Food Will Win The War!

Food is essential to life and civilization. Countless struggles and conflicts can be traced to the availability and access to food, making it an absolute necessity. In war, the logistics required to feed the armed forces was a Herculean effort with impacts resonating from the government down to the local level. During World War I, the rationing of specific food stuffs and commodities were central to helping procure the necessary wartime materials. Unlike World War II however, ration stamps were not distributed, but instead, private individuals and volunteer organizations lead a grassroots campaign to reduce pressure on the national food supply. Here was the rise of some of the country’s first ‘victory gardens.’

Charles Lathrop Pack speaking to the Champion War Gardeners and Canners in Bryant Park, Food Administration, Campaign (National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 165, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, Food Administration Anti-Waste Campaign, 1917-1918)

Charles Lathrop Pack, a businessman from Michigan, conceived of the idea of how to compensate the loss of manual labor recruited from agriculture while not putting additional pressure on the industry. Food production in Europe had essentially halted with the war and the United States was one of the few remaining industrial agricultural nations capable of the mass-production of foodstuffs. Pack believed that by having people cultivate their own gardens, it would prevent already stressed farms from having to replenish the rapidly decreasing food supply. In March 1917, Pack established the National War Garden Commission which embarked on a national campaign encouraging and educating people on the importance and function of maintaining a wartime garden. The fruits and vegetables they harvested would allow the government to ship more supplies overseas. Simultaneously, federal agencies such as the U.S. Food Administration oversaw the collection, shipment, and distribution of supplies from the United States to Europe. Food Administrator and future U.S. President Herbert Hoover heavily promoted targeted campaigns to help reduce the reliance on foodstuffs sorely needed by the American Expeditionary Force; campaigns like ‘Meatless Meals’ and ‘Wheatless Wednesday’ deterred people from using so they could be donated to the Food Administration.

Coinciding with these food programs, volunteer organizations assisted parts of the agricultural industry to help relieve the stress they endured with much of the labor force now overseas. A regional organization, the Women’s Land Army of America, trained and assigned volunteers to specific farms and ranches to help bolster the workforce. Nominally referred to as ‘farmettes’ volunteers consisted mostly of students, teachers, clerks, and other white collar workers who never worked on farms before. They were trained in agricultural basics and by 1918, they employed over 20,000 women. While not receiving any government assistance, they were supported by members of the Progressive Movement, like Theodore Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson and received much of their funding through university non-profits.

Women’s Land Army of America unit working the onion harvest at Erie College in Painesville Ohio (National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 165, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, Food Administration, Anti-Waste Campaign 1917-1918)

Victory gardens sprang up all over the country and even after the war ended, they remained as community gardens. By the outbreak of World War II, the victory garden practice re-emerged and people again relied on each other to make sure soldiers and neighbors had enough food to win the war.

Why the WWI Christmas Truce Endures Forever

Five months of hard fighting during the 1914 ‘Race to the Sea’ quickly transformed into a harsh, no-man’s land where entire divisions became casualties. Christmas 1914 saw something extraordinary though; companies of British, French, German, and Belgian soldiers along the front held unofficial ceasefires in their respective sectors. The short reprieve consisted of soldiers exchanging gifts, burying dead comrades, and hosting an impromptu football match. A handful of firsthand accounts record the truces along the Western Front, capturing the moments of calm, miraculous relief. Captain Edward Hulse of the Scots Guards claimed it was ‘the most extraordinary Christmas…you could possibly imagine.’ News of the truce spread haphazardly in Europe; French and German newspapers heavily censored the ceasefires, but stories were shared by soldiers in letters home. Despite suppression, the historical memory of the Christmas truce lives on and in light of the war’s centennial, examining its role within the larger memory of World War I is paramount. In four years of war, a brief aside from the death provided a symbol of hope.

Illustration of British and German troops fraternizing during the 1914 Christmas truce (London News, 1914)

Contemporary public reaction to the Christmas truce in 1914 was counter to the hateful propaganda demonizing enemies. British newspapers like The Times and Daily Mirror printed letters from soldiers involved with the truce, showing the positive, upbeat character, and fraternization, they shared with the enemy. Soldiers described it as ‘one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war’ and ‘absolutely astounding’ in their correspondence, but that sentiment was not shared by their superiors. Generals and senior staff expressly forbade any type of communication between opponents. Any contact was interpreted as fraternization, establishing grounds for treason charges. Despite these directives, the proximity between soldiers and trenches made fraternization a regular feature of the Western Front. These men lived, fought, and died in the trenches beside one another, making the war a deeply personal matter. Senior staff unable to witness this interaction firsthand would have a markedly different view on how their soldiers fraternized with the enemy. Because of the subversive nature that commanding officers might interpret the truce, French and German soldiers were likely discouraged from revealing their involvement. Statistically, many of the soldiers who did participate in the truce were likely killed in later months, like Captain Hulse at Neuve-Chapelle. They understood that the realities of war still existed and would resume after Christmas. What survived were stories shared by fellow soldiers. Oral histories and letters entered the public memory, becoming part of the larger historical rhetoric. Press censorship covering the war would have suppressed it from reaching a wider circulation more than likely. The stories that did reach the public though illustrated that despite such carnage, small moments of hope illuminated the otherwise dark stain of warfare.

