WWI – 100 Years Ago – Thou Art Gone, 52 Ancestors #155

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.

The Draft

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.

The Records

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.

Including inspections.

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

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.

Your Tree

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.



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28 thoughts on “WWI – 100 Years Ago – Thou Art Gone, 52 Ancestors #155

  1. Very interesting and well written article. I do wish to comment on one point. You say that when America joined in “The war no longer belonged only to Europe.” I remind you that Canada, being part of the British Empire, entered the war in August of 1914, over 21/2 years earlier than the US. Canada, with a population less than a 1/10 of the US, lost over 66,000 men in this war.

  2. Roberta,

    A great alternative to WWI service records that that were destroyed in the 1973 National Records Personnel Center fire are the soldiers discharge records. WWI and WWII veterans were recommended to have their discharge records recorded/filed with the local County Clerks or County Recorders so that there was a spare copy in case the soldier lost the original as the government would not give them another copy. Back in that era the soldiers used their discharge records for a job references. Also, unlike the WWII discharge forms which only gives the name of the last unit that a solder served in and the name of the campaigns, the WWI discharge forms gives the names of each of the units the soldier served, the names and dates of each of the campaigns they served in, and the dates that the soldier left the US. Usually the soldier filed these forms in the first County they resided in after the war.

    Another recently released set of records by Fold3.com that are really useful are the military transport records for soldiers from WWI to just before WWII. These records list the names of the soldiers, the names of the ships they transported on, the date the ship left, where they departed from, the name of the unit they were in at the time of the transport, the military service number (which is hard to find for WWI soldiers), and a contact name and addresse of next of kin (which helps to identify the correct soldier you are looking for). These records and the the associated index were just released at the beginning of the month.

  3. My father was a “menopause baby” in his family. His father (1896-1972) served in WWI and was stationed in France. My Dad said he never talked about his time in the war. People look at me crazy when I tell them my Grandfather served in WWI. They think I’m mistaken and mean WWII. I’d love to learn more about where my grandfather was and what his part in the war was with his regiment.

    • You can imagine how people look at me when I say my father served in WWI. If you can find your grandfather’s unit number, then you can google for information. There is a surprising amount written. That’s how I found out about Joseph Estes and his tour of duty up until his death.

      • I found his name, Lonnie Calvin Moore, on a US Army transportation passengers list. He left Saint Nazaire, France on June 7, 1919 on the USS Martha Washington. Military Unit: 81st Division, Company I 324th Infantry. I’ve began searching but I’m not finding a whole lot. 😔

        • The following is a link to the 1988 U.S. Army Center for Military History book “Order of Battle of the United States Land Forces in the World War, Volume 2 – American Expeditionary Forces: Divisions. (http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/023/23-2/). This is the official U.S. Army history of each of the divisions that participated in World War I and identifies what units were attached to each division. The sections are divided up for each division. As long as you know what division your grandfather was in you can look up the history. I also recommend that you search for the transport record for your grandfather as he went to the war as his unit might have changed between the end of World War I and when he returned in 1919. That happened to my great grandfather where he changed units two times from the end of the war until he was discharged.

  4. Great story. My grandfather enlisted in the army in 1899 and was sent to China for the Boxer Rebellion, was released in 1903 and then re-upped in 1904 and was released in 1907. He did pretty much the same thing your dad did, lied about his age. Then he joined in 1917 after officer candidate school as a captain and was sent to Argonne Forest in France. I recently received a CD from the VA with over 1200 pages of information on his wounds and where he was sent in Fort McPherson, Atlanta, GA. I knew he had to be in Atlanta as my grandmother and aunt were in Atlanta on the 1920 Census. It was done in January 1920 which was unusual for a census report. Now that I’m sure of where he was, next trip to Atlanta, I will go to the Georgia Archives and look at the census for Fulton County, GA. The 1973 fire in St. Louis destroyed lots of army records, but if you’re patient you might get your dad’s records. You just have to keep sending requests for the records. It’s taken two to three years, but now I have them. Should be easier as you are a daughter. I got my mom to sign my requests.

    Carol Petty Payne

  5. My grandfather, Frank Burkey, was also stationed at Camp Custer, MI in 1918.

    What he probably didnt know, was that his mother was a third cousin to Gen Custer.

  6. “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?”

