the World War I memorial in the village of Schaghticoke. My husband John Kelly imitating it.
Before beginning this story, I need to urge you to go to the New York State Museum in Albany and see the World War I exhibit there. There are great objects and the posters are incredible. The exhibit will be there through spring 2018.
War in Europe had raged between the Allies and the Axis since summer 1914. By spring 1917 there had been almost two years of fierce fighting in Europe, with thousands and thousands and thousands of soldiers slaughtered on both sides. Meanwhile, the U.S. had stayed neutral. President Woodrow Wilson had attempted unsuccessfully to broker peace. Public opinion in the U.S.was divided on our entry into the war. German immigrants were of course opposed to fighting their former country. Many Irish immigrants did not want to support Britain, which was also fighting the independence of Ireland. This was the height of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and many women were in favor of peaceful solutions. There were many other pacifists in the country. But many descendants of British immigrants, industrialists, and others supported US entry into the war on the side of Great Britain. Others were appalled at the atrocities committed by German troops against civilians in Belgium. Through 1915 a “Preparedness” movement developed in the US, with many figuring that we would enter the war on the side of the Allies eventually and should begin the buildup of our military.
1917 found the Allied and Axis Armies entrenched facing each other across the Western Front, which stretched from Belgium in the north, south eastward through France. Who knows what would have happened next, but finally the U.S. declared war on German on April 6, 1917. The Troy “Times”, which would have been the most important local paper here in Schaghticoke reported the debate in the U.S. Congress fully, quoting the text of the war resolution. The immediate reasons for the declaration were German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare- meaning they would attempt to sink any non-German ship, civilian or naval- and the Zimmerman telegram, in which German offered an alliance with Mexico if she would declare war on the U.S. Mexico would regain the territory lost in the Mexican-American War after their victory. This almost surely would not have happened, but it was an example of German intentions world-wide that startled the U.S., to say the least.
But the declaration of war didn’t mean that U.S. troops would get to Europe any time soon. The Allies wanted U.S. troops to be integrated with the French and British armies, but U.S. commanders resisted that strongly. They had seen the seemingly callous sacrifice of thousands and thousands of young men in meaningless battles and wanted U.S. commanders to have control over their own troops. In addition, in 1915 the U.S. Army only numbered 100,000, the National Guard only 112,000. It would take time to build a military big enough for the war. 14,000 troops reached France by the end of June, 1917, but this was a token force.
Certainly there had been planning in case the US entered the war, but the day after it happened, action began. Locally, the 2nd Regiment National Guard, based in Troy, was called to duty to protect railroad stations, bridges, and canals, which could be sensitive to sabotage. Schools held exercises where children could demonstrate their patriotism and loyalty. The newspaper gave instructions on how to hang the American flag properly. And a preemptive measure called for all German subjects in the country who obeyed U.S. laws to be protected from harassment. There was a Naval preparedness parade to encourage enlistment in that service. People were urged to transform vacant lots into gardens. Very locally, April 13, the Melrose Grange announced a meeting for the following week, with patriotic speeches and music. As many people as possible were requested to carry flags and express loyalty to the country “in every way.”
On April 5, the U.S. Army and Navy requested 3,400,000 men. More realistically the government sought to raise an Army of one million in one year and two million in two years. Part of this would be through filling the National Guard to war strength of more than 500,000 by instituting the draft, unless there were enough volunteers. And part of this would be by drafting men to the regular Army and Navy. The initial goal was to assemble the first 500,000 draftees for five months of training by August or September, then 500,000 more by April 1918.
Front and back of the draft card of Sophus Djernes of Pittstown.
On May 26, the Troy “Times” announced there would be a mandatory registration for the draft of all men aged 21-30 throughout the entire country on June 5. All men of those ages must register that day, unless they were already in the military. Though this was boosted as a PUBLIC DUTY, it was pointed out that those who did not register would be subject to imprisonment. Those absent from home could register where they were and have the registrar mail the card home. The registrars themselves were volunteers. I looked at two in Schaghticoke. John Butler was a 24-year-old cigar maker and auto mechanic. He was a draftee himself, but died of pneumonia on the ship to France. Elbridge Snyder was in his forties, a food merchant in town. And the National League for Women’s Service supplied 250 volunteers locally to tabulate the results, set to work from June 10 to September 10. (In the event, the task was done much more quickly.) On June 4, the paper printed a sample card, and on June 6 it reported that the draft had gone smoothly.
