 32nd Div, 125th Inf Reg, Co K. He too fought around Ciergies during the Aisne-Marne campaign. The 32nd really didn't stop to rest. Once relieved at Fismes, they fell back for rest and resupply, and two weeks later were back in the fight for the Oise-Aisne campaign. My grandfather was severely wounded and permanently disabled at Juvigny on 29 August 1918. He lived in pain all his life and doctors thought he might never walk again, but he made it to his feet. Despite being destitute and unable to work, he was very active in all the Veteran's organizations in mid-Michigan, at times serving as local Post Commander for VFW, Am. Legion, and DAV - at one time holding office for all three simultaneously! He died in 1994, aged 99 years. Had he not survived, I would not be alive today.