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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sidebar: Wyoming and World War One

Recently I did a Sidebar post on Wyoming and World War Two.  So, a followup on Wyoming and World War One is a natural in some ways, although it'd be my guess that many would figure that the impact of the Great War upon Wyoming would have been fairly minor.  Except for the particularly historically minded (which may include most of the folks who view this blog) World War One seems pretty remote in time.  It's no wonder really, as the war was overshadowed in the  American imagination (but not the  European one) a mere 20 or so years after it ended by World War Two, which to Americans has always seemed the much more critical and bigger event.  Indeed, to the American imagination World War One often seems to me not much more than the prolog to World War Two.

And, of course, World War Two defines modern wars.  Every war that's happened since WWII can find some precedent in WWII, and even though technology has enormously advanced since the war, up until extremely recently there's always been a very close precedent in any one weapon  or ground environment in a current war and the Second World War.   Perhaps this is changing just now, in which case, I suppose, World War Two will soon seem to be a much more distant war.  World War One managed to seem distant, somehow, to Americans by 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland.

World War One was actually a much more modern war than we now imagine. And, in actuality, during the war itself, the impact of WWI in the state may have exceeded WWII, while the long-lasting impacts may in fact be less obvious, but potentially greater.  Much of what Wyoming is today, it became in the 20th Century, and even if it started to become what it is today in the late 19th Century, the big changes really started during World War One.

The Great War, for Wyoming, started in 1914 when the Germans entered Belgium.  The same is not true, at least to the same extent, of 1939, when the Germans entered Poland, or even of 1940, when the Germans entered Belgium again.  The reason for this has to do with two prime resources that Wyoming had at that time which were vital to the European war. Those commodities were the horse and petroleum oil.

U.S. Army Remounts, photograph taken in the World War One time frame.

When the war broke out British Remount agents scoured the United States for suitable horses of all type.  And Wyoming was ideally situated to take advantage of this sudden boom in the requirements for horseflesh.  Northern Wyoming and Montana, which had significant English ranching communities, were particularly eager to take part in this trade, which not only provided a ready made market for fine horses, but which also appealed to their English patriotism. But they were not alone in taking advantage in this market. Range horses, that is horses simply gathered off the range, had long been a staple for ranchers, but now they actually commanded the attention of foreign purchasers.  The horse boom was on.

British Remount purchasing agents scoured the state for horses, and Wyoming ranchers were eager to provide the same.  They were joined by  French purchasing agents seeking to do the same thing. Wyoming, of course, wasn't unique in this, but with thousands of available horses, and some fine independent breeding programs, the economic impact of European purchases was vast.

The boom in this agricultural commodity, however, was not isolated.  Every sector of agriculture in North America exploded during the Great War.  From 1914 on the fields of France were strained by fighting and a lack of war workers.  The UK was free of fighting, of course, but it was also free of agricultural workers, as they joined the British Army to fight in the war.  And both of these factors were also true for Russia, a major grain producing region.  Every place where grain could be planted, and many places that never should have had grains planted, received them.  

And, of course, the need to feed a vast number of men also increased the demand for meat, and therefore cattle. And sheep also saw a boom.  This era was in height of Wyoming's sheep era, when sheep numbered in the millions in the state.  The armies of Europe fought in wool and the demand for wool therefore was inexhaustible.

This all started, of course in the 1914 to 1917 time frame, that is before the United States had entered the war.  Wyoming was enjoying a war related economic boom before the country had entered the war.  Starting in 1915 the war actually arrived in another form in Wyoming, but in the form of the Punitive Expedition, which is not commonly regarded as being part of World War One at all, but which was the country's introduction to the fighting in some ways.  The Wyoming National Guard (there was no "Army" National Guard at time, just the National Guard) saw itself Federalized for service on the border just like every other state's Guard.  While service was not continual, the Punitive Expedition was the de facto start of the war for the United States Army, which began to expand at this point, and which began to receive practical field experience for the greater war which was to come. And it saw a the nation's Army reserve, in the form of the National Guard, including the Wyoming National Guard, Federalized for service.  From this point until 1919 the Army was at least partially mobilized and on a war footing.

