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First Numbers Drawn for Military Draft

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 02, 2017

The United States had gone to war in April 1917, with patriotic speeches and slogans. Four months later, the reality of war was beginning to sink in. Because few men had rushed to enlist, the nation instituted a draft, and in June millions of young men registered and were given numbers.

On July 20, 1917, the government began to select who would have the honor of going first. The Washington Post explained.

“Selective conscription was put into effect yesterday with a national lottery to fix the order of military liability for the 10,000,000 young Americans registered for service. To accomplish the result, 10,500 numbers had to be drawn one at a time, a task which began at 10 a.m. and continued far into this morning.

“To secure that total 1,274,000 men will be called for examination within a few weeks, estimating that two registrants must be called for every soldier accepted. These ... will be taken from the head of the liability list, every local district furnishing a fixed quota.

“The stage was carefully set in room 226 (of the) Senate office building. It might have been a scene in a theater, but there was nothing of the theatrical about it, although there was drama – the drama of lives and fortunes in the balance.”

The process was simple. On a table sat a huge jar. “The jar had a top of thick manila paper bound around it by five rounds of tough twine, with a seal on the twine. In the bottom thousands of grayish black capsules showed.

“There were 10,500 of them and they piled up for more than four inches inside the bowl, a thick mass. Stuck among them was a huge wooden spoon with red, white and blue bunting tied to the handle.

“The bowl was brought in and placed on the table. At 9.20 Secretary of War (Newtown Diehl) Baker arrived. He wore a Palm Beach suit, which stood out in broad contrast to the dull khaki of the officers.

“Secretary Baker lost no time in preliminaries. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘this is a solemn and historic moment. We come here to determine which of 10,000,000 of our young men who have registered for national service will be selected to answer the President’s call for an army of 687,100 and what the position of the others will be for service in the future.

“‘This is the first time in our history that we are to have a demonstration of selecting men from the nation for service. These men have all registered and are waiting. For them I bespeak the honor of the nation.

“‘They are not conscripts. They are men who are chosen from among their fellows in a nation-wide selection.’”

Then came the big moment.

“‘I shall draw the first number,’ said Secretary Baker, ‘and I ask that the chairmen of the Senate and House military committees, official witnesses at this historic occasion draw the second and third, respectively.’

“Secretary Baker removed his eyeglasses and one of Gen. Crowder’s assistants tied a white handkerchief around his head, blindfolding him. The secretary was led to a position behind the bowl and facing those as he stirred the capsules with the spoon. Dropping the spoon he stuck his hand among the pellets and brought it up again.

“‘I have drawn the first number,’ said Baker in a tone of a man who had done an epochal thing. He held the tiny capsule aloft. An announcer took it from him and broke the capsule, taking out the paper slip.

“‘The number is 258,’ he cried.

“‘Two hundred and fifty eight,’ echoed the voice of the tally chief. Another attendant posted the numerals ‘258’ on the blackboard in the rear.”

The Post noted, “The drawing was remarkably free from personal demonstrations, or of emotion. There were no tear-stained mothers pleading for their boys, there were no mock heroics and no trembling of cowardice.

“It was at the registration headquarters, where the numbers were being received for cities, that these scenes took place.

“As the hours dragged on the drawing became slower and slower. Wearied officials were driving themselves to each new move. Clicking outside the draft room were a number of telegraph instruments which for hours had been sending number after number to a waiting nation.”

A small Indiana newspaper, The Palladium, reported on the scene that was repeated across the entire country.

“Everywhere, throughout the city, mothers of sons, whose numbers were selected, wives and sweethearts gathered and many tears were shed.

“The men whose numbers were selected displayed no unusual feeling in the matter, and took the news as men usually take such news.

“As usual it is the mothers who will do the suffering.

“There was something uncannily serious about the day. One felt it as he watched women standing in small knots in streets and saw them in their door ways. Several women would gather and talk quietly.

“News that the first numbers had been selected was told by the tolling of church bells in many of the city’s churches.

“A corps of workers was kept busy at the office of The Palladium answering telephone calls, regarding the draft.

“‘My son, my boy, tell me, tell me will he have to go?’ one woman asked in a low voice. It sounded as if she had been weeping. Yes, she was told when she gave his number, her son was called.

“‘God,’ she said, a deep sob, and she was gone.”

