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From Prosperity to Depression Part 2: 1898-1939 World War 1


From Prosperity to Depression Part 2: 1898-1939 World War 1

It was a tragic series of events that swept Iowa into a conflict that began in Europe when a Bosnia Serb fired the shot that killed Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  The major European powers squared off with Germany and Austria on one side facing Great Britain, France, and Russia on the other.  By the time an armistice was signed four bloody years later, an estimated 2,000 Iowa soldiers and sailors had been killed and another 2,000 had been injured or were missing in action.  Records list 114,234 Iowans either volunteering or being drafted into the armed forces, of whom 54,147 served overseas.  On the home front, citizens mobilized as never before to support the war effort.

The competition among European nations for colonial empires abroad and military superiority at home was not a major concern of the Midwest in the years before the conflict started.  Immigrants from Europe had settled Iowa in large numbers, and while many retained much of their traditional culture, including the language, the tensions of their homelands did not carry over to the Iowa landscape. 

Germany supplied the largest contingent of immigrants to Iowa, followed by the Irish.  They like many other new arrivals tended to settle with fellow countryfolk to create Iowa communities with a strong ethnic flavor.  When the war opened in 1914, first- and second-generation immigrants may have expressed support for their European homelands, but the majority sentiment around the state was that the conflict was a European affair of little concern for the United States.  Some regarded the conflict as the result of monarchies with little regard for the welfare of their citizens.  Both sides came under criticism for cruelties on the battlefield and hardships on citizens at home.  The German invasion of Belgium was cited as especially abhorrent, and relief efforts raised money and supplies to support its victims. 

Both sides in the war were eager to purchase supplies from the United States, and the U.S. was eager to sell them.  The British navy, however, controlled the Atlantic and put blockades on German ports in defiance of international law.  Germany responded by releasing submarines into the major waterways that could sneak close enough to torpedo surface ships.  Because the sub attacks were by surprise, passengers and crews of Allied boats did not have time to abandon ship in an orderly manner or to be rescued by nearby boats, and the loss of life mounted, including Americans.  Knowing that it would bring America into the war on the side of Britain and France, Germany announced in January of 1917 that it would start sinking all shipping around Great Britain, regardless of whether the vessels were armed or unarmed and regardless of their nationality.  President Wilson protested strongly but to no avail. In the face of mounting loss of American lives and products, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.  It did so decisively, and suddenly what had looked like a squabble between European royal families now reached out to Iowans from farms, towns, and cities.

Raising an army was America’s first order of business.  The U.S.  had not maintained a large standing army because it did not expect a need to use one.  With war fever running high, some young men volunteered for service, but the number was nowhere near the target of four armies of 500,000 each.  To achieve that goal, Congress instituted a wartime draft registering all men from age 21-31. Each state was assigned a draft total which they relayed down to a quota for each county. 

Since the total number registered exceeded the number needed for the first call, the county draft board applied a system Congress designed to select who went first.  The local board developed a list in alphabetical order of all the men registered.  Congress then supplied a list of numbers drawn in random order from 1-10,000.  Men were called into active service according to their number on the list.  To make sure that they would meet their quota, the local boards ordered twice that number to report for examination and classification into one of three groups.  Group One were those in good physical condition unmarried before May 17, 1917 (to discouraged hastily arranged weddings) with no dependents.  Group Two were those in good condition with dependents, and Group Three were those with disabilities.  The local draft board could grant deferments if a man held a job critical to the wartime effort.  Most often those went to young men managing family farms, but those exemptions were solely at the discretion of the local board who knew the situation.  Anyone thought to be avoiding a legitimate call was deemed a “slacker” and faced a very hostile public opinion.

Creating an army was slow business.  Iowa lacked training facilities for such a large force, and it was not until late summer that the first recruits were ordered help construct barracks at Camp Dodge northwest of Des Moines.  With those in place, however, call ups came more quickly, but it still took some ten months to get the First Army recruited, inducted, and somewhat trained before being shipped to Eastern sites in preparation for combat roles overseas.

While the draft was in process, the ugly reality of war emerged.  Merle Hay of Glidden had quit his job to volunteer for service and arrived in France in the summer of 1917.  He was assigned to the front lines where his unit was hit hard by a surprise German attack on November 3.  He and two other American soldiers were killed, the first reported deaths of the war.  He became a national hero with a massive memorial service in his home town.  Against that somber background, the draft continued.   Iowa soldiers received patriotic send offs at local train stations.

Soldiers were only one demand facing the United States as it entered the conflict.  The government required money to pay troops, outfit them with uniforms and armaments, build ships to sail them to Europe, and feed and clothe them once they were there.  Because taxes could not begin to cover immediate expenses, the Federal government began the first of five Liberty Loans in May, 1917.  Essentially, the government was financing the war with borrowed money accumulated over the next two years.  Interest-bearing bonds were sold by state and local committees in flurries of patriotic outpourings.  Children could participate by buying stamps from the post office that they pasted in a book that they could redeem with interest in five years.  

Every loan assigned each Iowa county a larger goal.  The first was based on $20 per county resident.  The second calculated the value of an average 160-acre farm in the county.  In the third, residents filled out a card listing their financial assets upon which they were assigned a “fair share” loan target.  Loan Four raised the stakes even higher, now calling for 2% of the total worth listed on the cards from the previous drive but allowed each family to pay 10% down and pledge the remainder in monthly installments over the next twelve months.  In one county, Loan Four raised approximately $75 per resident.  The fifth and last loan quota was smaller.  That call came in the spring of 1919 when the war was over and patriotic fervor had cooled. 

