Machine gun set up in railroad shop in Chateau Thierry, France. Company A, Ninth Machine Gun Battalion. (U.S. National Archives photo)

World War I: A Forgotten American Legacy

Though it pushed the United States onto the world stage, World War I also left unresolved numerous ethnic, religious and geopolitical conflicts still facing us today. A century later, Jon McGinty examines its legacy in our region.

Machine gun set up in railroad shop in Chateau Thierry, France. Company A, Ninth Machine Gun Battalion. (U.S. National Archives photo)
Machine gun set up in railroad shop in Chateau Thierry, France. Company A, Ninth Machine Gun Battalion. (U.S. National Archives photo)

This year marks the centennial of the end of World War I, or The Great War, as it was then known. Begun on July 28, 1914, due to “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans,” as Otto von Bismarck had predicted in 1888, it officially ended with an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918 – four years, three months, and 14 days later.

During that time, more than 70 million people from 135 countries, mostly in Europe, were mobilized. The war pitted the Central Powers – mainly Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey) against the Allies – mainly France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan and, from 1917, the United States. About 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians were killed, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in history.

When it was over, the four great dynasties that started the war had fallen, along with their colonial empires that had dominated world affairs for centuries. The world’s political geography was changed dramatically by the “peace” that followed, as victors scrambled to claim previous possessions of the vanquished, especially in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific. Continuous post-war rivalries and unresolved issues helped pave the way to World War II only 21 years later, and left a legacy which still plagues our politics today.


The U.S. was a latecomer to the conflict, drawn in on April 6, 1917, by German diplomatic maneuvers and their resumption of unrestricted submarine attacks on merchant shipping. During the 14 months of our participation, 2 million troops were sent overseas to battles in Europe, Italy, northern Russia and Siberia. More than 117,000 Americans died, 53,000 as the result of combat. Thousands more were wounded, many disfigured or disabled for life.

“The United States fought World War I as a deeply divided country,” says Ross Kennedy, chairman of the History Department at Illinois State University. “That was very different from what happened in World War II.”

Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 presidential election, running as the candidate “who kept us out of war.” But many in Congress did not agree with his foreign policies, and the debate over possible intervention in Europe re-emerged after the election. In a desperate attempt to win the war before the U.S. intervened, Germany resumed submarine attacks on merchant shipping in February 1917, sinking three U.S. ships in March. At the same time, a telegram from Germany’s foreign minister to Mexico, intercepted by the British and made public by Wilson, revealed Germany’s attempt to recruit Mexico as an ally if Germany and the U.S. went to war.

“After the initial impulse to ‘rally around the flag,’ large numbers of Americans became pretty unenthusiastic about participating in the conflict,” says Kennedy. “Many Americans did not perceive any need to be in the war … and large numbers disliked and distrusted the Allies, especially the British. Concern about anti-war sentiment and apathy led the Wilson administration to launch an unprecedented propaganda campaign, and to sharply curtail freedom of speech and the press in order to silence opponents of the war.”

Part of this effort produced the Espionage Act and Sedition Act of 1917-18, which were used to arrest individuals, including labor leader and anti-war activist Eugene V. Debs, and to close down newspapers and control other forms of dissent. This repression during the war eventually gave rise to the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.

A vigilante organization calling itself the American Protective League conducted a series of “slacker raids” to round up young men suspected of evading the draft or sympathizing with the enemy. On June 6, 1917, 136 men turned themselves in to the Winnebago County Sheriff in Rockford, declaring their refusal to register for the draft. Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge in Freeport, later sentenced 124 of the Rockford protesters to a year in jail.

Ethnic intolerance for all things German raised its ugly head throughout the country, but especially in Wisconsin, with its high percentage of German descendants. The Anti-Saloon League, a national temperance/prohibition organization, attacked Milwaukee brewers as being unpatriotic, although 95 percent were born in the U.S. The League said the production of beer was a waste of resources, since it took vast amounts of grain and fuel out of the wartime industries. They insisted on “loyalty to the flag, not the keg.”

