Over Here: The WWI Home Front at Maymont



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One hundred years ago today — April 6, 1917 — the United States, joining with allies France and England, declared war on Germany. At that time, after nearly three years of fighting, the war in Europe had reached a miserable stalemate, with the Germans entrenched about forty miles from Paris. Just months before in November, President Woodrow Wilson had won his second term under the slogan “he kept us out of war.” Yet now Wilson and the entire country confronted the magnitude of mobilizing the vast human and physical resources and rallying public support necessary to win the war, one which Wilson told Congress would “spread liberty across the world” and make “the world safe for democracy.”

At Maymont, James Dooley would have had good reason for thinking “I told you so!” The year before he had been quoted, along with former President Theodore Roosevelt, in the 1916 publication National Insuredness Through National Preparedness, which urged the mobilization of American industry for war. As a highly successful businessman with investments in railways and steel, Dooley would have been well aware of the dire economic consequences if England and France were defeated. Now the country raced to mobilize. Winning “the war to end all war” — so called in the idealistic catch phrase of the day – required an unprecedented national effort that changed the daily lives of Americans and the future of the country.

James and Sallie Dooley had a strong affinity for European culture, and in 1912, just two years before the conflict began, they had enjoyed motoring through the French countryside, the very region now ravaged by trench warfare. They would have been deeply moved by the ominous words of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey at the outset of hostilities, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” By 1917, Great Britain had already gone through massive mobilization to fight the war. The home island itself had experienced shelling by German navy and bombing raids by zeppelins. Civilians had been deliberately targeted. The British people felt the threat of German U-boats, having witnessed the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, a luxury ocean liner on which the Dooleys had sailed in 1910. All of this blurred the old distinction between the dangers of the battle front and the safety of home. The term “home front” had emerged to describe the important participation of civilians in the war effort and the influence of the war on them.

On the American home front, Lady Liberty was calling every man, woman, and child to “do their bit.” Appeals were made through colorful posters promoting various drives to aid the doughboys and those supporting them on the home front. New patriotic songs also helped to stir the country’s dramatic pivot from the mood of neutrality to unbridled patriotism. What did Liberty ask? How did Americans respond? How did the Dooleys respond?

Look for answers to these questions and others in our blog in the coming weeks. Who paid the bill? Who fought in the war? How were soldiers and others fed? Who did the work at home? Who cared for troops? How did WWI affect America’s future? And how did this relate to Maymont?

You also can find out more in this year’s special exhibition at the Maymont Mansion, “Over Here: The World War I Home Front,” on display now through October 31. There’s always something new to see in the Dooleys’ grand treasure-filled home.

– Dale Wheary, Curator and Director of Historical Collections & Programs
with assistance from Herbert Wheary and Evelyn Zak

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