Incredibly, more than 10,000,000 men registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 across the nation. This was a huge task organized and completed incredibly quickly it seems to me. Of these 1 million would be drafted, with a goal of 687,000 passing the minimal physical and not being declared exempt. The Troy “Times” reported that “several Spaniards in Pittstown refused to register at first,” but soon complied. Who were they??? Meanwhile, there were many voluntary enlistments in the 2nd Infantry, the local National Guard regiment at Troy. 3,455 men registered in Rensselaer County outside Troy. The pre-draft estimate had been about 1,000 more than that.
The June 6 Troy “Times” reported that “registrars came to the County Clerk’s Office last night to file their returns.” The Sheriff provided coffee, sandwiches and salads and cigars. Schaghticoke district 1 had 77 men, District 2, 43, District 3, 54, and District 4, 48, for a total of 227. Pittstown district 1 registered 53 men, district 2, 43, district 3, 27, district 4, 34, and district 5, 15, for a total of 172 men. Half the men who enrolled claimed exemptions. In general men who were married were granted exemptions, but many others were not. I have come across a number of local farmers who asked for agricultural exemptions, which were not granted. Other sons asked for exemptions as the support of aged parents. Those do not seem to have been granted either. Of course some men were rejected for disability of some sort.
The June 7 Troy “Times” announced a further state military census, of all men 16-51, to be taken on June 11. I write about this because the census takers, more volunteers, were women from an amazing list of organizations: the Home Defense League, the NYS Women’s Suffrage Party, the Salvation Army, the National League for Women’s Services, the Troy Auxiliary of the NYS Association Opposed to Suffrage, the Soldiers’ Welfare League, the Ladies’ Catholic Benevolent Association, the Philip Schuyler Chapter of the DAR, the Women’s University Club, and American Society of Civil engineers, and school teachers. Suffrage for women passed in November 1917, hence the presence of the pro- and anti-suffrage groups in the list.
By June 23, the newspaper reported that everyone who had registered for the draft had been assigned a number. The numbers would be drawn in Washington, D.C., and would be telegraphed to the home districts, with men next on the list stepping up in the case of exemptions. The exemptions were to be left up to each draft board. It seems to me that there wasn’t adequate thought behind how this would all work. The draft districts were of vastly different sizes across the country, up to over 10,000 men, so numbers couldn’t be called fairly easily. Not all districts had a number 1000, for example. Finally a very complicated two tier system was assigned, which I don’t fully understand. It took two columns of newsprint to explain. Numbers were drawn in Washington on July 19 in a marathon 16 hours.
July 28 the first lists of men to be drafted were published. Our district, Rensselaer County outside of Troy, had a quota of 103 men. 206 men were to be called to fill that. Some of the first men from the area to be called were Sophus Djernes, William Engel, Robert Couser, William Roberts, and Charles Madigan of Valley Falls; Earl Cooley of Melrose, and Levi Warren and Walter Ralston of Schaghticoke. Of these men, only Sophus Djernes, Charles Madigan, and Walter Ralston actually served. Earl Cooley failed the physical. William Roberts had a wife and two children. Charles Madigan claimed a farm exemption but was denied, so he, Sophus, and Walter reported to Hoosick Falls on September 7 and left the next morning by train for Camp Devens, at Ayer, Massachusetts, which had become a military training camp. Wisely, I think, the military started out small, calling only 5% of the quota that first time. I’m sure this let the system get established, and allowed the training camp staff to get used to the process.
Meanwhile, the second contingent of men were being interviewed at their exemption boards day by day. They numbered 40% of the total number to be called in this first draft. This larger group left September 22 from Hoosick Falls, this time with a send-off. A crowd of 3000 gathered at the municipal building in Hoosick Falls, led by the Old Guard Fifes and Drums and other bands. The new recruits paraded to the train station with Provisional Company A of the National Guard in Troy, the members of the Exemption Board, the GAR Post (Civil War veterans), the fire departments, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
In mid- August, the “Times Union” began publishing a “Home Reading course for Citizen Soldiers,” developed by the War Department. There were thirty lessons, one a day, designed to prepare men to be soldiers- and perhaps to let their families understand what would be expected of them as well.