As years go by and the historiography of World War I expands, questions about the war’s purpose and nature are thoroughly examined. A common theme that emerged was why the war was even fought when they account for its numerous causes. World War I’s placement in the broader context of global social, military, and political history provides unique insight into its historical memory. Public memory about the war centers on its ferocity, trench warfare, and the introduction of modern warfare. The industrial scale destruction was unheard of even in 1914 and consequences are still visible today. Accompanying all this, why does an event like the Christmas truce endure? The accuracy of the truce is still scrutinized by historians, but the memory of the truce itself perpetuates the longing hope that soldiers held whilst facing certain death. The public remembers the Christmas truce not only for the romantic image of soldiers coming together as brothers exchanging gifts, but the realization that this was a reconciliation. Reconciliation not only for their actions, but for their nations because if the soldiers could lay down their arms willingly, then nations could find alternatives to their troubles. Popular portrayals of the truce, such as the 2005 film ‘Joyeux Noel’, present a dramatized insight into what could have transpired on the front, while maintaining the central theme that reconciliation is more powerful than artillery and bloodshed. The memory of the Christmas truce endures for the factual accounts and the broader message of hope for both nations and soldiers dying in the trenches.
The popular notion of ‘the war will be over by Christmas’ has carried throughout numerous wars; people anticipating that the violence ends and anxiously await their loved ones’ return. In a way though, the Great War did end on Christmas in 1914, even if for a few hours.

The Death Knell for Alcohol: World War I

The impact of the Great War reverberated throughout world history. Millions of lives were changed in four years, putting nations on radically different paths. In the United States, the war fundamentally shifted how the nation viewed itself in global affairs and how it behaved at home. As industries and the federal government prepared for conflict, a social movement that brewed for nearly eighty years saw the golden opportunity to achieve its ultimate goal: the national prohibition of alcohol.

Francis Willard advocated for many different causes, one of which was alcohol temperance, Library of Congress, circa 1890)

The 18th Amendment was ratified in January 1919 and Prohibition exactly one year later, not long following the armistice. However, the story of Prohibition began decades earlier with the temperance movements in the 1830s. Dry forces advocated for to limit the consumption of alcohol as the scourge of alcoholism ruined families and was a root cause for domestic abuse and vagrancy. Temperance was practiced at first; regulating and restricting the amount one could drink. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) advocated heavily throughout the late 19th century on these issues, while simultaneously addressing a host of other reforms; their motto of ‘Do Everything’. Francis Willard, national president of the WCTU pushed heavily for temperance practices in North America, advocating the moral causes for banishing The WCTU quickly established themselves as the leader of progressive causes, but the single issue of alcohol was taken up by another organization: the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). The ASL engaged in large-scale lobbying that called for the total prohibition of alcohol and set the path for a constitutional amendment. Alcohol, they believed, was a moral scourge upon families, causing poverty, and criminal figures operating from saloons fostered public corruption.

The Great War itself wasn’t the only contributing factor to the amendment’s passage, but instead it was the culmination of decades of work carried out by temperance and progressive groups.

Large breweries looked to secure their essential economic role through lobbying and political groups, such as the United States Brewers Association and the German-American Alliance. The wets, opponents of prohibition, staved off alcohol restrictions through their lobbying and commercial interests. Wet leaders like Adolphus Busch embarked on massive public relations campaigns showing the essential role the alcohol industry played in the American economy. Federal tax revenue depended heavily on alcohol sales, but that changed drastically in 1913 following passage of the 16th Amendment implementing an income tax. No longer was the government reliant on alcohol excise taxes, which gave progressive advocates much needed support for prohibition.

The final blow for the wet camp came in 1916 with the escalation of hostilities between the U.S. and Germany. President Wilson relied heavily on dry politicians in order to pass critical wartime legislation, such as raising taxes, federalizing industries, and expanding the armed forces. For the most part, President Wilson tended to abstain from the prohibition argument himself, but many of his new laws, including the War Revenue and Lever Food and Fuel Control Acts directly benefited the drys that saw the legislation hurting the wets. The ASL argued that breweries also diverted precious grains away from European markets that needed to feed armies. Food was critical and when people were asked to give up meat and wheat on certain days by Herbert Hoover’s Food Administration, the production of beer was seen as a waste (even though brewers claimed they only used a minuscule fraction of grain for brewing beer).