Ocean County didn’t have a daily paper. The New Jersey Courier went to press as the drawing was taking place, and it told its readers, “In Ocean County there are 1720 numbers and names. Accordingly, as the numbers drawn will run from 1 to 10,500, only those numbers ... from 1 to 1720 will apply to this district.

“It is possible that by tomorrow morning, if not by tonight, we may know what boys are summoned from every district in the country as well as our own county.”

Most local men waited days for the news of their fate. On the 27th, the Courier announced, “The department officials at Washington took nearly a week to send out the official list. It was assumed that it would be gotten out with speed; then word was sent out that they would be mailed on Tuesday, but the one due here had not arrived up to last night. And Toms River is about six hours from Washington.

“The quota that Ocean County must furnish is 169, and the understanding is that the first call will be double that number, in order that there may be enough after exemptions are made, it being figured by the department that one man of each two will be exempted.”

There were several notes on local reaction.

“Beach Haven – Among the boys drafted from this place are the Stratton brothers, Charles Cranmer and Henry Conklin. A number of fishpound men drawn, along the beach but they are aliens mostly, and not liable for service.

“Manahawkin – Word comes from Barnegat City from several sources that Wm. Johnson, serial No. 5, on learning that he would be included in the first draft, attempted to take his life. One report is that he used a rope on a tree and another is that chloroform was used. Johnson was in a bad fix when neighbors found him, and it took a couple of hours to bring him around.”

As men were discovering their fate, the government had been preparing 16 bases to train the new army. One, Camp Dix, was located in Wrightstown. The same day the draft was taking place, the Courier discovered, “Already the army officers who picked out a heavy loam soil for the military camp in New Jersey, when they located it at Wrightstown, are running up against its disadvantages. Jersey folks kicked about taking fine farm land for a camp, when there was so much vacant land better suited for the purpose, and pointed out that the heavy clay loam would be knee deep or hub-deep in mud when the winter thaws came.”

What was the reaction?

“But, as army officers always do, they knew better than the natives what Wrightstown soil was like, and they pooh-poohed the idea of putting the camp in the sandy soil of the pines, a few miles distant. ‘We don’t want to put our boys on the sand,’ said one of them; ‘no ground is too good for the soldier.’ But the rains of the past week have turned the soil wherever it is used to any extent into paste and the complaint has gone forth that the hard dirt roads of that section are all cut down hub deep into mud by the heavy ten-ton trucks used in hauling lumber.”

Weather wasn’t the only problem at the new camp. According to the New Egypt Press, “Thirty members of Company B, stationed here took French leave on Saturday night and as a result a detail from this camp searched the theatres and other places of amusement in Trenton where the alleged ‘deserters’ were said to have gone for a brief lark.

“The boys generally only desire the night off and can be found back at their posts the next day willing to stand the sentence of extra camp duty or a guardhouse visit. Mount Holly, Bordentown, New Egypt, Columbus and other towns furnish attractions to the youths.”

Reaction was swift and on the 27th the Press carried, “Government inspectors are said to be making an exhaustive investigation in Burlington and Ocean county towns around Camp Dix, Wrightstown, to discover what relation the excise conditions have to the increasing number of short-time desertions by the soldiers on guard duty there.

“Army Officers complain that while the general regulation prohibits the sale of intoxicants to men in uniform many saloon keepers in those town are taking a chance by allowing intermediaries to purchase booze for thirsty guardsmen.”

The results: “The order establishing a 5-mile ‘dry zone’ and regulating moral conditions around military camps has been issued by the President and released for publication by the Secretary of War.”

The Courier reported that even civilians were causing problems.

“Right here I must tell a story that comes from Wrightstown, and has been printed more than once without contradiction: Two weeks ago the chairman of the Grievance Committee of the 2000 or so carpenters and laborers at Wrightstown was fired by the contractor at the insistence of the military officers in charge there, on the ground that he was an agitator and might cause trouble. Most of the carpenters at once struck, and demanded his reinstatement, as they should have done. The story is told that an officer then threatened the carpenters in language like this: ‘You are now making about $60 a week with your overtime. You will go back to work, or we will see that you are drafted, and made to work at $30 a month.’ The scene happened to be Wrightstown N.J., and not Russia, nor Prussia, and the threat did not work. But it shows what is in the mind of the military caste.”

The reality of a “war to end wars” was becoming clear, and some were beginning to question what was going on.

Next Week: Watch what you say.


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