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Saturday, March 10, 2018

World War I: Locals At Home

A century ago residents of our area were faced with the impact of World War I and faced shortages, cold weather and influenza. This is a collection of World War I posters that appeal to the general public for support.

Journal Opinion, March 7, 2018 

“We are facing conditions which are unique for this generation in these days of war.”

Harry E. Parker, Editor, The United Opinion

Between April 1917 and November 1918, the United States sent 2 million men to fight “the war to end all wars.” Ultimately, 16,000 Vermonters and over 20,000 from New Hampshire, including hundreds of locals, joined that force. In April 2017, this blog featured an article on that fighting force entitled “Locals Over There.” It can be accessed at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.

This essay deals with impact of the war on the civilian population of the two states a century ago.  As  Parker suggested, the impacts were significant and affected every aspect of daily life.     

Even before America entered the war, demands from European combatants for American goods helped fuel an economic boom in the nation, a boom that was felt in Northern New England. This included a demand for machine tools, textiles, armaments, lumber, shipping and agricultural products.

The national government reversed the traditional policies of laissez-fair. Special boards were given unprecedented control over both the economy and personal life. The federal government took control of telephone and telegraph systems as well as merchant shipping and railroads. Other boards included Fuel Administration, War Industries Board, War Labor Board and Food Administration. Every attempt was made to operate the economy more effectively to meet the demands of “total war.”

In 1917, the federal government established the Committee on Public Information to cultivate public support for the war and “guard secrets of value.”  Thousands of so-called Four-Minute Men appeared at public gatherings with prepared brief speeches, “every one having the carry of shrapnel.” Posters and bulletins and newspaper columns advanced the patriotic fervor.

As with citizens nationwide, local residents embraced the war effort, viewing it as both a moral crusade and a matter of national self-defense. In June 1917, the film “Stand By the President” was shown at the Fairlee Opera House. “Win-the-War” meetings were held locally.  

Support for the war was necessary, it was explained, “because if the Germans should win they will take everything away from the people of America.” Newspapers carried news of German atrocities against neutral nations. It was later determined that British propaganda exaggerated both the threats and the atrocities in order to incite America’s participation in the war. 

Both New Hampshire and Vermont passed legislation to mobilize their citizens and defend against  possible saboteurs. The New Hampshire Legislature led by Governor Henry Keyes of Haverhill set a record for martial legislation, including the registration of aliens, regulation of firearms and explosives and conservation of resources.  An espionage act was passed in Vermont permitting the warrantless arrest of individuals suspected of plotting against the government or giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Across the nation, the vigilante American Protective League, claiming members in most towns, set out “to run down slackers and seditious aliens.” It was difficult and dangerous to oppose the war. There were few actual cases of antiwar prosecutions in the two states. As in other states, there were efforts to reduce German influence. This led the  Berlin (NH) Mills to change its name to Brown. Newspapers  referred to German measles as liberty measles.     

 Anti-war songs such as “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier” were replaced with songs such as “Over There” in support of the war efforts.   

There was a certain degree of paranoia with accidents or fires sometimes blamed on German saboteurs. Troops were stationed at valley railroad bridges including the ones in Bradford and between Wells River and Woodsville. These bridges were of significance as they were used by troops traveling to Quebec before shipping to Europe.   

Two-thirds of the American cost of the war was financed by loans. A series of Liberty Loan Drives were held. Additionally, these bond drives helped to fight inflation by taking excess money out of circulation.  

Full-page advertisements for these drives appeared in The United Opinion. Vermont raised over $55 million for the five drives. Local communities met the goals set. In 1917,  Bradford raised an oversubscription of $88,000.

War savings stamps were sold with special emphasis on school sales. Vermonters raised $13.90 per capita and New Hampshire followed with $11.78. Fairlee was one of the top three Vermont communities raising $27.43 per capita. As in other communities, locals in Orfordville proudly displayed their Liberty Loan Flag.

The needs of the American armed forces as well as the Allies in Europe led to shortages at home. There were shortages of wheat, sugar, fats and meat. Using the slogan “Food Wins the War,” the government attempted to meet the shortages by altering the diet of the American public.

Americans  were encouraged by food boards at all levels to observe wheatless, meatless and sugarless days. Tremendous quantities of meat and wheat were voluntarily saved for shipment to American forces and their allies overseas. Sugar saved by rationing was used in the manufacture of munitions. In 1918, 50-50 regulations were adopted requiring customers to purchase half their flour from alternate grains such as corn meal, oats or barley flour.

 The public was encouraged to buy local produce to reduce the pressure on the transportation system. Newspapers discouraged hoarding and encouraged families to stretch food supplies and “practice the gospel of the clean plate.” The bumper crop of potatoes in 1918 led to a two-state campaign to use potatoes in place of other foods. One poster encouraged residents to “Be A Potatriot.” 

War gardens were created throughout the two-state area. Parks and front lawns were sometimes plowed up and planted with vegetables. Grange organizations gave canning lessons. In Vermont, the Green Mountain Guard recruited 30,000 boys and girls to assist on farms and gardens. Camp Veil in Lyndonville was established to train older boys in farm work. The U.S. School Garden Army motto was “We Eat Because We Work.” 

 Coal, used as a primary fuel in both homes and businesses, was in especially short supply. Reserved for other war efforts, railroad cars were unavailable  for shipping coal to Northern New England  created the situation. The especially severe winter of 1917-18 setting records for sustained low temperatures compounded the problem. 

According to Haskins’ History of Bradford, starting in late December and continuing to early February there were 40 consecutive days when the thermometer recorded temperatures below zero. On 30 of those days it never got above zero.

