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April 6, 1917 The United States enters “The War to End All Wars”

On April 6, 1917, the United States officially entered World War I, a war that changed the nation and the world forever.

You can watch the live stream of “In Sacrifice for Liberty and Peace: Centennial Commemoration of the U. S. Entry into World War I” ceremony, hosted by the World War One Centennial Commission at the National World War I Museum and  Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri beginning at 9 a.m.

The 90 minute, international ceremony will consist of readings from speeches, journalism, literature, and poetry by invited readers.  There will be performance of music of the time, military bands, color guards, and flyovers by U.S. and French military aircraft.  If you are able, it will be worth watching.  (C-Span and other TV networks may also cover the event, but I have not found the listings.)

President Wilson Addresses Congress

The Edwards County Historical Society was recently given some scrapbooks which had belonged to Marion Edwards Shouse (1885-1972).  Marion was the daughter of a prominent businessman. R. E. Edwards and the niece of W. C. Edwards for whom Edwards County is named.

In 1911, Jouett Shouse (1879-1968) moved to Kinsley, Kansas where he met and married Marion in 1913 in a very lavish wedding.  He became involved in agricultural and livestock businesses and served on the Board of Directors of the Kinsley Bank.  He was a Progressive-era Democrat and was elected a state senator in 1913.  In 1914 he was elected to the United States Congress where he served until 1919 when President Woodrow Wilson appointed him as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.

          The above photograph was found in Marion’s scrapbook.  It was taken on April 2, 1917 as President Woodrow Wilson delivered his message to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany.  Jouett would be seated somewhere on the floor.  Marion placed a small X on the photo to indicate where she was seated in the front row of the balcony (1/3 the way from left).

On this day, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany, saying, He ended his address by saying:

“It is a distressing and oppressive duty, gentlemen of the Congress, which I have performed in thus addressing you. There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free. To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.”

Four days later, Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of a war declaration.

ouette Shouse      c. 1916                                Elizabeth, Marion Edwards Shouse, Marion c. 1919



A Tale of Two Flags

100 years ago, on March 29, when anti-German sentiments were at a pre-war high, the following news item appeared in the Kinsley Graphic:

“Two German flags used to decorate classrooms at the Leavenworth high school were torn from the walls and formed material for a small bonfire kindled by members of the junior division of the reserve officers’ corps, formerly known as the high school cadets.”

Perhaps these two flags had hung in the classroom where the German language was being taught.  There is no mention if these cadets were punished or applauded for the display.

In the same paper, the editor, James M. Lewis, wrote:

“The United States of America is virtually at war with Germany; and we ought to see the American flags floating from homes and business houses in Kinsley.  In driving about Sunday, not one flag was observed – so let’s show our patriotism by floating flags from every business house and home.”

One week later, and a day before war would be declared, the editor’s chiding seems to have been heeded as he wrote:

“Tomorrow, Friday, has been proclaimed as Patriotic Day by Governor Capper, and it behooves everyone to observe it to the best of their ability.  It has been very pleasing to note the number of homes and business houses from which the United States flag has been sent up this week.  Many owners of cars have also put flags on them.  Most of the United States citizens have a deep patriotic spirit in spite of the fact that they sometimes neglect to show any outward manifestation of it.  But at a time like this, let everyone combine the outward show with the inward spirit and let the flags fly tomorrow.”

Note the 48 stars on this flag.  Alaska and Hawaii were not in the union at the time.  The Kinsley Library will fly the flag on March 29, 2017 to remember our country as it prepared for the World War of 100 years ago.

Many Would Be Naturalized

Like today, immigrants and naturalization were in the news 100 years ago.  The following appeared in the Kinsley Mercury, April 5, 1917:

“There have been many applications filed at the courthouse for naturalization papers, most of them being taken out by former German citizens. The present outlook for war with Germany has probably some bearing on this, as no citizen of another country can take out papers for naturalization if this country is at war with the country from which he came. He may file a declaration of his intensions, which is the first step toward becoming a citizen of the United States, but can go no farther until peace is declared.”

The article goes on to tell that Albert Stach had been granted his final papers in March, less than one month before war was declared.  Others mentioned in the article would have to wait until after the war, which was declared one day after this article was published. They included Otto Tuchtenhagen, Joseph Wolf, Anton Goldhammer and Henry Herrmann who filed their petitions for final papers in March and had been scheduled to be heard in November.  Also to be put off were several who filed Declarations of intentions including: Mike Kozokan, John Mekach, August Ploger, William Ploger, Henry Ploger, and Henry Salm.  Most of these men had immigrated to the United States with their parents in the 1880s. Descendant relatives of some of these men still reside in Edwards County.

