The United States entered the “Great War” — World War I — on April 6, 1917.
Some Kentuckians had been involved from its beginning in Europe in 1914. Journalist and author Irvin Cobb went to Europe immediately after the war broke out in 1914 to write articles for the Saturday Evening Post. The sister of Lexington Herald editor Desha Breckinridge, Curry Breckinridge, traveled there to serve as a nurse. Fayette County native Alexander McClintock joined the Canadian army.
Severely wounded in action on the Western Front in 1916, McClintock recuperated in a London hospital, where King George visited and awarded him Britain’s second highest award for military valor. In April 1917 most Kentuckians rallied to support the war.
The state’s congressional delegation supported President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to go to war with Germany. Their main dissension came over whether there should be a draft or a volunteer force. In several southern states, resistors railed against the “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” but Kentuckians volunteered or submitted to the draft with little opposition. When a Southern Baptist preacher from Murray, Boyce Taylor, spoke out against the war, he was generally condemned.
Following national leadership, Governor Augustus O. Stanley created a Kentucky Council of Defense (KCD). Despite the political strife that marked pre-war Kentucky, KCD included prominent Republicans and Democrats, including Lexington lawyer and vice-chair of the UK Board of Trustees, Richard Stoll, and Lexington agriculturalist Sam Halley.
The KCD helped publicize war-related activities such as draft registration, Liberty Loan campaigns, and Red Cross fund raising. From the largest cities to the smallest coal camps, Kentuckians registered for the draft, raised money, and conserved food and fuel.
Everyone was expected to contribute. People who didn’t were branded with a strong epithet: “slacker.” (A “Liberty Loan slacker” hung in effigy for two weeks in front of the Fayette County courthouse.) Women led efforts to solicit money, participated in Red Cross activities, and conserved food. Children raised gardens, and bought War Savings Stamps.
Led by Hopkinsville black newspaper publisher Phil Brown, Kentucky’s African-American community rallied to the cause despite questions about why blacks should fight to “make the world safe for democracy,” when they did not benefit from basic democratic rights at home. African-Americans would wait for another world war and a civil rights struggle to begin to gain rights they hoped to have as a result of supporting the war.
Kentuckians of German heritage (especially along the Ohio River) were sometimes victims of prejudice. In northern Kentucky, the Citizens Patriotic League made national news for beating a Cincinnati preacher considered to be pro-German (or insufficiently supportive of the war). In Lexington, German heritage lawyer and labor activist A.A. Bablitz was hounded out of his role on the local draft board. Many Kentuckians of German heritage nevertheless served willingly and honorably in the military.
The war benefited many Kentuckians economically because coal and oil production boomed. Tobacco production increased dramatically. Military leaders believed cigarettes helped soldier morale, and the Louisville Courier-Journal even sponsored a “smokes for soldiers” fund-raising campaign. The alcohol industry suffered. Most distilleries were shut down because grains were needed for food, making a strong Prohibitionist movement very happy.
The creation of one of the country’s largest army training camps at Camp Zachary Taylor gave Louisville not only an economic boost, but a publicity lift as thousands of recruits trained or were demobilized there.
More than 100,000 Kentuckians served in the military and in support organizations such as the Red Cross and YMCA, both at home and abroad. Kentuckians served not only on the Western Front, but in Siberia and northern Russia. The state claimed two flying aces, and two Medal of Honor recipients, Willie Sandlin from Breathitt County and Samuel Woodfill from Ft. Thomas.
When the war ended on November 11, 1918, Kentuckians could be proud of their contributions. Kentuckians became acutely aware that they were part of a larger nation and world. Some Kentuckians paid the ultimate price – more than 3,000 died as a result of the war.
Mentioned earlier, Alexander McClintock transferred to the U.S. Army after April 1918. Training in New Jersey to return to France with U.S. troops, McClintock checked into a New York hotel and there committed suicide. Rightly so, his name is on the World War I memorial in front of the Fayette County courthouse as one of Kentucky’s victims of the “Great War.”
David J. Bettez is author of “Kentucky and the “Great War: World War I on the Home Front” (University of Kentucky Press, 2016) and “Kentucky Marine: Major General Logan Feland and the Making of the Modern USMC” (University of Kentucky Press, 2014.