Wayne Wheeler, Executive Director of the Anti-Saloon League. Wheeler was instrumental in organizing dry voters and politicians in passing anti-liquor laws (Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress, 1920)

By 1917, unrestricted submarine warfare was taking its toll on U.S. shipping. As the war dragged on, anti-German sentiment grew, fueling resentments against wets now seen as synonymous with Germans. Wayne Wheeler, executive director and chief strategist for the ASL, began probing Congress to investigate organizations with ties to the Central Powers; specifically focusing on the German-American Alliance and the Brewers Association. Senators found that the GAA received substantial funding from the USBA in order to keep wet interests strong and afford them a degree of leniency when it came to wartime exemptions. This paled in comparison to what Wayne Wheeler relayed back to the ASL; that the Busch family still had relatives in Germany, held German war bonds, and even reportedly cared for wounded German soldiers. Anti-German hysteria and the call for prohibiting alcohol to better serve the war effort, messages that were only amplified by the Committee on Public Information, were ripe conditions for passing more restrictive alcohol laws. The Committee embarked on propaganda campaigns aimed at demonizing Germans and targeting German influence in the country; most obvious being the brewers.

Prohibition agents dumping beer down the sewers and storm drains, a common tactic for disposing of alcohol.

All of this fed into the anti-German hysteria the drys used to galvanize support for prohibition.  Brewing dynasties like Busch and Pabst re-branded their images to support American involvement; removing references to Germany, buying liberty bonds, and encouraging family and workers to enlist. Despite their best efforts, the ASL had the political and public momentum to initiate their plan.

‘Prohibition Agents Destroying a Bar’, Paris Bureau of the New York Times (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900-2003, National Archives and Records Administration.)

This was the perfect moment for the drys to enact prohibition legislation. Congress had already passed the Wartime Prohibition Act in 1918 restricting grain supplies to breweries, but now total prohibition enshrined as a constitutional amendment became a reality. Following the 18th Amendment was the National Prohibition Act which set enforcement laws for the new amendment. Even with President Wilson’s veto, it was overridden by Congress and national prohibition enforcement would begin in January 1920. As U.S. soldiers began returning from France, they faced a sobering reality; after January 17, 1920, they could no longer buy, sell, manufacture, or transport alcohol. Well, not legally at least.

‘National Prohibition Act [Volstead Act]’ Office of the Federal Register, Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 66th Congress of the United States, October 28, 1919. NARA. The Volstead Act defined language and set enforcement regulations for the 18th Amendment.

The Heroic Alvin York

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the scene of bloody fighting inflicted and sustained by the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Beginning in September 1918 and lasting until Armistice Day (November 11th), it was the last major battle on the Western Front. Shining through the fighting were acts of bravery and sacrifice by those saving their comrades and leading troops against deadly odds.

One of the most well-known of these heroes was Alvin Cullum York of Tennessee. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Corporal York approached a German machine gun emplacement and killed its crew, survived a German bayonet charge, and captured 132 enemy soldiers. His actions merited a promotion to sergeant and the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The DSC was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, awarded personally by General John J. Pershing. The international attention earned him a celebrity status and became known by his sobriquet, Sergeant York.
Alvin York did not imagine the acclaim he received. After all, he initially registered as a conscientious objector (CO).

Conscientious objector claim appeal form for Alvin York (Official Military Personnel File of Alvin C. York, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 319, Records of the Army Staff 1903-2009)

York was brought up in a devoutly religious family and belonged to the Church of Christ in Christian Union denomination which forbade violence. The Selective Service Act of 1917 required all able bodied men older than 21 register for the draft, and when York’s claim for CO status was denied, he appealed this decision on religious grounds. Conscientious objectors were not exempt from military service in 1917, however, as they were normally given non-combat assignments. At Camp Gordon, Georgia, York routinely felt conflicted between his military duty and religious conscience on pacifism. Two of his commanding officers, Capt. Edward C.B. Danforth and Major G. Edward Buxton argued that his religious beliefs didn’t conflict with his duties as a soldier, citing Bible verses which eventually convinced York that his military service wouldn’t force him to compromise his morality.

