Gratiot County in the Great War – August, 1918: Continued Enthusiasm and Excitement at Home; Loss of Lives Abroad

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Above: Advertisements from the Gratiot County Herald and Alma Reminder from August 1918.

        During the late summer of 1918, Gratiot County continued to be deeply involved in its commitment to winning the Great War in Europe. Local movie theatres, like the Ideal in Ithaca, played movies like “The Unbeliever,” a story of an American soldier who found his faith while fighting in Belgium. Other stories with themes about the World War could be seen in Alma and St. Louis.

        Early in the month, county newspapers showed just how wild things became when an announcement was heard in Alma and Ithaca that a large German army had been captured and that the war appeared to be over.    In downtown Alma, people celebrated the Allied capture of 480,000 German soldiers. Main Street was a scene filled with hundreds of automobiles decorated with flags. A demonstration took place when someone set up a barrel for speaker after speaker who spoke about the victorious Americans. Church bells could be heard and telephone lines were jammed with callers who shared the news. In Ithaca, a similar thing happened as people celebrated until ten o’clock that night. One man drove up and down the street with a wash tub and two coal scuttles attached to his car to make noise. Children beat on tin pans and pails. After the whistle went off at the fire department,  fire trucks drove up and down the street in celebration. An effigy of the Kaiser was also burned, then came the announcement from a state newspaper that all of this was premature and the war was still very much on, with no end in sight.

       Still, other signs of continued patriotism in support of the war effort could be found in many places. On Saturday, August 3, a patriotic meeting and flag raising took place at Beebe which drew 600 citizens.  The Ithaca band played and a group of National Guard soldiers was all present. Little Lawrence Knapp, six years old, gave one of his well received patriotic messages. The Red Cross raised $40 from selling ice cream. Out at Newark Township, a group of patriotic men raised a new flag in front of the Mennonite church. Gratiot County was looking for twenty girls to enroll in the students’ nurses reserve. Training lasted two to three years, however, girls received board, lodging “and a small remuneration” to pay for their books and uniforms. Anyone in the county could donate lead pencils for the YMCA to give to soldiers. It was announced that if you had a service flag in front of your home or business then the Alma Record would print stationery for you that had a red, white and blue flag on it, along with your name.

     The level of commitment that all Gratiot County residents were expected to demonstrate that summer could best be summed up in a command from the government: “Live Like a Miser, Work Like a Horse.” Other headlines blared “Rigid Saving in Food Asked” and “Our Saved Food Fed the Allies.” Everyone was warned that there was an impending shortage of beet sugar. By the end of August, all were expected to limit sugar rations to two pounds per month until January 1, 1919.  Food Administrator Herbert Hoover called off Wheatless days, however, people soon learned that they were expected to continue to use Victory Bread as it did not mean that pure wheat bread was back yet. Then the public was told that the flour rationing would continue at least until November. Farmers in the county were offered several lectures about how to eliminate wheat smut, which would increase the yield of their wheat harvest. The United States Department of Agriculture sent Dr. A.E. Waller to Ithaca to address the Gratiot War Board. The War Board attempted to bring every war-related activity together under its direction in order to maximize work for the war effort. While boys and girls had been keeping gardens in various areas of each town, now came a call to pitch in and help with canning. Children from ages ten to eighteen were asked to bring their vegetables down to the high school to learn how to can food for the winter. Youth were warned that they were “To assist in the work is a part of your patriotic duty, as being a part and as necessary as the Red Cross and other war activities.” At the end of August, all states east of the Mississippi River abolished pleasure riding on Sundays in order to save on gasoline. Cars, motorcycles, and motorboats were affected by the order. Again, patriotic citizens in the county were expected to make the same sacrifice.

