The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.
After a particularly dangerous military engagement at Chemin des Dames the week prior, ambulance driver David Backus thankfully worked a few unexciting shifts. He used this time for two interrelated purposes: to chat with fellow soldiers and drivers, and to report on the larger state of the war. From his interactions with French soldiers, Backus learns that the French Army is waiting for approximately one million American soldiers to arrive, and similarly, the British Army is waiting for a half million. Backus anticipates that these new soldiers will greatly increase the morale of the French Army upon their arrival, scheduled in approximately one year’s time. Moreover, these new troops will enable the French army to launch a new offensive against the Germans. After reporting this crucial information on the state of the war, Backus transitions to less weighty anecdotes, describing how he ate an entire cup of fresh strawberries and discussed various delicious foods with Mr. Wilcox, presumably another ambulance driver.
Wednesday, June 20 17.
Went to the Hans above[?] and they will only leave by force at the point of the bayonet - the Belgian Coast - the war will be over & not until. The French Army is waiting for the American troops before starting a big offense, in other words, about one year from today, by next spring, when we have one million men over here. The French morale will be vastly improved by the effect of our troops being here. The English will have another half a million and we will be in shape to start a real Drive. What a gorgeous day. Several out on journeys. Had tea cakes & a cup full of real strawberries – delicious – in Wilcox’s room. [...]
Citiation: David H. Backus and Family Papers. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. [123.D.10.6F]
"Heavy Attack by Enemy in France Forces Haig Back" and "Housewives are Asked for Help in Conserving Food" - The Daily People's Press, June 19, 1917
Since so many women volunteered to sew clothing and blankets for soldiers, it is fitting that the American Red Cross would produce its own branded thimbles. Twelve of these thimbles, which were originally used in the Minneapolis Area during World War I, are housed in the MNHS 3D Collections. Each is made from aluminum and features a red band around its base, which reads “AMERICAN / RED CROSS / NEUTRALITY / HUMANITY.” Two Red Cross logos are also embossed on the red band.
Citation: Minnesota Historical Society Collection. 6430.6.1-12
Opposition to the war took on a variety of forms, and U.S. intelligence organizations worked to gain information on those oppositional movements that appeared most dangerous. On June 10, the Northern Information Bureau (NIB) sent an agent to infiltrate a Minneapolis picnic held by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). In response, the organization received a complaint from the Federal government, which argued that it was unacceptable to “surreptitiously” send a plainclothes agent to the IWW picnic. In a June 16 response to the federal complaint, an official of the Northern Information Bureau disputed the use of the word “surreptitiously,” saying sarcastically that he was confused and would need to consult a dictionary to clear things up. More importantly, the NIB official implies that the IWW’s violent tendencies justify espionage. One member of the IWW, Mr. Sugarman, used his speech at the picnic to predict the assassination of President Wilson, characterize war with Germany as an act of treason, and assert that Liberty Bond campaigns were government theft meant to target the poor. In light of this, the NIB official believes that any government officer would act as he did.
June 16, 1917.
I am still pondering deeply as to the possibly meaning of the word "surreptitiously" as used in the complaint and as to what it might imply, although I have not yet consulted Webster regarding the problem. Now, if "surreptitiously" means that I have at times gone out or sent out an agent and secured information regarding some person or persons without telling the said person or persons that I was going to do this, then in my estimation "surreptitiously" is the word, but if that word means that either myself or my agents have burglarized anyones office or bribed any of their employees to secure information, then "surreptitiously" is not the word. On June 10th the I.W.W. organization held a picnic within the city limits of Minneapolis and said picnic was attended by about 400 members of this splendid organization. A member of the Socialist party and also a member of the I.W.W. organization, one Sugarman, quite well known in Minneapolis, made a speech at this picnic before this assembled body, in which he freely predicted the assassination of President Wilson [...] we had a representative there in the interest of the community at large and we did not feel that we were conspiring with anyone when we sent him there, and we presume that it might be said that he went surreptitiously inasmuch as we did not tell any of the officials of the I.W.W. organization that we were going to send him because this man is, in our estimation, a valuable Operator and we did not want him killed. [...]
Citation: Northern Information Bureau, Organization Records, 1909-1933. Minnesota Historical Society. St. Paul, Minnesota. 143.B.15.5 B
The First World War saw a significant increase in the range of artillery fire, as new machine guns allowed for bullets to be shot longer distances. Some of these machine guns, like the French Light Machine Gun C.S.R.G., were designed for easy transport during battle. This particular machine gun, a 1915 Chauchat 8 mm model, is comparatively lightweight, and it features a folding bipod that allows for soldiers to adjust the machine gun’s position. Its crescent-shaped magazine could be detached and refilled with up to twenty rounds. In order to prevent overheating, manufacturers drilled air-cooling perforations in the barrel of the gun. Additionally, since the flash of a firing machine gun could be very bright, this gun was outfitted with a cone-shaped flash suppressor on its muzzle in order to protect the eyes of the soldier operating the weapon.
During Red Cross fundraising drives, women volunteers were given very specific instructions on the proper way to solicit contributions. One instruction packet, dated 14 June 1917, contains a lengthy script about the fundraising drive along with some reminders of etiquette. Women volunteers were to go from door to door in their neighborhoods, taking care to learn the name of each woman from their next-door neighbor before arriving at her home. Upon meeting her, they were to make pleasant conversation prior to asking for donations. At the time, the American Red Cross was in the middle of its campaign to raise one hundred million dollars, and St. Paul had been asked to contribute $300,000. The fundraising script entreats all women to give the Red Cross more than they can reasonably afford. Sacrifice by soldiers should, after all, be met with sacrifice at home. Interestingly, the Red Cross appeals to gender roles in order to raise more funds. If a woman wishes to consult with a man in the household before donating, volunteers are instructed to remind her that it is a woman’s duty to take care of the sick, and she should have more say in how much money is contributed.