When the United States Congress declares war on Germany on April 6, 1917, these men and many other German and Italian immigrants would go from being on the path to citizenship to having to register as Alien Enemies.


German Submarines Sink American Ships

“The American Ship Vigilancia, sunk by a German submarine, occupied a warm spot it the hearts of Kansas negroes.  It was the ship that carried the Kansas negro troops to Cuba during the Spanish-American War.”    (Kinsley Mercury, March 29, 1917)

This brief mention of the Vigilancia in the Mercury tells about the dangers German submarines brought to the Atlantic.  Despite the fact that the Vigilancia was flying the American flag and had the name of the ship and the flag painted on both sides, it was torpedoed on March 16, 1917, 145 miles west of the Scilly Islands, Great Britain on its way back to New York.

Vigilancia’s Captain, Frank A. Middleton, reported that the ship was attacked without warning at 10 a.m. Friday morning.  Two torpedoes were fired.  The first one went astern and missed the ship, but the second one hit the starboard side. It took no more than 10 minutes for the ship to founder.

Two lifeboats were lowered from the Vigilancia and the crew of 43 men got into them.  Owing to the swell of the ocean, however, 25 men were thrown into the water.  Ten were able to be picked up by the lifeboats, but the other 15 men were drowned.

 “After rescuing as many of the crew as possible in the boats,” reported Captain Middleton, “we had biscuits and water. At night I fired distress signals. Several times, by the glare of the lights, I saw a submarine following fifty yards from the boats between 10 o’clock Friday night and 2:30 o’clock Saturday morning, but it made no attempt to help us.  We suffered great hardships in the boats.  One man of the engine room staff is paralyzed as a result of exposure.”  (Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1917)

The survivors remained in the lifeboats from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon before being picked up and taken to the Scilly Islands.

During the month of March, four other American ships were sunk (Algonguin, City of Memphis, Illinois, and Healdton).  American ships began arming themselves for protection.  President Wilson contemplated calling for an immediate session of Congress to ask for authority to adopt aggressive measures including sending warships with orders to seek out submarines to clear the trans-Atlantic lanes.  The country was getting closer to declaring war.

Before leaving this post, I want to go back to the quote from the Kinsley Mercury regarding the all-black 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry during the earlier Spanish-American War.  The 23rd was commanded by Lt. Col. James Beck and led by other black officers.  This was unique at a time when white officers normally were in charge.

The 23rd left Topeka on August 22, 1898 for New York City and on August 25 sailed for Cuba on the Vigilancia.  It was a stormy and uncomfortable voyage, but they arrived in San Luis, Cuba where they took up occupation duties of guarding Spanish prisoners of war from guerrilla bands and later helping to build roads, bridges, and improve sanitation.

These citizen-soldiers ate poorly with meals of rancid bacon and coal oil damaged wheat.  They had no fresh meat until December.  Still, they were better off than the inhabitants who were starving.  They were also plagued with malaria, typhoid and dysentery.  Despite these conditions, “Excellent discipline was maintained and all duties were cheerfully and faithfully performed.”  They came back to Fort Leavenworth on March 6, 1899.  (This information was gleaned from The Black Citizen-Soldiers of Kansas, 1864-1901, by Horace Leonard Baker and Roger D. Cunningham.

Kansas is Ready

An article which ran in the March 8, 1917 edition of the Kinsley Mercury had the headline “Ready to Back President.  Kansas Troops in Splendid Condition for Active Service, Says Adjutant General Martin.”  The article states that 2000 Kansas men, just out of service with 6 or 7 months of training could be turned over to the federal government on short notice.

“Kansas is in excellent shape, no matter what turn affairs take,” said General Martin.   “The national guard…have had service on the border, and while they have had no actual fighting, they have had training and discipline.”

The words “on the border” sent me off reviewing history again.  The Mexican Revolution ran from 1910-1920.  In March, 1916, Pancho Villa’s attack on the United States threatened to draw the United States into all-out war with Mexico.  Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing led a horse-mounted column of Regular Army Soldiers on a punitive expedition across the U.S. border into Mexico less than a week after the attack. Villa avoided capture at this time.

More border attacks followed in early May, so President Wilson used the newly enacted National Defense Act of 1916 to activate the National Guard in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico to assume protection of the border. These units could only raise about 5,000 soldiers, primarily infantrymen.  Cavalrymen were badly needed.  By mid-June, Wilson mobilized an additional 110,000 National Guard soldiers from every state except Nevada which had no Guard.

The fast military action and the subsequent deployment of the National Guard would be instrumental in shifting the initiative, tactically and diplomatically, back to the Americans.  In January 1917, Gen. Pershing’s regular Army troops returned from Mexico. The border crisis was, for the most part, over. On Feb. 17, 1917, the War Department ordered all National Guard units to return home.

