County Executive's Blog

Nov 16

[ARCHIVED] A Look Back with the County Executive: World War I in St. Charles County

The original item was published from November 16, 2018 8:57 AM to November 16, 2018 9:05 AM

On November 11, 1918, world leaders signed the Armistice ending World War I after four years. Since then, Armistice Day and Remembrance Day are recognized annually on Nov. 11 by the nations involved in the war. In 1954, Congress renamed the day to Veterans Day in the United States to honor all who served in the military. 

With a large German-American population and over 1,000 citizens enlisted, World War I deeply affected St. Charles County. On this 100th anniversary of the armistice and the reopening of the Soldiers Memorial Museum in St. Louis, it is fitting to look back at how the “war to end all wars,” as it was once called, shaped our community.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, few German-Americans in St. Charles County were sympathetic to Imperial Germany’s political aims. Many heirs to the German Liberal tradition had become disillusioned with Germany after Bismarck broke with the German Liberals in the 1880s and formed a government with the assistance of the Conservatives. The children and grandchildren of immigrants who had come from German states like Bavaria, Baden and Hanover, felt no allegiance to the Prussian dominated German state. Many of their parents and grandparents had immigrated to the United States to avoid universal military training required of all adult males in the German Empire. Catholics still resented the Kulturkampf Bismarck had waged against the Catholic Church. German-Americans in the county received letters from relatives complaining of German censorship, but the greatest complaint was against the military training and service required of all young German men.1   

Some German-Americans viewed the “hot war” in Europe as part of the “cold war” that had existed between German and Anglo-Saxon culture for the previous 80 years. The German-American Alliance, a federation of local Stadtverbaende in towns across the state and country, including St. Charles and Augusta, led the effort to preserve German Kultur.2 The president of the organization complained in November 1915:
       For a long time we have suffered the preachment: “You Germans must allow yourself to be assimilated, you must be merged into the American people,” but no one will find us prepared to step down to a lesser kultur; we have made it our aim to draw the others up to us… No people is so modest and no people is so ready to recognize the good in others and to adopt it as the Germans… But we will not permit that our kultur of two thousand years be trodden down in this land.  Many were born here and many are giving our German kultur to the land of their children. But that is possible only if we stand together and conquer that dark spirit of muckerdom and prohibition just as Siegfried once slew the dragon.3  

To the extent the views of the German-American Alliance agreed with their own desire to celebrate the Continental Sunday, or keep their sons out of the European war, German-Americans supported the goals of the alliance. Just as during the crisis over slavery, German intellectuals did not speak for all German-Americans. Catholic, Lutheran and Evangelical Germans viewed retention of the German language as a religious, rather than a political or cultural, issue. With little German immigration to St. Charles County for the previous 30 years, the process of assimilation was proceeding slowly but surely outside the churches. The newspaper article announcing a meeting of the German-American Alliance at the courthouse in 1914 made it clear the speaker would be “speaking in English.” The German language Demokrat quit publishing in December 1916. Even among the religious element, some within the Evangelical Church had been calling for the exclusive use of English since 1910.4 

After the outbreak of the World War, the German-American Alliance worked to ensure the neutrality of the United States. However, arguments about German Kultur rang hollow after the American public became informed about German atrocities in neutral Belgium, a goal in which British propagandists diligently assisted. St. Louis Archbishop John Glennon responded to anti-German pressure by banning sermons and announcements in German at Catholic services. If most German-Americans in St. Charles County opposed war with Germany, it was not because they approved of the Kaiser’s regime, or feared the eclipse of German Kultur; it was out of concern for the well-being of relatives who fought on the other side, or a desire to keep their sons out of a war that they believed did not affect them, a belief they shared with many non-Germans.5     

Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Sheppard Emmons, son of historian Benjamin L. Emmons, became the first from St. Charles County to enlist. A month after the declaration, federal agents arrested Ernest Wefel at his home in Wentzville. They had received reports that the 40-year-old American citizen of German ancestry had threatened to kill the president. Three weeks later, the 25 men, 10 of whom were German-Americans, who volunteered for the Fifth Regiment being formed in the St. Louis area, were honored at a Patriotic Day in St. Charles. Alluding to previous desires for neutrality, Mayor John Steinbrinker addressed the crowd stating, “I know from your faces and demonstration that whatever may have been the desire and hope of all of us, that our great country might be spared the horrors of war, and that our entry into the same having been decreed by those whom we have placed in authority of our national affairs, still we are all united behind our government, and hope and pray for the success of our arms in the same.”6 Since the Missouri General Assembly had already adjourned its biennial session, and would not meet again until January 1919, Governor Gardner used his executive powers to appoint a local County Council of Defense for each county. Julius Willbrand, chairman, along with Henry Ohlms, John Dames, Frank Schell, L.G. Stealey, Isaac Madding and Edward Hollrah were appointed to the St. Charles County Council of Defense. To insure German-American cooperation, he advised each council to “organize mass meetings in German districts” and send speakers “of German origin but unquestionable loyalty who can most influentially address these meetings.”7   

