World War I: A Soldier's Story

U.S. National Archives

“It is a great thing to shell your best out and fight for a principle, but it gets almighty tiresome sometimes.” -Letter from Harry S. Truman to Bess Wallace (1918)

There is not a uniform narrative of soldier life during World War I. Using records from the National Archives at Philadelphia, this exhibit highlights six men whose lives were forever changed by the Great War. Aspects of their experiences may ring true for other soldiers who fought in the war, but they do not necessarily represent the majority. Records at the National Archives provide a lens through which we can better understand U.S. involvement in WWI.

America, Here's My Boy
President Woodrow Wilson declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917. The Selective Service Act of 1917 required all men between 21 and 31 to enlist in the draft.  By 1918, nearly 3 million men were drafted into military service.  The Records of the Selective Service (WWI) contain appeals to the President from young men who hoped to be discharged from service on the grounds that their work on the home front was as critical as that on the military front. The following three men each appealed their conscription, all of which were denied.

“Food Question in a nutshell is this: that the United States, with a population of one hundred and ten million, was until lately an importer of foodstuffs, but must now, owing to the exigencies of war, must feed not only itself but fifty million people of its allies as well. The non-fulfillment of this task means nothing short of defeat” -Federal Food Administrator for Maryland

John I. Douglas
23 year old John I Douglas from Cokeville, Pennsylvania helped maintain his father’s successful farm.  He was a good farmer and stuck with the work, which was uncommon for young men in this area—as noted in the appeal.  Although the District Board found that Douglas’s case was sufficient for discharge, he was mistakenly inducted into service due to a filing error.  The District Board received hundreds of appeals, and rapid mobilization of American troops led to occasional mistakes like these.  Other Selective Service appeals indicate that in a family with multiple sons of draft-age, only one would be inducted.
Floyd David Newcomer
Floyd David Newcomer was a 21 year old farmer from Waynesboro, Pennsylvania when he was drafted in 1917. Newcomer’s appeal stands out within the records because he claimed that “[his] conscience [would] not permit [him] to kill,” and that he was the only help on his father’s farm.  Despite this statement, the District Board did not consider his standing as a conscientious objector, and suggested that his father hire other help for his farm. Many families did not feel confident in their ability to maintain farms without the help of their sons, brothers, or husbands.  However, without sufficient evidence to prove the absolute necessity of the draftee, families were advised to hire outside help or use their other children to make up for the lost labor.
Frank Corey
Frank Corey of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania was 22 when he was inducted into service in 1917.  Corey worked in the industrial sector as a mechanic. Many of the appeals records use agricultural reasons to support their claims for discharge. Industrial discharge claims could be more varied—some men were cashiers or accountants, while others like Corey were mechanics.  Though Corey’s appeal stated his importance on the home front as a first rate mechanic, the Draft Board deemed that he was more important to the war effort than to the Bethlehem Steel Company’s enterprise. 
The Reality of War
As the young men came home after a brief but brutal experience, some found it difficult to return to civilian life.  In order to deal with the physical and mental ramifications of war, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs established homes and various acts to aid wounded soldiers. In the records of the Department of Veterans Administration, several case files from the Southern Branch of the Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers reveal the difficulties that veterans faced in readjusting to peacetime life.
Russell Hoag
Previously a coal miner in Carbon County, Pennsylvania, Russell Hoag was 24 years old when he volunteered to serve the United States military. A patient at the Southern Branch of the Home for Disabled Volunteer soldiers, Hoag suffered from neurasthenia, a common diagnosis for shell shocked soldiers.  Shell shock took many different forms and levels of severity—from uncontrollable shaking and ticks, to disrupted sleep or an inability to eat.  Based on other documents stating Hoag’s lack of funds to pay for the Home, it appears that his disorder was severe enough that he could not work.  Unable to hold a job or maintain healthy relationships, many shell-shocked veterans required care in many ways.

Though Americans received glimpses of the war in Europe through periodicals, it was impossible to fully prepare soldiers for the gruesome reality of war. When the American soldiers joined in the last few months of the war, the European countryside had already been ravaged and the soldiers on either side hardened by the cruel reality of new warfare.

Thomas Leo Wimpling
Thomas Leo Wimpling was 23 when he registered for the draft, not long after which he volunteered service.  Previously working in industry in Baltimore, Maryland, Wimpling left his wife and child to go to war.  Occasionally, returning soldiers behaved badly as a response to the mental stress caused by their wartime trauma.  Thomas Leo Wimpling had a troubled return from World War I.  His file is riddled with reports of infractions at the Home.  He was caught drunk multiple times, was belligerent to his superiors, and constantly exhibiting disorderly conduct.  In mental examinations found in his file, Wimpling was diagnosed with “constitutional psychopathic inferiority, criminalism; psychosis intoxication, alcoholic, pathological drunkard”.  Because of his behavior, Wimpling was given a 6 month enforced furlough.  He suffered from chronic arthritis and bronchitis, so his ban from the Home was not permanent.  Officials hoped that no care for 6 months would inspire better conduct from Wimpling upon his return.

On top of the new, powerful machinery, another weapon threatened human life: poisonous gases. These new chemical weapons were also carcinogenic, causing cancer in soldiers exposed to them later on in life. Caring for disabled veterans required new types of medical services, including mental healthcare.

Joseph Brown
Joseph Brown enlisted on June 20th, 1918 in Baltimore, Maryland.  He was 23 years old and a former laborer, as well as a husband and father.  Brown was an African American man and was in the Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.  Men volunteered their service for a variety of reasons: honor, socio-economic advancement, sense of duty and more.  As an African American, Brown may have volunteered for military service to receive veteran benefits that would have been nearly impossible to receive any other way.  Brown was not outwardly injured during the war, but struggled with a bronchial condition in the years following the war.  Because he was a volunteer solider, Brown was able to utilize the services offered to veterans and seek help with his physical condition.
Forever Changed
Following the end of World War I, over 2 million soldiers returned home without employment and many without any job training.  Since the beginning of U.S. involvement in the War, Congress had been working to have benefit programs available for the returning servicemen.  The result was the passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1918, the Veterans Bureau Act of 1921, and the World War Veterans' Act of 1924.  These acts set up the Federal apparatus to provide training and financial support to veterans. The Veterans Administration developed the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers after the Civil War and strived to provide housing for veterans seeking more constant care.   Using archival records, we are able to learn about the Great War and the individuals who fought in it firsthand.  Learn more about WWI resources at the National Archives at the following sites: www.archives.gov/research/military/ww1/ & www.DocsTeach.org &www.catalog.nara.gov
Credits: Story

Exhibit compiled and curated by Amellia Fiske (Summer Diversity Intern, 2016) in collaboration with Grace DiAgostino (Archives Technician) at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

Want to learn more about the records used in this exhibit? Email us at philadelphia.archives@nara.gov

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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