Today in History: The Beginning of World War I

World War I - Fairgrounds Camp - soldiersWorld War I, also known as the Great War, began 102 years ago today. The United States did not enter the war until 1917, but by the summer 1918, the U.S. was sending 10,000 soldiers to France every day, which would help turn the tide to an ultimate Allied victory in November 1918. Soldiers were drafted from all over the United States, including Syracuse, New York, some of whom trained at the New York State Fairgrounds before departing to Europe.

The first man killed in the war from Syracuse was Homer Wheaton. Born in Pompey, he moved to Syracuse as a teenager and graduated from St. John’s Military School in Manlius. He never married, and worked for a time as an editor with the Worcester Gazette in Massachusetts before joining the Army.

Help Syr War ChestOn February 27, 1918, Corporal Wheaton’s unit was stationed at the front, about 80 miles northeast of Paris. It was cold, dark and they were being shelled.  Preparing for a German attack, Wheaton was distributing hand grenades in the trench. Suddenly, one of the soldiers accidently dropped a live grenade.  Wheaton acted quickly, felt for it in the dark and attempted to hurl it away “an instant before it detonated.”  He was killed on the spot. His heroic act, however, saved eight lives. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, posthumously.

On the home front, Syracuse residents were asked to support the war by purchasing stamps, war bonds, and “Victory Liberty Loans.” Money from this would be added to a War Chest, which is a collection of funds used to help support organizations such as the American Red Cross during times of war.

American deaths from World War I exceeded 117,000, but the total killed from all nations reached over 16 million, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.