[...] When your son, or your nephew, or your son-in-law, or your brother, or your neighbor's son are in the Red Cross hospital in France or elsewhere, suffering from wounds, or fever, or tuberculosis, or any of the other devastating pains of soldier life, and his pain and suffering is being lessened by the physicians and nurses of the Red Cross, he will be refreshed in mind and body by the thought that unselfish people back home have made sacrifices by contributing liberally and to their utmost ability to this Red Cross fund for the relieving of pain and suffering. [...]
Citation: American Red Cross, Northern Division, records, 1915-1921. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. [P781]
In a 9-page biographical document composed decades after the war, the former ambulance driver David Backus recalls a particularly gruesome episode from June 14, 1917. About three weeks following the Second Battle of the Aisne, Backus and his ambulance unit found themselves in an unspecified town near the Chemin des Dames ridge. They came under rapid artillery fire from German troops, and they were able to save themselves by taking shelter in a wine cellar. When the shelling stopped, Backus and his unit emerged from the cellar, only to be confronted with a disturbing scene of the dead and the dying. Though Backus's work as an ambulance driver required him to remain calm and collected under such circumstances, he was never completely immune to the suffering around him. The scene outside the wine cellar prompted him to reflect on the sheer destruction of war. He recalls writing to his mother, "if the people of the World could see and realize the devastation and the monstrosities of war that I have seen in the last three days of the war – war would end tomorrow and forever!"
This pamphlet from the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association archives takes a firm anti-suffrage position and attempts to convince its readers that votes for women would be America's downfall. Organized efforts to gain equal suffrage for women in Minnesota began as early as 1881 and, as this pamphlet demonstrates, the movement was still fighting staunch opposition over three decades later.
This pamphlet exemplifies arguments made in opposition to women's suffrage during the World War I era. The writer argues that woman suffrage would weaken the government, be too costly, and cause the U.S. to lose the war. The pamphlet warns that women suffrage would "increase the power of the socialists and pacifists who are opposing the draft and doing everything in their power to make our country weak and ineffective." It claims that Germany has financed the suffrage movement in England as a way to weaken its enemies. Fears that women's influence on the government would weaken the military through anti-conscription and pacifist positions dominate this leaflet, along with sexist assertions like the idea that suffrage leaders are involved in the movement because they enjoy the public fame.
ANTI-SUFFRAGE NOTES No. 158
Do you want your country to win the war, or are you willing it should suffer defeat at the hands of a foreign power?
If you want it to win, WAKE UP and defeat woman suffrage!
Woman suffrage would cost millions every year—money which is needed, every dollar of it, to win the war if the United States is to remain a free nation.
Woman suffrage would seriously weaken our government by putting the power to make the laws into the hands of those who could not enforce the laws.
Woman suffrage would enormously increase the power of the socialists and pacifists who are opposing the draft and doing everything in their power to make our country weak and ineffective.
NO PATRIOT WILL FAVOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE AT THIS TIME.
[...] Are the no-conscription leagues in this country, like the Pacifist movement financed by Germany? The first step towards making the United States a conquered nation is, of course, to keep it defenseless. [...]
Citation: Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association, P1519
In a June 1917 chain letter, Charles F. Sidener of the University of Minnesota attempts to raise money for an American hospital in Paris. This hospital, which would be paid for jointly by the American Red Cross and the American National Committee, was to specialize in the treatment of facial and jaw injuries. Ideally, the hospital would reduce soldiers’ disfigurement and improve their quality of life. The chain letter reminds its reader that France supported the U.S. during the American Revolution, and it is now the duty of all Americans to return the favor in France’s time of need. Each recipient of the letter is expected to donate twenty-five cents to the fund and to forward four copies of the letter. If the fund reaches $18,000, the letter claims that the American Red Cross will donate an additional $2,000. However, this claim is false. A Red Cross letter dated 18 June 1917 indicates that the Red Cross has promised no such thing, and furthermore, it does not approve of fundraising by chain letter.
June 12, 1917.
An honorable appeal to the reason of the American business man.
France helped us tremendously in the revolution. Help her now. This chain is for the purpose of establishing a special American hospital in Paris for the wounded in face and jaw. Your help is needed immediately in the great work of restoring horribly mutilated faces, and thereby permitting the unfortunates to continue the remainder of their lives with as little disfigurement as possible.[...]
Kindly do not break the chain. To do so would work hardship on this humanitarian cause.
Very truly yours,
Citation: American Red Cross, Northern Division, records, 1915-1921. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. [P781]
The Minnesota Historical Society’s 3D Collections houses an ornate helmet once worn by a grenadier in the German Army. This helmet, pictured below, was produced in 1915. Its base is constructed of black leather, while its surface features numerous gilded brass fittings. In addition to a top spike and trim on the visor, the helmet is also adorned with a large front plate depicting a militant eagle. The bird holds a sword and a scepter in its right and left talons, respectively, and a banner across its chest reads “MITT GOTT FUR KOENIG UND VATER LAND,” or “With God for King and Fatherland.” The helmet was presumably brought to Minnesota at the end of the war as a souvenir.