World War I

World War I

I. June 1914 to December 1915

When news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, reached across the Atlantic from Sarajevo, few Americans paid heed. The American economy roared and Terre Haute along with it. Floridians applauded the first airline to provide regular commercial passenger services. Ford Motor Company announced an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage of five dollars per day worked. Citizens of Chicago cheered the completion of a baseball stadium—later renamed Wrigley Field. While news of the nefarious actions of the Black Hand militant group made front page headlines, Americans—and Europeans—carried on.

Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28, 1914 and Europe descended into violence. New technology demanded updated warfare tactics. Trench warfare, machine guns, and barbed wire scarred, peppered, and wound through the landscape, creating horrendous body counts. When the Battle of the Marne raged for four days in September, the four lines devoted to the headline published on the front page of the Terre Haute Tribune belied the battle that would save Paris, but have the highest per day causality rate of any battle on the Western Front. Terre Haute citizens, and Americans, were disconnected from the horror. Local Hautian Simon Levi was featured as in a local interest story as he had nephews fighting on opposite sides of the war—Germany and France respectively.

With the sinking of the Lusitania, the interest in European conflict and America’s role became front and center for many. Many Terre Haute citizens expressed opinions of neutrality and declared against American interventionism. Others displayed apathy. Prominent citizen Demas Deming, namesake of Deming Park, stated, “It was a bad steamship accident, wasn’t it?”

During the summer of 1915, Americans felt the ripples of chaos echoing from Europe. On June 2, Italy reached out to its representatives in Clinton, IN to call Italian Americans to arms in support of the war effort. Few left to join, even with the thread levied that they would be unable to go back to Italy if they did not report. European circus acts braved the Atlantic, finding work with Barnum and Bailey, and landing in Terre Haute on June 15. Domestic goods production increased in the late fall and winter as production in Europe faltered and local Terre Haute factories, such as Johnson Bros. Motor company, North Baltimore glass factory, and Highland Iron and Steel Company, all expressed positive projections in increased employment, to the delight of local workers.

As 1915 pressed on, the political climate and President Woodrow Wilson’s administration motioned toward readying America if they might need to join the bloody fray across the Atlantic. Citizens spoke out. 8,000 men and women flooded the Tremont Temple in Boston, MA to hear Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs express his convictions and anti-war stance. Indiana State Normal School Professor of History Elwood Kemp addressed the McKinley club, explaining the historical context of the European conflict. Terre Haute women, representing numerous local clubs, appealed to President Wilson for consideration of a peace plan.

The youth of Terre Haute became the hot topic of November 1915 conversation. Dolls from Germany arrived in time for the Christmas holiday buying season, joining the offerings of dolls from other countries in conflict. Looming over the youthful joy was a pressing issue concerning the immediate future of education curriculum for Terre Haute children. Proposals circulated to introduce mandatory military education and physical training into the curriculum based on models implemented by some schools in the eastern United States. Terre Haute Principals denounced the idea—breaking rank from city schools superintendent C.J. Waits—citing that compulsory military training in secondary education would only train students for life as a soldier because necessary studies would be sacrificed due to time.

II. December 1915 to July 1917

In early 1916 in the European theater, German and French soldiers began the long and bloody Battle of Verdun, a battle which would make or break French morale. Elsewhere, the international community responded to the impoverishment and enslaved labor of the Belgians by the German army. While the British became increasingly engaged in battle against the Germans, notably in the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Jutland, Americans were divided at home over the issue of preparedness. Decreasing diplomatic ties with Germany and a major campaign in support of America joining the war would eventually turn major public opinion away from mere preparedness and fully towards American entry into the war.

Appeals for French aid were sent out by bulletin to cities across the United States. The city of Terre Haute paid special attention to the need for medical supplies that the French army desperately needed, namely cotton and anesthetics. Charitable efforts to assist the Belgian community were started by the local chapter of the D.A.R. through the sale of Belgian flags. It was becoming more apparent that the Terre Haute community could not evade being impacted by the prospect of American entry into the war, especially as stories were streaming in about the war from those who had seen it firsthand.

W.H. Durborough’s “On the Firing Line with the Germans” broke attendance records at Terre Haute’s American Theater on 8th and Wabash when it was shown over the course of a few weeks in February 1916. Nearly 8,000 patrons viewed the film, not for its entertainment value, but for the value of information it provided “through the accurate unbiased eye of the camera.” Indiana native and former Terre Haute resident Albert Dawson was given the opportunity as an agent for the American Correspondent Film Company to document the war from the perspective of both the German and Russian armies. Before American entry into the war, Terre Hauteans were given a very vivid representation of the conflict through the technology of photography and videography.

German immigrants in Terre Haute were likely to have friends and family potentially fighting on the side of the Central Powers. Such was the case with hotel keeper August Bader who had an old friend write to him to report that she had ten sons fighting for the Kaiser. These immigrants had a precarious position in which they did not “want to see the allies triumph over” the land of their birth but wished to see “the triumph of the ideas” they fought for.

While protest to American entry into the war was ensuing, spurred on by Socialist and labor leader Eugene V. Debs, the community at large felt very strongly called to unite with President Wilson in the declaration of war against Germany. One local resident, Sarah Douglas, was profoundly impacted by the war when she lost her son in the attack on the SS Aztec on April 1, 1917. On Wednesday April 4, a major patriotic rally at the Chamber of Commerce cemented Terre Haute’s support for President Wilson’s decision to enter the war.

III. July 1917 to December 1919

With America’s entry, the war became a race against time. The Russian Empire surrendered to settle its brutal civil war. The Germans took this opportunity to hurl waves of troops against the Allies on the Western Front. Braving the U-Boat menace, thousands of American troops poured into France. By the end of 1918, the Germans had no choice but to capitulate and end their dreams of conquest. The end of the war saw much joy but also bore bitter fruit such as the influenza epidemic or the imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs.

During this period Vigo County fully embraced the war effort. Local organizations organized charity drives, sewing clothing, donating money, and supplying hospitals. Rationing went into effect, such as when “lightless nights” were organized. With the men gone to war, numerous jobs began to be worked by women for the first time. Groups like African-Americans and Syrians took on increasing local prominence by assisting the war effort.

Overseas, men from Vigo County more than matched the Homefront’s contributions. Men like George Pfisenmeyer, who shot down a German plane only to get shot down himself, made a real impact. Tens of men from the county gave their lives for our country during this period. There was also real ugliness on display as German institutions forcibly changed their names and German’s were threatened in the street. When the war finally ended though, Terre Hautians of all backgrounds flooded downtown to celebrate the end of the war to end all wars.