Correspondents for The United Opinion from neighboring towns wrote of unofficial temperatures of 35 to 60 degrees below zero.  In Newbury, there were five days when it never rose above nine below zero. Pipes froze and then froze again. 

To deal with the fuel shortages, fuel committees were appointed to deal with distribution in each Vermont community. Rationed coal was “dribbled out to consumers.” It was said “A weekly supply was cause for congratulations; a month’s supply, Heaven-sent relief.” Consumers were encouraged to “save that shovelful of coal a day for Uncle Sam.”

In Dec 1917, the Hanover Gazette reported on the situation in Orford. “A shortage of coal and very little wood for sale has caused considerable anxiety among all classes of people here.” The anxiety was shared by other area residents.

A state program, entitled Cut-A-Cord, encouraged men and boys to seek surplus fuel from Vermont forests. It was so successful that the amount of firewood was doubled during the winter of 1917-18.

Other efforts to conserve fuel included restricting the number of days nonessential plants and places of entertainment could be open. Churches were encouraged to hold union services with other churches.  In January, 1918, school vacations were extended.  For a 10-week period there was even an attempt to have “heatless Mondays.”

To add to the burdens facing locals, influenza struck the area in 1918. The epidemic was part of a pandemic that killed over 100 million. Over one-quarter of Americans became ill and 675,000 died directly or indirectly from the disease. It was known as “Spanish flu.” Local notices in Bradford and Orford claimed that the disease originated in the German army and was “a Kaiser’s contribution to this country.”

The United Opinion of September 27, 1918 reported that local health officials were warned by the State Board of Health that, “the apparent seriousness of the disease makes it necessary that some precautions be taken to limit its spread….patients should be isolated in the home.”  Affected families were told to keep their children from school and family members from public gatherings.

As the disease spread, schools were closed in all area towns and some businesses closed for lack of adequate staff.  By October, the State Board of Health ordered the closing of all public meeting places and prohibiting public assemblies throughout the state.

The disease had  an especially high toll along younger residents. Health workers were overwhelmed by the case load and often fell ill themselves. 

Before the epidemic faded there were over 1,772 flu-related deaths in Vermont and about 3,000 in New Hampshire. Caskets were in very short supply. 

There was also a major shortage of available laborers to work on farms, in factories, mines and forests and in the shipyards of southern New Hampshire. Vermont lost up to one-third of its male workers. This shortage was caused by the number of men who joined the service or sought employment elsewhere.   

Many of those places of work were vital to the war effort. Some factories began round-the-clock production. The government introduced daylight saving time to give additional time for outdoor labor.  In Vermont, over 7,000 women and 1,300 children were part of the labor force, many for the first time. 

One example of the impact of the war on the local economy was the reopening of Corinth’s Pike Hill copper mines. Farmers were able to sell their crops, often at very high prices.

During the severe wool shortage, Orson Clements of Corinth refused to sell his wool to the government at the offered price. It was confiscated at what the government considered a fair price. After Clements’ death, wool he had hidden from government agents was found around his farm. 

As much as possible, volunteers attempted to share the burdens the war brought to the home front.   Virtually every non-profit organization stepped up their work. In addition to the churches of the two states, organizations such as the Boys Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, YMCA, YWCA, Knights of Columbus,  Masonic groups, Granges and the Salvation Army assisted the war effort.

Primary among those groups was the Red Cross. Local Red Cross units were established in area towns where they had not been previously. Red Cross membership campaigns in Vermont resulted in membership increasing from 1,200 to 80,703. The Red Cross provided services ranging from canteens for servicemen at railroad centers such as White River, Jct. to assisting with the wounded in France. 

The funds for those activities were raised through Red Cross fund drives and by programs sponsored by the other organizations mentioned above.  Throughout the valley, plays, suppers and concerts benefited the Red Cross.

The Red Cross also organized shipment of bandages, knitted items and personal care items to the servicemen. They encouraged others to join in this effort.

During 1918, 16-year old Catherine Murphy of Bradford kept a diary entitled “In the Service.” It chronicled her family and school’s support for her brother Pat who was stationed in France.  Pat Murphy and his best friend Fred Louanis enlisted in the service in 1917 near the end of their sophomore year at Bradford Academy.

Catherine’s diary listed the dates when boxes were sent to Pat and Fred, the contents and the postal cost. For example, on Dec. 12, 1918, a 25-pound box containing mittens, stockings, fruit cake, candies, writing supplies and reading materials was shipped at a cost of 55 cents. In the spring, the family send two pounds of maple sugar along with boxes for other Bradford soldiers. 

Her Bradford Academy class sent boxes with similar items as well as shoe laces, toothpaste, soap and handkerchiefs.  Listed in the diary were items the soldiers mailed in return, including French coins, handmade hankies and buttons from German uniforms.

One of the most poignant impacts of the war was the absence of so many young men and women. Families yearned for news of those overseas, even when letters were censored or conditions were redacted. Blue star flags were displayed in the windows of the homes of absent servicemen. Tragically, sometimes those blue stars were replaced by gold indicating a service casualty. 

The conditions borne by the citizens of the two states during the Great War are reflected in the following review of  Vermont’s role published in 1928. “The spirit shown by her inhabitants in days long gone by, still lived in 1917 and 1918 in the breasts of all her stalwart men and women and now, as then and always, Vermonters bear their full burden with an unfaltering and grim determination.”

Little did they know that in just a few years they would be called upon to again bear the burdens of a total war at home and abroad.