While Governor Gardner’s proclaimed, “This is no time for slackards, copperheads or soft pedalists. If any such are among us it is our duty to drive them out and brand them as traitors,” the councils guaranteed a great deal of local control, and the German-American composition of the St. Charles County board insured fairness.8 Even local leaders, however, were not immune from pressure from Jefferson City. The state superintendent of schools announced his desire that the legislature, when it reconvened in January 1919, should require elementary school instruction in English only. He then used his power to investigate teacher qualifications and the school curriculum to pressure school districts. When he requested that elementary schools provide instruction only in English, Hamburg, Weldon Spring and Friedens discontinued instruction in German. The St. Charles School Board discontinued German classes for the 1918-1919 school year at St. Charles High School, leaving only 16 schools in the state that offered German courses that year.9      

In May, President Wilson signed a Selective Service Act which included a provision for some local control through draft boards. John Grothe, Heinrich Conrad Sandfort, and Dr. Otto Ilch comprised the St. Charles County Draft Board, which had to meet quotas and could subtract enlistees from their quota. All men age 21 to 30 were required to register with their local draft boards by June 5, 1917, and the first men were drafted in July. Physical examinations were given in August and the first St. Charles County draftees, Walter Wegener and Frank Billing, bid farewell at the Wabash depot on Sept. 5, 1917. When several young men married to avoid the draft, a newspaper article suggested, “We notice in the newspaper from all parts of the county that parents are giving their consent to the marriage of their sons who are underage. If it is the work of Cupid, of course it is O.K. But it is not patriotic these days.”10      

Responding to acts of sabotage on the east coast in 1916, the Army had placed guards at the car shops and on the Wabash Bridge even before the declaration of war against Germany.  The CPI exploited fear of spies and saboteurs and, as 1918 began, the federal government required all German-born residents to either produce their naturalization papers or register as citizens of Germany. Charles Reimer could not produce his father’s final naturalization papers, and the County clerk could not locate them in the County records, which were not indexed. While he found the papers in 1921, he was one of 60 St. Charles residents who registered with the chief of police, and remained subject to certain restriction on their liberty throughout the war. Many began the process of becoming naturalized citizens, including William Lentz, a 91-year-old retired farmer. Having come to the United States from Germany in 1883, Lentz was reported to be the oldest man ever to apply for citizenship.11   

German-Americans in St. Charles County began bowing to the anti-German hysteria in the second year of the war. Early in 1918, the German-American Bank in O’Fallon changed its name to Commercial Bank. At a meeting of the Immanuel Lutheran congregation in April, after “speeches by patriotic member,” it was decided that no more German would be taught in the congregation’s school. The Cosmos-Monitor exclaimed, “Three cheers for the Lutherans! Let all other parochial schools throughout the nation do likewise. Let us all be 100 percent American and drop hyphens and anything else that is not patriotic.”12 In July, the Missouri Council of Defense announced its opposition to the use of German in schools, churches, lodges, or any public meeting, and its belief that speaking English was, “the clearest evidence of loyalty.”13  The following month, the Immanuel German Evangelical Lutheran Church announced, “Whereas our present war with Germany has caused public sentiment to look with disfavor and suspicion upon the use of the German language in our country, we resolve that the official language of our congregation is the English language and the name of our church will be changed to the Evangelical Lutheran Immanuel Church.”14 St. John German Evangelical Church also dropped German from its name and, along with St. Peter’s Parish, discontinued German instruction in its school. An ordinance was introduced in the St. Charles City Council to ban the publication of German newspapers.15 While the Missouri Council of Defense announced in September that, “citizens of all towns and communities in the state named for German functionaries or towns [would] be requested to change [their] names,” no evidence suggests the residents of New Melle or Hamburg considered such a change.16   

More importantly, German-Americans did not suffer the fate of some Americans during the Civil War because almost all were loyal Americans. In fact, of the 1,166 St. Charles County men who served in the armed services during the war, 759 (65 percent) had German surnames.  Of the 49 St. Charles countians who died in service to their country during the war, 29 had German surnames. An even larger percentage of German-Americans served in the Home Guard, formed in 1918 to provide security in the state while the Missouri National Guard was fighting in France. Doctors August Gossow, Otto Ilch, B. Kurt Stumberg and Alvin Diehr all served in military camps or overseas. Two of the three local women, Olive Rauch and Celeste Rauch, who volunteered for service with the Red Cross in France, were of German descent. A large majority of the women Red Cross volunteers, who sewed over 4,000 items, including sweaters and socks, for the soldiers, were German-Americans. Under the leadership of Mrs. Theodore C. Bruere, they presented a comfort pack containing a knife, handkerchief, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and post cards, to all men from St. Charles County when they left for basic training. Finally, German-Americans from the St. Peter’s Parish subscribed to more war bonds than any other congregation in the county.17   

