How Montana Fought World War I

Published: 21 June 2023

By Amy Grisak
via the Distinctly Montana web site

Montana WWI

As the Great War shook the world, Montana felt more impact than most states. WWI was at the nexus of political and immigration issues, labor strife, and a deadly pandemic, as well as the beginning of a prolonged drought that shaped one of the most tumultuous times in our history.

For our family, it’s more personal, yet it requires a bit of digging to realize the impact of those who served. Since moving to Great Falls, my husband’s hometown, the story surrounding his great-uncle, Royal A. Caulfield, passed down from our generation to the next. We even gave our youngest son the middle name Royal as a nod to his sacrifice. When delving into this initially family-related research, it immediately became apparent there is so much more to the story involving all of Montana.

Setting the Stage

Montana was a maelstrom of turmoil during this era. On April 2, 1917, Jeannette Rankin, the first female earning a seat in the House of Representatives, stepped into office the same day President Woodrow Wilson called for a declaration of war against Germany. She stood firm against the action, yet her voice from Montana was not enough to stem involvement.

Following the vote, men volunteered and were drafted, resulting in 17 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 44, approximately 40,000 in total, sent to serve.

“Montana had a huge impact on the war,” said Ken Robison, historian and author of World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares and Montanans in the Great War: Open Warfare Over There, explaining that an inaccurate population count skewed numbers. “We wound up with a draft quota over 25 percent of what it should have been.”

To complicate matters, roughly two-thirds of Montana’s population was made up of immigrants or children of immigrants. “A lot of them were native Germans,” said Megan Sanford, archives administrator at the History Museum in Great Falls. “Some of them wanted Germany to win.” Finnish socialists and Irish nationalists also wanted no part in the war.

Labor issues, which had bubbled over for years surrounding the mines in Butte, added to the tension. Strikes and strikebreakers, whether in the mining and smelting industries or dealing with timber in the Kootenai Valley, were common.

By 1918, the first wave of the Spanish flu, named as such because journalists in the militarily neutral country of Spain were free to report on the epidemic, was reported in Scobey, quickly spreading throughout the state. By the end of the war, more servicemen died of the flu (369) than from battle, and approximately 5,000 people, one percent of Montana’s population, succumbed to the illness.

And while no one realized it at the time,1917 was the first year in a five-year drought cycle resulting in losing nearly half the homesteaders and ranchers in eastern Montana, totaling over 200,000 people.

Read the entire article on the Distinctly Montana web site.

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