    I don’t even know. I hear about WW2, some great uncles went, but none of my direct ancestors, but I have no family stories over WW1. My grand-fathers are too young, born in 1910 and 1917, my great-grand fathers all had young kids and were farm owners, so it’s not very likely.

    Canada was at war the minute Britain came at war, as the dominion of Canada wasn’t independent in these matters. Since there was no fight on the land, Canadian farmers were feeding not only the Canadian army, but the whole common wealth army in Europe, plus supplying populations under attack close to the British Empire’s soldiers.

    But with the eldest sons of the farmers gone to war, the government was recruiting urban teenagers to work on the farms, those between 15 and 19 years old. Your father would have been perfect for these programs.


    There was also a campaign aiming at women and girls nicknamed farmerettes.

  7. My grand-uncle was a mule tender in WWI (he’d raised and trained a lot of mules on the farm-he’d have been 22 in 1917). He was lucky to make it home, as he had that awful flu, they thought he was dead and his body was stacked in a bunch of bodies, when a doctor from his home county in Missouri happened to walk by and saw him move, pulled him out and he recovered, lived to be 91. He never told me that story but others in the family did. No one else in his large family was in WWI, his father decided he could be sent, but he needed the rest of them on the farm.

  8. Your dad and uncle look so young in their uniforms ! They are heroes for sure. My great-grandfather served in WWI and then worked at Oak Ridge, TN. I’m having a hard time finding information on him during that time. I’m guessing most of his records were sealed since he worked at Oak Ridge. He was not very kind to my g-grandmother, and they lived apart for a while. Would not surprised if he had another family in TN.

  9. Hi Roberta,
    Awesome article by the way. I have also read an article about the melungeon and the different surnames associated with the article that you co wrote. I myself come from the Collins side through my Grandmother whose mother was born a Collins’s I am very interested in that project. I have traced that family back to Jesse Collins of whom married Jane “Jennie” Ewing. I am having difficulty of going back even further. The only thing I have found was that Jesse’s father is supposedly a John Collins, now that is the problem there are several John Collins and finding the correct one. Can you offer any information on where to look and how to move forward on this family line?

    Cindy Carrasco

  10. We have the five blue star banner my great grandmother had in her window for her four sons and one son-in-law who served. Four made it to the battles in Europe. Mercifully they all made it home although one came back severely wounded. The family doesn’t recall any of them talking about the war until the surviving youngest two were into their 90s. Then it all started tumbling out and we were spellbound. And horrified.

  11. You say, “The Civil War did not produce draft registration cards or anything similar, so WWI is the first resource that offers genealogists a type of census of military eligible men.”

    Happily, Ancestry.com has an indexed series with color images, _U.S., Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865_. There are four series varying mainly by age-range. The registers list residence (sometimes places are badly mangled in the index), age, marital status and occasionally note whether a man had served or was on active duty.

  12. You say, “The Civil War did not produce draft registration cards or anything similar, so WWI is the first resource that offers genealogists a type of census of military eligible men.”

    Happily, Ancestry has an indexed database with color images of registers, _U.S., Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865_. These give name, residence (sometimes badly mangled in the index), age, marital status and occasionally whether the man had already served or was on active duty.

  13. Ohio is one of the states who have Civil War registrations bound in books. Found my 1st Great Grandfather and many of the other men in the family.
    One of the Uncles was wounded and in the 1890s was in a Veteran’s home , where he died. There is a record which in was listed as a hint on Ancestry.com. It had the information on his wound, his wife’s name, son’s name , and other personal information. I never would have thought to look for those records in a Veteran’s home which is a big “Duh ?” on my part.

    I am saving this entire blog because it is such window on that time. I am going to look at the WW1 records for my Dad’s brothers. I had Uncles born from 1896 thru 1919. One of them had been signed to play on a professional baseball team but couldn’t because of the war. He would have been about 20 at that time and I don’t know if he served or not but I now intend to find out! My Great Grandmother who lived in Southern Missouri died in Jan 1920 of influenza. My Dad had said she got it from one of the soldiers who had come home sick.
    Thank you for the information and all the history in your blogs. I have learned so much from your family stories that I ever did in school !

    • I love the history and how it pertains to our families and ancestors. I didn’t learn it in school either, but truthfully it never seemed terribly real or relevant until it was personal.

  14. Pingback: Unwelcome Discoveries and Light at the End of the Tunnel, 52 Ancestors #156 | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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