World War I was billed as The War to End All Wars, except, of course, it didn’t. This past week saw the commemoration of 100 years since the United States entered WWI. 100 years, a century…and to think my father served.
After three years of keeping the United States out of the war, on April 2, then President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress and called for Congress to declare war on Germany, saying that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Four days later, Congress did just that.
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered WWI by declaring war on Germany after the sinking of 8 neutral US ships by German submarines in February of 1917 along with the discovery of a German plot to encourage Mexico to wage war on the US. The war no longer belonged only to Europe. We were involved, whether we wanted to be or not.
Shortly thereafter, more than 4.7 million Americans rallied to the cry and enlisted. A sampling of the recruitment posters is shown below. You can click to enlarge.
Twenty-one months later, Germany was defeated and an armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
That’s the short dry version of America’s involvement in WWI, but there was more, so much more.
Those 4.7 million men – they were our fathers and grandfathers and uncles and great-uncles and cousins. Every one of those men left families behind and went to war. 53,402 of those men would be killed in battle, and another 63,114 men would die in service from non-combat injuries and illnesses, including the Spanish Flu which struck with a vengeance beginning about March 1918.
Soldiers, stationed and living in close quarters, were particularly susceptible. This photo from 1918 shows a hospital ward of soldiers suffering from the Spanish Flu in Fort Riley, Kansas. Many military hospitals couldn’t handle the onslaught of patients and temporary hospital quarters were set up in gymnasiums and anyplace additional space could be found.
Ultimately, about one third of the world population became infected, and of those, 10-20% died.
For the soldiers who were taken ill, not only were they very sick, sometimes gravely so, they were far from home and loved ones. They must also have been worried about family at home, if they contracted the flu, and how they fared. Were family members alive or dead?
Both of my father’s paternal grandparents died in July and October of 1918, while he was serving his country.
The Agony of Departure
No matter how much one believes in the cause and wants to fight for all that is right, no matter how patriotic the family, the agony of departure with its uncertainty of return is universal.
This screen shot from The History Place shows soldiers and their families with such poignancy.
My father, a young enlistee, left behind a girlfriend, Virgie…who…as fate would have it, he married not as a young man, but some 44 years later in his sunset years, just two years before his death. The heart-wrenching photo below is of my father, but the handwriting is hers.
Virgie kept and cherished this photo for 44 years until they were reunited, and it was then passed to me after her death, more than another 30 years later – when they were both truly gone.
Voluntary enlistments didn’t provide enough manpower. Beginning May 18th, 1917, men born between 1872 and 1900, between the ages of 18 and 45, regardless of citizenship status, were required to register for the draft, providing genealogists today with a peek into the lives of those men sometimes not otherwise available. After all, it was a full century ago.
24 million men registered, or about 25% of the total population.
Today, those registration cards are available at Ancestry and additional information is available at www.fold3.com. At the Ancestry link, be sure to scroll down for history about the registration itself and hints for searching. If your ancestor isn’t present in the draft cards, perhaps it was because he had already enlisted.
My grandfather’s draft card is shown below. I didn’t know where William George Estes was living at that time, as he moved between Indiana and Tennessee and eventually settled in Harlan County, Kentucky. However, I did know his birthdate, so it was relatively easy to find his draft card with a combination of name and birthdate. Will, as he was called, didn’t use his middle name on his draft registration, but he did sign the card. This is the only copy of his signature that I have.
He was white, 45 years old, his nearest relative was his wife, Joisie (Joyce) and he was of medium height and build with brown eyes and black hair.
While I do have a few photos of my grandfather, you can’t ascertain much of that information from photos.
Will and my grandmother had divorced in Indiana, and I wasn’t sure if he was married at that time, or not. The date of his registration is September, 12, 1918, which gives us a snapshot of him at that point in time. He was never called to serve.