       Organizations like the YMCA and the Red Cross continued their work. Arthur Krueger, who was stationed at the Naval Operating Base in Norfolk, Virginia, wrote home to thank the Ashley Red Cross for the package that he had received. Inside he found a new sweater and a Red Cross kit. A French officer, Lieutenant J.A. Picard, spoke to the Alma Presbyterian Church about his experiences in the battlefields of the Marne, Ypres, and Alsace. Picard was a disabled soldier who was sponsored by the Alma Red Cross who spoke to raise Morale – and no collection or appeal for money was made at the meeting. The YMCA still had members in Russia who were caring for Russian prisoners and who were trying to help the Russian people. The Alma Red Cross received support from the “Busy Bees Garden Club” that was keeping a small field of beans. That fall the “Bees” were going to turn over their harvest to the Red Cross. The Alma chapter met its quota in August of 150 pairs of Belgian boys underdrawers and prepared them for shipment. However, the chapter was going to be closed during the local Chautauqua meetings so as not to offer competition. There was one last comforter for sale that the Alma chapter had and it was hoped that someone in Alma would purchase it for the upcoming winter. The Red Cross did plan on having an auction sale during the upcoming five-day county fair. Some farmers were selling hogs and sheep and planned on donating the proceeds of their sales.

       When it came to fighting the war, the Gratiot County draft board continued to call men to the service. Seven men volunteered to enlist from Alma in mid- August. Among them were Howard Walker, Merlin Richards, Verne Welch, Thomas Devarmond, Morris Aldrich Arthur Dumas, and Horace Cummings. A new draft bill was passed that said that all men who turned age twenty one since June 5, 1918, had to register with the draft board.  It was also made known that any men between the ages of 45 and 55 could enlist and work in the quartermaster department. On August 28, fourteen men left for Camp Custer on a rainy morning in Alma. An abundance of whistles and bells went off near the train depot and a fairly large crowd said goodbye. Even local Company 87 of the Michigan state troops showed up. The guards had just received new uniforms, hats, and guns for public demonstrations and drills. Young men at Alma College and Central Michigan Normal School could take military training while attending school. Presidents from both institutions encouraged these students to stay at the schools, complete their training, and then fulfill their military commitment as potential officers. Several Gratiot County men became part of this program which was known as the Students Army Training Corps (SATC). When six young Ithaca men who enlisted in the Navy in 1917 made a surprise visit home on furlough earlier in the month, a crowd of 3,000 people flocked to Ithaca’s courthouse lawn to greet them. This group was originally placed on the Montana, a cruiser, and were stationed in New Hampshire.

        As Gratiot’s men went off to camps, or “over there” to France, they sent letters home to family and friends. Mothers of boys sent to Camp Custer were told that their sons would be well fed and taken care of. A school of bakers and chefs even went so far as to publish sample menus in local newspapers. Rex Allen wrote to his family that he was disappointed in his first experience in visiting New York City. He lamented the absence of good water and no light at his camp on Long Island. He closed his letter, “Give me Camp Custer and old Michigan.” He also planned on being in France by the time that his letter reached home.  Sergeant Fred Wirebaugh wrote to the Gratiot County Herald “From Somewhere in Germany” about the countryside. He gave a description of the difference between “Whizbangs” and “Jack Johnsons” – the type of shells that the Germans fired at American troops. Jesse First, a Perrinton native who made it to England, lamented the different types of currency that the English used. He also wanted to know what his family did on the Fourth of July. If any reader wanted to know how to contact a soldier then they were invited to write to names under “Soldier’s Addresses” that appeared in the paper. Another heading ran “On the Other Side” and kept a tally of those Gratiot men who had made it to France.

       The hardest news involved the growing number of Gratiot men who were being killed in France. A “Roll of Honor” was regularly published and updated in the Herald, along with the news stories telling readers about the deaths. William Field of St. Louis was killed August 1. One of the bigger shocks was the loss of the county’s youngest soldier, sixteen-year-old Leslie McLean from Alma. His death was announced just after a letter that he wrote was published in the Alma Record.  Others were also killed in combat: Harry Leonard and George W. Myers of Alma, and Allen Pinkston of St. Louis.  Then came the news that Elind Sanchez drowned in an exercise at Camp Dix. Sanchez was an Alma College student who dreamed of becoming an Army officer.

       As fall approached, the times would only become bloodier, even when the news said that the Germans were on the retreat.

Copyright 2018 James M Goodspeed

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