How Great Was the Great War In Iowa?

Allison McNeese

MMU history professor Allison McNeese gives an informative presentation about Iowa and World War I as Herbert Hoover looks on. Photo by Steven Worthington of the Mount Mercy Times.

I suppose the answer largely rests on the sense of the word “great.” It wasn’t that fun or fantastic—but World War I loomed large in the Hawkeye State, just as it did in world history.

Allison McNeese, a history professor at Mount Mercy University, spoke this afternoon at MMU about Iowa and World War I. More than 50 people were there, a pretty good turnout for a 3:30 in the afternoon event of this type.

And she noted how “great,” as in “large,” the war was for Iowa. A half million Iowans registered for the draft, and more than 100,000 served in the armed forces—quite a big group for a state with a population then of 2.4 million.

One of 16 large Army camps established in 1917 to train the many new soldiers was Camp Dodge. And African-American officers were trained, for the first time in U.S. history, at Fort Des Moines. The reason black officers were trained in Iowa, McNeese noted, was that the Army considered the whole effort an experiment that might fail, so a “middle of nowhere” state was chosen.

The lecture was fascinating. One of the most chilling points came when McNeese read excerpts from a letter written by a woman in Lowden Iowa about gangs that came to that German-immigrant community and basically attacked prominent citizens. Men with German names were forced to march around holding the American flag, some were roughed up, they were made to kiss the flag and then had to each pay $100 which was donated to the Red Cross.

It was chilling to think how far war fever had driven Iowans, who are usually a fairly placid and tolerant folk.

And that’s not all. Besides the governor ordering Iowans to speak only English during the war, even place names were changed to paper over the fact that Germans are a huge immigrant group in Iowa. The town of Germania was renamed Lakota. A Berlin Township in Clinton County became Grant Township. A Bismarck Street in Muscatine was redubbed Bond Street.

Iowa certainly was caught up in the big world events of The Great War. Those events of a century ago remind us to be mindful today to be careful to avoid hysteria in our public life.

I’m glad that MMU has hosted this series of events, and I look forward to the library open house, a speech on the flu pandemic by Dr. Mary Tarbox and the finale event, all coming up.


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