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

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Iowa, USA, and the Great War

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Grant Wood Memorial Window, Veterans Memorial Building, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1927

In the early 20th century, Iowa was an even more distinctly rural state that it is today. In the 1910 census out of a population of 2.2 million over 70 percent of Iowans lived on farms.  Tellingly, the entire state only had about 300 miles of paved roads. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, most Iowans supported the war effort enthusiastically. Patriotism for the United States and its allies was very strong. Its special geographic and demographic character, however, would affect its response to the coming hostilities.

An Iowa Farm Growing Multiple Crops Around the
Time of the War

Needed: Soldiers

In time of war the nation needed soldiers. Some Iowa men volunteered for patriotic reasons, but the army still needed more men. The government required all men between the ages of 18 and 45 to register at the county courthouse. Each county was required to furnish a certain number of soldiers, called a "quota". If the quota was not met by volunteers, young men who were physically able and capable of being soldiers were drafted. Anyone placed in the “Class 1” category was eligible for immediate induction. Others were “deferred” for a variety of reasons. They might work in “strategic occupations” such as farming and telegraph operations. They might have dependent relatives. Or they might have physical handicaps. There was a great amount of hostility, especially among farmers, who believed that money and political power could influence draft boards to offer deferments and exemptions. Of the 500,000 Iowa men registered for the draft,   54,147 served overseas, and 3,576 gave their lives.  

The conscription possibility was especially hard on families of immigrant heritage whose ancestors had left Europe to avoid conscription there. There were many documented suicides, especially in rural areas, caused by the draft law. Conscientious objectors were subject to harassment and persecution, even if they came legally under the deferment or exemption categories. Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, Hussites, Seventh Day Adventists, and Russellites (which later became known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) all had religious doctrine against bearing arms.

New Barracks at Camp Dodge

Camp Dodge, a few miles northwest of Des Moines, became a major training center for new troops. Sleeping and eating facilities were quickly constructed and the new recruits learned how to be soldiers before trains took them to boats on the east coast. An army facility on the south side of Des Moines was the scene of a unique experiment. Fort Des Moines became the first camp in the nation to train black officers. At the time, the army was segregated. 

The official records show that 114,242 Iowans served in all the armed services and their branches during WWI. Iowans were mostly scattered throughout all of them. One unit, however, was exclusively linked to the state—the 4,000-man 168th Infantry Regiment from the Iowa National Guard. First called to national service and sent to the Mexican Border during the Punitive Expedition, the men were discharged after that crisis, only to be recalled for wartime service when America entered the Great War. After mobilization at Camp Dodge the regiment was sent to Camp Mills where it was  incorporated into the 42nd "Rainbow" Division. In France, the Rainbow Division fought in heavy action in every major campaign of the AEF. During the fighting the 168th lost 700 killed and 3,100 wounded, nearly 100 percent casualties.

Soldiers of the 168th Infantry in France

One of the first U.S. soldiers killed in combat in World War I was an Iowan, Merle Hay serving with the 1st Division, from Glidden. News of his death shocked the state, and he suddenly became a hero. After the war a monument was erected in the Glidden cemetery, and a street in Des Moines was named in his honor. The first U.S. woman to die of injuries in a combat zone also was an Iowan. She was Marion Crandell, formerly a French teacher at St. Katharine's School in Davenport. She died while serving in a canteen, when an artillery shell exploded nearby.

Iowans Merle Hay and Marion Campbell

Anti-German Backlash

Patriotism for the United States and support for its allies was very strong in Iowa. There were, though, large numbers of German-speaking immigrants in Iowa. Some of these Iowans had recently  migrated from Germany and many still had family members there. They did not want American soldiers to fight against their homeland. Sometimes, if they had spoken out for Germany before the United States entered the war, their neighbors questioned their loyalty. Many Iowans of German descent were targeted and their civil rights violated. When Governor William Harding issued a statement that made it against the law to use any language but English in public, many Iowans were angry. The “law” was nicknamed the “Babel Proclamation.” Governor Harding even made the point in a public speech that God did not hear prayers that were spoken in any language but English. Things with German names got new names. “German measles” became “liberty measles” and “sauerkraut” became “liberty cabbage.” Nevertheless, recently arrived German and Austrian immigrants seen to volunteer for the services and respond to their draft notices at comparable rates to other Iowans.

The Effects of War on the Iowa Home Front

As World War I unfolded throughout 1917 and 1918, there was increased stress on citizens and communities. Many inconveniences weighed on Iowans. There was a short supply of labor. Prices were high for many products. Supplies of everyday items were reduced. Few luxuries were available. And citizens were expected to support the war effort with their time and money.

