Wisconsin World War I Centennial Symposium
Wisconsin In World War One
"Any critics of Wisconsin because of La Follette had better sit up and take notice. Wisconsin is there and always will be, at home and here on the front."
-William Heiss, 150th Machine Gun Battalion, 42nd Division
Wisconsin’s proud military heritage dates back to the Civil War, when men formed the core of the famed Iron Brigade. The tradition continued, with Wisconsin sending thousands of men to fight in Puerto Rico and the Philippines at the turn of the century, and to serve along the Mexican border in 1916.
Despite that solid history of service, two factors caused some to doubt Wisconsin’s willingness to give full support to the United States’ war effort in 1917. First, more than one-quarter of the State’s population was of German or Austrian decent, leading some to wonder how eager they would be to fight against relatives in their ancestral homelands. Second, one of the nation’s leading voices speaking out against American involvement in the World War was prominent Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette.
The citizens of Wisconsin responded to these doubts by resolutely answering the nation’s call to arms. On June 5, 1917, the first day that American men were called to register for the draft under the Selective Service Act, the State proclaimed “Duty Day” and saw no problems or incidents of note. As Wisconsin men and women began joining the military, any lingering doubts quickly evaporated.
The Wisconsin National Guard, recently returned from federal service in Texas as part of the Mexican Expedition, gathered at Camp Douglas as new recruits arrived to bolster their ranks. Sent to Camp MacArthur in Waco, Texas, the Wisconsin National Guard combined with the Michigan National Guard to form the 32nd Division. This constituted the largest concentration of Wisconsin men in World War I, though smaller concentrations would appear in other units.
As American troops shipped overseas, a group of Wisconsin men suffered a tragedy. On February 5, 1918, the troop ship Tuscania, carrying over 2,000 US soldiers, was sunk by a German U-boat off the northern coast of Ireland, becoming the first US troop ship to be sunk during the war. The Tuscania carried several components of the 32nd Division, and thus Wisconsin men were found among the more than 200 dead.
Wisconsin men and women proved their valor on the front lines, as well as above and behind them. Rodney Williams, a pilot with the 17th Aero Squadron, became Wisconsin’s lone “ace” by recording five aerial victories. Mortimer Lawrence, an aerial observer with the 104th Aero Squadron, shot down the final German plane of the war while flying a mission on November 10, 1918. [Click Here to read some of Mortimer Lawrence's accounts!] Base Hospital 22, made up predominantly of Milwaukee doctors and nurses, treated and cared for thousands of wounded soldiers. Sailor John Siegel earned a Medal of Honor for rescuing two men from a burning schooner while stationed stateside.
The 32nd Division as a whole proved itself to be one of the finest in the AEF, earning the nom de guerre Les Terribles from the French and eventually adopting a barred red arrow as their divisional insignia to represent the fact that they pierced every line that the enemy placed before them. On an individual level, many Badger men earned wound chevrons, Silver Stars, Distinguished Service Crosses, and even foreign awards like the French croix de guerre. Clayton Slack, a private in the 33rd Division, earned a Medal of Honor for single-handedly capturing a German machine gun nest in October 1918.
All told, more than 122,000 Wisconsinites served in the US armed forces during World War I. Almost 4,000 of them gave their lives for their country.
Units Containing a Concentration of Wisconsin Men and Women
The 32nd Division, comprised of the Wisconsin and Michigan National Guards, was formed on July 18, 1917 and trained at Camp MacArthur, Texas. They arrived in France in February 1918 and served at the front from May through the end of the war. Their first duty station, Alsace, put them on German land, making them the first American troops to touch German soil. The 32nd Division served in three major offensives—the Aisne-Marne, the Oise-Aisne, and the Meuse-Argonne. The French bestowed a nom de guerre on the division—Les Terribles. The men of the division adopted a barred red arrow as their insignia, signifying that they pierced every enemy line they faced. The men and women of the Wisconsin National Guard continue to proudly wear the Red Arrow today.
The 42nd Division, made up of units from 26 different states, included a concentration of Wisconsin troops. Its 150th Machine Gun Battalion was largely made up of men detached from the Wisconsin National Guard. Activated in August 1917, the Rainbow Division saw action in the Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, and Meuse-Argonne Offensives, as well as the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.
The 86th Division drew most of its men from Wisconsin and Illinois. The Blackhawk Division was activated in August 1917 and went overseas about a year later. While the division did not see combat as a whole, several of its units were sent to support and reinforce frontline troops.
Base Hospital 22 was made up almost entirely of doctors and nurses from the Milwaukee area. The unit mobilized in December 1917 and went overseas in June 1918. They set up their hospital in an area called Beau Desert, near Bordeaux, France. There, they treated, healed, and cared for thousands of wounded, injured, and sick doughboys.