The Centennial of U.S. participation in World War I continues. As I wrote earlier, in the months from our declaration of war in April 1917 through the end of the year, the U.S. instituted the draft and planned to add about 700,000 men to the US military, just to begin, mobilized to feed and outfit those new soldiers, took control of the food supply of the U.S., and began to ship soldiers to France. On the home front, volunteers conducted the draft, joined the Red Cross and began to knit, knit, knit for the troops; and everyone began to eat less wheat and meat to meet the request of the government, bought Liberty Bonds to help finance the war, and boosted their patriotism.
A few men from Schaghticoke enlisted in the old 2nd NY Infantry of the National Guard, based in Troy, before the draft of June 5. The 2nd was now nationalized and renumbered the 105th NY of the 27th Division in the U.S. Army. It began training at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina in September 1917. Other local men were drafted beginning about the same time. Many of the draftees trained through the winter at the new cantonment at Camp Devens, west of Boston. A couple of local men had enlisted in units of railroad engineers in Boston and New York, and were among the first US troops to reach France, by fall 1917, where they were busy constructing the railroads essential to transport soldiers and equipment to the front.
U.S. Engineers marching in London, en route to France
On January 10 1918, the Troy “Times” published a report from the US Secretary of Defense: an Army of 1 ½ million men was now training or abroad, “without dislocation of the nation’s industries.” “No army of similar size in the history of the world has ever been raised, equipped, or trained so quickly.” 16 cantonments to train them had been built. Remember, the US Army had numbered about 100,000 when war was declared, the National Guard about the same. So this was a very impressive increase.
Throughout the war, the front page of the Troy “Times”, the local paper for Schaghticoke, reported news of the different fronts of battle in great detail, from Europe to Russia to Italy to Jerusalem. The newspaper was the source of news in those pre-radio days, and those who read the paper would have been very informed on what was going on throughout the world. It printed transcripts of major speeches by political figures, detailed accounts of world events, and maps of battlefields. Almost daily, there was a photo from the Committee on Public Information, the propaganda arm of the US Government. The photo showed soldiers training, various allied commanders, patriotic Americans doing things which supported the troops, etc. One of the major developments in the world was the Russian Revolution, which was reported in full. With the collapse of the Russian Army on the Eastern Front of the war, the German Army would be free to concentrate its forces on the Western Front in 1918, threatening our Allies France and Britain even more. As 1918 began, there really was a race to get American soldiers into battle before the French and British Armies were overwhelmed.
The November 30, 1917 paper reported that National Guardsmen from every state were in France, though it was not permitted to report who and exactly where. As the new year began, the newspaper began to report US killed and wounded. While newspapers did list casualties by name, they were careful not to say what units they were in and where the men had been wounded or killed. The French newspapers republished these lists, and there was concern that the information could be used by the Germans to figure out where and how many US troops were based in what part of the front lines. Soldiers’ mail home was censored carefully for the same reason. As time went on, there was a bit more information given: on February 16, the paper reported that Americans were fighting west of Verdun and east of St Mihiel in France, but gave no further details.
There was almost a daily report on the continuing examination and induction of men into the Army from the list created by the draft of the preceding June 5. Men were called to Hoosick Falls, examined, and accepted or rejected. For example on January 25, the paper announced that a number of men were to report for their physical exam on Tuesday, including these from Schaghticoke: Julius Hansen, Andrew Gatzendorfer, Wilbur Simons, Sophus Djernes, John Roberts, Arthur Brundige, Charles J. Welch, and Walter Ralston. Generally, almost half of men were rejected for one reason or another, but all of those men went on to serve.
Arthur Brundige, a photo he submitted to the NYS Veterans Questionnaire in 1921
And the paper reported daily events designed to raise money for the Red Cross or other organizations supporting the troops through fall 1917 and spring 1918. For example, there was a card party in Valley Falls, a Kitchen Band and “Sinkphony” Orchestra concert at the Presbyterian Church, and a euchre party at St. John’s Catholic Church in Schaghticoke. The Red Cross unit in Schaghticoke held a sock social with proceeds to be used to buy yarn to knit socks for soldiers. The “Shady Town Minstrels and Jubilee Singers” performed at the Odd Fellows Hall to raise more money. In January, the YMCA, the American Bible Society, and the Federal Council of Churches reported that 1 million Bibles were needed for the troops. On February 9 the paper reported that 200,000 Christmas packages had been sent to soldiers in France, a huge number considering that not that many American troops were in France yet. A new way to support the troops was reported on February 12, “Smileage Books.” They were booklets of tickets to entertainments at theatres at training camps, and could be purchased to send to the men. They were available at a number of retail stores.
The government continued to sell war bonds to finance the war, and in December added the sale of war stamps, seeking to sell $2 billion worth. The stamps were for sale at Post Offices, schools, and banks in 25 cent denominations with plans “to make every school child in America buy at least one…during the first week of the …campaign.” Once a book of stamps was filled, it could be converted to a bond, thus enabling poorer citizens and even children to contribute to the war effort. The 4 Minute Men, volunteers who gave patriotic speeches at theatrical performances and to groups, had the war stamps as their topic in January. Most ads in the paper added some touch of patriotism or an exhortation to buy bonds or stamps. “Joan of Arc saved France. Women of America Save your Country. Buy War Stamps.”
