Back in 1915, Rhinelander Resident Elwood Smith Couldn't Wait to Fight

May 25, 2018

Every Friday, we turn back the clock on Morning Edition with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.

Issues of immigration, military conflicts overseas, and how we honor veterans are current topics of political debate, but this is nothing new.  Consider the case of Rhinelander resident Elwood Smith.

Combat in what later came to be known as World War I began in August 1914.  There was little public support for American entry into the conflict, and the federal government tried to maintain a strict policy of neutrality.  However, many young men felt they couldn’t wait for their own military to join the fight, so they crossed the border to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  It is estimated that 40,000 Americans went to war in this way.  Elwood Smith, a graduate of Rhinelander High School, was one of these young men.

Smith was entering his first year of studies at Lawrence College in Appleton when the war broke out.  In June 1915 he crossed over to Canada and joined up in Toronto.  He shipped out of Montreal and joined the fighting at Rouen, France.  Wounded in battle twice, word came back at Christmas that Smith had been shot a third time and died from his wounds.  However, in March 1916 Smith surprised his Lawrence College classmates when he suddenly showed up and spoke to them about his wartime experiences.  What happened was that while he was convalescing in London, Smith’s parents had sent the British Army proof that their son had been under 21 when he enlisted.  He was subsequently mustered out of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and sent home.

What was Smith’s reward for valor on the battlefield?  He went on to help train U.S. soldiers under General Pershing in hand-to-hand combat with a bayonet, but Martin J. Kiladonk, a naturalization officer with the federal government, ruled that because Smith served with the British Army and swore an oath of allegiance to the British king, he lost his U.S. citizenship and his right to vote.  Immigration lawyers said that he would have to reapply for American citizenship then wait five years, till he turned 26, before regaining his citizenship.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. Some sound effects for this commentary came from Freesound.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.