The Missouri Home Guard: Protecting the Home Front during the Great War

Our guest blogger this week, Petra DeWitt, author of The Missouri Home Guard: Protecting the Home Front during the Great War, discusses the need for a home defense organization or home guard in Missouri to replace the departing National Guard during the Great War and the purpose it served. DeWitt is Associate Professor of History and Political Science at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. She specializes in migration and ethnic history and has published several articles and encyclopedia submissions on those subjects.

The First World War was a time of great change for the United States, including the federalization of the National Guard with service obligations overseas. Americans in several states, including Missouri, were concerned about the protection of the home front should a natural disaster occur, workers go on strike, or the German enemy conduct acts of sabotage. The National Defense Act of 1916 gave states the authority to replace the departing National Guard with home defense organizations and twenty-seven states decided to raise state guards or home guards. Missouri’s governor Frederick Gardner perceived a real need for the establishment of a home guard because workers in the lead belt region of St. Francois County had gone on strike in spring of 1917 and he activated two National Guard companies from St. Louis to preserve law and order in the region. The induction of the National Guard into federal service in August 1917 left a vacuum and Gardner called for the establishment of the Missouri Home Guard to take over the guard’s tasks.

Any man between the ages of eighteen and fifty could serve in this entirely volunteer organization but anyone older who passed the physical exam would also be accepted. The structure and chain of command was similar to the National Guard with the exception that men elected their own officers. The Missouri adjutant general Harvey Clark eventually mustered into service five Home Guard infantry regiments, five separate infantry battalions, twenty-two separate infantry companies, and one troop of cavalry.  Several companies that were not mustered into service included a company in Potosi, a women’s Home Guard company in Webb City, and one “Negro Home Guard” company each in Kansas City, Columbia, and Joplin. Men joined because they genuinely believed they were providing an important service on the home front during the Great War. White collar workers also appreciated the opportunity to demonstrate their masculinity through physical exercise and the manly duty to protect family and home. German Americans, whether recently arrived or living for generations in Missouri, used service in the Home Guard to publicly demonstrate their loyalty to the United States but to also control the behavior of co-ethnics who appeared to be disloyal.

The primary task of the Home Guard was military training, including weekly drill practices, shooting exercises at rifle ranges, and week-long encampments. The adjutant general suggested that this training would result in men, who were drafted, receiving promotions to noncommissioned ranks. Additional tasks resembled the traditional duties of the National Guard, such as protecting bridges and food supply from potential German saboteurs, maintaining law and order during labor strikes in St. Louis and Kansas City, and providing services during funerals for men who had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country on the battle front. Governor Gardner also thought that the Home Guard should assist in preserving patriotism on the home front. For that purpose, uniformed Home Guardsmen marched in parades, knocked on doors to solicit contributions during Liberty Loan campaigns, and conducted inspiring send-off celebrations for departing draftees. Service in the Home Guard required considerable sacrifice in time and resources, contributed to a relatively peaceful home front during the Great War, and reminded Missourians of a war fought thousands of miles away. Members in the Home Guard were also instrumental in commemorating the sacrifices by Americans in the military services through the construction of the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.

The Missouri Home Guard: Protecting the Home Front during the Great War

by Petra DeWitt

H: 9780826222664 | $40.00 | 242 pp., 11 illus.

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