By ADAM BALZ
Monroe County Local History Room Volunteer Researcher
Author’s note: The United States is recognizing the centennial of the United States’ involvement in World War I. The U.S. was in World War I from April 1917 until the Armistice ended it on Nov. 11, 1918. Both the Sparta and Tomah National Guard companies were ordered to federal active duty as rifle companies in the 128th Infantry Regiment of the 32nd Infantry Division. Hundreds of county residents served in the armed forces during the war, and 41 died while in the service. Countless others supported the nation’s war effort at home.
The Monroe County Local History Room has been partnering with this newspaper to publish transcriptions of letters written by Monroe County soldiers while serving in Europe during World War I. We also shared articles about what life was like for those living in Monroe County during the war and explored the topic of anti-German sentiment during World War I. These letters and stories are intended to help us better understand what it was like for Monroe County residents to endure the “war to end war,” whether on the front lines or on the home front. This installment describes the events surrounding the end of the war — a war no one thought would last as long as it did or claim as many lives.
By November 1918, the United States had been engaged in the Great War for almost 19 months. In that time, more than 1,000 boys and men from Monroe County had joined the service, either through enlistment or the draft. More than a dozen women from the county had also volunteered as nurses. Tens of thousands of dollars had been raised through the sale of Liberty Loans, and local chapters of the Red Cross had produced hundreds of handmade items vital to the war effort, from socks and shirts to gauze and bandages.
The people of Monroe County had also suffered under an endless stream of rumors regarding peace, often based on little more than wishful thinking. In just one example, a local newspaper ran a syndicated article claiming the war would end by January 1918. The author’s source was the Book of Revelations, and his article filled more than half a page. Time after time, such talk proved hollow, and the residents of Monroe County became increasingly anxious for peace.
They would not have to wait long.
News of the armistice came in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 11. At half past three, the citizens of Sparta were roused from sleep by the sounds of train whistles being blown in celebration. Soon, the city’s water works began blowing its own whistle, followed by those of local factories. Church bells joined in the chorus. Once the news had spread, residents stepped out of their homes and began firing shotguns into the air.
Other residents swamped the local telephone office with calls. Some were undoubtedly confused by the ruckus. Others, weary from so many months of war, were perhaps worried that news jju of peace might be little more than an unfounded rumor. As a local newspaper noted, the operators handled each call “wonderfully well and assured every inquirer … that this was probably the end of the war.”
Before sunrise, people filled the streets. Some slipped into the alleyways behind local businesses, where they gathered up old boxes and crates for a bonfire. But this wasn’t enough. Soon they had commandeered a dilapidated bus to serve as the fire’s centerpiece. Once the flames had consumed the old vehicle, it was pulled from the fire and dragged through town, including a jaunt on Water Street. This was their improvised parade, a release of all the anguish and tension that had been building for so long.
By ten o’clock that morning, this slapdash celebration had turned into an actual parade, complete with “floats and automobiles and marching men, women, boys and girls and children.” One writer estimated that the demonstration was a mile long.
Even with this welcomed news, citizens knew their work was far from done. More than two million American soldiers remained in Europe, one newspaper noted, and they still needed to be clothed, fed, and cared for. What’s more, bringing so many people home from across the ocean required time. Consequently, it would be half a year before Monroe County’s fighting men would return home.
Author’s note: Learn more about the soldiers’ experiences during World War I by visiting www.MonroeCountyHistory.org.