The third contingent of men, 100,000 nationally, began to report to camps on October 3. Again there was a big send-off in Hoosick Falls on October 6. Ray Sherman of Melrose was one of two men in charge of the group of recruits, who paraded to the train station watched by 4,000 spectators and accompanied by the GAR, fire companies, the St. George Lutheran Society, the Hibernians, and hundreds of citizens, amid the din of many auto horns, whistles, and bells. The local men were Hamlin Coleman, Charles Rubeck, Francis O’Connor, and James VanDetto of Schaghticoke, and Arthur Turner of Melrose. Arthur was killed in battle the following July.
Meanwhile, on July 15, 1917, the National Guard was called into federal service, to report August 5. First, the soldiers reported to their armories, then went on to be trained at various forts. Our local National Guard unit, the 2nd Infantry, had already been active as stated above, guarding sensitive locations like bridges and reservoirs. And in 1916 some of the men had been deployed in the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa on the Mexican border, so they had a bit of experience. The 2nd, which was renamed the 105th US Infantry, was to be sent to Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, as part of the 27th Infantry Division.
In what may have been the first local fatality of the war, James B. Davis, a new recruit in the 2nd Infantry- soon to be the 105th– was killed in a cannon firing on the lawn of the Valley Falls House for the 4th of July. Though the cannon was not loaded with a cannon ball, the powder keg was left in the path of the cannon, and when he jumped to move it, the cannon fired, the wadding hit him and the keg, and it exploded. This story appeared in the July 5 Troy “Times.” I repeat it, but cannot find a trace of a man by that name in the records. I don’t doubt the event occurred, I just think that the paper got the name wrong. Certainly the second local fatality was Paul Speanburgh of Pittstown, one of three brothers who served in the Army. Paul also enlisted in the 2nd in June. On July 11, he was guarding a bridge in Ballston Spa when he was hit by a passing freight train in the middle of the night and killed. He left a young widow, Grace Lohnes Speanburgh, who lived on until 1979. Paul is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Schaghticoke.
As August 1917 wore on and the 2nd Infantry prepared to leave for South Carolina, the city of Troy finally organized a parade to say good-bye. By this time the men had reported to a temporary camp in Schenectady, which had planned its own parade. The parade in Troy took place August 26, just two days before the men left for South Carolina. It started at Union Station, where the men got off the train from Schenectady, and took a very back- and- forth track from there to the main school. Residences and businesses were urged to fly the flag and other patriotic decorations. Families with men serving displayed service flags like we use today, with one star for each man in the family serving. Just the soldiers, about 600, marched in the parade. At the school, the Women’s Auxiliary of the Soldiers Welfare League and the National League of Women’s Service served sandwiches, cake, ice cream, soda and cigarettes. Some of the men went home for the night, others stayed on to attend a baseball game and dance in State Street. Officers were treated to a vaudeville show at Proctor’s. The next day the men returned to Schenectady and departed for the south.
On August 28 the regiment reached a temporary base near Marble Hill in Brooklyn, passing the train ride with a “continuous round of pleasure: singing, reciting, playing jokes,” with food, but, the only problem, no water supplied. On August 30 they participated in a grand parade of the whole 27th Division in New York City. It took them six hours to march from 110th Street to Washington Square. “5th Avenue was packed with humanity” cheering them. All of this was reported in the Troy “Times.”
27th Division Parade in New York City
The 2nd/105th went on to camp in South Carolina. The men began strenuous training: trench practice; grenade, bayonet, musketry, sniping, and automatic arms schools; use of machine guns, and the Stokes mortar; gas defense and camouflage. Families could visit the men through the winter, and the men enjoyed the music of seven regimental bands. Popular songs were “Pack up your troubles”, “the Long, long trail,” and “Joan of Arc.” Rather than singing while they marched, the men whistled as a group. A correspondent for the Troy “Times” went to South Carolina and gave frequent reports on the men to the folks back home. For example, in October he reported that each tent in camp had a small stove, ready for winter.