“…and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”

The Book of Luke, Chapter 22, Verse 36

“…My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight…”

The Book of John, Chapter 18, Verse 36

York was assigned to the 328th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Division and saw his first combat during the St. Mihiel Offensive. On October 8, 1918, Cpl. York led the charge on Hill 233 in the Meuse-Argonne that catapulted him to international renown and earned him the Medal of Honor. York’s battalion was ordered to capture a German machine gun placement on the Decauville railroad near Chatel-Chehery so Corporal York and other soldiers infiltrated behind the German lines. They first captured a German command post, but several U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded, leaving York with little backup. He crawled beneath heavy wooded undergrowth and was soon charged by German with fixed bayonets. He shot every enemy soldier that charged and when he reached a German lieutenant who failed to shoot back, the lieutenant quickly surrendered himself and his unit to York. The German prisoners were marched by the remaining U.S. soldiers York commanded and when Brigadier General Julian Lindsey stated ‘Well York, I heard you captured the entire German army,’ York simply replied, ‘No sir, I  only captured 132.’ He was immediately promoted to Sergeant and received the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor and presented to him personally by John J. Pershing, commanding general of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

Sergeant Alvin Cullum York, wearing the Medal of Honor and Croix de Guerre

Following his homecoming, York immediately went back to work in his home state. In the 1920s, he founded the Alvin C. York Foundation for the purpose of providing educational and agricultural training for students in Tennessee. During the Great Depression, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 and oversaw the construction of the Cumberland Mountain State Park. In World War II, he re-enlisted but, because he suffered from a myriad of health issues, he was not given a combat assignment. Instead, York was commissioned as a major in the Army Signal Corps and inspected training camps. Alvin York continued to campaign for proper education and training for everyone, and on September 2, 1964, he died at the Nashville Veterans Hospital.

Alvin York never lost his religious conviction while in the Meuse-Argonne and when asked by his brigade commander General Julian Lindsey what happened, he replied “A higher power than man guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”

Recommendation for Distinguished Service Cross for Alvin York by commanding officer of the 328th Infantry for actions in the Meuse-Argonne (Official Military Personnel File of Alvin C. York, National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 319 Records of the Army Staff 1903-2009)

Frontline Education: The Army General Staff College

*This is an abbreviated blog post from a larger research article published in the Emporia State Research Studies journal in 2016. For the entire article, you can access it through the Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library, Command and General Staff College here.*

The U.S. Army faced a significant hurdle during their mobilization into the Great War: modern military technologies utilized by European armies were lacking in the U.S. Army and officers scantly adopted them. Training schools like Fort Leavenworth with the Cavalry School and School of the Line were a necessary component for officer education, but what General John Pershing noted was these courses did not offer real time application with novel technologies. Despite these shortcomings, Pershing assembled an impeccable general staff populated by officers who spent time together in the Leavenworth schools. Colloquially referred to as the ‘Leavenworth crowd’ or ‘Leavenworth men’ staff officers such as James Harbord, Fox Conner, Leroy Eltinge, and Hugh Drum served crucial roles not only in coordinating battlefield and logistical operations, but developing specific training courses for incoming officers. What was born was the Army General Staff College (AGSC).

The AGSC was critical in modernizing military education and providing officers with a real-time approach given its location in Langres France. By assessing the significance, usage, and abilities of new technologies and tactics, the AGSC trained officers then reported directly to frontline duty armed with newly acquired knowledge. The Leavenworth Men supported the AGSC’s objectives because the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) desperately needed to fill vacant officer billets.
Without a sufficiently full staff, direct lines of communication and efficiency would falter, putting the AEF in an untenable position on the Western Front. Assistance from British and French officers provided the necessary groundwork for the AGSC to establish a curriculum, but it was primarily American officers who taught classes and lectures. This model was not haphazardly developed though. The Leavenworth educational model was seen operating in every class. Given the Leavenworth background of the general staff, it was only appropriate that the AGSC follow the same model.

What was taught in this curriculum? Subjects consisted of military intelligence, logistics, administration, and new concepts, like the combined-arms doctrine. Combined arms doctrine centered on the concept of applying an army’s resources and strength in concert in order to overpower an enemy with identical technology and physical size. Basic warfare principles remained unaltered, but the methods applied were changing. Open warfare (the fire-and-movement concept where long range warfare was evolving from close quarters combat) and the single-mind theory (whereby the strategies and ideas of a commanding officer were adopted by the entire command to maximize cohesion and efficiency) were refined by the AGSC. These approaches can also be attributed to the Leavenworth Men themselves, given their common workplace cohesion and familiarity. After the armistice, the AGSC dissolved as the AEF returned home.

The lessons and concepts taught by the AGSC were not forgotten though. The experiences from World War I demonstrated that adopting novel technology and strategy quickly was the key to modern warfare. Former 1st Army Chief-of-Staff Lt. Col. Hugh Drum credited the AGSC for producing professionally trained officers. The AGSC was valuable not only to the AEF, but to future U.S. Army doctrine.