One way citizens contributed time and money to the war effort was through the sale and purchase of “Liberty Loans.” The federal government issued bonds “Liberty Loans” to raise money for the war. People bought the bonds. They could turn them in later and get their money back plus interest. All Americans were encouraged to buy the bonds. Even children were enlisted by the government to sell them. In some Iowa towns the names of people who bought the Liberty Loans were published in the newspaper. People who did not buy the bonds were considered unpatriotic.

Red Cross Canteen Staff, Des Moines Train Depot 

Iowans donated money to the Red Cross to care for injured soldiers and civilians, and many Iowa women knit clothing and rolled bandages for army hospitals. Iowa women volunteered for the various organizations that provided nurses and medical specialists for the vast complex of hospitals American needed to build to support its expeditionary forces. At home, they manned canteens for the troops training nearby and at train stations for those en route to the East Coast. Food and gasoline rationing was enforced. Citizens were encouraged to grow food in "Victory Gardens." 

Somehow, the war touched every civilian in Iowa, especially in agriculture. Agriculture  production flourished during World War I. The U.S. government asked farmers to produce more food to feed the armies fighting in Europe. Iowa was able to provide large quantities of food products including corn, cattle, and hogs. With food production in high demand, farmers were able to get high prices for their crops.

After the war, however, Iowa farmers soon saw wartime farm subsidies eliminated. Beginning in 1920, many farmers had difficulty making the payment for debts they had incurred during the war. The 1920s were a time of hardship for Iowa's farm families, and for many families, these hardships carried over into the 1930s.

Another disaster struck Iowa in the fall of 1918. An epidemic of Spanish influenza, a serious form of “the flu,” made its way from the first reported case at Fort Riley, Kansas, all across the nation. It was so deadly that at its peak it killed 195,000 Americans in the month of October alone. In Iowa people tried to avoid crowds where the disease might be spread. Schools and theaters were closed, and people wore masks to try to protect themselves from flu germs. By Christmas the worst was over and the epidemic diminished. 

Iowa Remembers the War

In May 1919, the 168th Infantry came home and were treated to a victory parade in Des Moines, the state capital.  In the subsequent days, when the boys, were sent back to their hometowns and local National Guard armories, they received a second welcome from the their families, friends, and neighbors, but the state was not quite done with commemorating the war effort.

In August 1919, Iowans streamed through the State Fair gates at Des Moines  in record-breaking numbers to attend the “Victory Fair,” which celebrated World War I’s end. Still reeling from the war’s carnage, they were hopeful that an era of peace and prosperity was dawning. Crop prices were high, farmers were buying automobiles, and improved roads enabled people to drive to the fair instead of taking a train. Happy to glimpse the return of peace, Iowans were eager to put the war behind them, turn to the future, and go to the fair.

But the war was seemingly everywhere on the fairgrounds. The main exhibit of the Victory Fair’s daytime program was the War Department’s display of weapons and trophies from the Western front. In the evening, the fair’s grandstand show, “The Grand, Scenic Military Spectacle, The Battle of Chateau Thierry,” re-enacted the battle in France that turned the tide of the war against Germany in 1918. . . Register reporter Sue McNamara observed that a billboard for “Chateau Thierry” elicited nothing but “grins and groans” from a trainload of veterans returning home from the war in 1919. . . A few veterans of the 168th, along with the regiment’s chaplain, Des Moines pastor Winfred Robb, attended the 1919 fair. . . The 168th pitched a tent on the grounds, in which Chaplain Robb met with grieving families and shared reminiscences of the young Iowans buried so far from home. As the Register’s Sue McNamara observed, the tent was a hushed, somber shrine, jarringly at odds with the fair’s festivity.

Today the most substantial memorial to Iowa's contributions and sacrifices in the Great War, is the Veterans Memorial Building of Cedar Rapids, the state's second largest city.  Completed in 1927, it serves the veterans community of all of America's wars and many civic functions and activities.  Its centerpiece and main tourist attraction is the stained glass window shown at the top of this page, designed by noted American artist and World War I veteran Grant Wood. The larger top portion of the 20-by-24-foot assemblage is a sister of Lady Liberty representing our Republic. Along the bottom are soldiers from all of the nation's wars through the 1920s.  Don't miss the Doughboy on the right.

Well done, Iowa.

Sources: Iowa PBS; Iowa Heritage; Des Moines Register, Army Center for Military History, many other Iowa sites

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