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‘Great War’: Texas did its part for our country


Texas had a million reasons to hold interest in World War I long before 198,000 of the state’s troops saw military service.

That’s because almost a million Texans registered for the World War I draft. Many of them were incensed by evidence that Germany, in an effort to keep the U.S. too busy to help the French and English allies who opposed them, had stirred up trouble along the Rio Grande.

The “Zimmerman letter,” a coded message sent to the German ambassador in Washington, D.C., promised Mexico in 1916 that if it would join Germany and menace the U.S., it would later help Mexico recover its lands lost to the U.S. in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The Germans promised Mexico a war of conquest against the U.S. over the American Southwest territory.

The Texas State Historical Association said Texans reacted as might be expected. They signed up to fight. They pledged to fight any German-Mexican invasion to the death. Quicker than you could say “Pancho” Villa, the Texas National Guard was called up and Gen. John Pershing launched a punitive expedition. Zimmerman letter indeed!

Sunday will mark to the day a century since the armistice that ended World War I was imposed, a war that had great effect on our state and region. More than 5,000 Texans died during the war; many of them fell victim to the flu epidemic of 1918 and died in the U.S. The Medal of Honor was awarded to four Texans.

Military camps sprung up around the state to train U.S. troops. Air bases — they included Love Field in Dallas and Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio — served as training sites.

Civilians “gave till it hurt,” “did their bit” and “bought more bonds,” all in the interest of the war effort.

Ships, including large wooden steamers, were constructed on the Texas coast; they would soon become obsolete. The Red Cross of Southeast Texas was formed.

Although World War II eclipsed The Great War in size, duration and scope, World War I was not forgotten here. Texas’ capacity for hosting and training troops made sure that many World War II soldiers would be trained in this state.

Hamilton Smith Post 797 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars — it was named for a Port Arthur warrior who died in World War I — sponsored a plaque that was dedicated to WWI veterans on May 30, 1932. The marker was placed near the seawall on Rue des Soldats, “Dedicated to the memory of all who served in the United States Military, Naval or Marine Forces, in the World War and all other campaigns.”

That plaque was offered by “the citizens of Port Arthur, Texas,” who remembered the dedication of those brave Americans then. We remember them today.