Post-367: Portraits of four great-grandfathers as young men, in 1917-18, in front of U.S. draft boards

It is still November 2018 as I write, the centenary month of the end of World War I.

In 2014, I wrote a brief post saying that one of my great-grandfather’s had a “piece” of that war; in fact, all of them had at least some piece of the era, as young men in the 1910s. Specifically and concretely, each of my four great-grandfathers had to register for the draft (conscription) in 1917-1918.

I have located all four their draft registration cards and will post the originals and transcribe them in four posts to follow (1, 2, 3, 4), followed by comments/thoughts on each of their individual cases and circumstances in 1917, and some informed conjecture on what they may have thought of the war.

In May 1917, the USA was on the way to raising a multi-million-man army which was to reach a size of 4.35 million when all was said and done, up from a meager peacetime strength of one-hundred-some thousand (1916).

In another sign of lukewarm enthusiasm for the war, only 75,000 U.S. men had volunteered in the month after Congress voted to approve President Wilson’s declaration of war (April 6, 1917), and so in May the government began to plan for a then-unprecedented national registration system for all young-adult men, and a tiered system of eligibility for conscription (based on “exemptions”). All young men had to appear in person before draft boards of their city or county on appointed days to register, under threat of prison for no-shows:


A booklet given to each registered man concluded with these words:

As soon as your case is finally disposed of, the adjutant general of your State will notify you by mail that you have been selected for military service.

Your local boards will post a list of all persons selected for military service in a place at the office of the local boards accessible to public view. The local board will also give lists of persons selected for military service to the press with requests for publication.

The notice to report for military service will come when the Government is ready to receive you.

This positive-seeming term “selected” has survived in U.S. government euphemism/jargon, in the form of today’s descendant of the 1917 draft system, the so-called Selective Service System, long dormant now but still in existence. I remember registering for it at the end of high school. (Sans “Register or Go to Prison.”)

I’m going to post my four great-grandfathers’ draft registration cards with full transcriptions to html text and comments in the four subsequent posts.

In order of Father’s Father’s Father to Mother’s Mother’s Father:

Along with these I make some comments on what these men were like in the 1910s, what was going on in their lives, and I ambitiously attempt a political reconstruction, from what evidence I have, of each of their (likely) positions on the great controversy of the time: Intervention or non-intervention in the European war.

As to positions on the war, I would propose a number line of 1 to 10, with 1 the most anti-intervention and 10 the most pro-intervention. I would place my two Iowa great-grandfathers as likely around 3, and no higher. My Connecticut great-grandfather of German origin may have been as low as 1 or 2. The fourth great-grandfather was likely a 5 or 6. The average was thus 2.5 for the four men.

A few other observations on the draft registration cards:

(1) Behind Blue Eyes. It is said the proportion of blue eyes in the US White population has been steadily declining over the past century. If the physical descriptions on the registration cards are all correct, all four of my great-grandfathers had light eyes, one grey eyes, three blue, per their draft registration cards.

The paternal side men’s eye colors are no surprise: My father also has blue eyes. (My own eye color is not particularly dark but is also not blue. It has been described as hazel.)

The maternal side men’s eye colors are a surprise because their descendants, including their children, as far as I know, all or nearly all had/have darker-color eyes. According to the laws of inheritance genetics, this means that Walter Kosswig and Earle Hazen’s wives, both of German origin, were relatively dark-eyed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

(2) Handwriting analysis. I am not sure who actually filled out these cards. It probably varied from place to place, the whole system being so new. In the case of these four cards, they seem likely to have been filled out by the officials (registrars) following in-person interviews with the registering men, after which they were signed by the men (the instruction is, after all, to “verify the above answers”).

The handwriting on Peter C.’s card is easiest to read, but it seems impossible that he filled it out himself: Is anyone’s signature that divergent from their regular writing? The main contents of the card are also similar to the registrar’s signature, so I think he must have done it.

Another clue is that Walter Kosswig’s card originally has “Single,” which is scratched out and replaced with “Married.” He would not have forgotten he was married, but a registrar might have messed it up absent-mindedly. I notice that Walter’s signature, anyway, has a decided rightward slant. “If your writing slants to the right: You are open to the world around you and like to socialize with other people” (some website).

Earle Hazen’s looks most plausibly his own handwriting.

All four cards have what I would consider very graceful cursive handwriting, characteristic of the time, the ability to write and even read which is now in the process of being lost.

(3) Clues to Personality. I note that Peter C. has a “No” response for the question on whether he, the registrant, claims any exemptions; if the registrar was the one filling out the form, Peter could have easily pressed him to include a note on his exemptions (for his wife, or his status as farmer), but he did not. His wife is asserted to be a dependent (line 9), and then he says he claims no exemptions (line 12). Why did he not (legitimately) claim an exemption? He must have felt that to claim something like an exemption for a social responsibility, as this was, would be dishonorable, would be asking for an unfair advantage over others.

Meanwhile, on the same day, two thousand miles to the east, Walter Kosswig has no problem claiming exemption, but saves face by starting his exemption with the word “only” (“Only on ground of dependent,” that is, I’d really do it and all but I have theses chores to do…). A few lines earlier he had spilled over onto the second line explaining how many dependents he had (“wife and two children and mother in part”).

I’ve written this, and the detailed four posts to follow profiling each great-grandfather circa 1917, out of my own interest and to collect thoughts on this. If others, somewhere, someday, get something from this, all the better. Thanks, people of the future, for reading.