People, towns, schools and institutions throughout the state changed their German-sounding names, and in some communities, books by German authors were burned. In Rockford, restaurants listed sauerkraut as “Liberty Cabbage” on their menus, and Berlin Avenue was changed – apparently permanently – to Rockford Avenue.

“The U.S. armed forces went from less than a half-million total in April 1917, to 4.5 million by the Armistice 18 months later, with 2 million overseas,” says Paul Herbert, executive director of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Ill. “That’s an astounding accomplishment.”

After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian government signed a separate peace treaty with Germany on March 3, 1918, which allowed the Germans to transfer thousands of soldiers from the Eastern Front to the Western Front, the Germans hoping to attack before the Americans were ready for battle.

“Wilson had warned Gen. Pershing to keep the American Army intact, and not fritter it away piecemeal, by replacing French and British losses,” says Herbert. “He wanted to retain influence in the final peace negotiations.”

The first U.S. division to enter combat in any strength was the First Division, so named because there had been no permanently established divisions before the war. In the midst of Ludendorff’s Spring Offensives, they attacked Cantigny, France, a small farming crossroads surrounded by chalk cliffs 20 miles southeast of Amien, on May 28, 1918. After a sustained artillery barrage, which included smoke and gas shells, and using flamethrowers, air cover and French tanks, the U.S. troops, nicknamed “doughboys,” secured the village within 35 minutes. The Americans endured three days of counterattacks and sustained 1,067 casualties.

“This was the first American battle for freedom in Europe,” says Herbert, “and the first combined arms battle in U.S. history. Although our total casualties were far fewer than any major European participant, the 300,000 we did endure between Cantigny and the Armistice, amounted to 2,000 per day.”

Camp Grant

One of the greatest impacts World War I had on Northern Illinois was the creation of Camp Grant, one of 16 military cantonments (temporary installations) built to house, feed, equip and train the first 500,000 troops that would become the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).

“Rockford was chosen from 22 Illinois cities,” says Terry Dyer, docent and historian at Veterans’ Memorial Hall in Rockford. “The competition was fierce, because the camp would potentially bring $2 million (1917 dollars) into the local economy.”

The New Milford site south of Rockford was finally selected for several reasons: the climate and soil resembled France and Belgium; there were two nearby rivers and several artesian wells to supply water; and several railroads served the area. The Army purchased almost 6,000 acres – 8.8 square miles – of pristine farmland, where Chicago-Rockford International Airport now stands.

“Construction began July 1, 1917, when 900 workmen started on the first four barracks,” says Dyer. “They used a total of 8,600 workmen – 1,100 from Rockford – to build an average of 50 buildings a day for 4 ½ months. It was probably the largest construction project this area has ever seen.”

The final count was 1,623 buildings, including: 329 two-story barracks, each large enough to contain a complete company of 200 men; 25 mess halls; a 1,000-bed hospital complex; four fire stations; 10 YMCA buildings; three Knights of Columbus halls; a post office; a refrigeration plant; 26 steam plants (Camp Grant was the only World War I camp with steam heat); a 4,500-seat indoor theater; and 32 miles of roads.

Also included: parade/drill fields; rifle, mortar and machine gun ranges (they fired across the Kishwaukee River where Atwood Park is today); a remount station for 5,000 horses and mules; and an open-air amphitheater built into a natural formation, later named Bell Bowl.

To simulate conditions on the Western Front, they dug more than 12 miles of zigzag trenches on the northeast corner of the camp, complete with a no-man’s land in between. The trench system included wooden dugouts buried 35 feet below the surface.

Camp Grant became a training center for officers and enlisted men in the infantry, engineers, artillery, signal corps and machine gun units.

“Artillery units went to Sparta, Wis., for live-fire practice, forming long caravans of vehicles as they traveled,” says Dyer.

The total camp population peaked in late summer of 1918 at 56,238, including 6,000 African-American soldiers stationed in segregated barracks. Rockford’s population was about 60,000 at the time. The first troops to arrive later became part of the 33rd “Prairie” Division of the Illinois National Guard, and saw action in France after completing their training in Houston, Texas. The “home” unit for Camp Grant was the 86th “Black Hawk” Division, but it never went into combat as a division. Instead, several machine gun battalions were sent to other units as replacements.

