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Colorado in World War I 

 WWI Parade in Denver, Colorado  (photo courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, Rh-1309)

Colorado in World War I      

            As Europe stumbled into war in late July and early August, 1914, Coloradans viewed the far away maelstrom with mixed emotions. Some favored the English, French, Italians, Russians and their allies. Others preferred the Germans and Austrians and their friends. The divisions were predictable. The 1910 federal census showed that around 16% of Colorado’s population of 799,024 was foreign-born, among them more than 28,000 Germans and Austrians, more than 17,000 English and Scottish, and more than 14,000 Italians. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson asked Americans to embrace neutrality, but for many sons and daughters of Europe and their families that proved difficult.

            Some Coloradans hoped the war would spur demand for their cattle, coal, crops and minerals. John F. Shafroth, Sr., one of the state’s U.S. senators, predicted a boom for silver, a metal precious to Colorado which dubbed itself the “silver state.”  Others, more intent on ending the carnage than on profiting from it, worked for peace. Detroit auto maker Henry Ford invited two Denverites—Ben B. Lindsey, nationally known as the “kid’s judge” for his promotion of juvenile justice and Helen Ring Robinson, the first woman elected to the Colorado State Senate—to sail to Europe with him and other prominent peace advocates. The quixotic attempt to end the war failed early in 1916. Ben Salmon, an anti-war activist, stayed home in Denver where he passed out leaflets supporting Wilson’s pledge to keep America out of war.

            Wilson changed his position early in 1917 after Germany announced it would engage in unrestricted submarine warfare—a blow to the lucrative trade the U.S. enjoyed with England and France. Prompted by the President, Congress declared war. Two of Colorado’s four congressmen, Benjamin C. Hilliard of Denver and Edward Keating of Pueblo, were among the 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives who voted against the declaration on April 6, 1917.

The Home Front

            Once the U.S. engaged in the conflict, most Coloradans backed the war, or kept their misgivings to themselves. Creede, a small mining town, celebrated U.S. entry with a simulated 21-gun salute using 400 pounds of dynamite to make big bangs. Denver’s leading newspaper, The Denver Post, offered 300 free flags to subscribers who persuaded a non-subscriber to take the paper for a month. Aspen bought a large flag to float from its courthouse. For some immigrants the war offered an opportunity to prove that they were as red, white and blue as Uncle Sam. “Let no man call me an Irish-American” proclaimed the Reverend Patrick McSweeny, pastor of Aspen’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church. “Just an American is all that I am—all that I care to be.” (Aspen Democrat Times, April 27, 1917).   

            To turn patriotism into action, Colorado governor, Julius Gunther, ordered a special session of the General Assembly to meet in Denver in early July 1917. It appropriated funds to support the National Guard and it gave every member of the Guard a ten dollar bonus. In early August the Guard was put under federal control. To drum up war support, Gunther organized two Councils of Defense—one made up of leading men; the other of prominent women.

            Coloradans did not face rationing as extensive or enduring as they did in World War II, but they saw rising food and fuel prices and limited supplies of sugar and wheat. Across the state citizens planted gardens to prevent food shortages. In mid-April 1917, Aspen’s mayor, Charles Wagner, ordered the town’s playgrounds turned into gardens. To curb rising coal prices, Denver’s mayor, Robert W. Speer, created a city-owned coal company in September 1917 and he pondered setting up a city bakery to control bread prices. Conscientious citizens heeded Wilson’s call to save food by forgoing meat on Tuesday and wheat on Wednesday.  Colorado State Agricultural College in Fort Collins (now Colorado State University) dispatched “flying squadrons” of home economists to teach people how to conserve and preserve food. Men mined molybdenum at Bartlett Mountain north of Leadville and tungsten near Nederland west of Boulder—both elements needed for making high grade steel for armaments. 

            Gail Beaton in Colorado Women a History (2012), pp. 168-172 tells of the women who “sewed, knotted and rolled bandages” for the troops. They staffed canteens at Denver’s Union Station and at Pueblo to supply travelling soldiers with candy, cigarettes and stationery. Fort Collins women cooked 26 plum puddings and sent them to Battery A which was training in New York. Fort Collins treasured Battery A because many of its men were formerly students at Colorado State Agricultural College in that town. In Pueblo women at the Colorado State Hospital for the Insane wielded their knitting needles for the Red Cross. Women also filled gaps in the work force, particularly in agriculture.

