Exeter’s Sons Go Off to War

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 21, 2017.

A mere month after the United States formally entered the Great War in April of 1917, it was apparent that the army needed more men. Attempts to increase enlistment with volunteers simply weren’t drawing in enough recruits. On May 18th, “An Act to authorize the President to increase temporarily the military establishment of the United States” was passed. Most people just called it the draft. All men between the ages of 21 and 31 had to comply with the process.

States were assigned quotas for the Federal Army. The first registration day was held on June 5th, 1917. On that day, New Hampshire Governor Henry Keyes issued a proclamation: “I call upon all our people to aid in this work of enrollment in every way possible. It is a patriotic duty and must be fulfilled in the true spirit of service and citizenship. Let the men subject to enrollment be prompt and cheerful in presenting themselves for registration.” He also reminded them that, “failure or refusal to register is a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment.” Exeter’s registration was held at the Town Hall – as it would be again just before the Second World War. The town clerk and assistants registered 358 men between the hours of 7 AM and 8 PM. Registration cards were then numbered and readied for the draft drawing in Washington, D.C. Those men selected were mailed a questionnaire to sort out whether they were in some way exempt from service.

Just prior to the draft, the Exeter News-Letter was proudly touting the men who’d volunteered to serve in the Third Company, Coast Artillery Corps of Exeter, which had formed in 1906. Led by Captain Alvin Foss, the Corps drilled publicly around town, using the Town Hall during inclement weather. As part of the New Hampshire National Guard, the Coast Artillery was called into national service in July of 1917. A fund raising dance was held the week before they left with, “dancing from 8 to 12, modern and glide. A telling feature will be an exhibition drill by a squad from the company. Music will be furnished by Thayer’s Special Orchestra.” On the morning of their departure, schools and businesses were closed at 8 AM. to send them off. The men posed briefly for a photograph on Water Street. Then began, according to the Exeter News-Letter, “the march to the station, the escort to the artillerymen comprising a platoon of police, the Exeter Band, the Fire Department, hundreds of citizens thoroughly representative of the entire community, the Boy Scouts, and several members of Moses N. Collins Woman’s Relief Corps and other women and girls.” The News-Letter observed that the departure and all its fanfare, “recalled to older residents familiar scenes of half a century ago — troops, marching to the strains of martial music, cheers and parting demonstrations, in response to their call for service in the Civil War.”

On the very same page of the newspaper was an account by Exeter reporter Myra Richards – who wrote under the name Morgan – from Washington, D.C., of the drawing of the first draft numbers. “The stage was set fittingly, in the great chamber at the Capitol. A group of men – some in khaki and others in civilian dress – stood about a big glass jar. In the jar were ten thousand and more gelatin capsules. Inside each capsule was a number and that number and manner of its drawing held the wartime destiny of a man. Blindfolded men took turns in drawing the fateful numbers from the jar. The capsule was deftly opened, the number found inside was announced by two men, and written on a giant blackboard by a third. Within an instant the telegraph had flashed to every section of the land figures that told ten million men of army draft age who had been chosen.” Of these, 56 Exeter men, were in the first selection. Some were already exempt because they were members of the Coast Artillery Corps – now on their way to Fort Stark in Portsmouth Harbor. Some would quickly be exempted due to poor health, such as Camille Jette who marched off with the Corps that morning, only to be sent back almost immediately because of tuberculosis. He’d fought his illness for most of his 22 years, but it would ultimately take his life five months later. A few men managed to get exemptions because they had dependents – a wife who didn’t work or children under the age of 16. There were exemptions for men studying divinity or those who were part of a religious denomination that didn’t allow combat. And, of course, there were those who were ‘morally unfit’– a vaguely defined category that might include a criminal or deviant past.

As men were sorted through the process, Exeter was able to meet its quota by December. Exeter men served in all branches of the U.S. military with a few even joining early with Canadian forces. With the encouragement of the town, they were given a glorious send-off. President Wilson wrote an address to the forces, which was published in the Exeter News-Letter on September 7th. “The eyes of the world will be upon you, because you are in some special sense the soldiers of freedom. Let it be your pride, therefore, to show all men, everywhere, not only what good soldiers you are, but also what good men you are, keeping yourselves fit and straight in everything and pure and clean through and through.”

It would only take a few months for the men of Exeter to realize the realities of war. In August of 1918, with recruitment lagging, the draft would expand to include men between the ages of 18 and 45. That same month, George Frame, flying with the AEF in France – although restricted somewhat by censors – would write home, “You cannot begin to comprehend the size of this war.”

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at info@exeterhistory.org.

Image: The Third Company, Coast Artillery Corps, New Hampshire National Guard of Exeter, poses on the Water Street side of Exeter’s Town Hall on July 26, 1917 just before their departure to Fort Stark. Although these men were volunteers, World War I had higher numbers of men who were drafted.


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