World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. It was called The Great War and wouldn’t get the name World War I until after World War II. The United States kept a wary eye on the war, while asserting its right as a neutral nation to engage in commerce with all belligerents. The US did not see itself as an international power, and there were many people in the US who believed that taking part in the war would be detrimental to our international status as well as our economy. North Dakota held a strongly isolationist view of the conflict.
However, after many ships sailing under a US flag were torpedoed by German U-boats (submarines), and diplomatic efforts to protect US shipping failed, the US finally declared war against Germany and its allies (The Axis Powers) in April 1917 and joined forces with Britain and France to fight the Germans. The war had continued for two and one-half years mostly on French and Belgian territory. Trench warfare was the typical means of engagement. Each side dug long trenches in which the soldiers lived and fought until they were able to gain a bit of ground. The trenches were damp and cold and disease was as significant as weapons in raising the huge casualty toll.
US troops and strategy brought renewed energy to the Allies’ efforts. The war finally concluded with an armistice (ceasefire) on November 11, 1918. By late spring of 1919, most US troops had returned home.
The war was a turning point in many ways. The US would not be able to maintain neutrality in a world-wide conflict and its military power would continue to increase during the twentieth century. New technologies, such as automobiles, airplanes, telephones and radios developed rapidly and became more practical. North Dakotans would benefit from new technology – especially telephones and radios – but would also find their economy closely linked to international financial conditions.
For the soldiers who had fought in Europe, life would never be the same. Some came home suffering from a mental breakdown which was called “shell shock.” Others suffered from alcoholism. Many men and women who had been to Europe did not want to return to small town or farm living. Urban life, higher education, and jobs with major corporations began to have more appeal. By 1920, the US officially had more people living in cities and towns of more than 2000 people, than people living in the countryside. Though this trend had been underway throughout the nineteenth century, World War I and the changes it wrought in individuals and the US economy was one of the contributing factors in the demographic shift from rural to urban settings.
The documents in this section illustrate the impact that war had on individual North Dakotans. The three people who created these documents and thought well enough of their North Dakota homes to leave the documents to the State Historical Society ended up living elsewhere. Their experience shaped their adult lives and they wanted to secure the memory of their contributions to our nations’ welfare.