            Helen Ring Robinson, a member of the Woman’s Council of Defense, shifted from peace promotion to war work as she traveled around the state urging citizens to buy Liberty Bonds to help finance the war. By late 1918 Coloradans had lent the U.S. government more than $150 million dollars. Ben Lindsey went to England and France to talk with the troops. George Creel, a Denver journalist, played a major national role after Wilson appointed him Chairman of the Committee on Public Information, the federal government’s propaganda agency, where Creel stoked patriotic fires.

            Hyper-patriotism sometimes degenerated into witch hunts. Historian Lyle Dorset in his article, “The Ordeal of Colorado’s Germans during World War I” (The Colorado Magazine, Fall 1974), pp. 277-293, tells of Germans and Austrians being threatened with hanging, pressured to buy war bonds, and otherwise harassed. Historian Phil Goodstein in his book, Curtis Park, Five Points, and Beyond (2014), p. 296, reports that a Denver “loyalty squad” attacked Fred Sietz, a German-American who made anti-war remarks and refused to kiss the flag. Putting a rope around his neck, they dragged him behind a truck from 18th Avenue and Pearl Street into the downtown business district. They dumped Sietz “near 16th and Champa streets where he was rushed to the hospital in poor condition.”  

            Fort Morgan banned teaching German in school and made a bonfire of German books. In Salida high-schoolers burned their German books as did grade-schoolers in Fairplay. Denver’s East High School stopped teaching German in early 1918. Peace activists also became targets. Ben Salmon, who said he would not join the Army and kill Germans who were his brothers, was kicked out of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. Even worse, he was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. His story, including his 135-day hunger strike, has been told by Torin Finney in Unsung Hero of the Great War: The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon (1989) and by Phil Goodstein in Robert Speer’s Denver (2004) which gives an excellent account of the home front in Denver.  

The Military

            Some Coloradans were serving in the military before the U.S. entered the war; others—around 1,500 by May 1918—volunteered as the struggle progressed. Federalization of the National Guard probably added around 4,500, but the numbers fell far short of the nation’s needs suggesting that in Colorado, as in the rest of the country, patriotism was not as intense as the saber-rattling of newspapers suggested. Unable to get sufficient volunteers, Uncle Sam resorted to drafting young men thereby swelling the number of Coloradans in the military to approximately 43,000. Most served in the Army, although the state also took pride in its Marines and seamen and the Navy cruisers named for its two principal cities, the USS Denver and the USS Pueblo, which protected convoys on their way to Europe.

            The Army deemed Colorado too cold a place to establish a major camp so most of the state’s volunteers and draftees  trained at places such as Camp Funston in Kansas, Camp Kearney in San Diego, and Camp Mills at Hempstead, Long Island, New York. That was a miserable post according to Sergeant W.F. Scholl of Battery A, 148th Field Artillery of the 41st Army Division. “It is pretty cool here,” he told the Weekly Courier in Fort Collins, “and we are only allowed so much wood. Consequently we freeze about half the time.” (Weekly Courier, November 23, 1917) 

            Most Colorado soldiers were mixed in with troops from other states with many of them serving in the 40th and 89th divisions. A few units more-or-less retained their Colorado identity including the 157th Infantry, the 341st Field Artillery and the 115th Engineers. On February 5, 1918, Battery A with its complement of Colorado men reached England after more than two weeks at sea. By mid-July it was fiercely fighting in northern France with some of its men firing a huge French gun, the 14-ton “Gila Monster,” a 155-millimeter behemoth with a 20-foot barrel, which could lob a shell more than 12 miles to pound German lines and fortifications. Most Colorado troops followed a pattern similar to Battery A’s with many not suffering serious combat until July and August of 1918, although some engaged in the grueling 26-day battle at Belleau Wood in June. The waning months of the war saw Coloradans among the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops involved in major offensives such as Aisne-Marne (July 18-August 6), St. Mihiel (September 12-16) and Meuse-Argonne (September 26-Novemenber 11).