At the same time that the country was working to grow the Armed Forces rapidly, it was also acting to pay for the war. One way was through the Liberty Loan program, the first time the U.S. government issued bonds. The first Liberty Loan Act, enacted April 24, 1917, just a couple of weeks after war was declared, issued $5 billion in bonds at 3.5% interest. These bonds were sold to citizens. Apparently the loan was not subscribed to with enthusiasm by the country, but you wouldn’t know that from the articles in the Troy “Times,” which reported that bonds were selling well. There was a Liberty Loan rally at the Troy Music Hall on June 9, with patriotic speeches and songs.
The Troy “Times” of October 1 announced that Congress had passed a new war tax on incomes and corporations of about 2%. Postal rates were to go up and further fees were expected. A second Liberty Loan campaign was announced at the same time, with the local amount to be raised pegged at over $7 million. Bonds yielded 4% interest and were payable in 25 years. This time the government realized that a vigorous ad campaign would be needed to fulfill the target. The newspaper was full of ads of all sizes for the loans, and government representatives came out to organize all the businesses and organizations to go out and urge citizens to buy the bonds. Each type of business had a committee to organize sales, which were made at all the local banks. I have been told that Boy Scouts sold Liberty Loans, but I have not found evidence in the newspaper of that. Bond could be bought in very small denominations, making their purchase possible for nearly everyone.
The federal government had a “Committee on Public Information,” whose purpose was to educate the public on important issues of the day- patriotism, the war. We might call it a propaganda arm of the government. It was certainly one more way to inform more people, and out loud rather than in the newspaper. Part of this was a group of volunteers organized all over the country, “the 4-minute men,” who delivered the desired content in short talks. In Rensselaer County, a group of “4-minute men”, local businessmen volunteers, were trained to go to organizations, meetings, theatrical performances, churches, etc. to give a four-minute talk on the need to buy bonds. The Troy “Times” reported their presence in theaters in Troy, and at regular meetings of organizations throughout the county.
Bonds were even sold to the troops in training camps. Slogans included “Every Liberty Bond spikes a German gun,” “If you cannot go across, come across,” and “Liberty Bonds + Liberty Bullet = Victory.” One full page ad showed a caricature of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany in a spiked helmet with a skull and cross bones on the front. On October 14, the newspaper reported that the Liberty Loan was oversubscribed by more than 50% in Rensselaer County. Valley Falls residents bought $50,000 worth of bonds.
Another new activity for the country was to support the men of the rapidly growing armed forces. There were plenty of people who remembered the unmet needs of the Civil War soldiers for at least the first year of that war, and the organizations which had grown up only gradually to help them with nursing and personal items. Until that happened, U.S. soldiers had suffered horribly. In this new war, almost immediately the main organization which stepped up was the Red Cross, which had been small up until this time. By the start of June 1917, the Troy “Times” reported the Red Cross was raising money to help take care of soldiers, with a goal of $150,000 in Rensselaer County. This goal was exceeded in less than a month. An article on June 23 reported that an entertainment in Melrose had raised $45. The June 27 Troy “Times” listed all the contributors, most of whom gave $3-$5 each, a considerable sum, though Alexander Diver, the town undertaker, gave $25. The money was to be used in part for yarn and needles for knitted items for the troops, comfort kits for new recruits, and hospital supplies.
Besides raising money, the Red Cross sought to grow its membership. Through August and September, the newspaper reported the plans of the Rensselaer County organization to fan out around the county and recruit. Many of the members needed to be women, as a major Red Cross effort was to knit for the troops. I’m not saying men couldn’t knit, but most wouldn’t/didn’t. The Rensselaer County quota was 5,000 sleeveless sweaters, mufflers, socks, helmets (to be worn under the metal helmets), and wristlets, to be sent to France as soon as possible. Mrs. T. A. Bryson was the head of the Red Cross knitting unit formed in Schaghticoke. The Troy Soldiers Welfare Division of the Red Cross planned to make 700 knitted sets for the men of the 2nd NY (now the 105th US), including a sweater, scarf, helmet, wristlet, and fingerless mittens. They needed funds of $2000 for the materials, but had plenty of knitters. The Valley Falls Political Equality Club put on a number of card parties whose proceeds were to buy yarn to knit for the local boys in France and Camp Devens.
