Group portrait of African American officers standing in front of a building at the Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1917

Iowa in World War I

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. However, some Iowans had migrated from Germany and 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. Sometimes these people were singled out for harsh treatment. Some were required to take a loyalty oath or to salute or even kiss the flag. Many schools did not allow their students to study German. Things with German names got new names. “German measles” became “liberty measles” and “sauerkraut” became “liberty cabbage.”

Needed: Soldiers

In time of war the nation needed soldiers. Some Iowa men volunteered for patriotic reasons. Because 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. Of the 500,000 Iowa men registered for the draft, about 115,000 served in the armed forces.

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 African-American officers. At the time, the Army was segregated. African-American and white soldiers at the time lived and trained in separate facilities.

Soldiers from Iowa and other states sailed for Europe to fight on the side of Britain and France. One of the first U.S. soldiers killed in combat in World War I was an Iowan, Merle Hay, 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.

The Effects of War

The war affected Iowans from the very beginning. The majority of foreign-born people in Iowa were of German ancestry. These people suffered persecution after the declaration of war, even though they had nothing to do with the war. In addition, the government promoted the sale of war bonds or "Liberty Loans." 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. Food and gasoline rationing was enforced. Citizens were encouraged to grow food in "Victory Gardens."

The war had an effect on Iowa's agriculture production too. Agriculture flourished during World War I. The U.S. government asked farmers to produce more food to feed the armies fighting in Europe. Since many farmers lived in Iowa, the state 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.

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. By the end, over one in every four Americans had suffered from its high fever and aches. An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza, ten times as many as in the world war. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe half of them—43,000—died from the Spanish flu.

Hanford W. MacNider from Mason City was one of the most famous officers from Iowa. He was awarded numerous medals for his service. Some people thought he might become vice president or even president.

The End of War

Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918, and the war ended. Wild celebrations occurred all over the state. People lit bonfires and gathered in cheering crowds. It would take months to bring the troops back home. Peace negotiations would drag on even longer, but the war was over and Iowans were eager to get back to their ordinary routines.

The official records show that 114,242 Iowans served in the armed forces during WW I. Of those, 3,576 died.

My Path

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