The 100th anniversary of the US entry into WWI is fast approaching and there are several TV programs upcoming to celebrate the event. Although WWII is still in the memory of many alive today, I think WWI has been largely forgotten, except by historians, both amateur and professional.
As the Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes, "the war had less effect on the state than did the Civil War or WWII, but it still depleted the numbers of young men in our state and gave rise to several institutions that survive today."
I won’t go into the details of how or why the US went to war in 1917. The causes are various and whole college courses are taught on various parts, too much detail for this post. However, the US did declare war against Germany on April 2, 1917, 100 years ago this month. The Arkansas National Guard was incorporated into the U.S. Army, and all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one were required to register for military service. By June 5, 1917, a total of 149,207 Arkansans had registered (only about 600 eligible men failed to register); after the age limit was increased to forty-five the next year, 199,857 Arkansans had registered, according to the Encyclopedia’s website. The sales of cotton, zinc, and hardwood had increased dramatically in the years prior to the US entry, to supply Allied troops already engaged in the war.
Because the United States entered the war nearly three years after it began, American casualties in the war were far fewer than those of European nations. From Arkansas, 71,862 soldiers served in the war according to registration cards. Out of these soldiers, 2,183 died (more than half from illnesses rather than war injuries), and 1,751 were injured. The Spanish Influenza epidemic during the same time period killed more soldiers than active battle did.
But what about Bentonville? Since we don’t grow cotton, mine zinc or lead-how did our city react to the war?
By mid-April 1917, cities around the state and the country were forming what was known as “Home Guards.” The units were formed by town and elected officers from captain down to lieutenant, with the bulk serving as privates. They were formed to “uphold the administration, endorse national preparedness and military training…”
The home guard unit from Bentonville was well staffed by the local men and they drilled upstairs at the old Opera House, which was later torn down and replaced by the Arvest Bank on the square. Many of our local boys were members of the Arkansas National Guard, which in 1917 represented the 2nd Arkansas Infantry, 2nd Regiment, Company H, with two officers and 150 enlisted men.
The Arkansas National Guard, with members from Bentonville, saw action in the last phase of the Chateau Thierry offensive around Fere-en-Tardenois, France. The only Bentonville man killed in battle was Clarence Hutcheson, who was killed in a bombing raid on August 1.
Mostly the period was filled with a patriotic fervor. Flags were raised and then even bigger flags. Patriotic meetings were held at the school with songs and flag raisings. American troops were only months off the battlefield in Mexico, fighting Pancho Villa and the Mexican revolutionaries. Of course, as history shows, the war ended once the US tipped the scales in favor of the Allied Powers. By November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed and everyone could start sailing for home.
The 100th anniversary is a timely way to remember those who fought, suffered, and died in this “Great War.” Too often they are forgotten, as time rolls on. Remember to put yourself in their place. WWII was 20 years distant and this was the first worldwide war that folks had ever been a part of, and it provided a well-timed victory for the Allied forces. It also helped to bring together a country split by a civil war that was in their not too distant memory.