By October, a group of Red Cross volunteers set off across the county to recruit members. The men were assigned to speak to any gathering of people, the women to make home visits. They were urged to “make plain what this country would face should Germany win the war,” and talk about the “hardships of the troops in the trenches,” pleading “that everything possible be done to alleviate their suffering.” George Patrick and E. Harold Cluett came out and spoke at the Schaghticoke Odd Fellows Hall one Sunday and the Honorable Frederick Filley and Duncan Kaye spoke at the Melrose Grange. (Troy “Times” Oct 5)
Yet another issue for the country as it mobilized for war was food- its price and availability. From the start, the U.S. Government and its Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, the future President, were concerned about proper rations for troops, food for both civilians and allied soldiers in Europe, and both proper food for people at home and its availability at appropriate prices. Price gouging was nothing new. In August 1917 Congress enacted the Food Control Act to address all of the preceding. During the summer, food prices in the country had increased by 100%. Measures were taken for the U.S. government to buy the whole upcoming wheat crop of the country and to stabilize the price of sugar. Domino Sugar ads suggested using sugar sparingly- not hoarding but not overusing. The wheat crop in 1917 was very small, aggravating the problems of supply and cost. The Food Administration began by suggesting, then mandating substitution of things like corn meal in recipes demanding wheat to make the crop go farther. The emphasis was on volunteer adoption of regulations by producers, wholesalers, and retailers, but as the year went on, more and more of the preceding were licensed and controlled by the Food Administration. Prices were at first suggested- with “reasonable” profit allowed, then set. Canned goods, so important to the troops, were in especially short supply.
The Food Administration also addressed consumers. The Troy “Times” printed a series of “Menus that Help the Food Administration”. They were day-by-day menus for a week that would both help local citizens deal with the “high cost of living” and “increase the supply of staples for our allies and famine stricken countries of Europe.” The menus included the awful-sounding dried bean and peanut butter loaf- using less meat- and corn chowder- which sounds good. Posters urged people to “Win the War by Service in the Home,” and “To Save Democracy: eat less wheat.” Advice was given on eating less wheat, meat, fats, and sugar, using perishables efficiently and canning and drying them, and preaching “the Gospel of the Clean Plate Club.”
Of course war could be profitable for many. The US Government still allowed food producers and processors to make a “reasonable” profit. The newspaper reported that Troy and Cohoes companies were making tents, camp stoves, underwear, hosiery, shirts, and engines for the Army. The Watervliet Arsenal planned to add 3,000 new mechanics to their work force from October 1917 to March 1918, making large caliber field artillery, and needed housing for them and their families. Building that housing would also provide local employment, of course. And of course the workers would spend their paychecks locally.
In Schaghticoke, the effects were mixed. The powder mill, in business since 1813, had been a subsidiary of Hercules Powder since 1912. Hercules was a huge corporation. In an Army publication a history of explosives used in the war, the author explained that the company made two kinds of black powder: B and rifle. The latter, which was made in Schaghticoke, was more prone to explosion. Hercules claimed this was just a superstition, but when the need for black rifle powder for the Army outstripped the capabilities of the Schaghticoke plant, men at their other sites were scared of changing. A few men from Schaghticoke were imported to the plants in California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio to make the changes needed in the process and teach the workers how to make the powder as safely as possible. Clearly, Schaghticoke was working at full capacity.
On the other hand, another industry essential to the local economy, the Cable Flax Mill, in the village of Schaghticoke, essentially came to a halt. Its supply of flax came primarily from Belgium, and Germany seized the shipments. It had already had difficulties making the change to using electricity rather than water as a power source- which it had had to do following the construction of the G.E. power dam in 1907, and the lack of flax sounded its death knell.
So in six months, the U.S. Government had declared war, mobilized an Army and outfitted it, and gotten the country’s food supply under control, while its citizens had volunteered and been drafted to fight, organized to help the new soldiers, and adjusted to the new reality of limited food. I will leave the story here, and take up the actual fighting of the U.S. troops in France later.