After the war, the world was never the same, and neither was St. Charles County. The German language, anti-temperance attitudes and parochial schools did not disappear, but they could no longer be defended in the name of German Kultur. The German-American Alliance dissolved in April 1918, while under Senate investigation. As before the war, the German-speaking population shrank, as the last foreign-born immigrants died, while second, third and fourth generation German-American children heard only English in their schools. Ethnic identification decreased as popular media, including records, movies and radio, had a homogenizing impact on the public. Better roads opened up previously isolated farms and villages to outside cultural influences. While only one-sixth of Missouri Synod Lutheran congregations had conducted at least one English service a month in 1917, by the end of the war 75 percent were doing so. While new congregations of the Evangelical Church had been established in New Melle (Friedens) in 1904, Defiance (St. Paul’s) in 1900, and Hamburg in 1908, that denomination decided after the war to concentrate on urban missions to persons of all ethnic backgrounds and merged with the Reformed Church of the United States in 1934. The St. John Church in Cappeln saw the first English Sunday school class in 1928 and the first English church service in 1932.  

The German language persisted in St. Charles County only in small villages where a common faith predominated, or in families where adults and children spoke German on a daily basis. The Evangelical Church in Femme Osage and the Lutheran Churches in Augusta and New Melle continued services in German. Immanuel Lutheran in St. Charles continued an early German service, mainly for the benefit of its older members.18 The Catholic Central Union of Missouri held its annual state-wide meeting at the St. Peter’s Parish hall in 1920. While voting down a resolution to make English the official language, the membership adopted the, “liberal attitude that members of the Union may use either German or English.”19 While German was no longer used in public, some families around Augusta continued to speak German at home.  According to C. Fred Hollenbeck, “The children of those families, when they first came to public school, spoke better German than they did English.”20  

Most German-American organizations that had suspended during the war did not re-emerge after it. Those that did re-entered public life cautiously, usually championing causes like European war relief. The German Catholic Benevolent Society of St. Peter’s Parish continued to raise money for charity. Upon closing his appeal at the St. Charles chapter of the National Committee for the Relief of German and Austrian Women and Children, Father Weiner from St. Paul reminded his audience, “Funds to be collected will be used only to buy food and clothing for the victims concerned.”21   

1 Judy Sigmund, Dog Prairie Tales, (St. Charles: Goellner Printing, n.d.), 45.
2 Detjen, The Germans in Missouri, 202, n34. A stadtverbaende was a city alliance. The German-American Alliance was founded by Charles Hexamer, and claimed more than two million members by 1914.  While prohibited by its charter from engaging in direct political action, it defended “personal liberty” during its anti-prohibition campaigns. Ibid.    
3 Russell A. Kazal, Becoming Old Stock, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 167.  By the time of WWI, the Missouri Synod Lutherans had 201 congregations, while the German Evangelical Synod had 178. Missouri’s German Heritage, 118. 
4 Cosmos-Monitor, October 21, 1914; Nagel, German Migration, 172; Christensen,, A History of Missouri, 1875-1919, 201.  
5 Primm, Lion of the Valley, 459.
6 Cosmos-Monitor, May 24, 1917.
7 Petra DeWitt, “Drifting Back into Their Old Ways,” MHR, Vol 103, No. 3, April, 2009, 165.
8 Dewitt, “Drifting Back,” 165.
9 Daniel T. Brown, Small Glories, 253; Dewitt, “Drifting Back,” 175.
10 Breslow, Small Town, 154.
11 Banner-News, January 28, 1921; Breslow, Small Town, 153; Parrish, Missouri, The Heart of the Nation, 294.  German aliens who possessed any fire-arm; operated any aircraft, wireless apparatus, or signaling device; approached any military installation; or criticized the government; were subject to summary arrest and confinement.  
12 Ibid., April 17, 1918.
13 Dewitt, “Drifting Back,” 173.
14 Breslow, Small Town, 154.
15 Ibid.
16 Dewitt, “Drifting Back,” 170. Bismarck in St. Francois County resisted efforts to change its name to “Loyal,” while the town of  Potsdam in Gasconade County was changed to “Pershing.”  Schroeder, “German Traditions in Missouri,” 305.
17 Luebke, Bonds of Loyalty 10; Breslow, Small Town, 154-155; Gary McKiddy, “Have You Bought ‘Till It Hurts’?”  94; St. Charles County in the World War,4; Cosmos-Monitor, April 28, 1943; Kim Oellschlager, "St. Charles County Chapter of the American Red Cross, Then and Now," St. Charles Heritage, Vol. 12, Number 3, July 1994, 82-89. Latona Rodgers was the third volunteer to go to France. Sheriff John Grothe asked the newspapers to publish a letter he had received from the United States marshal, asking for his cooperation in maintaining order and “respect for the American flag in St. Charles County.” The American Red Cross established a chapter in St. Charles, the first chapter in Missouri outside St. Louis. Ibid.
18  See Dewitt, “Drifting Back,” 175; Kamphoefner, “Uprooted or Transplanted,” 85.
19 Cosmos-Monitor, May 18, 1920.
20 Agricultural History of St. Charles County 17.
Banner-News, June 21, 1923.  As late as 1929, the Polk’s St. Charles City Directory listed the German Benefit Union among the fraternal organizations in St. Charles.