            Soldiers’ letters published in local newspapers often gave a veiled view of the war.  James Clifford of Hugo was in France earlier than most Coloradans. He wrote his sister, Margaret, “We are not allowed to tell anything about the country over here and I don’t know much to tell if I could.”([Hugo] Range Ledger, January 5, 1918.)  One account, which appeared in the Fort Collins Weekly Courier, December 27, 1918, described the troops’ reaction to the Armistice that ended the war on November 11, 1918. “There was none of the cheering or the excitement, crying, weeping, hugging and slapping of shoulders that you would want to see. It is hard to express our feelings. We were tired.”

            LeRoy Hafen’s, Colorado and its People, Volume 1 (1949), p. 540 reports that “1,009 [Colorado military personnel] were killed or died in service.” Other sources say the number was closer to 1,100. Many died of disease including Walter Ridgeway of Battery A, felled by tuberculosis. At least two—Clara Orgren and Stella Raithel—were nurses. Ironically the number of war dead paled in comparison with the more than 7,783 Coloradans who died during the influenza pandemic which dealt death around the world mainly between September 1918 and early 1919.

            Two Coloradans—Lt. Marcellus Chiles and Cpt. John Hunter Wickersham—posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroism. Two other Congressional Medal recipients—Pvt. Jesse N. Funk and Navy Quartermaster Frank Upton—survived the war. Similarly fortunate was Cpt. Jerry C. Vasconcells who shot down six German aircraft including a balloon to become Colorado’s only World War I flying ace. Many others were wounded including Cpt. Morrison Shafroth, one of John F. Shafroth, Sr.’s three sons who served in the struggle. Accidentally wounded, Morrison lost his sight in one eye.

            Many of the dead were initially buried abroad, usually in cemeteries in northern France where their graves remain to this day. Others eventually returned home. Pvt. Leo T. Leyden, a Marine, killed in action on June 15, 1918, was the first Denver soldier to fall in the conflict. His body was returned more than three years later in early September 1921. Accorded the honor of lying in state at the Colorado Capitol, he was also memorialized by Denver’s first American Legion post, the Leo Leyden Post organized March 20, 1919. Later it merged with other posts to become today’s Leyden-Chiles-Wickersham Post Number 1. Denver blacks after serving in a segregated military returned to a segregated Denver where they named their Legion post after Wallace Simpson. He was an African American cabin steward who died when the USS Jacob Jones, a Navy destroyer, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on December 6, 1917. Veterans in Fort Collins gave Charles L. Conrey a similar tribute by naming their Veterans of Foreign Wars post for him in July 1921, a few months before his body was returned. Among other Colorado posts named for World War I men were American Legion posts in Arvada, Durango, Grand Junction, Gunnison, Longmont, Pagosa Springs, Salida, and Steamboat Springs.

            At least two Coloradans had major military installations named for them. In the late 1930s Lowry Field (later Lowry Air Force Base) was named for Lt. Francis Brown Lowry of Denver, an aerial photographer, shot down over France in late September 1918. A spin-off from Lowry, originally called Lowry II, became today’s Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. It honors Lt. John H. Buckley of Longmont, an aviator killed in France, September 17, 1918.

            Although on average Colorado soldiers participated in fewer than six months of fighting, many of them had been in the Army or Marines for a year or so before engaging in battle. After the Armistice many remained in Europe until they could be transported back to the U.S. in mid-1919. When they came home they found welcomes warm, but jobs scarce as wartime demand for farm products and minerals cooled. For some the war had been a great adventure; for others an unwelcome detour in their lives; for others a nightmare.


            Denver and Aurora got a big plum from the war—a large Army hospital intended to treat victims of poison gas and tuberculosis. Named U.S. General Hospital No. 21 in 1918, it was renamed Fitzsimons in 1920 to honor Lt. William T. Fitzsimons, a Kansan, who became the first American medical officer to die in the war when he was killed in a German air raid in France on September 4, 1917. Initially offsetting the economic benefit provided by Fitzsimons was high inflation engendered by the conflict. Food and other prices soared and often wages did not keep pace. That led to strikes against the Denver Tramway in 1919 and 1920 with seven bystanders being killed by trigger-happy strikebreakers in early August 1920. One can detect the effects of wartime hyper-patriotism in the attacks made on suspected Communists in the U.S. during the 1919-1920 “Red Scare” and in the rise in the early 1920s of a powerful Colorado Ku Klux Klan which wrapped itself in patriotism as it trumpeted 100% Americanism.

