The United States remained dedicated to a nonintervention policy for the first three years of the war, but a return to unrestricted submarine warfare by Kaiser Wilhelm’s navy in 1917 was enough to convince Congress to declare war. While the war was not popular among an American population that had seen a rapid increase in European immigration, between September 1917 and November 1918, 2.8 million Americans were drafted to join in Europe’s “Great War.” According to Nicole Phelps, professor of history at the University of Vermont, the chance to shape international politics was a motivating factor for President Woodrow Wilson, and would shape US foreign policy that we still see a century later.
“The US wanted to be able to continue participating in the world economy, and the blockades and submarine warfare were eliminating the ability to do that,” said Phelps. “That brought war with Germany, but also, Wilson was very interested in changing the way international politics work, and in giving the US a bigger role to play, and also encouraging other countries to be more like the US.”
Compared to its allies, the United States would suffer a miniscule 7% casualty rate, which represented the percentage of total mobilized forces killed in action or by disease, wounded, missing or captured. In comparison, five years of war left Russia with a 76% casualty rate with 9.5 million casualties, and Austria-Hungary with over seven million casualties and a 90% casualty rate. Of the 4,355,000 Americans who served, 116,516 would die and 204,000 would be wounded. Among the dead were nearly 700 Vermonters, some of whom were buried in the corners of foreign fields, while others were brought home to places as close as West Dover, Readsboro, and West Halifax.
According to military records, the Deerfield Valley had a number of casualties during World War I including 11 deaths. Included on the list are surnames well-known throughout the valley. Wilmington lost three soldiers in the war including Ernest Boyd, who served overseas for only three months before he died of disease on November 1, 1918. An artillery man, Boyd is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
At the time the United States entered World War I, influenza had become a worldwide epidemic, and soldiers were susceptible due to both battlefield conditions and their living situations. Some soldiers, like Walter L. Case from Readsboro, for whom American Legion Post 125 is named, died before shipping out. Case died at Fort Devens, MA, on September 27, 1918, one of hundreds of soldiers to die at the camp from the flu epidemic. He is buried in Readsboro’s South Hill cemetery. Merril Pease, 24, met the same fate as Case, dying of disease at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. His body rests in the West Dover Cemetery on Handle Road. Harvey Wheeler, of Wardsboro, Fred O’Brien, of Searsburg, and Lee Wilder Wheeler, of Wilmington, also would die of disease while Charles Stevens, of Marlboro, served for only six weeks before he succumbed to disease in 1917.
But local soldiers would also see action overseas and three would die on the field of battle. Nelson Pickwell died of his wounds on June 13, 1918 in France, and is buried in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery at Belleau Wood, Aisne, France. An obituary for Pickwell states that his last letter home was dated May 15, 1917, which was the same day his mother died “very suddenly.” Two other soldiers killed in action include Herbert Honn, a Readsboro native, killed in action in France in 1918. He is buried in the St. Mihiel American Cemetery in Thiaucourt, Meurthe-et-Moselle. Fred Lewis Collins, of Halifax, was killed in action on July 15, 1918, and is buried in the Center Cemetery in West Halifax.
The breakout of war caused division in Vermont among the state’s ethnic groups. According to Michael Sherman, co-author of “Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont,” as was the case nationally, German and Eastern European groups had a tough time in Vermont. “With the growth of ethnic groups coming into Vermont in the early 20th century, the war made that uncomfortable for the ‘Yankees,’” said Sherman. “You had national anti-German and eastern European attitudes, and they came into the state and felt they were discriminated against and harassed.”
Sherman said progressive movements in the state and nation, including the growth of infrastructure, the movement for child labor laws, and government regulatory activities, were also cut short due to the war. The Ku Klux Klan would also see a strong rise in Vermont following the war, as clan rallies and cross burnings targeted non-Protestant populations across the state.
On a national scale, US involvement also ushered in a new push for Americanization and conformity to Anglo-Saxon norms. According to Phelps, before World War I, the country had had more ethnic newspapers printed in languages other than English, many of which were censored and driven into bankruptcy during the war. Stricter immigration laws were ushered in as well.
Although it has been overshadowed by more recent wars with more active US involvement, Phelps says that it is important to remember World War I as the war that brought our country out of our isolated international position, and set the stage for the brutal war to follow 30 years later.
“In the US, World War II gets a lot more attention because there were so many more Americans that participated in World War II, and people on the whole were more willing to volunteer,” said Phelps. “World War I was a more controversial war in America and compared to European countries, World War I is definitely less prominent on our historical radar. We don’t have the monuments to the war that Europe has, but I think the legacy for our country is that it brought Woodrow Wilson’s international policies to the world stage and the peace conferences and arrangements excluded the defeated nations and are pretty much responsible for World War II. The First World War cast a long political shadow, but not necessarily a long cultural one.”