One hundred years ago this spring, on April 6, 1917, America entered World War I. The European nations had been in conflict since summer 1914, but the United States remained neutral until 1917, when German U-boats began sinking American ships in the North Atlantic and Germany sought a military alliance with Mexico. At that point, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war.
With the same patriotic fervor that Maine had responded to a call for troops in the Civil War, more than 35,000 men and women across the state joined the military in 1917 and 1918 to fight the “war to end all wars” to “make the world safe for democracy.” The entire University of Maine Band joined the 103rd Infantry Regiment, as did a squad of warriors from the Passamaquoddy Nation, including the chief’s own son, who was killed in action on Nov. 10, 1918. Maine civilians supported the war by purchasing $118.4 million in government bonds and $8.4 million in war savings stamps. Private sector relief programs operated by the American Red Cross, YMCA, YWCA and the Salvation Army also received generous contributions from the public. By the end of the war, every man, woman and child in the state had donated an average of $147 to the war effort.
Overseas, Mainers more than “did their part” on the Western Front. Maine’s first son to give his life was Cpl. Harold Andrews of Portland, serving in the engineers. When his position was overrun on Nov. 30, 1917, he put down his shovel and seized a rifle before he was killed in action. Maine’s National Guard outfits — the 103rd Infantry, 101st Trench Mortar Battery and 56th Pioneer Infantry — served with distinction on the Western Front. The 103rd never lost ground and captured the most prisoners of any outfit in the 26th Division. One of the first National Guardsmen to die in France was Pvt. Ralph Spaulding, who was killed in action on Feb. 13, 1918. The 103rd Infantry was a “fighting regiment,” taking part in five major campaigns in 1918, including the summer offensives where it was the first unit to go “over the top.” As an indication of the toughness of the outfit, it was still attacking on Nov. 11, 1918, as the armistice went into effect. Less than 50 percent of the men who left Maine with the unit in 1917 came home unscathed in 1919.
The 56th Pioneer Infantry Regiment — nicknamed the “Milliken Regiment” after Gov. Carl E. Milliken — arrived to France in time to take part in America’s bloodiest battle of all time: the Meuse-Argonne. Following the armistice, the 56th advanced into Germany to serve as part of the army of occupation. In the ranks of the 56th was future Maine Gov. William Tudor Gardiner. Another future governor, Sumner Sewall, flew biplanes for the American Air Service, and he shot down enough German planes to earn the coveted title of “Ace.” Thousands of men joined the coast artillery outfits protecting the Maine coast during the war, with hundreds later serving in France as part of the 54th Artillery, 101st Engineers and 103rd Field Artillery.
The secretary of the Maine Committee on Public Safety raised a company of chauffeurs, truck drivers and mechanics dubbed the 303rd Motor Truck Company, which supported the famed 1st Division — also known as “The Big Red One” — in its campaigns in 1918. It was one of the first truck units to cross into Germany after the armistice. Similarly, men from the Maine Central Railroad enlisted together to form Company C of the 14th Engineer Regiment (Railway), and they played a vital role in building and running light railways across the Western Front. More than 1,000 Mainers perished in the Great War from enemy fire and disease. The war left its mark across the state, with veterans returning with missing limbs or with poor lungs from the horrific poison gas attacks they had endured.
After 19 months of American participation, World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, which became Armistice Day and is now observed as Veterans Day. Rather than solving Europe’s problems, the war led to an even greater conflict two decades later. Shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression, America’s Greatest Generation rose to meet the challenge of World War II to preserve the freedom that we cherish today.
First Lt. Jonathan Bratten is the Maine National Guard historian. Earle Shettleworth Jr. is the Maine state historian.