            Ben Lindsey used his war experience in Europe to produce a book, The Doughboy’s Religion and Other Aspects of Our Day (1920) which he co-authored with Harvey J. O’Higgins. Katherine Anne Porter, destined to become a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, was a reporter for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in 1918. Her short novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), was shaped by her Denver experiences including her near death from influenza. Screen writer and novelist Dalton Trumbo (born in Montrose in 1905) drew on the horrors of World War I for his award-winning, anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun (1939).

            Political enemies slammed congressmen Benjamin Hilliard and Edward Keating for voting against the April 6, 1917 war declaration. Both were defeated when they sought re-election in November 1918. The American Civil Liberties Union and others pressured the government into releasing peace activist Ben Salmon in late 1920. Two of John F. Shafroth, Sr.’s sons, Morrison and Will, returned to civilian life. Their brother, Lt. Commander John F. Shafroth, Jr., who commanded the destroyer USS Terry during the war, remained in the Navy retiring in 1949 as a Vice-Admiral. Terminally ill in mid-1923, Helen Ring Robinson asked her stepdaughter to inform the newspapers that “it was the overworking of war days that made me an invalid.” In thanks for her service, Colorado allowed her body to rest in state at the Capitol. (Pat Pascoe, Helen Ring Robinson: Colorado Senator and Suffragist [2011], pp. 148-149).

Additional Information:

In addition to the sources cited above, see the following:

Abbott, Carl, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel. Colorado: A History of the Centennial State (5th edition, Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2013), pp. 261-265.

Colorado State Adjutant-General’s Office. Roster of Men and Women Who Served in the World War from Colorado, 1917-1918 (Denver: Colorado National Guard, 1941) gives names of approximately 43,000 Coloradans who served in World War I.

Colorado State Council of Defense. Council of Defense Organization in State of Colorado: and Allied War Activities (Denver: Smith-Brooks Press, 1918).

Colorado State Library. Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. In early 2017 this free collection embraced more than 900,000 on line and easily searchable pages of Colorado newspapers including at least half a dozen with World War I coverage.

Cook, Philip L. “Red Scare in Denver,” The Colorado Magazine (fall 1966), pp. 309-326.

Convery, William J., III.  Pride of the Rockies: The Life of Colorado’s Premier Irish Patron, John Kernan Mullen (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2000) tells of Mullen’s controversial service as chairman of the state’s Council of Defense.

Denver Public Library Western History/Genealogy Department provides much information on World War I on its website including photographs which may be searched on line.

English, George H., Jr. History of the 89th Division, U.S.A. (Denver: Press of Smith-Brooks, 1918) details the work of a division which had many Coloradans in its ranks.

Keating, Edward. The Gentleman from Colorado: A Memoir (Denver: Sage Books, 1964).

Larsen, Leonard. The Good Fight: The Life and Times of Ben B. Lindsey (Chicago: Quadrangle Press, 1972).

Leonard, Stephen J. “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Denver and Colorado,” Essays and Monographs in Colorado History (Denver: Colorado Historical Society, Number 9, 1989), pp. 1-24.

Leonard, Stephen J. and Thomas J. Noel. Denver from Mining Camp to Metropolis (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1990), pp. 146-148, 167, 187-188.

Leonard, Stephen J., Thomas J. Noel and Donald L. Walker, Jr. Honest John Shafroth: A Colorado Reformer (Denver: Colorado Historical Society, 2003).  Like Keating and Hilliard, Shafroth, a Democrat, lost his reelection bid in 1918. Unlike Keating and Hilliard, Shafroth had voted for the war declaration.

Nankivell, John H. History of the Military Organizations of the State of Colorado (Denver: W.H. Kistler Stationary Co., 1935).

Secrest, Clark. “Echoes From ‘Over There’,” Colorado Heritage, (winter 1992), pp. 26-29.

Thomas, Sewell. Silhouettes of Charles S. Thomas (Caldwell Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1959). Charles S. Thomas and John F. Shafroth, Sr. were Colorado’s U.S. Senators during World War I.

(Copyright 2017 by Stephen J. Leonard. Used with permission by Humanities Colorado. Commercial use prohibited without permission.)