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A century later, ND historians commemorating World War I

Erik Holland, curator of education at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, examines a World War I exhibit at the Heritage Center in Bismarck Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. John Hageman / Forum News Service1 / 2
A World War I poster hangs in the North Dakota Heritage Center Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. John Hageman / Forum News Service 2 / 2

BISMARCK—Historians are paying homage to North Dakotans who fought in World War I a century after the United States joined its allies in the conflict.

Exhibits featuring weapons, gear and photographs from the Great War were recently put on display at the Heritage Center in Bismarck. The displays were erected in conjunction with a two-year series, "Perspectives on the Legacy of World War I," that will feature quarterly presentations at the museum.

The efforts were sparked by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, which held a ceremonial groundbreaking on a national memorial this month in Washington, D.C. Nov. 11, 2018 will mark 100 years after the war ended, but Joseph Stuart, the head of the history program at the University of Mary, said its effects lasted long after that.

"If I had to make a prediction, in 100 years historians will remember the First World War as the most important one," he said.

World War I led to the Second World War a few decades later, Stuart said. It also signaled a shift to more mechanical means of warfare, said Erik Holland, curator of education at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

More than 30,000 North Dakotans fought in the war, including more than 200 American Indians who weren't yet recognized as U.S. citizens, Stuart said.

North Dakotans were skeptical of entering the conflict in part because a third of the population had German heritage, Stuart said. Moreover, people here have long distrusted outside interests like big corporations, and at the time the state had a strong socialist influence.

"Those effects combined to basically convince North Dakotans that the war was just going to be an opportunity for big business to get richer," he said.

One of North Dakota's senators at the time, Asle Gronna, was one of a handful to vote against the resolution declaring war against Germany in 1917.

But any resistance from North Dakotans "evaporated" when war was declared, Stuart said.

Stuart, a member of the North Dakota World War I Centennial Commission, is supervising a group of college students who are transcribing letters from North Dakota soldiers to publish in newspapers across the state. The students are combing through about 1,000 letters stored at the State Archives next to the Heritage Center.

In a January 1919 letter to his father, Fritz Olstad of Valley City recapped his time in the war, from weathering "gas bombs and big shells" at the front to hearing the "good news" that hostilities would cease "on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month."

The last living U.S. World War I veteran died in 2011, but Holland hopes the historic efforts will keep their stories alive.

"Part of what we do ... is to help to preserve that heritage," he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

(701) 255-5607
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