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March 29: Military Drilling Pre-WWI

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World War I caused turmoil in the United States even before America was involved. Some supported involvement, others objected, some just wanted to stay out of the war, and others left the country to support the fight. The United States would formally enter the conflict on April 4th, 1917. However, the months leading up to this momentous event were not devoid of discussion and preparation for military action.

Some of the countries already involved in the war had universal military training, and upon the start of the war, had populations ready to serve. This was not the case for the United States. Amidst other prewar military-related bills in Congress, a bill proposed in May 1916 would initiate a universal military training program and would add training exercises in schools and camps.

The bill had some strong promoters, including army officers. However, in January of 1917, the American Union Against Militarism spoke before the senate military committee in Washington, DC. The Grand Forks Herald and other local newspapers reported on the event, saying: “physicians and physical educators… assailed particularly the suggestion that physical benefit would be derived from military training in the schools.” The group did not wish to oppose building up an adequate army and navy, but had some concern that drilling in schools would be wasted, since the students were too young to handle weapons and undergo the rigors of instruction that could actually be effective.

One doctor was quoted as saying military drilling in the schools was undesirable, but that military training “conceived as a comprehensive program of physical, moral, and civic education is desirable and even necessary.”

Amidst this discussion, students at Jamestown college signed petitions requesting that military drilling and tactics be added to the curriculum. According to the Jamestown Weekly Alert, “practically the whole student body signed the petition.”

And on this date, the Bismarck Tribune printed a notice that anyone practicing military drilling in North Dakota, unless acting with the authority of the state or national government, was acting against state law. The report seemed intended to dissuade groups of individuals who were doing such drilling.

Within the next few days, President Wilson sought a declaration of war against Germany, and soon thereafter, the United States officially entered the war.

Dakota Datebook by Sarah Walker


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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