Arkansas in the Great War Part III: In the Trenches

Arkansas State Archives

In this final part of our look at Arkansas in the First World War, we will discuss the lives of ordinary German born Arkansans and examine the impact that the war had on their lives.  Then we will travel to the trenches in France to explore through letters the lives of Arkansans overseas as they faced the horrors of war.  Then we will also delve into the impact that the war had on Arkansas society in the years immediately after the war.

German Americans
Since the earliest days of Arkansas's history, German immigrants had been making their way to the Natural State.  By 1917, there were thousands of German-born people living in Arkansas.  When the United States entered into the war, Arkansas's German Americans came under close scrutiny by their native-born neighbors. Some German language newspapers across the state ceased publication, schools dropped German language instruction from their curricula, and churches removed German from their liturgy.  Even German-owned businesses were compelled to change to Americanized names. For example, Meyer's Bakery in Little Rock became the American Bakery.  In short, it was a time of turmoil for many German Arkansans.

E.C. Wehrfritz, circa 1900.
E.C. Wehrfritz Collection

Before the war, many German Americans were commercial leaders in Arkansas. Emil Cornelius Wehrfritz was born in Germany in 1847 and came to the United States just before the Civil War. He established the Union Machine Works in Little Rock in 1885.

German Day Delegation, Hot Springs, Ark., 1910.
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German-born Arkansans had become a potent political force in the years before World War I, so much so that Arkansas politicians recognized their influence and actively sought their support during campaigns. One example of this was German Day in Hot Springs, during which campaigning politicians declared their support for German Americans in the hopes of gaining votes.

The Arkansas Echo, March 15, 1901.

Many cities in Arkansas had large enough German-speaking populations to support German-language newspapers. Little Rock had one such newspaper called The Echo . Other smaller towns, such as Stuttgart, also had German language newspapers.

"Ackerman is Taken to Fort",
Arkansas Democrat , September 11, 1917.

When the United States joined the conflict in 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act followed by the Sedition Act making it a crime to utter "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the government or the war effort. The law was wide ranging and purposely vague leading to many German Americans coming under suspicion. Newspaper editors were a particular target, especially those running German-language newspapers. On August 9, 1917, Little Rock officials seized Curtis Ackerman, editor of the Staats Zeitung, for reportedly advising a friend to take a powder that would allow the user to appear sick, disqualifying him from military service. Additionally, the police charged Ackerman with criticizing the draft in the pages of his newspaper. The court convicted Ackerman for sedition and he went to prison in Georgia, where he served his sentence for the remainder of the war.

Alien Enemy Registration for Herman A. Hardke, 1918.
Alien Enemy Registrations

Paranoia over German agents infiltrating American communities led the federal government to issue a law making it mandatory for German-born people to register as "alien enemies." The young and the old, some of whom had been in the country for years, filled out registration cards. Social status in the community would not excuse a German-born Arkansan from this requirement. Even prominent German-born people were required to register, including Herman A. Hardke, the postmaster in Hazen, Arkansas.

Somewhere in France
When the United States joined the war in April 1917, the war had already been raging for almost three years in Europe.  American soldiers became crucial in the war against Germany, replacing Russia, which sued for peace in November 1917.  Although the time that American soldiers fought in the war was short, the war would have a lasting impact on veterans. 

Soldiers Ready to leave Camp Pike postcard, Little Rock, Ark., 1918.
5331.51

After completing training, soldiers began shipping out for France. Parents worried over the future of their sons as they began boarding ships headed for Europe. J.H. Atkinson reflected in his diary, "What does one man's life count for when so many thousands are dying each week, and when the great eternal principles of justice hang in the balance as they do today? Oh, but my mother would suffer for more than I even though I should give my life. May God help us all to bear whatever may be placed upon us!"

The ship on which I sailed has arrived safely overseas postcard, 1918.
SMC.138.4

The constant fear of German u-boats made crossing the Atlantic perilous. As a result, the army produced these cards for soldiers to send to their families once they arrived in Europe.

Unidentified French town, circa 1918.
Ogden Scrapbook.

American soldiers seeing Europe for the first time were often amazed at the French countryside. J. Harrell Burke wrote to his parents in Marion, Arkansas, "We saw some beautiful scenery coming thru the country, lots of wheat that was golden with grain. Some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. Some pretty French Chateau setting back on top of hills almost hidden by big clumps of trees."

