DEVENS — In 1917 the United States went to war. Not just war.
“The War to End All Wars,” World War I, involved many countries. The United States stood back for years before the American Expeditionary Forces shipped out to Europe. They supported the Allied Powers, which included the United Kingdom, Italy and France.
The European war was the first major conflict for America since the Civil War more than 40 years earlier, said Tom Sommer. The Civil War and World War I and II re-enactor organized a WWI living history encampment in Devens that will be held this weekend at the former Army fort.
From the start of the war in 1914, America shipped goods to the Allies. German mines sank and damaged U.S. ships. German U-boats torpedoed and sank vessels with American passengers.
In May 1917, the U.S. declared war. But with fewer than 200,000 men in the peacetime army, the country was not ready for battle.
President Woodrow Wilson enacted a draft. Millions of new soldiers needed to be trained quickly.
Camp Devens was the first of 16 temporary cantonments — or large-scale training camps — to open. In June, the government leased and later purchased the land near the intersection in Ayer of north/south and east/west rail lines.
A building frenzy erupted before the new troops arrived. By the beginning of September, 1,400 brand-new buildings, with plumbing and electricity, were ready for troops. Construction went so quickly that rail tracks for trains carrying gravel to build roads were laid right on the ground, without ballast for support, said Andrew Tabak. The author of “Fort Devens: From Boys to Men” is a member of the board of directors at the Fort Devens Museum.
The camp was the entry point into the Army for many. You came in through Devens if you came from New England, Sommer said.
All told, more than 4.7 million U.S. men and women served during World War I. Camp Devens was the smallest cantonment, processing 100,000 into the Army and demobilizing 150,000 after the war.
The museum provides a chance to experience firsthand what soldiering was all about 100 years ago. About 50 World War I re-enactors will camp in the quadrangle behind the museum Friday through Sunday.
The encampment has four sections around the perimeter: the Allied Powers, which included U.S. soldiers; the Central Powers which included Austria-Hungary and Germany; the Red Cross and Salvation Army, organizations that supported the soldiers; and a civilian encampment.
Unlike in later wars, WWI armies weren’t very mobile, Sommers said. Fighting in trenches was the norm. Things were beginning to change, though. The early 20th-century war saw the rise in importance for wheeled, powered vehicles.
A display of artillery and vehicles in the center of the encampment includes a rare U.S. Army FWD truck. It was made by the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company, a Wisconsin company.
Four-wheel drive was not common at the time. Rear-wheel drive Ford Model T’s, a popular car that could be retrofitted as a truck or snowmobile, were manufactured between 1908 and 1927.
Also this weekend, re-enactors will perform drills without ammunition. Tours of the former Fort Devens, showing World War I sites, will also run throughout the weekend. An actor will portray President Wilson.
On Sunday, Gene Fax, author of “With Their Bare Hands: General Pershing, the 79th Division, and the Battle for Montfaucon,” will talk about how to research the American Expeditionary Forces.
For more information on activities this weekend at Devens, call 978-772-1286 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.