William George Estes had 3 living sons:
- Charles Estel Sebastian Estes born November 1, 1894
- William Sterling Estes, my father, born October 1, 1902
- Joseph “Dode” Harry Estes born September 13, 1904
Of those sons, only one would have been required to register for the draft initially, Charles, who went by the name Estel, was the only son old enough. I was unable to find his draft registration, even though I think I know where he lived at that time.
The other two sons, far too young to enlist, did just that – enlisted.
How could William and Joseph “Dode” have enlisted? They were too young. No place near 18 years of age.
Both boys “adjusted” their birth year.
My father recorded his birth year upon enlistment as 1898 and his brother, two years younger, did the same. We know, positively, via the census and later Social Security records that neither was born before 1900.
In the 1900 census, above, you can see that neither William nor Joseph were members of the family. Only Estel and Robert, the son who died when the house burned.
In the 1910 census, Sterl is age 8, so born in October of 1901, and Doad is age 5, born in September of 1904. These years may be off by one year, as Joseph’s SS record says he was born in 1903 and my father’s says he was born in 1902 – but still, they were far younger than 18 years old in 1917.
How the heck did those boys pull that off? I have no idea, but they unquestionably did.
Unfortunately, my father’s military service records burned in the July 1973 fire in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. That blaze was so intense that it burned for 2 days and most of the records were destroyed. However, between various alternate record sources, the Veteran’s Administration and I were able to piece some of his information together.
For example, we know that William Sterling Estes enlisted on May 14, 1917 at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, near Indianapolis, giving his age upon enlistment as 18 years and 24 days of age. He was actually 14 years, 6 months and 13 days old. So young to be trained how to kill.
Fourteen. Years. Old.
Enrolling in the military.
Fighting a war.
And that is assuming that my father was actually born in 1902, not 1903 as some records, such as his delayed birth certificate, sworn to by his father and with the family Bible as evidence, state. So, he could have been 15 years old if he was born in 1901 as the census suggests, 14 based on other records such as social security, or 13 years old if he was born in 1903.
Giving his birth year as 1898 would have made him old enough to enlist. So, yes, there are primary source records that show my father’s birth year ranging from 1898 through 1903.
William Sterling Estes during WWI, above. His brother, Dode, was two years younger.
Joseph “Dode” Estes during WWI.
I don’t have Dode’s service records, so I’m not sure whether he actually enlisted with his brother, or later, but the family story is that they enlisted together and “Dode was 12.” It’s hard enough to believe my father enlisted and served at 14, but he did, let alone Dode at age 12.
Fort Benjamin Harrison
Fort Benjamin Harrison was a welcome center and training ground for recruits before they were sent elsewhere.
Men were assigned to housing known as cantonments.
They were trained in combat skills.
Training and study took place outside, between the cantonments.
Quarters were close.
The mess tent was camp style.
You can see additional photos of Fort Benjamin Harrison at the World War I Museum, here.
To the best of my knowledge, my father never served overseas and never had to use his bayonette skills. I don’t really know though, because his military records were destroyed. He died in 1963 and there is no one left to ask. On his funeral home record, it does record a war injury, so the question of overseas service remains unanswered.
After training was complete, the men were sent to their assignment. I know that my father spent most, if not all, of his first enlistment at Camp Custer, near Battle Creek, Michigan, where he was honorably discharged on May 19, 1919 and re-enlisted the following day.
Camp Custer was built in 1917 for military training during World War I. Named after Civil War cavalry officer General George Armstrong Custer, the facility trained or demobilized more than 100,000 troops during World War I.
Construction began on July 1, 1917 and on December 5, less than six months later, the completed camp was turned over to the government.
A booklet, “Souvenir of Camp Custer,” published in 1918, gives an excellent contemporary view of the camp and its resources.
Camp Custer was called a “national university that takes a young man from the farm, the shop and the office and in a few short months graduates soldiers, trained and equipped, ready to fight the battles of democracy.
Camp Custer is a wonder place. Nothing like it was ever built in America before — and this is one of thirty-six such cantonments, all built in an amazingly short time to meet the country’s emergency needs.