Wyoming, at the time, was the home to two Army bases, Ft. D. A. Russell and Ft. MacKenzie.  Both were horse centric, as cavalry was stationed at Ft. D. A. Russell and Ft. MacKenzie was a Remount purchasing center.  Wyoming's National Guard was artillery at the time, for the most part, with some other types of units mixed in, but it did not include cavalry.  Nonetheless, as is obvious, the US soon also became a purchaser of horseflesh due to its military requirements. The horse boom, therefore, was compounded.

When war was declared in April, 1917, the United States found itself with the first draft since the Civil War.  Indeed, due to an odd opinion by the Attorney General of the United States, conscription actually applied to the Federalized National Guardsmen.  In a legal oddity, all the Guardsmen were discharged and then instantly conscripted.  But, of course, they weren't alone. The United States Army expanded from a tiny force to one over over 1,000,000 men in next to no time.  Absorbing the influx of men itself was a problem, only partially solved by the Army's solution of dividing itself into two groups, one part being the combined Regular Army and National Guard, and the other, the National Army, being made up of concripts.  Ultimately, the National Army would outnumber the combined Guard and Regular Army.

Recruitment poster in WWI time frame, but outside of the actual war period itself.

Like World War Two, the Great War depleted towns of their entire young male populations.  Young men were so eager to join that they actually crossed the state in some circumstances to volunteer.   Young men from Jackson formed their own unit and traveled to Cheyenne to join, for example.  As the Great War would be the death of private units, and they were no doubt incorporated into another unit, they may have been a bit disappointed.  Nonetheless, the extent of volunteerism was so high that even a relatively small town like Hanna left behind memorials to large numbers of men who volunteered to serve in the war.

 James Montgomery Flagg's famous recruiting poster, used in World War One and World War Two.

Wartime Marine Corps recruiting poster by Flagg.

The drain on agricultural workers was so high, in this largely per-mechanized agricultural era, that the United States, like Britain and Canada before it, were forced to recruit women for labor in the fields.

The era of the war also saw the expansion of military training to schools, something that had not been common prior to the war.  Casper High School, the predecessor to Natrona County High School, fielded an early version of JrROTC. The University of Wyoming incorporated officer training.  Officer training at universities was not invented in this era, but it was widespread during the war.  

The swelling of the Army naturally increased the demand on all of the resources already been produced for the war in Wyoming. Grains, meat, wool, all became even more in demand, just as the labor to produce all of them became more scarce.

Food concerns became so acute, in fact, during t he Great War that a major governmental campaign was launched seeking to conserve certain foods.  This was also done, of course, during World War Two, but the WWI effort had a certain desperate tinge to it.

Indeed the desperate tinge in World War One actually lead to a rationing program in Montana, although there was not nationwide rationing, as there was in World War Two.  Montana actually prosecuted some people under a state anti-sedition law for criticizing its rationing program.

One vital wartime commodity was petroleum oil.  As with horses, oil experienced a boom starting in 1914.  For the first time in history armies were using oil in significant quantities, as motor transportation made its appearance.   Perhaps more significantly, however, the Royal Navy had started the switch to burning oil in 1911, rather than coal, even though the United Kingdom was entirely dependent on oil imports.  The U.S. Navy had started this switch the year prior, in 1910.  The Wyoming had been an oil province since the late 19th Century and the war dramatically boosted production, causing a joint oil and agricultural boom in the state.  Even prior to that Congress, realizing that the switch to petroleum oil by the Navy meant that war could create a shortfall of the strategic resource, had committed some of Wyoming's oil to a Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the U.S. Navy.  This gave Wyoming, somewhat uniquely for a landlocked state, a Navy presence prior to the war.

Grass Creek Field, 1916.

It was the oil boom that caused the most visible change to the state, and perhaps the most long lasting change. With the expansion of oil exploration, came the modernization and expansion of oil production facilities, as well as the explosive build up of towns and cities. The state saw "sky scrapers" built during the war, such as Casper's Oil Exchange Building, which later became the Consolidated Royalty Building.Construction also included housing, streets and sidewalks, as new urban areas developed to house the workforce brought in by the expansion in oil production.  In some ways, the long developing position of the minerals industry as the prime economic mover of the state finally took permanent hold during World War One.  Agriculture remained, of course, important, but there was no denying the greatly increased importance of oil production. 

