When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, German-American citizens of Washington likely had mixed feelings. Recent immigrants and those several generations removed often felt ties to the old country.
In January 1917, The Franklin County Observer published news under the stacked headlines:
“In the Fatherland;”
“Interesting Bits of News From the Great German Empire;”
“What’s Doing in Old Home;” and
“Summary of the Most Important Happenings in the Land of the Kaiser —Timely Items for the German Readers.”
That Easter, services were held in both German and English at St. Peter’s Evangelical Church, now United Church of Christ. Some Washington women were members of the German Reading Club.
After the declaration of war, some 2,000 people came to Washington’s “Loyalty Day” on April 11. Local bands played patriotic songs with citizens singing along, and politicians gave speeches to loud cheers. The American flag was raised on a new 60-foot flagpole at city hall, according to the April 13 edition of The Observer.
“Mayor (H.J.) Bleckman urged our people to stand firmly with the president and Congress in this war and earnestly pleaded that no one in our midst disgrace the honor of Washington by any act which may be against the welfare of the United States.”
The Observer opined that “Many of our people are foreign born and in time became good citizens, but now that we are in the great war they have forgotten other ties and will firmly stand by the flag they respect and love.”
The mayor told the crowd that “no matter what our opinions were before the declaration of war with Germany, it is now our duty to stand by the Stars and Stripes,” according to The Washington Citizen.
The Observer included the text of President Wilson’s war proclamation with several regulations regarding the “alien enemy,” referring to unnaturalized Germans, who could be “apprehended, restrained, secured and removed” if they were found to break any of those regulations.
By May 11, several men went to St. Louis for the Officers Reserve Corps examination. Frank Muench and John Pike were successful and were awaiting to report to Fort Riley.
Missouri National Guardsmen of the 1st and 5th Regiments came to Washington on Sunday, June 3, standing on street corners, attempting to get young Washington men to enlist in the Army. They had no success in getting volunteers.
One of the guardsmen said Washington men had a “yellow streak running down their backs.” Another remarked, “If you don’t volunteer and are conscripted, you can’t return from the war with honors. You won’t get the nice clothes we are wearing, but you will get dirty clothes and do dirty work. You are only living to die, so why not volunteer today and die for your country,” the June 5 Observer noted.
The New Haven Leader presented a slightly different account, reprinted from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. It noted that officers had varied success in a recruiting tour near St. Louis.
“At Washington, a town of about 5,000 inhabitants, of whom the larger per cent (sic) are German-Americans, one recruit (a temporary resident) was obtained.” The officers recruited 33 from Union, population 1,600.
The officers first came to Washington on that Friday and returned Sunday. “While the residents showed more disposition to listen to them, no volunteers came forward.”
The St. Louis Republic was campaigning against the St. Louis German language press arguing, “They disseminate Hun propaganda.” That newspaper learned of the regiment’s attempts to enlist volunteers and attacked Washington’s patriotism.
The June 8 edition of The Washington Citizen reprinted the article, which originally ran under the headline of “Washington (Mo.) Is Not in the U.S.”
“Under this head were subheads of a like slanderous and calumnious character, written for the purpose of creating a nationwide hatred and detestation for our little city in the hearts of a country-loving people.”
A portion of the text of The Republic’s article follows here:
“A ‘town without a country’ is Washington, Mo., a German settlement of 3,000 (This population figure is closer to accurate than the Globe-Democrat’s version with 3,670 in 1910) on the Missouri Pacific. It has offered a studied indifference to all calls to duty in patriotic support of the government in the present crisis, when the nation’s liberties are menaced as never before since revolutionary days. Not one resident has volunteered for service under the flag.
“Officers on recruiting service from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, discovered the utter lack of patriotic spirit in the Washington population when they visited the place recently. They discovered that since the call went out for volunteers for the Army and Navy, not one resident volunteered.”
The Washington newspapers, as well as those from neighboring communities, struck back at The Republic and the Globe-Democrat.
The Washington Citizen asked:
“What does The Republic mean by ‘studied indifference’? And what ‘all calls’ does it refer to? Our people take it that these calls referred to came from the officers who visited Sunday. How many patriotic citizens of Washington heard this call on a Sunday when they were in church or in their homes observing the Sabbath? How many knew that these officers were coming to town? And to whom did the officers appeal?”
The Citizen suggested that the young men “had taken some of the dryness out of Sunday and were not entirely responsible for what they said when they gave the officers curt and indiscreet answers,” leaving the officers with the wrong impression.
The newspaper speculated that young Washington men did not volunteer because they didn’t see the urgency, much as young men in other cities across the nation.
The Franklin County Observer countered the statement that no one had enlisted. “It is a malicious falsehood. At the city clerk’s office there can be obtained a verified list of 17 men who enlisted or attempted to enlist, some of whom were rejected; and these men traveled to St. Louis, 54 miles from here to offer their services.”
The Observer had telegraphed the news about Washington’s patriotic event to The Republic, but it was never published.
The Gasconade County Republican also tore into the St. Louis paper. “The Republic ought to get wise to the fact that our president says there is no disgrace in selective conscription (draft) which is the only fair and just way to raise an army. Why then, should men be condemned for lack of patriotism in not volunteering? . . . Where, anyway, did The Republic get its authority to judge the patriotism of the people of Washington or any other town and make gross misstatements reflecting on the honor of its young men?”
The Republican Headlight in Union took up for its “sister city.”
“It is true that most of its inhabitants are of German origin; but what of that? It cannot be proven by an authentic history of the United States that the Germans of this country, either native born or by adoption, were ever disloyal to the Stars and Stripes. We hope that this is still a free country and in the view of the conscription laws of the land, the young men of Washington had a perfect right to think that there would be ample time to serve under the law of conscription. . . .
“Has it come to be a crime to say that your grandfather came from Germany?”
The Advertiser-Courier in Hermann also came to Washington’s defense, calling the article “unjust and uncalled for. In Washington you will yet find veterans of the Civil War and nearly every resident of Washington is a son or daughter of a veteran. Washington did more than her allotted part in preserving the Union. . . . Our neighbor city . . . need not herald her loyalty and patriotism with flare of trumpets and beating of tom-toms in order to hide a yellow streak.”
Draft registration was underway, beginning in June. In Washington, 349 men registered on June 5 — Registration Day. Those in charge of registration believed that all who were required to register had, “with little or no disturbance or lack of patriotism,” noted the June 8 Observer.
“Franklin County can well point to this record with pride. The St. Louis newspapers who are in the habit of printing stories about the disloyalty of country districts will also take notice. Several thousand St. Louis men failed to register,” according to the June 22 Observer.
President Wilson called for 70,000 volunteers for the regular Army, but it appeared that men nationwide were slow to enlist.