The Mercury article continues to say that Kansas was ready to support President Wilson even though they had voted for him because “he had kept us out of war”.  Since the U.S. government had broken diplomatic relations with the imperial government of Germany over their submarine policy, the Kansas House of Representatives adopted the following resolution:

“Resolved, By the house of representative of Kansas, this third day of February, 1917, the senate not in session, that the speaker of the house be directed to send a message to the President of the United States and to the president of the senate and the speaker of the house of representatives, expressing confidence in the President and congress and pledging support of the state to the full extent it may be necessary to call upon it in this grave crisis.”

American Writers in the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps

I’m going to leave Lester Johnson for a while, but don’t forget him.  He will be
reappearing “in the local news” in the future.

I mentioned earlier that American poet E. E. Cummings also joined the American Ambulance Corp in 1917 before the USA entered the war.  I just finished reading, The Enormous Room, an account of his experiences in a French detention center when he was picked up with a friend who was charged with espionage.  It was interesting both in reading about the conditions he was forced to live in for several months and in his often satiric perspective of the situation and the war.  I do wish I had taken French in school, because it is liberally sprinkled in throughout his book.

A year after graduating from high school, Ernest Hemingway responded to a Red Cross recruitment effort in Kansas City and signed on to become an ambulance driver in Italy in 1918.  I have just enjoyed rereading his novel, A Farewell to Arms, which incorporated his experiences.

The next book on my reading list is by another well-known American writer, John Dos Passos.  He was also a member of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps in Paris and in Italy.  He later joined the U.S. Army Medical Corps.  In 1921 he wrote Three Soldiers, which is considered a classic of the realist war novel genre.  Critic H.L. Mencken wrote “No war story can be written in the United States without challenging comparison with it—and no story that is less meticulously true will stand up to it….It changed the whole tone of American opinion about the war; it even changed the recollections of actual veterans of the war.”

I invite you to join me in downloading Three Soldiers for free from the Gutenberg Project – or you can request the book from your local library.

Lester Johnson and the American Ambulance Corp – Part 4

100 years ago today, on march 8, 1917,  the following letter from Lester Johnson was published in the Kinsley Graphic.

  “We left New York at 6:30 p.m. Sunday night, February 4, just a week ago today.  They were a little slow in coaling the steamer, so had to wait over those three hours.  As the Rochambeau pulled in its anchor two tugs started us out of the harbor.  Soon she got under way and as we passed the end of the pier, several hundred people waved us a farewell.  The whistles blew and bells rang forth their good wishes as we passed on up the harbor.

                “Standing on the deck with Deke, my room-mate, we watched New York pass out of sight.  The most wonderful sight I ever beheld was when we passed the Goddess of Liberty.  There she stood with her arm upraised, bidding us God-speed on our journey to France.  If you remember, the statue was a present from France many years ago.

                “After watching the lights for several hours, we descended to our stateroom and started in on our first sleep aboard ship.  The ship kept within the three-mile limit for some distance northward and then toward morning made a dash for the open sea. 

                “When I arose next morning, bright and early, the sea was quite rough – ‘le mer est grosse,’ as they say it in French.  I felt fine and had breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but did not get to finish it, as something told me I had better leave, and I did so just in time.  Went to bed and had breakfast in bed next morning, got up, and have felt fine ever since.  I consider myself some sailor.

                “There are 94 passengers on board – 54 first-class and 40 steerage.  The 54 first-class are composed of some very nice people, mostly French.  There are 14 American Red Cross men, a very good bunch, all college men.  The ‘eats’ on board are very good.   It is strictly French and is served in courses, about eight to each meal.  Cheese is their favorite dish.  We generally have our breakfast in our stateroom, then have lunch in the diner at 12, and dinner at 7 in the evening.

                “We have had a pretty good sea so far – some days somewhat rough, but as a rule one could walk on deck every day.  The other night we gave a concert, as you will see from the program enclosed.  It was for the benefit of the Red Cross.  I sang a solo and played the piano, which is a grand and hasn’t been turned since the war begun.

                “Saturday night the lights were put out for fear of being detected by a German submarine.  I being in an outside stateroom, have had to go to bed ever since then without a light.  All the portholes and windows have heavy iron doors, or rather blinds.  Last night I went out on deck about 10:30 and standing on the bow one could not see a light anywhere on the ship.  We are sailing without stern- or bow-lights.   It looked rather grewsome, as all the lifeboats were hanging down alongside the ship, ready for us to step into at any moment.  I am glad to see that, as a ship can sink in a few minutes and minutes count at such times.

