Serving Over There

Uncle Sam Wants You

The nation's military was largely unprepared when the U.S. entered the war. In order to raise the number of troops needed, Wilson was forced to institute America's first universal draft, in addition to calling for volunteers. The draft aimed to spread the military burden as democratically as possible. The Selective Service registered 24 million young men and drafted nearly 3 million of them into the service; another 2 million volunteered. The draft, combined with strong overall support for the war, effectively raised a fighting force. In a little more than a year, the Army increased from a small force of 100,000 volunteers to nearly 5 million.

Those troops served in racially segregated units, and most African-American soldiers were barred from combat roles. For the first time,  women served as military nurses and in other roles with the Army, Navy, and Marines. Women also volunteered overseas with humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and the YMCA, providing nursing, transportation, and support for soldiers. 

About half of the American military force eventually served in Europe. American troops started arriving in France in 1917, but it took a long time to assemble a disciplined fighting force. General Pershing, who commanded all American forces, was determined that his soldiers would show their strength and bring a decisive end to the war, and he refused to allow his troops to merge with French or British units. 

Germany launched a huge offensive in the spring of 1918 and came within striking distance of Paris, when the American Expeditionary Force arrived to reinforce French lines.  The fresh American troops helped to stop the German offensive and save Paris. The Allied troops then staged their own offensive in September 1918, advancing across the Argonne forest and cutting German supply lines. By late October they had reached the German border. German leaders asked for an armistice, ending the war on November 11, 1918.

During the war, more than 112,000 American soldiers  perished, with deaths divided equally between those caused by wounds and disease. Another 230,000 Americans were wounded. European nations suffered much greater losses: military casualties included over 2.2 million Germans, 1.9 million Russians, and 1.4 million French. 

Benjamin Wyrtzen Service placard

Service placard 

Service flags, sewn by family members, were displayed in a front window during World War I to indicate that a son was serving in the military. Blue stars, like the two on this small placard, indicated a family member in active military service, and a gold star indicated one who had died in military service.

Benjamin Wyrtzen of Fairfield (at left) served in the 102nd Ambulance Corps in France in 1917 and 1918.  

Army uniform, worn by David H. S. Huntington

Army uniform, worn by David H. S. Huntington 

David H .S. Huntington of Southport enlisted as a Private First Class in December 1917 and served in England and France, returning home in 1919. 

Navy woman’s cape, worn by Elizabeth McAlister Parsons

Navy woman’s cape, worn by Elizabeth McAlister Parsons

Parsons was among the first women to serve in the Navy as Yeoman F (Female) in the Naval Reserve. "Yeomanettes" like Parsons served in clerical roles, as radio operators, nurses, messengers, and mechanics. Since the Navy had not made any provision to supply women's uniforms, women made or purchased the clothing they needed in accordance with Navy regulations. 

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alonzo Parsons

Military Bag

Kit bag and pack used by Edward Wenzel

YMCA Uniform and hat worn by Florence Jennings Burr YMCA Uniform and hat worn by Florence Jennings Burr

Florence Jennings Burr, a Fairfield librarian, served as part of the YMCA's support operations in Paris in 1919, organizing the voluminous files at the YMCA headquarters with the American Expeditionary Forces. YMCA workers provided key support to American troops in France, organizing "canteens" for soldiers, and providing entertainment, education, and religious services as well as coffee, doughnuts, and writing supplies.

Military Helmet used by John Halfpenny

Military Helmet and Ditty bag used by John Halfpenny, 1st Lieut., Co. B., 302 Engrs, A.E.F., containing a field message book, 9 pencils and pens, one eraser, and a map of the French countryside


Dog tags and engraved canteens of Benjamin Bulkley Wyrtzen

Dog tags and engraved canteens of Benjamin Bulkley Wyrtzen, with photograph of Wyrtzen standing next to ambulance

Croix de Guerre Medal and Commemorative Ribbon, awarded to Alice Orme Smith

Croix de Guerre Medal and Commemorative Ribbon, awarded to Alice Orme Smith

Alice Orme Smith, who would later become a successful landscape architect in Fairfield, served as a nurse with the Red Cross at a base hospital in France from 1917-1919. Red Cross nurses provided much of the medical care for American soldiers in France. Smith worked in mobile hospital units in Paris, Verdun, and St. Mihiel, sometimes under fire, and nursed the wounded from the battle of Chateau Thierry and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. She was one of 28 nurses to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery in the field of battle.