The Sheridan Enterprise, 11 November 1918 (WSL Collection, TESHS)

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
​April 1997 - December 1998

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Life on the Home Front During the Great War, 1917-1918

Detail from Red Cross poster, circa 1917 (Private Collection)

 State Historic Site

Trail End

​Peace at Last


BY NOVEMBER 10, 1918, it was clear that the war would soon end. Allied troops had advanced to Germany's last stronghold; Kaiser Wilhelm had abdicated and fled to Holland; German sailors had rebelled and taken over their ships. There was nothing for Germany to do but surrender. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the fighting abruptly stopped and a "terrible silence" filled the air. Said Philip Gibbs,

Last night, for the first time since August in the first year of the war, there was no light of gunfire in the sky, no sudden stabs of flame through darkness, no spreading glow above black trees where for four years of nights, human beings were smashed to death. The Fires of Hell had been put out.

As one reporter put it, "In a twinkling, four years of killing and massacre stopped as if God had swept His omnipotent finger across the scene of world carnage and had cried 'Enough.'"

Back home, the armistice was met with joy and relief, but not a slackening of effort. There was still a lot to do before peace could truly be claimed. The army, stuck in Europe without ships to bring them home, still needed to be fed and clothed, as did the people of France, England and Belgium. The Boy Scouts of America, whose wartime motto had been "Help Win the War," coined a new slogan: "The War is Over, But Our Work is Not." The Scouts, Red Cross and other groups kept raising money, growing food and conserving fuel until the last of the troops made it home in late 1919. 



THE TRUE COST OF WAR

Of the 79,000,000 men who served on both sides of the conflict, nearly thirteen million perished. Some died in battle, others of sickness and disease. Shortly after the war, still others succumbed to wounds received in the field. Of the nearly five million American men in uniform during World War One, 131,000 lost their lives. Four hundred and sixty-eight Wyoming soldiers and sailors were killed, at least sixty-two of them from Sheridan County. 

The average age of the Sheridan County war dead was twenty-four, with eight of the casualties being nineteen or younger. Most were from Sheridan, and most served in the U.S. Army Infantry. Ten were members of the Wyoming National Guard, five were in the Air Service/Signal Corps, two were in the Student Army Training Corps, one was a sailor, and one served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.



Because it was so difficult to transport their bodies overseas, many American soldiers were buried in cemeteries in France. In 1920, Eula, Manville and Rosa-Maye Kendrick visited the cemeteries during an extended trip to Europe. On the fourth of July, they found themselves at the Argonne Cemetery in France. Eula described it as follows:

It was an impressive sight with each of the 8,000 or more crosses decorated with an American flag. The cemetery is beautifully laid out and kept and a mother would have a little comfort in leaving a son there, if he fell, a sacrifice to his country. It will always be vivid in our minds because one of our party, a Mrs. Swan, sought and found her only remaining son there. It was a sad time for all of us, and she was so brave. She is leaving him there where he fell along with his companions.

Manville also spoke of visiting the cemeteries and the battlefields. In a letter to his father from Florence, Italy, he commented on their impact:

Of course Mother has written you of the battlefields, so I could not add much in the way of description. Even with the grass growing long over the fields, they impressed me more than anything so far on the trip; especially Verdun. Even this post-mortem view of the scene gave me a new slant on the whole affair … 


Many of the dead were victims of shell shock and gas burns – two new ailments created by modern warfare. Invented by Germany, chlorine and mustard gases were extremely debilitating forms of chemical warfare which could blind, suffocate and kill. New York Tribune correspondent Will Irwin described one of the earliest uses of gas in April of 1915:

The attack of last Thursday evening was preceded by the rising of a cloud of vapor, greenish gray and iridescent. That vapor settled to the ground like a swamp mist and drifted toward the French trenches on a brisk wind. Its effect on the French was a violent nausea and faintness, followed by an utter collapse. It is believed that the Germans, who charged in behind the vapor, met no resistance at all, the French at their front being virtually paralyzed.

A year later, American Ambulance Service drivers were kept busy day and night transporting victims of the deadly fumes. As William Yorke Stevenson noted in 1916, "Nearly all the men we carried were 'gassed.' They kept coming in all day from the trenches, or rather shell holes, in the Bois Fumant and Froide Terre near Fleury. We alone carried some twelve hundred of them, and believe me, it was some strain."


PARADES & MONUMENTS

When those troops came home, there were celebrations across the land. Every village and town met their native sons with banners, parades and flowery words of praise:

With the dawn of peace the boys will be coming home to be welcomed with glad shouts and joyous acclaim; outstretched hands and eyes brimming over with the unshed tears of thankfulness will greet them and Sheridan will give her heroes a welcome home such as will repay them for many of the hardships they have undergone and many of the dangers they have braved.


Following the war, memorial books became quite popular. In the World War, 1917-1918-1919, Sheridan County, Wyoming, was published in late 1919 or early 1920 by Mills Printing Company of Sheridan. In it were service photographs of many of the county's veterans as well as extensive reports on the activities of various war-related organizations.

In addition, monuments to the dead and wounded were erected all across America. In Sheridan, it was proposed that a marble shaft be erected that would "bear the name of every man from Sheridan county who during the great war has given his life for his country and humanity." Organizers also recognized the large numbers of men who died when the influenza epidemic swept through the nation's military camps and troop ships:

Not only should 
[the shaft] bear the name of all those who died in action or from wounds, but of every man whose death came while he was in the service of his country, whether he died on foreign soil or in cantonment, whether from disease or injury. All nobly faced the danger and all went to death for the same great cause and equal honor is due every hero.

While Sheridan indeed has a monument and plaque honoring World War One casualties, nearly half of the men from the county who died in service during the war are not listed on either.



COMING HOME


Immediately after the conclusion of the war it was reported that there were 21,000,000 wounded soldiers worldwide, with 234,000 in the United States alone. Recent medical advances had allowed more disabled veterans to return from the front rather than die on the field as had been the case during previous wars. These veterans couldn’t just go back to their old lives; some were no longer physically able to do what they had done before while others had psychological challenges from the trauma of war.  


It soon became clear that there were not enough hospitals to treat all the returning wounded - both the physically damaged and the mentally impaired - so the government set about creating more. Sheridan's Fort Mackenzie, abandoned by the military since 1918, was turned over to the Veterans Bureau in 1922 and converted to a psychiatric hospital for wounded veterans, a function it still performs today.

Those soldiers who made it through the war without a scratch had their own problems. The end of the war – and the end of the wartime economy – brought high unemployment and an economic downturn. Within six months of the armistice, 2,000,000 soldiers were released from military service, flooding the country and looking for work. At the same time, factories that had been working around the clock producing weapons, ammunition, uniforms and vehicles shut down production almost overnight. As Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane wrote in a letter to his brother George on January 30, 1919:

Our whole war machine went to pieces in a night. Everybody who was doing war work dropped his job with the thought of [peace] in his mind, with the result that everything has come down with a crash, in the way of production, but nothing in the way of wages or living costs.

In addition to the race riots that broke out in both the North and the South that same summer, Americans were fighting among themselves over politics. The Russian Revolution of 1917 made people acutely aware of just how possible it was for a small determined faction to topple an entire government. A "Red Scare" swept the nation, resulting in mass arrests of bomb-building anarchists, labor agitators and both card-carrying and suspected Communists. Even the returning soldiers themselves were thought to be a possible threat: In New York City, attempts by left-leaning organizations to radicalize over 100,000 unemployed veterans made for multiple headlines.