Patriotism and social pressure acted together to boost bond sales.  Speakers at public rallies appealed to the need to support the troops and to defeat the enemy.  In many towns the local newspaper published the amount residents pledged.  Those whose names were not on the lists were pressured to give, especially if they were of German ancestry and therefore of suspected loyalty.  In some cases, German-Americans were forced to kiss the flag or in other ways demonstrate their loyalty to the United States, and, of course, to subscribe to Liberty Loans.  “Slackers” or others falling below the patriotism standard demanded by the community might have their doors or fence posts painted yellow, which became the symbol of un-American loyalties.

Iowans also contributed to the Red Cross, a non-governmental organization that provided care and support for American soldiers overseas.  Women gathered in Red Cross centers to knit socks and scarves for soldiers, to tie bandages, and to make other hospital provisions.  The Red Cross operated social centers for troops and often served as liaisons between soldiers and their families back home.

Food production became a critical issue during WWI, especially in a farm state like Iowa.  Feeding not only the nation at home but our troops abroad and our Allies was essential for a military victory in the field.  “Food Will Win the War” became a slogan promoted across the state.  While the Federal government promoted patriotism, it also appealed to farmers’ economic interest by guaranteeing top prices for farm products, including corn and wheat.  Iowa State University (then Iowa State College) developed an extension service with an agent in every county promoting the best farming practices.  Bankers loaned money readily to farmers who wanted to buy equipment, plant more acres, and expand their livestock herds.  The efforts paid off, and production increased rapidly.

Producing more was part of the effort; using less was the other.  American families were urged to cut down on their consumption of wheat, meat, sugar, and fats.  Homemakers “took the conservation pledge” to reduce per capita flour consumption to six pounds a month and sugar to four ounces a day.  Grocers kept lists of how much shoppers bought, and committees compared lists to make sure buyers did not undercut the restrictions by shopping at different stores.  A guideline was that Tuesday meals should use no meat and at least one meal on every other day should be meatless.  In addition, families were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens and can produce to supplement their own supplies with homegrown vegetables.  The war was reaching into the daily routines of Iowans in a way no previous conflicts had.

When the war had started, public opinion had regarded both sides as responsible.  Once America entered the conflict, however, all things German became the target of censure.  Schools quit teaching German languages courses, towns with German names changed them, and newspapers began publishing stories of German army atrocities.  The latter was the work in large part of a Federal initiative under the authority of the Committee on Public Information that distributed posters, newspaper articles, speakers, and even movies depicting German cruelties. 

The most notable anti-German incident during the war was the proclamation by Iowa Governor William Harding forbidding the use of any language except English in public, the “Babel Proclamation.”  It was deeply resented not only by German-Iowans but by other immigrant groups like the Danes, Norwegians, and Dutch that still had communities where native languages were taught in schools and church.  There were few prosecutions under the edict, and it was ridiculed by many in Iowa and nationally, but it symbolized a society that was determined to define “100% American” as the absence of any divided cultural loyalties.

On October 6, a false report of a German surrender brought people into the streets celebrating, but the revelries were short lived.  On November 11, however, the news was real: The war was over.  All across the state, spontaneous celebrations broke out with bonfires and raucous parades accompanied by makeshift bands and any other available noise makers.  Details of the peace still needed to be worked out but the fighting had ended.

Some Iowans had to miss the celebrations because they were home sick.  In the fall of 1918, the nation  faced a new enemy, and this one at home.  An influenza virus known as the “Spanish flu” hit hard all across America and abroad, taking a terrible toll on the young.  In an unusual move, the Iowa Board of Health directed all public gathering places to close, including churches and schools.  Only a limited number of customers could be in a store at one time, and many wore gauzy face masks to help protect them from inhaling the germs.  The University of Iowa and Iowa State required students to have passes to leave or return to campus hoping to cut down on the numbers of people in contact.  Camp Dodge, where thousands of soldiers were quartered during training, was especially hard hit, and the Red Cross supplied nurses to care for the sick.  Sometimes parents came to care for their sons.   State records list 6,543 flu deaths in 1918 alone, more than the 4,088 casualties from the war.  An additional 1,183 Iowans died the following year. By January, the worst was open and the meeting restrictions were lifted.

The fighting had been billed as “the war to end all wars” but that proved to be a false promise.  Much of Europe lay in ruins.  Farms and factories were destroyed, and millions of people faced food shortages.  What the post-war world would look like was unknown.  But Europe and its problems seemed far away for a little while as families prepared to welcome home their sons and the memorialize those who had given their lives for their country.  The Great War was over.


For Further Reading

“Iowa in World War 1” https://www.iowaheritage.org/exhibits/show/ww1_1/ww1_6

Thomas Morain, Prairie Grass Roots (ISU Press, 1988)

Stephen J. Frese, ”Divided by a Common Language: The Babel Proclamation and its Influence in Iowa

        History”  https://people.cas.sc.edu/dubinsk/LING240/readings/Frese.2005.Babel.Proclamation.pdf

“Iowa in World War 1”, IPTV Pathways, http://www.iowapbs.org/iowapathways/mypath/iowa-world-war-i-0