The battalions of African-American soldiers, with white officers, went to Europe, but American and British commanders refused to utilize them. Instead, the French Army gladly accepted the manpower, and the soldiers went on to perform admirably under fire.

In the fall of 1918, the Spanish influenza pandemic swept into Rockford and Camp Grant. More than 4,000 soldiers became infected, and within two short weeks, 1,400 had died – 115 in one day alone. Some 326 Rockford civilians were also killed by the disease, as well as 100 more in Winnebago County.

“They sent people into Chicago to find morticians, when local health care workers became overwhelmed,” says Dyer. “A temporary morgue was set up in the Overland Garage at 202-212 North Church Street in downtown Rockford. Morticians worked around the clock to embalm the dead, put them in coffins and send them back home to their families.”

On Oct. 7, 1918, Camp Commander Col. Charles Hagadorn killed himself in apparent despair over the uncontrolled epidemic. Shortly thereafter, the epidemic ended as quickly as it had begun 10 days earlier.

“The next day, in the newspaper announcing Hagadorn’s obituary, the banner headline read ‘Flu Seems to be Abating,’” says Dyer. “If he had just waited 24 hours, he might not have taken his own life.”

Worldwide, the influenza outbreak killed 21 million people, more than died in the World War. Some historians credit the flu with contributing to Germany’s ultimate defeat. About 675,000 died of the disease in the U.S.

Veterans’ Memorial Hall, built in 1903 to honor the veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, was listed as a comfort station in a Camp Grant soldiers’ guide to businesses and facilities in Rockford. In addition, the GAR held meetings in the Hall, and many trainees at Camp Grant were sons of veterans of those wars.

“The Boys in Blue held several events for the Boys in Khaki,” says Dyer. “They referred to such events as ‘the brave remembering the brave.’”

After the war, Camp Grant became a demobilization center for almost 300,000 returning soldiers from more than 14 states, and the camp hospital treated and rehabilitated the wounded from overseas. Many former soldiers, including African Americans, settled in Rockford, changing the city’s demographics forever.

In July, 1921, The War Department closed the camp and sold off most of the buildings as scrap lumber, some of which was used to build housing in Rockford. The camp was re-activated in 1941 in response to the next world war.

Midway Village Museum

This past April, for the sixth year in a row, Midway Village Museum (MVM) in Rockford hosted a gathering of World War I re-enactors, authors, collectors and history buffs, titled “The Great War: World War One.” Partnered with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, the two-day event was described as the largest such public re-enactment in the country.

Included in the weekend activities were: large-scale battle re-enactments with pyrotechnics; a scratch-built replica of a French tank; a “tin turtle” trench train locomotive; tours of replica trench bunkers; displays of uniforms, weapons, equipment and artifacts; a flying demonstration of WW I model airplanes; and lectures by authors and historians.

“The first year we tried this event, we hosted 135 re-enactors,” says Dave Fornell from Elgin, the re-enactment coordinator for MVM’s World War I and II events. “Skeptics said we would be lucky to get 15 or 20, but each year it’s grown. This year we topped out close to 300.”

Due to inclement weather (spring in Illinois!) almost 1,500 visitors attended this year’s events, down from nearly 3,500 last year.

Fornell has been re-enacting military events for almost 28 years, and has collected uniforms, weapons and equipment for German and American combatants in both World Wars.

“I probably have enough stuff to do about 30 different impressions [portrayals],” he says. “My impression this year is of a Gefreiter (assistant squad leader) in the German 353rd infantry regiment. It was a Prussian reserve unit, mostly of older guys called up and put on active duty. It was sent to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians until about 1917, and then transferred to the Western Front. Since they rotated units all the time, they fought the French, British and Americans.”

During the Midway Village events, Fornell serves as a troubleshooter to facilitate accommodations for fellow re-enactors. Several of the 25 village buildings are used to billet the would-be soldiers and provide shelter in inclement weather.

“All re-enactors have day jobs, and come from all walks of life,” says Fornell. “These events provide a cool meeting place for people with a common interest and passion for history. It’s an opportunity to learn about history, but more than reading a book or watching a movie.

