Kearny County Patriots in World War I

When World War I erupted in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson and most Americans favored neutrality. That soon changed when several American ships traveling to Britain were damaged or sunk by Germans in an attempt to cut off trade to Britain (one of America’s closest trading parties).  In February 1915, the German government announced that they would strike against all ships, neutral or otherwise, that entered the war zone around Britain. Germany sunk a private American vessel just one month later.

On May 7, 1915, 128 Americans were killed when the British-owned LUSITANIA ocean liner was torpedoed without warning off the coast of Ireland. In all, 1,198 passengers were killed.  Then in November an Italian liner was sunk, killing 272 people. Twenty-seven were Americans.  President Wilson demanded that the German Government immediately abandon its methods of warfare against passenger and freight carrying vessels or the U.S. would sever diplomatic relations with Germany. On May 4, 1916, agreed to limit its submarine warfare.

In early 1917, President Wilson attempted to negotiate peace terms between Germany and the Allied Forces. The attempt failed, resulting in the United States breaking diplomatic relations with Germany in February.  Just hours later, the American liner HOUSATONI was sunk by a German U-boat. Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations billed on Feb. 22 to ready the U.S. for war. In late March, Germany sunk four more American merchant ships.

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson cited Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as its attempts to entice Mexico into an alliance against the United States. On April 4, 1917, the U.S. Senate voted in support of the measure to declare war on Germany. The House concurred two days later. On December 7, 1917, the United States declared war on German ally Austria-Hungary.

At the time of World War I, the U.S. Army was small compared with the mobilized armies of the European powers. While President Wilson at first wished to use only volunteers to supply the troops needed to fight, it soon became clear that this would be impossible. The Selective Service Act was enacted May 18, 1917, requiring all males ages 21 to 30 to register for military service. The law was amended in August 1918 to expand the age range to include all men 18 to 45.

The first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France to begin training for combat on June 26. Most of the servicemen from Kansas were sent through training at Camp Funston in Fort Riley. It wasn’t until February of 1918 that there was a report of the first Kearny county men to arrive on French soil.

A group of Lakin men pose in front of the old court house on Main Street prior to leaving to join Uncle Sam’s Army during World War I.

Patriotic meetings became popular in the states. With the declaration of war, every person in the nation was affected. Farmers were urged to increase their acreage of all grains and vegetables to meet war demands. It was patriotic to have meatless days, and white wheat flour disappeared from this part of the country. War bonds were offered to finance the war, and new and additional taxes were imposed to finance the war. Postage rates increased. Donations to the Red Cross for medical and surgical needs of men in battle were sought. It was estimated that it would take no fewer than 15 million members of the American Red Cross to take care of the sick and wounded soldiers, look after their families and relieve the sufferings of the women and children and men of war-trodden land. The children of the nation joined the Junior Red Cross to do their part to help in the war effort. In the cities and towns they were planting thrift gardens, knitting, investing the returns in thrift stamps, and turning old paper, rubber metals and bottles into cash.

In 1918, the Spanish influenza epidemic not only swept through the country but also through military training camps. Many young soldiers boys fell victim to the disease, among them Kearny Countians James Noell Tate, Carl W. Kurz, and George Earl McConaughey.

After four years of stalemating along the western front, the entry of American forces into the conflict marked a major turning point in the war. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, more than two million American soldiers had served on the battlefields of Western Europe.  There were 53,402 killed in action, 63,114 deaths from disease and other causes, and about 205,000 wounded.  Ralph E. Shepherd of Deerfield died September 28, 1918, and is buried in the Deerfield Cemetery. George F. Moore, son of Charley Moore and brother of Lewis Moore and Goldie Moore Brooks, was killed in action in France July 28, 1918. Kearny County American Legion Post No. 2808, Shepherd-Moore Post, was named for these two men.

An effigy of the kaiser was paraded down Main Street Lakin following World War I.