WWI Centennial: U.S. Adopts Draft

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 276th installment in the series. 

 

May 18, 1917: U.S. Adopts Draft

 

After the end of the U.S. Civil War, conscription was swiftly abolished and the American military reverted to its traditional all-volunteer basis, with the U.S. Army bolstered by National Guard units when needed. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. Army swelled to around a quarter million, all volunteers and National Guardsmen, and U.S. forces involved in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 totaled 126,000. Later the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in northern Mexico in 1916-1917 numbered just 10,000 men, with roughly another 130,000 guarding the border.

 

By the time the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, the U.S. Army tallied 128,000 officers and men, along with 182,535 mobilized National Guardsmen. Needless to say, these figures were laughably small compared to the monstrous machines now locked in a titanic death struggle in Europe. In the spring of 1917 Germany had around 5.5 million men under arms, the British Empire 4.5 million, and France had two million serving on the Western Front alone – and these were just a fraction of the total manpower mobilized over the course of the war (France mobilized a total of 8.3 million men, including around half a million colonial troops, from 1914-1918).

 


Library of Congress

Although America had adopted an unconvincing “preparedness program” in 1916, raising the target size for the National Guard to 450,000 by 1921, this goal was far from being realized, and the Americans would obviously be unable to make more than a symbolic contribution to the Allied war effort in terms of manpower in the near future: in July 1917 just 20,000 Americans were deployed in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, increasing to 129,000 by the end of the year. 

However the United States was hardly prepared to play a secondary role in the long run, demanding an energetic, decisive intervention to bring Germany to terms and end the war. To accomplish this the country would have to train and equip armed forces numbering four million by the end of 1918 – a massive undertaking which would require months of feverish effort, including the construction of a whole network of training camps and, most importantly, bringing back the draft. 

US Army

President Woodrow Wilson set the ball rolling on May 18, 1917, when he signed into law the Selective Service Act passed by Congress, requiring all men ages 21-30 to register for military service on June 5, 1917, with another round of registration scheduled on June 5, 1918 for those who turned 21 after the previous date. As in other belligerent powers that adopted conscription, young men who were unmarried and had no dependents were the first class to be called. Ultimately 25 million American men would register, and 2.5 million would be drafted, while most of the remaining two million volunteered. 

Beginning in late July 1917 draft committees around the country would conduct random drawings from the first class to be called After being called up, potential recruits underwent medical examinations by boards of doctors to determine whether they were fit enough to serve in the Army. These cursory medical reviews clearly erred on the side of passing candidates as fit: the legendary American folk artist Henry Darger somehow managed to pass a medical review and was briefly drafted into the Army despite glaring emotional and developmental issues, not to mention trouble with his knee and eye (to its credit the Army eventually rejected him anyway). 

Nonetheless they rejected around half a million candidates as unfit for a variety of reasons, and medical records from these examinations leave a mixed portrait of American public health in the first part of the 20th century: top reasons disqualifying individuals for service included bad vision, insufficient height or weight, epilepsy, tuberculosis, venereal disease (especially syphilis), goiter, general “mental deficiency,” bad teeth, and curvature of the spine.

 

 

To induce compliance with the draft the government at all levels unleashed a veritable flood of propaganda, including vivid posters meant to appeal to the patriotism, honor, masculinity and sense of self-worth of young American men. Easily the most memorable image of the propaganda campaign mounted by the new Committee for Public Information featured the iconic image of “Uncle Sam” pointing at the viewer with the caption “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” (top). The poster was originally drawn by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg as a cover for Leslie’s Weekly magazine during the preparedness debate in July 1916, but its popularity exploded in 1917-1918, when over four million copies of the poster were printed. Flagg later claimed he used his own face a model for Uncle Sam.

 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

qingwa/iStock via Getty Images
qingwa/iStock via Getty Images

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard." Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

The Kansas Shoe Salesman Responsible for Veterans Day

Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The reason we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th dates back to 1918, when an armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed that essentially ended World War I. The first Armistice Day was celebrated the following November 11th.

World War I was billed as the war to end all wars, but of course it didn't. So by the 1950s, with so many American men and women veterans of World War II and the conflict in Korea, some thought the term "Armistice Day" was outdated.

A new day

There's a shoe salesman from Emporia, Kansas, who probably isn't in many history books, but he deserves at least a paragraph. In the early 1950s, a gentleman by the name of Alvin King thought Armistice Day was too limiting. He had lost family in World War II, and thought all American veterans of all wars should be honored on November 11th. So he formed a committee, and in 1953 the city of Emporia, Kansas, celebrated Veterans Day.

Ed Rees, Emporia's local congressman, loved the idea and took it to Washington. President Eisenhower liked King's idea, too. In 1954, Eisenhower formally changed November 11th to Veterans Day and invited some of Emporia's residents to be there when he signed the bill. King was one of those invited, but there was one problem: he didn't own a nice suit. His veteran friends chipped in and bought him a proper suit and paid his way from Kansas to the White House.

In 2003, Congress passed a resolution declaring Emporia, Kansas to be the founding city of Veterans Day.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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