                “For two days now we have been in the German submarine zone and have not seen a ‘sub’ yet, but we are all prepared.  The other day we had a deck drill, which consisted of putting on our life-preserves and making tracks for the lifeboats.  Mine is lucky 7.

                “Tonight, February 12, is about our worst night.  We are entering the Bay of Biscay, off the coast of Spain.  We are supposed to have four men-of-war to convey us into Bordeaux, but they have not appeared yet.  All the passengers have been notified to sleep with their clothes on.  Most of us will stay up all night to watch.  The Captain ordered us to bring our valuable papers and come up in the salon and stay prepared.  I am slated to play the piano to keep people awake.  Everyone is lounging around on deck or in the salon getting mighty sleepy.  The sea is so rough that our only danger is from a floating mine.  The moon has risen and it is quite comfortable on the starboard side where the wind does not reach us.

                “February 13 – The sea is still rough, but have only four hours to go before we are out of the danger zone.  Have not had a wink of sleep, so am very sleepy.  We are nearing the mouth of the river, and feel quite safe in saying we are all O.K.”

Lester Johnson and the American Ambulance Corp – Part 3

To continue with Lester Johnson’s story, a week after the first newspaper announcement, the Kinsley Mercury reported:

“P. H. Johnson received a telegram Sunday from his son, Lester Johnson, saying he was sailing that day at 3:30 with a party of medical students on the steamship Rochambeau for France, where they will serve in the ambulance corps of the French army for an enlistment period of six months.  The ship is sailing by way of Brazil to avoid the more dangerous submarine districts.”

Because the United States was not in the war, and Lester was going to France as a volunteer and not in the military, he did require a passport.  We found a copy of Lester’s application in a book of passport applications up to the year 1925 that was compiled by Ed Carlson, our go-to-historian on Kinsley and Edwards County.

Lester’s passport verified that Edward’s father had emigrated from Denmark to the United States in 1870.  Lester was going to France for “Service in the American Ambulance corps,” leaving from New York, sailing on board the Rochambeau on February 3, 1917 (ship pictured below).

Lester is described as 23 years old, 5’ 4” tall with a high forehead, blue eyes, straight nose, medium mouth, round chin, brown hair, fair complexion and round face. It states that he was engaged in hospital work.

Unluckily for Lester, On February 1, Germany returned to a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that it had previously suspended in September, 1915 in response to pressure from the United States and other neutral countries.

You may recall that early in 1915, Germany declared the area around the British Isles a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, would be attacked by the German navy.  After several attacks, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915.  The Lusitania was a British passenger ship, and 1,201 people drowned including 128 Americans. The Germans cited that the Lusitania was carrying a supply of munitions to justify the attack.   U.S. President Woodrow Wilson demanded an end to German attacks against unarmed merchant ships, and by September, 1915, the German navy was persuaded to suspend U-boat warfare altogether.  But the German army and navy ultimately convinced Kaiser Wilhelm that the U-boat was essential for the war strategy and victory, and it was reinstated on February 1, 1917.

The next post will be Lester’s own words in the form of a letter written aboard the Rochambeau and published in the March 8, 1917 edition of the Kinsley Graphic.

Lester Johnson and the American Ambulance Corps – Part 2

I became very intrigued with Lester Johnson, the volunteer ambulance driver, who was the topic of my last post.  I wanted to try to find out more about him.

I discovered in the library burial file that Lester’s mother, Dora B. Jacobson Johnson, died on May 13, 1913.  According to her obituary published in the Kinsley Graphic, she had been born in Bergen, Norway, on February 25, 1873.  She came to America with her parents when she was 7 years old.  They settled in Wisconsin where she would come to marry a Danish immigrant, Peter H. Johnson, in 1890.   Lester, was born in Marshfield, Wisconsin on March 27, 1993.

A few years after Lester was born, Mrs. Johnson contracted tuberculosis.  Seeking a better climate for her condition, the family tried living in Albuquerque and the Ozarks before coming to Kinsley in 1903.   When Dora died on May 13, 1913, her daughter Juanita (age 22), son Vernon (age 18 and just graduating from high school), and 1 1/2 year old baby Richard were at her side.  Lester was not there as he was a sophomore at the University of Kansas.

We can only wonder if it were his mother’s long illness that led Lester to pursue a pre-med course.  Reference Specialist Mindy Babarskis of the University of Kansas Spencer Research Library kindly scanned pages from the Jayhawker 1915 yearbook for me.  They record Lester’s graduation from KU and membership in two honorary fraternities, Acacia and Nu Sigma Nu.  Lester’s KU graduation picture accompanies this post.  Ms Babarskis did say that he did not continue to pursue a degree in medicine at KU.

What we do know, is 18 months after graduation, he became a volunteer ambulance driver in France.

1915 KU graduation picture