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Stu welcomes Rick Pifer for a discussion of his book The Great War Comes to Wisconsin: Sacrifice, Patriotism, and Free Speech in a Time of Crisis. It’s from our very good friends at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, and was awarded the Silver Award for Best Regional Non-Fiction category in the Independent Publisher’s IPPY Awards.
It was 107 years ago this month that the guns of August roared and plunged Europe into the most terrible war the world had yet seen. By the time the guns fell silent at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, about ten million military men would die – 1800 of them from Wisconsin, with another six thousand or so Badger boys injured, leaving about 110,000 who made it back to Wisconsin without physical damage. Of the 118,000 troops from Wisconsin, about 3,000 came from Madison – enabling women to enter the labor force in such large numbers they even had their own machinists union.
Among the Wisconsin doughboys, the fabled 32nd Army Infantry Division, or, as they would come to be known after they pierced the German Hindenburg line of defense, the Red Arrow Division. The French called them Les Terrible, and they paid a terrible price for their combat success, suffering a casualty rate of about 15-18 percent, third highest of any American unit.
As a state, Wisconsin’s military losses were not disproportionately high. But we did bear a unique burden, due to demographics and politics. As the war began, close to 40% of Wisconsinites were either born in or had parents from Germany, Austria or Hungary, compared to only 9% with similar ties to the Allied powers. Add to that, our greatest political leader fight so fervently against going to war that he was branded a traitor by the national press, and 9 of our 11 members of congress also voted against the declaration of war. A leading politician, born in the Austria-Hungary empire, was even criminally prosecuted for his opposition to the war. Needless to say, Wisconsin was not popular with the loyalty leaguers of the day.
On the bright side, local disagreement about the war and Fighting Bob La Follette did cause the creation of one of the country’s great crusading newspapers, The Capital Times. On a more somber note, Togstad Glenn, a street in the Midvale neighborhood, memorializes Madison’s last casualty of the war, journalist Morris O Togstad, winner of the French Croix de Guerre, killed in action the day before the Armistice, and Victor S Glenn, the city’s first casualty of WW2.
What our life was like in the period 1914 to 1918 – not only for Wisconsin’s soldiers and politicians, but also for our housewives, farmers, students and others – is the business which occupies Rick Pifer in this compelling account of how we rose to shared sacrifice and sunk to intolerance and injustice.
It is an account he is supremely qualified to provide, as a scholar of the home front in Wisconsin during the First and Second World Wars. For his UW Madison master’s degree, “Total War on the Home Front: La Crosse, Wisconsin and the World Wars,” he studied life during wartime in that riverfront city in Western Wisconsin. For his doctoral dissertation, also here, he looked at the wartime labor movement in the great lakefront city in eastern Wisconsin, published by the Wisconsin historical society press in 2003 as A City at War: Milwaukee Labor during World War II. And it was easy for Rick to consult with his editor on that project, because until 2015, he was just down the hall as Director of Reference and Public Services for the Library-Archives Division of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
It’s a pleasure to welcome to Madison BookBeat, Rick Pifer.