World War I Research Guide

War diaries, letters from home, photographs, newspaper articles, and the papers of organizations such as the Missouri Council of Defense can be found in the collections of the State Historical Society of Missouri. These records from those who participated in the war help us to better understand Missourians' experiences during World War One, both at home and overseas.

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A Brief History

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, Europe quickly became engulfed by war. The political murder pushed the continent's diplomatic alliances of the nineteenth century past their breaking point, drawing the continent into one of the twentieth century's deadliest conflicts. Few imagined that the war between the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied Powers (France, Britain, and Russia) would last more than four years, leave thirty-seven million dead and wounded, and bring Europe to the brink of ruin. The United States initially chose a policy of nonintervention, but by 1917 it was clear that America could no longer remain neutral.

On the evening of April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress and called for America's entry into the war. Wilson asked that his country "fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free." Although Congress heeded the president and declared war on Germany on April 6, U.S. Senator William Joel Stone of Jefferson City and four of Missouri's sixteen U.S. representatives were among the minority who voted no.

America sent two million men to join the fight. The troops who crossed the Atlantic faced a hellish nightmare of trench warfare and deadly new technological innovations such as tanks, poison gas, submarines, and military aircraft. A Missouri native, General John J. Pershing, was appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and 156,232 Missourians joined every branch of the military, with almost half of them serving overseas. Civilians also traveled abroad to support the war effort, including Mary Paxton, the first female graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, who served as a YMCA canteen worker in France.

On the home front, Missourians contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways. The Missouri Council of Defense was established to organize the state's war effort. Citizens participated in war bond campaigns, children planted war gardens, women entered the workforce to fill the labor gap, and farmers increased agricultural production. Families signed food pledges vowing not to waste food, volunteers raised money for the Red Cross, and boys fourteen and older were permitted to stay home from school to work on family farms.

Some of Missouri's citizens, however patriotic, did not escape scrutiny. First- and second-generation German immigrants constituted almost 12 percent of Missouri's population. Some communities banned the use of the German language; others burned German textbooks. As historian Petra DeWitt has noted, "Missouri Germans did not entirely escape charges of disloyalty. Nevertheless, they were not the subject of widespread hate crimes and ethnically targeted legislation," both of which were experienced by German-Americans in other states.

On January 8, 1918, President Wilson delivered his "Fourteen Points" speech in which he laid out his vision for postwar peace, calling for open seas, transparent treaties between nations, and free trade. With thousands of fresh American troops in Europe and the other Central Powers on the verge of surrender, an exhausted Germany recognized that the end of the war was near, and by the beginning of November, the German people turned against their government. Two days after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and went into exile, a new German republic was born. The newly established government quickly moved to end the war.

At eleven o'clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 Germany and the Allies signed an armistice that brought an end to the war. Wilson traveled to Europe to broker an agreement at the Paris Peace Conference, but found his efforts often stymied by his European counterparts. Although the Treaty of Versailles articulated the agreement reached at the conference and formally ended the war between Germany and the Allied Powers, the U.S. Senate did not ratify the treaty. Instead, the United States brokered a separate agreement with Germany that was finalized with the U.S.-German Peace Treaty of 1921. Unfortunately, the Treaty of Versailles did not create a lasting peace, and in twenty years Europe would once again be engulfed in war.

By war's end, 11,172 Missourians were among the dead and wounded. Five native Missourians received the Medal of Honor for their actions. Veterans, including Missouri National Guard Captain Harry S Truman of the 129th Field Artillery, returned home after witnessing the horrors of the first modern war of the twentieth century.

Articles in the Missouri Historical Review

Digital Collections

Digitized collections featuring letters, diaries, and memoirs written during or about military service in World War I. Also material pertaining to the war's impact on civilian life and information on veteran's organizations.