Soldiers in France, circa 1918.
Ogden Scrapbook

American soldiers writing home often omitted the most harrowing of their experiences from their correspondence, though. Burke wrote to his mother, "No we are not as close to Paris as you think still further away from the firing line. In the war almost a year now and haven't even heard a hostile gun fired."

Others, however, were more open about their experiences. Lieutenant Paul Remmel wrote to the Arkansas Gazette about the devastation he had seen, "We passed through several French villages, through which raced back and forth English ambulances, ammunition carts and huge automobile trucks bearing fresh fuel (men to the hell that is forever waging on that front). As we came close, we passed through villages in which there stood no house that was not completely ruined by shell fire. These villages you would easily recognize if I could only tell you their names. Village after village, ruins after ruins, utter desolation mutely spoke of wild barbaric treatment at the hands of the Germans. Not one soul did we see in these villages as we drew near or the distant booming of the guns we could so distinctly hear."

Soldiers in France, circa 1918.
Ogden Scrapbook

Remmel spoke honestly about the horrors of war, writing to the newspaper, "I started out with my tin helmet, gas respirator, a cabe and a 45 revolver just as a German machine gun spat out a welcome, the bullets coming 100 feet away. My guide took me down one trench into another, every one named, down into dugouts, bomb dugouts, out into observation posts, looked into periscopes overlooking the German lines, saw Germans walking around, peered into German wire entanglements, saw dead Germans lying in captured dugouts (this hill has been only captured two months). As we walked on the Germans were sending huge shells over us, and the English were giving them tit for tat, overhead eight English planes were flying, observing for the artillery. One especially caught my attention. It would fly around and around, then suddenly swoop down straight for the German trench, getting about 100 feet above the Boche, then let fly his machine gun, which would pop-pop-pop certain death in their trench, then we would yell. It was wonderful!"

Soldiers in France, 1918.
Ogden Scrapbook

American soldiers also expressed a great deal of homesickness. J. Harrell Burke wrote to his mother the day before Mother's Day, "I have never heard quite so much talk about Mother in my life as I have since I've been in France. All we boys have begun to realize just what that one person (and there is no other that can take her place) means to us in this world. You can bet we all appreciate her more and more."

Herman Davis portrait, 1918.
14.1.2

Some Arkansans became heroes during the war. Herman Davis, a farmer from Mississippi County, served with distinction during the war. Davis was a marksman in the 113th Infantry. Having learned the art of marksmanship during a lifetime of game hunting, Davis was credited with killing twenty-four German soldiers. During one incident, he saved his platoon from annihilation by shooting four German soldiers who were manning a machine gun.

Herman Davis' Medals

After the war, Davis was named by General Pershing as one of the most important Americans in the war effort. When his neighbors learned of his war hero status, they were stunned and only when pressed, would he show his medals, which he kept in a tackle box. In total, Davis received four medals, including three from the French government: the Medaille Militaire, the Croix de Guerre with Palm, and the Croix de Guerre with Gilt Star. He also received the American Distinguished Service Cross.

Davis died at the age of 35 from tuberculosis, likely developed as a result of exposure to poison gas during the war. He is buried in Manila, Arkansas, in Herman Davis State Park.

The Spanish Influenza
One of the most devastating aspects of the First World War was the spread of the Spanish Influenza. Believed to have started at Camp Funston in Kansas, the Spanish Flu spread rapidly throughout the world. The constant movement of soldiers and refugees ensured that it would become a worldwide pandemic. The flu killed more people worldwide - as many as 100 million people - than died in combat. In Arkansas, the flu spread quickly through Camp Pike, leading officials to impose a quarantine. Soldiers were confined to their barracks until the pandemic abated.  On the homefront, church services were cancelled, schools closed, and community activities ceased.  In Arkansas, Spanish Influenza killed as many as 7,000 people in 1918.

To Prevent Influenza! advertisement, 1918.

Soldiers in tight quarters at Camp Pike became ripe victims for the pandemic. Benjamin Franklin Clark, who was in officer training at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky, worried that he would be a victim. "I feel lucky that I have not had it yet but there is plenty of chances for me to get it yet," he wrote Flora Hamilton in Arkansas. "The reason so many are dying is that there are not enough doctors nor nurses at the hospital nor enough room either. They are using ordinary barracks and it is no wonder the death rate is so high."

