World War I a trying time for Central Montana: locals look back on War anniversary

Don Knox, son of World War I veteran Paul Knox, stands by a tribute to World War I soldiers in the Lewistown City Cemetery. Don also served in the military and considers his father an inspiration.
Photo by Charlie Denison

Charlie Denison

Thursday, April 6 marked the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, joining the fight against the Central Powers: Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria.

This divisive and ugly war claimed the lives of millions of soldiers to combat, disease, exhaustion, exposure and other fatal misfortunes.

For many, details of “The Great War” are scattered, and knowledge is slim, but, for others, the history runs deep. Family blood was shed.

Here in Central Montana, many lives were affected. Fathers, uncles, grandpas served, and mothers, grandmas and aunts stepped up on ranches and at work, keeping the Central Montana community going.

Some local residents shared what they know about their relatives who served.

Howard Donaldson of Denton had an uncle, George, who served in France as a Private First Class.

“He was drafted right away,” Howard said, “and he was wounded in his shoulder and knee. He ended up spending a long time in a hospital over there, after catching a disease.”

But George came around, Howard said.

“He didn’t get home as quickly as he could have, but he had a good active life afterward,” Howard said. “He and my dad came out to Denton together from Iowa and had a lot of success farming.”

Paul Knox was also able to come home and have a life, after completing his mission overseas unscathed.

Don Knox, one of Paul’s seven sons, said Paul came home with “no injuries,” which is exceptionally fortunate, as he fought in the Meuse, Argonne Offensive, which ultimately led to Armistice Day Nov. 11, 1918.

“It was a horrific battle,” Don said, “and it was one of the major turning points, if not the major turning point.”

Paul was an Army Corporal, but he also served as a courier, delivering messages to Battalion Headquarters during the Offensive, a tremendously dangerous mission, Don said.

“His company commander came across my dad later and remarked, ‘I didn’t expect to see you again,’” Don said. “That’s when he was promoted to Corporal. He had to cross enemy lines to deliver that message.”

That was about the only war story Don could muster out of his father, which, Don said, is understandable. Seeing the “souvenirs” he brought home painted enough of a picture.

“The helmet was pathetic,” Don said. “It fit on their heads like a pan, and the gas mask – with a long hose and a canister – was anything but comfortable. I heard a number of soldiers would even sleep in their gas masks, which I just can’t imagine.”

For Don, there is a lot about World War I that he can’t fathom.

“It was a dirty war,” he said, “but that’s the case with all wars. War is failure.”

Nevertheless, Don and five of his brothers followed in their father’s footsteps by serving in the military.

“I served in 1957 and 1963,” Don said. “Most of my time was spent at a tank training ground in California, where I worked as a communications chief.”

Many of Paul’s grandkids have served, as well, Don said, which is a testament to Paul’s legacy. Ironically, Don said, Paul would never have anticipated such a tradition.

“Dad would end most conversations by saying ‘in 100 years, none of this will matter much,” Don said.


Local losses

Howard Donaldson and George Knox were fortunate, but many others worldwide did not have such good fortune. In Central Montana, 15 were killed in action, four by wounds, three by disease and four by accident. It is unknown how many returned wounded. Those lost include Harry Fuller of Geraldine, John Higinbotham of Stanford, Ralph Sanderson of Forest Grove, John Bang of Lewistown, Roy Cowan of Lewistown, Paul Craig of Hilger, Lewis Crawford of Roy, Albert DeWitt of Moore, Lonnie Hottenstein of Moore, Eden Jump of Lewistown, Ernest Kies of Gilt Edge, Fred Laverdure of Lewistown, John Lik of Moccasin, Frederick Newsome of Winnett, Henry Strouf of Denton, Louis Howes of Winifred, Lewis Maxson of Heath, Clifford Washburn of Grass Range, Emmett Carruthers of Lewistown, Marion Fletcher of Fergus, Paul Burnham of Brooks, John Evey of Lewistown, Ray George of Kolin, Henry Rixe of Lewistown, Nils Sanderson of Forest Grove and Charles Schaeffer of Roy.


Recognizable division

To commemorate the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I, members of the Montana Historical Society came together to create “Montana and the Great War,” an extensive site featuring 69 stories from across the state regarding the impact the war had on the people of the area. Project manager Martha Kohl writes that there was much division in the Treasure State.

“Two-thirds of [Montana’s] residents were either immigrants or children of immigrants” in the early 1900s, and “many had ties to Germany and Austria, and even more were Irish patriots, whose enmity toward England led them to oppose any alliance with Britain,” she writes.

Nevertheless, many Montana citizens “eagerly supported the war.”

“They answered every call: to enlist, buy Liberty Bonds and conserve food and fuel,” Kohl wrote.

According to statistics gathered by the Montana Historical Society, more than 12,000 Montanans volunteered for military service and more than 35,000 served.

As more got involved, the community grew more patriotic, which in turn increased “hostility toward those who opposed the war,” Kohl wrote.


Mob Action

Locally, the hostility reached its threshold on March 27, 1918, when “an angry Lewistown mob pursued men they believed to be ‘pro-German,’ demanding they prove their allegiance by waving and kissing the flag,” according to an article from the Fergus County Argus. This mob also “seized and burned the high school’s German textbooks,” according to information gathered by the Lewistown Public Library.

Such an incident was evident of the divisive nature of Lewistown at the time, as indicated in a story by Anna Zellick for “Montana: the Magazine of Western History.”

“With our sacred honor and our liberties at stake, there can be but two classes of American citizens: patriots and traitors,” [the Honorable] Tom Stout is quoted as saying at the first Patriotic Day and Loyalty Parade in Lewistown on April 22, 1917.”

The war had come home, and, for Central Montana, it was particularly tricky for commoners to know where people stood. At the time the U.S. entered World War I, more than 7,700 Central Montana residents were “foreign-born,” which accounted for 27 percent of the total population, according to statistics gathered by the Fergus County Argus.


Lesson learned?

WWI veteran Paul Knox thought none of this would matter in 100 years, but the centennial is being met with documentaries, features and a wide variety of tributes to veterans and political leaders of the era.

World War I was a critical time, American Legion Fergus Post 16 Commander Don Bost said, but not enough was learned from it.

“World War I was called the ‘War to End All Wars.’ Well, we see how that worked out,” he said. “We’re still doing it.”





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