World War 1

1914-1918

For 50 years following the Civil War, U.S. Mennonites had no experience with war or conscription. During World War I, the government offered no alternatives to conscription; there were no provisions for employing a substitute or paying a fine. This meant that nearly 2,000 Mennonite young men were called to army camps during that period. However, by this time, the church was better prepared spiritually and intellectually to meet the test of conscription. The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, provided that conscientious objectors would serve as noncombatants. So-called noncombatant military service was not generally acceptable to Mennonite conscientious objectors, since noncombatants were not allowed to provide medical or humanitarian aid to the enemy side. Months of confusion and distress ensued for those conscripted and for military officials. Finally in March 1918, Congress enacted a law that opened the way for COs to provide farm labor because of the shortage of labor on farms. A Civilian Board of Inquiry was established to visit military camps and review all cases of conscientious objectors.

Limited records of the Mennonite majority who declined all service under the military indicate that approximately 10 percent were court-martialed and sent to prison, mainly at Leavenworth, Kan.; 60 percent accepted alternative service, on farms or in reconstruction work; and 30 percent remained in the camps until the close of the war, most of those not having had an opportunity to appear before the Board of Inquiry.

The records of those who served prison sentences, according to C.H. Smith inĀ The Story of the Mennonites, Newton, Kan., suggest that men in the army camps were ridiculed. “They were frequently roughly handled by petty officers who had little sympathy for their scruples. In all the camps they were subject to ridicule. … Even some of the higher officers in some of the camps, being entirely out of sympathy with the liberal policy of the war department, permitted unnecessary abuse of the conscientious objectors, with some brutally handled, bayoneted, beaten and tortured and held under cold showers, being chased across fields at top speed by guards on motorcycles, until they fell down exhausted.”