The site of Camp Custer was as peaceful and quiet stretch of countryside as existed in America. Then came the declaration of war, and in five months a complete military city of two thousand buildings, with comfortable quarters for 36,000 men, stretched its length over four miles of territory.
This aerial view taken in 1918 shows what was at that time an expansive complex.
From my father’s letters to Virgie, we know that he contracted the Spanish Flu and was hospitalized at Camp Custer, at least twice in 1918. It was during that time that he met a hospital volunteer, Martha Dodderer, who was destined to become his wife and the mother of my half-sister.
In 1918, displays of patriotism became very popular. At that time, a human shield was formed at Camp Custer, utilizing 30,000 men and officers dressed for their position in the shield. My father would have been in this photo, someplace.
According to the brochure, this photo was taken from the top of the water tower.
I wish I knew more about the role my father played during the war. I know nothing other than his occupation was listed as a fireman.
The last veteran of WWI has died. It’s unusual to find someone whose father served. I was a very late in life child for my father causing me to be a generation off-shifted.
Take a look at your tree to see who was of the age to either serve in WWI or register for the 1917 draft.
In my tree, only one other male qualified, my Brethren grandfather. Brethren were pietists, but he did register and not as a conscientious objector.
This registration does solve one long-standing question about John Ferverda’s middle name. Was it Whitney or Whitley? Since he signed this card himself, his middle name is clearly Whitney! I also didn’t know he had grey eyes and light hair. By the time I knew him, his hair was clearly “light,” as in grey. There is only one color photo and it’s late in his life.
John Whitney Ferverda is shown below.
Earlier photos don’t really show his hair to be remarkably light.
John Whitney Ferverda never served, but, surprisingly three of his brothers did, and two more registered for the draft, telling me that several men in his family had grey eyes and dark hair. One had blue eyes and light hair. I really had no idea this family was more fairly complected with lighter skin and eyes. I guess we always think of our family as similar to ourselves.
The three stars in the window found in this picture of Evaline Miller Ferverda indicate that this family has three sons serving in WWI. That’s pretty amazing for a Brethren family. If I hadn’t actually looked, I would have assumed that none of their sons served…and I would have been dead wrong and overlooked a great deal of information.
Take a look in in the WWI draft registrations for your ancestor’s siblings as well. You never know what you might discover. WWI draft cards are an underutilized resource.
Samuel Bolton was my father’s uncle – his mother’s brother. He was born on June 12, 1894, so he was relatively close to my father’s age.
Samuel turned 23 years old a week after his draft registration. Samuel did serve in the war, being inducted on September 20, 1917, just 3 months after registering. He was sent overseas in May of 1918 and was killed on October 8, 1918, on the battlefield, in France. Sadly, there are no photos of Samuel, nothing, other than this one.
I was able to discover the name and number of Samuel’s unit, which allowed me to track Samuel, with his unit, to that fateful day in France. If you can find the unit name and number in which your family member served, you can figure out where they were, when, and put together the story of what happened to them during that time in their life.
Honoring Our Veterans
Thankfully, WWI was not on American soil. It was not the war to end all wars. In fact WWII followed just over two decades later. Sadly, as we have seen since, warfare seems to be a perpetual state someplace in the world and even as I write this, American men and women are serving in harm’s way.
Other than the short-lived Spanish American War in 1898, in which comparatively few American men participated, WWI was the first conflict since the Civil War in the 1860s. The Civil War produced some draft registrations for northerners, but did not produce draft registration cards on this scale, so WWI is the first resource that offers genealogists a type of nationwide census of military eligible men.
How did WWI touch your ancestors? Was it through their own service, or the service of a spouse, brother or parent? Did they return home, or are some buried in cemeteries like the one at Camp Custer or even on foreign soil?
Please take a minute to silently honor those who served and to think about how our lives today might have been different had WWI not occurred, or had the outcome been different in either a global or personal sense.