Saturday, March 23, 2019

Commemorating Family Members Who Served in the Great War

WWI era newspaper photo from Smithsonian Magazine (public domain)
It has now been more than 100 years since the end of the Great War, also known as the  "war to end all wars."  World War I (1914-1918) was a global conflict that resulted in 9-11 million military personnel deaths, 8 million civilian deaths--some related to famine and disease, and about 40 million casualties in all, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

Although the United States attempted to maintain a neutral stance in regards to European conflicts at the time, it became necessary to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.  This was due to the sinking of American merchant ships by German submarines, but also because Germany encouraged Mexico to declare war on the United States.  The American draft then went into action, although trained forces would not being arriving at the European front in significant numbers until mid-1918.  The war and the draft would have a great impact on many young American men and their families.

The Selective Service Act, enacted on May 18, 1917, allowed the U.S. federal government to raise a national army to serve during World War I.  In the beginning, all males between the ages of 21-30 were required to register for potential military service.  In August 1918, the age range expanded to include men from 18-45.  More than half of the nearly 4.8 million Americans who served in the war were drafted.  There were five draft categories.  How these were classified had an obvious impact on which of my ancestors were chosen to serve, while others were deferred or exempted, keeping in mind that some may have volunteered.

Here are the classes, paraphrased in some instances:

Class 1) Eligible and liable for military service:
Unmarried registrants with no dependents; married registrants with independent spouse or one or more dependent children over 16 with sufficient family income if drafted.

Class 2) Temporarily deferred, but available for military service.
Married registrants with dependent spouse or dependent children under 16 with sufficient family income if drafted.

Class 3) Temporarily exempted, but available for military serivce.
Local officials; registrants who provide sole family income for dependent parents or dependent siblings under 16; registrants employed in agricultural labor or industrial enterprises essential to the war effort.

Class 4) Exempted due to extreme hardship.
Married registrants with dependent spouse or dependent children with insufficient family income if drafted; registrants with deceased spouse or deceased parents who provide sole family income for dependent children or dependent siblings under 16.

Class 5) Exempted or ineligible for induction into military service.
State or Federal officials; officers and enlisted men in the military or naval service of the United States; licenses pilots employed in the pursuit of their vocation; members of the clergy or students preparing for the ministry on or before May 18, 1917; registrants who were medically disabled, considered "morally unfit" for military service, or those who had been convicted of a crime involving treason or felony.

Canadian poster, 1918 (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The red poppy became known as the "remembrance poppy" during World War I.  This was in large part due to John McCrae's poem, "In Flanders Fields."  An American professor, Moina Michael, started the tradition of wearing a red poppy to honor the soldiers who died in the war. She distributed silk poppies and campaigned to have the flower adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion.

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae, 1872-1918

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders fields.

A Canadian physician and teacher, John McCrae served in France during the war.  He wrote "In Flanders Fields" after noting how quickly poppies grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres,  The poem, written from the perspective of the war dead, speaks of their sacrifice and a command to the living to press on.  McCrae initially discarded the poem, but it was rescued by fellow soldiers and eventually published, becoming the most popular and most quoted poem of its era.  After several years involved the war effort, McCrae contracted pneumonia and died on January 28, 1918.

Following the widespread scourging of Europe and other areas of the world, the war officially came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when Germany signed an armistice agreement with the combined Allied forces.  This article kicks off a Nordic Blue blog series about the World War I veterans in the main branches of my family:  Basgaard, Berge, Johnson, Larson, and Strand, and honors their individual experiences and sacrifices.


"How the Poppy Came to Symbolize World War I.",, October 20, 2016 (accessed March 20, 2019).

"In Flanders Fields."  Wikipedia (accessed March 20, 2019).

"Selective Service Act of 1917."  Wikipedia (accessed March 21, 2019).

"World War I."  Wikipedia (accessed March 21, 2019).

No comments: