100 years ago: Montana Historical Society examines WWI’s impacts

Women on the Montana home front—like these women who left home and became engine wipers for the railroad—were affected in many ways by World War I. (Montana Historical Society)

By Tom Cook/Montana Historical Society

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I, and the still young state of Montana was shaken and shaped by the events taking place across the ocean in the war to end all wars.

This Thursday, on the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I, the Montana Historical Society will present “What Can We Learn from World War I?” at 6:30 p.m. at MHS.

MHS Historical Specialist Martha Kohl, who headed a yearlong effort to create a new website—“Montana and the Great War”—and MHS Senior Archivist Rich Aarstad will present the program and debut the new website.

As the nation attempted to come to grips with the war, the progressive movement was raising major ideological questions, asking how deeply the government should be involved in the economy, whether immigrants were a threat to U.S. culture, and what the proper relationship was between individual freedom and the common good.

Historian David Kennedy put it this way: “Americans went to war in 1917 not only against Germans in the fields of France but against each other at home.” Kohl said that was especially true in Montana.

“It is hard to overstate the significance of the U.S. entry into World War I—to the men who served (approximately 17 percent of Montana men age 18 to 44), to their families, to Montana’s German immigrant farmers, to socialist Finnish and Irish nationalist miners, to syndicalist loggers, and to everyone living in Montana during the war and to all those who came after,” Kohl said.

The resources gathered on the “Montana and the Great War” website include a list of published works that explore Montana during WWI, a story map featuring images and events from across Montana, exploring the different ways the war and its aftermath affected Montanans, materials for teachers and short oral-history audio clips featuring the voices of the Montanans who lived through it here and overseas.

The story map is the central feature of the project. It includes 70 stories from across Montana, including these:

♦ Emmett Ryan of Valier graduated from Montana State University at Missoula with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1912. He joined the Army during the Mexican Revolution. A sergeant in the Signal Corps during World War I, Ryan survived major battles at Soissons and Saint-Mihiel, but on Nov. 10, 1918, the day before Armistice, he was fatally wounded at Argonne. He died on Nov. 12. The Valier American Legion Post 36 Emmett Ryan is named for him.

♦ Many Butte residents opposed the federal law that required all men ages 21 to 31 to register for the draft on June 5, 1917. On “Registration Day,” hundreds of Finnish socialists and Irish nationalists marched against the war in protest. Their handbills declared, “We are at the behest of the money powers, to be taken forcibly to kill and be killed.” Butte police arrested 21 demonstrators with the help of National Guard troops, called in to disperse the crowd.

♦ During the war, Minda Brownell McAnnally worked in Eastern Montana as a telegraph operator for the Northern Pacific Railroad. The U.S. government nationalized the railroads to ensure the efficient movement of troops and supplies essential to the war. The railroad needed operators 24 hours a day, so McAnnally worked long shifts, often alone in rural depots. Sick with the Spanish flu, she covered her mouthpiece with gauze and Listerine to protect her fellow operators.

Every part of Montana and every Montanan was touched in some way by World War I, Kohl said. The war’s legacy was profound. Among other consequences, many farmers who took out loans patriotically expanded their operations to feed the troops and the Allies in war-torn Europe found themselves in dire straits after the war, when drought and low commodity prices left them unable to pay their loans. Half of Montana banks failed in the 1920 and an estimated 60,000 Montanans left the state for greener pastures.

During World War I, Montanans struggled with many of the same essential questions we deal with today: What sacrifices should civilians make during wartime? Are immigrants a threat to U.S. security or the American way of life? How does propaganda shape our understanding of world events? And most of all, what does it mean to be a “good” American?” These were burning questions then just as they remain burning questions now, Kohl said.

“Perhaps by looking back at how Montanans answered these questions during World War I—and the political and social consequences of their answers—we can gain some useful perspective on our own time,” she said.

Tom Cook is the public information officer for the Montana Historical Society, a job he has held for more than 25 years. Before that he was a State Bureau reporter for Lee Newspapers of Montana. He is a Vietnam Marine veteran, who has seen how war overseas and at home changes people and society.