La Crosse and the Great War
(written by Hannah Weber, Archives staff)
April 6, 2017 marks 100 years since Congress voted to declare war on Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, cueing the United States’ entrance into the Great War. The First World War was an unprecedented conflict in World history and confronted not only World leaders, but also everyday people with the harsh reality of what modern warfare could mean. As we entered into the midst of a war that had been playing out for the past two and a half years, our hometown, La Crosse did not escape the wave of global conflict. Stories of La Crosse citizens taking up different roles for the war effort are recorded and expressed in the collections held at the La Crosse Public Library Archives.
Front page of the Nord Stern German-language La Crosse newspaper on April 6, 1917 “State of War between the United States and Germany: Congress’ War Resolution Passes”
Prior to the U.S.’s declaration of war, the Wisconsin government and many of its citizens were against the U.S. becoming involved in the European conflict. However, when Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare thus putting American lives at risk, and President Woodrow Wilson decided it time to take up arms, Wisconsinites rose to the task. Wisconsin was the first state to report in the four national draft registrations and was commended by both federal authorities and the Army for its efficiency. Wisconsin was also the first state to give aid to soldier dependents and to organize State and County Councils of Defense. Councils of Defense were programs which educated citizens about the war and the everyday sacrifices and efforts which needed to be made to support the war effort.
“Wisconsin in War” pamphlet, 1918 describing Wisconsin’s accomplishments during WWI (From MISC MSS 196)
In particular, the women of Wisconsin especially rose to the task. Working for the Red Cross, Wisconsin women knitted 500,000 articles of winter clothing and made 500,000,000 surgical dressings from 1917-1919. Within the archival collection, the Merlina Schleiter Papers, we get a glimpse of the specific ways in which women were able to participate in the war effort on the home front. Some main objectives for women during WWI were efforts to conserve food so that American troops could be well fed, understanding how to keep their own bodies strong and able to assist in the war effort, and how to best support soldiers upon returning from war. In addition, Wisconsin women were the first to establish “wheatless” and “meatless” days to help conserve food for the war effort. Later the federal government would nationally adopt this program.
United States Food Administration materials (MISC MSS 196)
Writing letters to the soldiers abroad was another way in which women contributed to the war effort. Letters women and family members wrote describing the programs and events they were involved with on the home front helped to distract soldiers fighting abroad from the harsh realities of war. Written correspondence was a lifeline for soldiers to both their home life and normalcy and they can show us today, the thoughts people were having throughout the war. For example, through the Herbert G. Hanson Correspondence (MISC MSS 080) collection, we can explore a first-hand account of WWI through reading Mr. Hanson and his sister’s letters. These letters tell the story of a solider from La Crosse wishing to hear about the everyday musings of his friends and sister’s lives while constantly declaring that he had “nothing to report” regarding military matters.
September 30, 1917 letter written by Herbert G. Hanson (MISC MSS 080)
Archival collections, such as the samplings above, provide us with the opportunity to have discussions with the past through exploring and observing relics left behind by those before us and preserved by librarians and archivists. If you have any questions about the WWI collections at the La Crosse Public Library Archives or if you have materials at home similar to those described in this post and would like to donate them to the La Crosse Public Library Archives, please contact us at 608-789-7136 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Holmes, Fred L. Wisconsin's War Record. (Madison: Capital Historical Publishing Co., 1919); online facsimile at Wisconsin's Contributions to the War, 1919.
Wisconsin Historical Society. World War I, at Home and in the Trenches