“The Thursday before each event is my favorite time. After setting up displays, moving equipment, fixing trenches, that evening everybody pulls out the new pieces in their collection, and we share stories.”

Doug Strong and Sam Johnson are re-enactors from Hawthorne Woods and Lakemoore, Ill., respectively. They brought a scratch-built replica of a French tank to the Midway Village Museum event this year, which they built in 30 days this past March – with a lot of help from friends.

“It’s a replica of a French CA-1 Schneider,” says Strong. “We built the armored hull out of 3/16-inch steel plate, welded on top of a Caterpillar tractor that was rebuilt by Josh Johnson of Lakemoore. It weighs about 7 tons.”

The tank includes two 8mm Hotchkiss machine guns, one on each side, and a simulated 75mm artillery cannon mounted on a front-right sponson. It was one of the first tanks to use spaced armor to prevent shells from penetrating the hull under the cannon, an innovation used extensively in World War II.

“It’s one of the first tanks to see battle in World War I,” says Strong. “Its purpose was to take the bullet-proof machine across the battlefield, through barbed wire and over trenches, so the cannon could take out machine gun nests. The front is shaped like the prow of a ship, so it would ride over barbed wire, or cut through it with a blade welded to the front.”

They hope to utilize their tank in parades and future re-enactment events, but it must be transported by truck and trailer, which has proven to be very expensive.

War Technology

As in most wars, the art and science of killing made great advances during the Great War, as people struggled to adapt to warfare in the industrial age.

Field artillery, responsible for most casualties, developed shock absorbers to limit recoil, allowing them to stay on target and fire more rapidly. Explosive shells morphed from heavy cast iron to steel, increasing their range and speed. Smokeless powder hid gun positions, and poison gases like chlorine and phosgene increased in lethality. The effects of shrapnel on infantry led to the development of steel helmets.

Machine guns increased the rate of fire up to 500 rounds per minute. Light automatic weapons and sub-machine guns made this power portable. Hand grenades, flame throwers and mortars were introduced in response to close-in fighting in the trenches.

Airplanes changed roles from reconnaissance to air-to-air combat to ground attack to strategic bombing beyond the front lines. Rigid airships called Zeppelins carried this function to terror-bombing London. Tanks were invented to protect men from light arms fire and shrapnel while they penetrated barbed wire and crossed over trench lines.

Super battleships called Dreadnaughts still controlled the seas, but the introduction of the aircraft carrier hinted at their future demise. Submarines became the weapon of choice to both create and break the deadly blockade of merchant shipping.

Technology also advanced the treatment of battlefield casualties, including motorized ambulances, mobile x-ray machines, antiseptics, prosthetics and improvements in plastic surgery.


The armistices of 1918 and the treaties of 1919 and 1920 brought peace to only parts of the world; war continued in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for years. The peace treaties wrought great changes in the political geography of Europe: Germany was reduced in size, France and Italy enlarged, and Poland became an independent state. The Russian revolutions led to the formation of the first communist state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire produced Austria, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia, which split in two in 1992 after the collapse of the USSR, and Yugoslavia, which also broke apart violently in the early 1990s.

The Treaty of Versailles created the League of Nations to arbitrate future international conflicts, but no provision for enforcement was included. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the agreement and the ineffectual nature of the organization failed to prevent the next conflagration in 1939.

“The war also resulted in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the Middle East we know today,” says Kennedy. “The Allies declared their support for a Jewish homeland [Israel], and drew up the rough borders of what eventually became Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. In so doing, they laid the seeds of much of the conflict that plagues the region today.”

“By declaring our war aim to ‘make the world safe for democracy,’” says Herbert, “President Wilson gave first voice to the single most important and controversial dimension of U.S. diplomacy ever since: where, why, and with what effort must we engage/fight overseas to insure the safety of our democracy and that of established and nascent democracies elsewhere?”

Where and why, indeed.

Editor’s note: The author wishes to acknowledge that some information for this article was drawn from the book “Rockford: Big Town, Little City” by Pat Cunningham.