Gratiot County in the Great War, December, 1917: The First War Christmas

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Above: Headlines from news articles in December issues of the Gratiot County Herald.

          In December 1917 Gratiot County experienced its first Christmas during World War I. The Red Cross encouraged people to show their support by hanging a Red Cross banner from their Christmas wreaths. On Christmas Eve, special Christmas candles appeared in many windows and illuminated Red Cross emblems. Church bells in several towns on Christmas Eve chimed each half hour. Earlier in the month a “Fete Patriotique,” a drama performed by local volunteers, was held at the Ithaca Opera House and it raised $68.75 for the Ithaca Red Cross Chapter. Among the many things that the Ithaca Branch completed that month included 37 sweaters, 30 scarfs, 22 helmets, 49 pairs of wristlets and 3 French caps. With a membership of 4500 in Gratiot County, the Red Cross planned a new drive for more members in each township in the county. To help with this, Red Cross booths could be found in stores in Ithaca, Alma, St. Louis, Breckenridge, Middleton and Ashley.

          A county fundraising in December involved the sale of Thrift Stamps. If individuals did not have money to buy Liberty Bonds, they could afford to invest in stamps. Francis King and H.M. Dunham of Alma volunteered to head this campaign. Thrift Stamps cost only 25 cents and when a person had enough of them they could exchange them for a $5 war bond. The bonds had another benefit in that they earned four percent interest and would be good until January 1, 1923. The only downside to buying the stamps was that no person could buy more than $100 in stamps at a time and they could not own more than $1000 worth of them. The government planned that the sale of these stamps would add two billion dollars to the war fund by January 1919.

          News articles and letters told how young men stationed in military camps came home for visits, or who had seen action in France. Walter Young of Ithaca described life at Fort Douglas, Arizona. He, like Sergeant Dallas Brock from Alma, told readers about the great Thanksgiving dinners that they had enjoyed. Brock even said some of the soldiers had their mothers, sisters or sweethearts with them at Fort Custer for Thanksgiving. Orrin Riker, later Ithaca’s first soldier to die in the war, described army life at Camp Hattiesburg, Mississippi. One of the boys who came home to Gratiot County for furloughs included Private Alfred Rhodes of Alma. Lester McAllister, “Speed” Narrance, Lester von Thurn and John A. McAuley, all former Alma College students, described military life at their camps. Gratiot County also began hearing reports about one of its clergymen who volunteered to go with the boys to France. Father John A. Mulvey, from Alma’s St. Mary’s Church, carried out his duties with the 228th Division at Fort Custer. Probably one of the most moving stories to appear in newspapers dealt with Thomas Arnold Robinson of Alma, who had spent six months on the frontlines with the French Army and who had now returned home. After being reunited with his family he signed up to serve Uncle Sam as an aviator. During the war, he served in places like the Vosges Mountains, Verdun, and the St. Mihiel sector.

        Other news from Gratiot men already in Europe was sometimes grim. Captain M.F. Devereaux, a boy from Newark Township, had enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1916 and wrote from a dugout located 1 ½ miles from the German lines. One of his worst memories happened when he tried to find his comrades who had died in combat the night before. When Devereaux returned on patrol the next morning to retrieve the remains of a soldier, there was almost nothing left of him as a result of the shelling that took place. Gil Spencer wrote a letter as one of the first Americans in France with the 9th Infantry. He fought with the French Army and tried to recover from injuries suffered when his weapon accidentally discharged. A Mrs. Foust in Ithaca received a letter from her brother, who fought with the British Army. He had been wounded and had to be sent to a hospital in Bath, England. While the treatment there was excellent, he described being moved from the front. Other stories described how the Germans often set traps for Allied soldiers in trench warfare by preying on souvenir hunters. Innocent piles of German valuables and belongings were secretly rigged with explosives to kill or maim its victims. Also, German soldiers often played dead on the field of battle to shoot Allied soldiers from behind.

         Those Gratiot men who had previously avoided the draft got some sobering news in early December. Under new rules, all exemptions could be repealed, and all men now had to fill out new questionnaires. Men had until December 15 to turn in the paper or they would be listed as a slacker and forfeit any rights to an exemption. Even if a formerly exempted man had moved to a new address, it was his obligation to fill out and return the document to the draft board. In Ithaca, Alma and St. Louis lawyers were available a selected times to advise men on how to fill out the papers. For nearly three weeks, the Gratiot County draft board called in five percent of the men each day. Still, it would take sixty days to get through all of the questionnaires.

        Other wartime events continued to take place in the county. The YMCA planned banquets and programs to promote its plans for keeping Army life “clean.” The Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense warned readers that the real reason why America fought was that Germany denied America freedom of the seas, that it despised our army and that Americans would pay to reconstruct a victorious Germany. It also spoke of a theme that continued in 1918 – Germany was plotting in our midst. If America did not fight, it would suffer the same shame, horror, butchery, and rape by the Germans that France and Belgium had already suffered.

         Two wireless outfits had been confiscated in Alma. Because they were small and had only a small range, the government deemed them to be unimportant. Still, local authorities kept track of anyone buying them and sought to find how they operated. President Wilson announced that the railroads would be under federal control by the end of the month. The President promised that all equipment would be taken care of and returned to private ownership after the war, all in good condition. People were still encouraged to help the local tobacco fund. For only a quarter, a “package of comfort” could be sent to France and offered a quality of tobacco that no American soldier could find over there. The choices included Bull Durham, Lucky Strike or Tuxedo pipe tobacco. Each packet contained a stamped postcard that told a soldier who sent the tobacco.

              Finally, food was a part of the nation’s efforts to support the war, even in the cold of December. Michigan was supposed to be getting 40 county agricultural agents to help counties to improve food production in 1918. It was not clear if Gratiot would get one or not. Bread rules appeared for merchants and bakers. Sugar prices were capped and bakeries, hotels, and restaurants were limited to how much flour they could use each month. Price gouging was forbidden and weight limits were put on the sizes of bread loaves, as well as how much sugar could be used with each barrel of flour. Pure lard for making bread became blacklisted. The government hoped that bread prices would come down and a cheaper bread would be produced in Michigan. Recipes started to appear in the Gratiot County Herald which told housewives how to engage in “War Pie Conservation.” A way to do this included the use of the “None Such” Mincemeat pie ingredient which saved meat, flour, shortening, labor, and money. The Home Lunch Restaurant in Alma offered Christmas dinner to patrons, but it commented, “Let us eat and know that we are getting value received for our money. We owe it to our GOVERNMENT to live as cheaply as possible.” The restaurant served Duck dinners as a specialty.

Copyright 2017 James M Goodspeed

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