Influenza Song broadside, circa 1918.
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Soldiers at Camp Pike adjusted to quarantine as best as they could. Those who were sick were transported to field hospitals away from the other soldiers. Some of the soldiers were allowed to go from barracks to barracks performing plays and songs, albeit from a safe distance. Many of the soldiers spent their time in quarantine writing letters to loved ones, leading to a shortage in stationary. As a result, a black market developed for writing materials. The need for expression led one writer in Fort Smith to pen a song describing the horror of the epidemic.

An End to War
The legacy of the war for Arkansas was that it greatly expanded the state's industrial development.  Arkansas's timber and mining enterprises enjoyed a boom in production and profits.  But the prosperity was short lived.  The end of the war found the prices for timber and mined products collapsing as the demand for such goods fell.  Wages remained stagnant, leading to labor problems.  Many mines and sawmills ceased production.  African American veterans came home from the war expecting to enjoy the postwar prosperity, but found only a state still gripped by the system of Jim Crow. In the end, the impact of the war was temporary as Arkansas returned to prewar levels of economic and social progress.

Bauxite surface mining, 1936

Although the end of the war meant that mining production would slow considerably, some still remained strong. The war had devastated much of Europe's mining industry. Arkansas's bauxite mines were among the only ones in the world still producing in large quantities. Production would remain strong throughout the twentieth century.

Elaine prisoners, 1919.

Many African Americans had served their country with distinction during the war. As a result of their service, most returning veterans expected to begin to receive the same benefits as other Americans. What they found, however, was that they were treated the same as they had been before the war.

In 1919, a group of African American tenant farmers attempted to form a union in Elaine, Arkansas. Many of them, expecting a white backlash against their efforts, began arming themselves. On September 30, 1919, tensions came to a boil when a Phillips County deputy fired his gun into a union meeting. The result was a shootout between the farmers and law enforcement, which left the deputy dead. The sheriff organized a posse to round up the farmers, resulting in a massacre that ultimately left hundreds of African Americans dead.

Twelve of the farmers were arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for their participation in the events. Their sentences were later overturned by the Arkansas State Supreme Court and by 1925, they were freed.

The incident only hammered home the fact that the war had little effect on the lives of African Americans. Jim Crow was still the law of the land. After the Elaine Massacre, many African Americans in Arkansas began to move north, taking part in what would be called the Great Migration.

Arkansas suffrage rally, 1917.
ASA_Photo_G2052

Although the suffrage movement was not an effect of the war, the fact that women throughout Arkansas got involved in a larger movement helped spur some of the changes that would come about when the war ended. Women gained the right to vote in Arkansas primaries in 1917 and would gain full voting rights in 1920.

Women took part in organizing much of the war effort on the homefront, but unlike their counterparts during the Second World War, women would not remain in the work force after the fighting had ended.

Soldiers with nurses in France, 1918.
Ogden Scrapbook

On November 11, 1918, Germany signed the armistice ending the war. On November 13, 1918, J. Harrell Burke wrote to his mother, "We got the news that Germany had signed the Armistice. We received the news in the afternoon about three o'clock, when it went into the machine shop the boys just turned the electricity of their machines and grabbed a hammer and began to beat on a piece of iron. At the same time there came a message to a French lady, who is doing some kind of work in there, that her son had been killed at the front. A case of joy and happiness coming at once. The real racket did not start until 5 p.m. when the shops closed. And then the real noise started. Men hollowering, whistling, singing, Cyrenes on autos shrieked, horns were blown American engines whistled and the French engines with their popcorn whistles blew, oh, and everything. There is a different atmosphere around here now."

The war had finally come to an end. So many of the young men who came home had grown up isolated in small Arkansas towns, never even having left their home counties. They had been thrust into life and death situations a world away from everything they had known. Readjusting to life back home wasn't always easy.

Some men reenlisted in the army and became career soldiers. Some vowed never to fight again and reentered civilian life. But the experiences of war marked an entire generation.

The Arkansas State Archives
Credits: Story

This exhibit was funded in part by a grant from the Arkansas Community Foundation.

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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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