by Sherri Goudy
When President Wilson declared war against Germany in April 1917, neither he nor the country realized the full ramifications of his decree. The war had been going on “over there” for 3 years, and although some men had volunteered to help the allies by serving in foreign military legions, what did America’s entry into the war really mean for our own military?
At the time, the US military was not prepared to fight on US soil or abroad. The US Army numbered only 127,000 and there were 86,000 in the national guard. As many as half of these soldiers lacked the training, experience, and physical stamina which would prepare them for the trenches. When war was declared, the War Department asked for $3 billion (an amount previously unheard of!) to build training camps, and to purchase rifles, artillery, and airplanes.
To combat the lack of men in the US military, the debate between raising an army using only volunteers or initiating a draft began.
The idea of conscription had been envisioned as early as December 1916. It had been brought to Wilson’s attention in February 1917, as the threat of war loomed and the realization that the numbers in the federal army, navy, and national guard were too few.
The President at first wanted to utilize only volunteer enlistment to supply troops. After the declaration, Wilson asked for an immediate increase of 1 million men to volunteer for service immediately, with 2 million required within 2 years.
Another issue, was that the US government was not clear on if troops would have to go “over there.” They were prepared to make a declaration of war against Germany and to defend the United States, but it seemed as if they were not ready to actually send troops to aid the horrific fighting already happening in France. One historian, Thomas Fleming wrote about “the almost incredible naivete that underlay the US decision to declare war on Germany.” He also recounts that the Senate Majority leader Thomas S. Martin was shocked that the US may have to have an army in France, exclaiming “Good Lord! You’re not going to send soldiers over there, are you?”
On April 5, 1917, the Springfield Daily News printed an article about this very topic. The article speculated that within 6 months, American troops would be sending “a considerable fighting force.”
As the months went on article after article appeared in the Springfield paper, calling for troops and notifying residents about enlistment opportunities.
The newspaper printed names and stories about some of the men who were volunteering to enlist daily. Even retired Army General J. Warren Keifer, age 81 and having the experience of both the Civil War and the Spanish American War volunteered his services.
The impossible task of raising an army using only volunteers led to the dauntless task for Wilson to push a Conscription bill through congress.
Next time, we will continue exploring military service during WWI and delve into the draft and the Selective Service Act of 1917.
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