By Andrew Pankratz
Dickinson County Historical Society
World War I, though not as widely known as the war that followed it, played a large role in shaping the rest of the 20th century. While largely fought in Europe and in some places in the Middle East, World War I affected countries and people throughout every continent. For the citizens of Abilene, though, the war remained a distant concern until late 1916 or early 1917. When the war began in August 1914 between the Entente (England, France, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), it had little to do with the United States and seemed a distant, though shocking, affair. As time went on the war slowly began to spread and its consequence began to affect countries all over the world, including the United States. With war looming on the horizon, the newspapers printed in Abilene during the early months of 1917 can provide a glimpse into how the citizens of Abilene viewed the coming of war.
From 1914 through 1918 the war raged in Europe and led to the deaths of over 8.5 million soldiers on all sides due to wounds and disease. In one battle, the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1916, the British lost over 420,000 soldiers and the Germans lost over 450,000 soldiers just to see the British gain only seven miles. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British had a total casualty list (killed, wounded, and missing) of 57,470, with 19,240 killed by the end of the day. For reference, as of 1915 Abilene only had a population of 4,257 and Dickinson County had a population of 25,339. When more than four times the population of Abilene died in one day, it is no wonder that the citizens of Abilene, or the country at large, wanted to stay out of the war as long as they did.
By January 1917, the citizens of Abilene, while still wanting to stay out of the war if possible, began to recognize that war just might be coming. With Germany’s declaration of unrestricted warfare, the sinking of the Lusitania and other ships with Americans on them, Germany’s actions in Belgium (invading a neutral country and killing innocent civilians), and the soon to be published Zimmerman telegram (Germany’s promise to support a war on the United States by Mexico) a growing sense of anger and willingness to go to war began to take hold throughout the United States. Even so, President Woodrow Wilson still tried to find a peaceful solution to the war and tried to put himself forward as a mediator between the countries at war. Both sides, though, largely pushed his advances aside in the belief that the war would be won shortly. The Abilene Weekly Reflector on January 18, 1917, in light of President Wilson’s inability to arbitrate a peace, stated that “Now that Christmas is over why wouldn’t Santa Claus be the proper person to settle the war in Europe? All nations recognize him impartially.” Unfortunately, as time would go on to show, this proposal was also not taken seriously by the combatants.
As war appeared to loom on the horizon, the Abilene Weekly Reflector of February 8, 1917 argued that “papers that are getting excited over a possibility of war with Germany should keep calm. Does not Wilson keep us out of war? Surely he will not fail just because election is over!” President Wilson had run for reelection in 1916 under the slogans “he kept us out of the war” and “a vote for me is a vote for peace.” In another article in the same issue, the Abilene Weekly Reflector also argued that while Americans “…desired to keep from any direct connection with the European war…” they also needed to recognized that “…if the worst comes and we are involved in active fighting, such as Europe is now carrying on, then the United States will ‘do its bit’ with its money and its men.” The Abilene Weekly Chronicle concurred in an article on March 7 stating that “we do not want war, if it can honorably be avoided. We will suffer some loss from injustice in the interest of peace. But we are not a nation of cowards!” While entering the war was undesirable and that much should be done to preserve the peace, the citizens of Abilene needed to prepare for the worst and support their country no matter the outcome.