The war caused a shift, so dramatic that it must have been obvious to those living in the state at the time, from an economy and culture that was primarily focused on cattle ranching to one based on oil exploration. Wyoming had, of course, seen mineral exploration prior to 1914, and some Wyoming towns were entirely dedicated to it in some fashion. But the real intense exploration had really been devoted mostly to coal, giving rise to towns like Hanna.  Otherwise, even if they featured oil exploration as part of their economic base, most Wyoming towns were agricultural in some fashion.  Casper, as an example, may have boosted its fortunes in newspapers as an oil center, but it was cattle and sheep that kept the town going. Staring in 1914, it really did become an oil town, even with the cattle and sheep remaining.

Just as the war sparked a huge economic boom in the state, the end of the war brought a responding crash.  Agriculture hung on, economically, for about a year nationwide after the war ended, with 1919 being the last year in US history in which the standard of living for a family farm met that for the average middle class town dweller.  But that same year the expansion of grain production continued on unabated with near obvious results, and homesteading reached its all time high.  A crash was bound to follow.  The reduction of armies globally, and the cessation of the loss of horses, of course brought about an end to the Remount trade in a big hurry, causing an immediate horse recession for those who had been supplying horses to the various Allied armies.  While the Great Depression would not arrive for another decade, for agriculture the slump started early all across the nation and would only grow worse in the 1930s.  Nonetheless, at the same time, a last gasp of homesteading would continue on until it was stopped by the Federal government in 1933.

Oddly enough, the war directly caused a brief burst of immediate post war homesteading, with some being fairly successful, under a special program to assist returning servicemen in that fashion.  I knew one such homesteader and know of others.  The program was seemingly fairly popular with returning veterans.  Perhaps reflecting a change in society, a similar program at the end of World War Two was largely unsuccessful and underutilized.

Oil carried on as the economic engine of the state following the war, following a slump, reflecting the enormous expansion of automobiles that had commenced the decade prior to the war and which would continue on unabated until the Great Depression. Following World War One, and as a result of it, the Army would experiment with cross country road travel, giving a boost to the highway movement that was already ongoing.  The US began its real conversion to a highway society following the war, although certainly trains remained the dominant means of cross country, and even intrastate, travel.

Just as the war may have given a boost to the travel of humans, it certainly gave a boost to the travel of disease, and Wyoming suffered, along with the rest of the nation, from the 1918 Influenza Epidemic that the war caused and spread.  Calendar entries on this site occasionally note the death toll from this horrific global event, which while global, visited personalized grief upon communities and individuals in the state that year.

In terms of social changes, or perhaps political ones, World War One did not have the massive impacts that World War Two did, but it did have some.  Perhaps the most surprising is the success of Prohibition.  The movement towards Prohibition had been in the country since the late 19th Century, but it was the war that caused the Volstead Act and the amendment to the U.S. Constitution, changes which Wyoming had a role in.  Wyoming's politicians on a town and state level began agitating for Prohibition as soon as the US entered the war.  The Mayor of Cheyenne, for example, urged it as a way of insuring civil conduct in the town in light of the increased numbers of soldiers at Ft. D. A. Russell.  The Governor asked for bars to be closed for the duration of the war.  Politicians expressed a fear that soldiers would return from France drunks, or worse, after having sampled French wine and whatever other illicit offerings France might have in store.  F. E. Warren, seeing which way the wind was blowing, provided the decisive vote in the Senate to push the Volstead Act over the top.  Prohibition arrived in 1919 with the returning veterans, which was not an accident.

All in all, the war probably changed the United States and Wyoming in less massive and obvious ways than World War Two, which isn't to say that it didn't bring about changes. Wyoming was a heavily rural state with a major emphasis on cattle and sheep production before the war, and it was after. Still, there were changes.  The oil industry, which had been in the state since its onset, really got rolling during World War One in a way that we'd recognize today.  It was there prior to the war, and it would have arrived anyhow, but the global demand for oil for vehicles and ships caused the oil industry to leap forward by a decade, if not two decades in just a few years.  With that, the towns and cities dramatically changed in ways that were permanent for all, and still visible in many locations.

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