The World War 1 Draft

World War I began in 1914. As millions of soldiers mobilized for war in Europe, the United States stayed neutral. Everyone expected it to be a quick war and since the U.S. was made up of people from all of the nations of Europe, President Woodrow Wilson thought it would be a good idea not to pick a side. But the war did not end quickly, instead the fighting raged on for years.

For three years the U.S. stayed out of World War I but finally was compelled to get involved by 1917. In high school, we learn that there were two events that caused the United States to declare war on Germany. The first was the sinking of the passenger ship known as the Lusitania in 1915. A German submarine torpedoed and sank the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing 128 American civilians. After the incident, people began to see Germany as the aggressor and many wanted to declare war.

The United States continued to stay out of the war despite the sinking of the Lusitania, but then in early 1917 everything changed. The British intercepted a telegram sent by Arthur Zimmerman, the German foregin minister, to the Mexican Government. The telegram proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico and urged the Mexicans to declare war on the United States. In the telegram, Germany promised to support Mexico's effort to regain territory lost to the United States such as Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

On April 2, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson went before a special joint session of Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Germany, stating “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The Senate and the House of Representatives both voted to declare war on Germany. America officially entered World War I.

At the time, the US military was small. There were only about 100,000 volunteers that made up the entire armed forces. The President had to do something to raise the size of the military, relying on volunteers was not enough. On April 28, 1917 Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1917. This act authorized the President to raise a national army for service through a draft.

Just a mere six weeks after declaring war, the draft was held in Washington D.C. on Friday July 20, 1917. War Department officials were put in charge with members of Congress serving as witnesses. The press was also allowed to attend. As the draft began, the US Secretary of War addressed the room. He described it as a “solemn and historic moment.” He went on to explain that it was necessary to draw 10,500 numbers to determine the order in which the young men registered would serve.

There was a large glass jar and inside were 10,500 capsules. Inside each capsule was a number written on a little slip of paper. One side of the paper was white and the other side was black. On the white side a number was written with red ink that stood out like a drop of blood. The black side was opaque so that the number could not be seen once the paper was folded. Numbers were to be drawn one at a time.

When everyone was ready the seal on the glass jar was broken and the capsules were stirred with a large wooden spoon. The drawing began. The Secretary of War reached his hand into the jar and pulled out the first capsule, it was number “258.” The drawing lasted deep into the night and into the next morning.

After the drawing, the responsibility of producing soldiers fell on local draft boards. By orders of the President, local draft boards were to be formed and it was their duty to produce a certain number of soldiers based on a quota assigned to each board. The President called for 687,000 men to be initially drafted nationwide, with 151 coming from Dickson County.

A local draft board was formed with C.M. Lovell, the first mayor of Dickson, serving as one of the board members. Their main objective was to notify the men who had been drafted. They also had to determine exemptions. Exemptions were granted to those not able to meet the physical requirements of service.

In Dickson County there were 1,448 men registered for service. The first 302 drawn were notified to come before the local draft board. From those 302, the first 151 who met the physical requirements would be sent to basic training. The first person notified in Dickson County to appear before the draft board was Earl Choat, who had the number “258” on his draft card.