My photo from the WWI Museum in Kansas City
The US government also took further steps to put the country on a war footing. At the end 1917, German aliens were required to register, seeking to “sift out” the few who were “setting fires in munitions plants and grain elevators”, and committing other acts of sabotage. The aliens were not to take ferries, nor live in Washington, D.C. nor go to Panama (where they might threaten the canal), and needed permits to travel. Military enlistees of German and Austrian extraction were to be given duty apart from actual fighting. This was quite a change from the announcements when war was first declared that Germans were to be treated as usual.
On December 18, 1917, the newspaper announced an inventory of food resources in the U.S. issued to food dealers, manufacturers, and “holders of substantial quantities of food”. Then on January 28, 1918 it announced that all families should aim to have “two wheatless, one meatless, and two porkless days per week” and one wheatless and one meatless meal per day. Cards were given to all households to help families keep track of their meals. This was voluntary, but commercial bakers were required to manufacture the “Victory loaf”. They would begin by substituting 5% of the wheat flour with a different kind, for example corn meal, rye or barley flour, and increase the amount gradually, reaching 20% by February 24. Shoppers could only buy flour if they bought an equal amount of a flour substitute, like one of those listed. The goal was for the country to consume 1/3 less wheat than in 1917. On February 5, the Food Administration ordered hotels, restaurants and dining cars on trains to serve 2 ounce bread rations, the same as in Britain. In addition, “every day…(was) a fat and sugar saving day.” Readers were exhorted to waste no soap, as it was made from fat. On February 22, the paper reported that meatless days had already saved 140 million pounds of beef in four months and that 165 million pounds of beef and 400 million pounds of pork had been shipped to our Allies. Note that neither mutton nor chicken was included in the definition of meat, just beef and pork.
And in response to an acute shortage of coal in the Eastern states, on January 17, Dr Harry Garfield of the National Fuel Administration ordered businesses east of the Mississippi River to close for the next five days plus the ten following Mondays. Some places were exempt, for example steel plants and schools. Coal was needed for transportation of soldiers and equipment by train in the US and by ship to France, and for manufacture of war materiel. An ad on January 8 exhorted, “Save Coal. Keep your Rooms at 68 Degrees. Uncle Sam Needs it!” In the end, the heatless Mondays ended February 14, as the shortage had eased, but this would have been quite a sacrifice for a number of businesses- and presumably workers, who would not have been paid.
The U.S. Government also nationalized all the railroads in the U.S. on December 27. By this I mean that it ran the railroads, not that it took over ownership of them. The newspaper had a number of articles about the logistics of this- but efficiency was essential in transport of soldiers and their equipment, plus transport of material needed for ship building and manufacture of other essential war materiel. Railroads were the major way that everything was transported in these pre-truck days. In our capitalist country it still must have been revolutionary for the government to take control of the railroads from their millionaire owners.
Once the new Army was trained, the troops needed to get overseas. The US Navy was tiny. The US seized all German ships in US ports as soon as war was declared in April. German Ocean liners were repurposed as troop transports, along with US and British ships. The US immediately started building ships, but in the meantime- and as it turned out, for the bulk of the war- British ships transported most American men and materiel. Our German foes planned to sink many of these transports to prevent the American Army from even reaching France. I have read several books about World War I which stated that no American troop transports were sunk by German U-Boats, but this is untrue. According to “The American Army in France” by James G. Harbord, the “SS Antilles”, an American ship chartered by the US Navy for troop transport was sunk by a U-Boat on October 17, 1917. Fortunately she was on her way home after discharging her troops in France, but 67 men drowned. Others were rescued by other ships in the convoy.
“S.S. Antilles”, sunk by a U boat “S.S. Tuscania”, also sunk by a U-boat
And the Troy “Times” of February 6, 1918 reported that the “SS Tuscania”, a liner of the British Cunard Line being used as a troop transport, was sunk by a German U-Boat off Scotland’s Isle of Islay. The ship carried about 2,000 US troops, mostly Engineers, and a crew of about 400. 210 men drowned, and were buried in various small towns on the Scottish coast, where their bodies had washed up. My research shows that at least three more troop transports were sunk in 1918, each with small loss of life. But the bottom line was that virtually all of the US Army reached France, ensuring the defeat of Germany by the Allies.
I will close this chapter of the history of my town and its men in World War I here. The people on the home front were definitely affected by the war by March of 1918, one hundred years ago. There were voluntary restrictions on what they ate. They had bought war stamps and bonds. They were attending fund raisers for supplies for the troops. Some workers had missed work when factories closed during the coal crisis. And they were seeing their friends, neighbors, and sometimes their sons, go off to train for war. As yet, just a few U.S. soldiers were in harm’s way. In a few months, I will relate the events of the months when U.S. troops were fighting fiercely, up to the Armistice on November 11, 1918.