View World War I Digital Collection

Historic Missourian Biographies

Enoch H. Crowder was a U.S. Army general and military attorney who constructed the Selective Service Act, commonly known as “the draft,” during World War I. The act, which Congress made into law in 1917, permitted the federal government to compel men to serve in the military. Under the Selective Service Act, millions of men were required to join the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), which led the Allied Powers to victory in Europe during World War I.

John J. Pershing was one of America’s most accomplished generals. He is most famous for serving as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. These troops from America bolstered the spirits of European allies and helped defeat the Central Powers in 1918. Congress promoted Pershing to the rank of “General of the Armies of the United States” in 1919. He and George Washington are the only two people who have received this honor.

Manuscripts

The State Historical Society of Missouri manuscript collections contain diaries, letters, memoirs, scrapbooks, and papers of men and women who served stateside and overseas during World War One. The collections feature firsthand accounts of battles, descriptions of bombing raids, and portraits of life on the home front from men and women from all walks of life, providing a snapshot of the war's impact on Americans.

View All World War I Manuscript Collections

Newspapers

During World War One, Americans relied on newspapers for the latest information about the conflict. Readers followed news stories about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, the widely condemned German sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania, and America's entry into the war. Local newspapers published the names of men who entered the military, printed letters home from servicemen overseas, reported casualty information, and informed readers of efforts to support the war on the home front. The newspapers from World War One provide a detailed record of how the war was viewed from local, national, and international perspectives, and how it affected the daily lives of Americans.

For a list of all digitized newspapers, visit the Missouri Digital Newspaper Project.

For a list of newspapers on microfilm at The State Historical Society of Missouri, visit the newspaper catalog.

County Collection Title Date Range
Audrain Mexico Missouri Message 1899-1918
Boone Columbia Missourian 1908-1922
Buchanan St. Joseph Observer 1915-1922
Cape Girardeau  Jackson Herald/Cape County Herald/Cape Weekly Tribune 1901-1918
Franklin Franklin County Observer 1893-1926
Franklin Franklin County Tribune 1899-1966
Franklin New Haven Leader 1903-1918
Franklin Pacific Transcript 1895-1933
Franklin Sullivan News 1910-1950
Franklin Sullivan Sentinel 1901-1914
Franklin Union Republican Headlight 1904-1919
Franklin Union Republican Tribune 1919-1922
Franklin Washington Citizen 1905-1923
Gasconade Bland Courier 1904-1951
Gasconade Gasconade County Republican 1903-1922
Gasconade Hermann Advertiser and Advertiser-Courier 1875-1922
Greene Walnut Grove Tribune 1904-1918
Holt Oregon Holt County Sentinel 1865-1921
Jackson Kansas City Sun 1914-1920
Jasper Jasper News 1901-1922
Jasper Webb City Register 1903-1910; 1914-1917
Macon Bevier Appeal 1901-1921
Macon La Plata Republican 1913-1925
Macon Macon Daily Chronicle 1910-1926
Macon Macon Daily Herald 1913-1916
Macon Macon Times 1889-1916
Macon New Cambria Leader 1914-1958
Monroe Monroe City Democrat 1898-1919
Montgomery Montgomery Tribune 1900-1910
Morgan Versailles Morgan County Democrat and Morgan County Republican 1903-1914
Pemiscot Hayti Herald 1909-1922
Pulaski Pulaski County Democrat 1902-1917
Sainte Genevieve Sainte Genevieve Fair Play 1872-1921
Saline Marshall Republican 1898-1914
Scott Benton Scott County Kicker 1901-1917
Warren Marthasville Record 1901-1966
Warren Warrenton Banner 1902-1968

Photographs

Since it was first invented, photography has played an important role on and off the battlefield. During World War One, civilian photographers had limited access to battlefields, while military photographers documented the war from the front lines. American civilian and military personnel serving overseas took amateur photos and purchased illustrated postcards to bring home after the war. Such photographs can be found in the collections of the State Historical Society of Missouri, offering an intimate glimpse of World War One captured by the men and women who experienced it.

View a selection of the World War I Photos

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites.

National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial

Over There: Missouri and the Great War