Church History
World War I
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World War I

By the late 19th century, imperial powers in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North America had expanded their industry, military presence, and claims to territory across much of the globe. Between 1877 and 1913, the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires contended for control over much of the Balkan Peninsula. Other European nations formed defensive alliances to protect against the expansion of these empires and poured heavy resources into matching their military strength. 1 While Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria toured the Balkan duchy of Bosnia and Herzegovina in June 1914, his motorcade was attacked by assassins seeking an independent Yugoslavia. 2 The deaths of Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, led to a series of ultimatums between European states and the formation of two opposing alliances, the Triple Alliance (later known as the “Central Powers”) and the Triple Entente (also known as the “Allied Powers”). 3 On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering allied militaries to mobilize in preparation for war. When Russia and France refused the German government’s demands to cease military measures, Germany declared war against the two countries. 4 Within months, virtually all European states entered the conflict. The war drew forces from every inhabited continent and expanded into five major fronts in Eastern and Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Italy. 5 After four years of combat and between September and November 1918, member states of the Central Powers submitted to an armistice with the Entente powers, which ended the war. 6

Most Latter-day Saints at the time lived in the western United States, but many in Britain, Canada, and Germany endured the conflict’s worst hardships. Moreover, the conflict represented the first in which a significant number of Latter-day Saints found themselves on different sides of war. Church President Joseph F. Smith pleaded with Latter-day Saints to stay united when faced with international conflict. He considered the war’s outbreak the fault of aggressive government leaders, not civilians compelled to bear arms. 7 At President Smith’s request, Charles W. Penrose, a counselor in the First Presidency, offered a prayer for peace during the October 1914 general conference. 8

As hostilities mounted, the European Mission evacuated nearly all its foreign missionaries and the First Presidency announced a pause in sending missionaries abroad until after the war should end. 9 As young men entered military service, women composed more than 40 percent of all Latter-day Saint missionaries, the highest percentage since 1898, when women were first set apart as full-time missionaries. 10

Enlistments varied depending on Latter-day Saints’ country of origin. Germany drafted all men between 17 and 50 years of age into military service, compelling some German missionaries to the battlefield. 11 In Britain, where nearly 6,000 Church members lived, over a million men responded to calls for volunteer soldiers within months of war’s outbreak. In some branches, greater than half of the men served in the war. 12 In Canada, future Apostle Hugh B. Brown trained as an officer and recruited Latter-day Saints into provincial militia units sent to France. 13 Most Latter-day Saint servicemen enlisted in the United States, particularly in Utah. When the United States entered the war, 5,000 recruits from Utah left for France, most of whom came from Italian and Greek immigrant communities rather than from Latter-day Saint wards and stakes. By the end of the war, more Latter-day Saint men had enlisted than previously, with over five percent of Utah’s population serving in the military. 14

The Church supported the war effort by collaborating with organizations such as the Red Cross, Boy Scouts of America, and United States government programs. The Relief Society collected donations of wheat bushels and canned goods that supplied the United States Food Administration with more than 16 tons of produce. The Church contributed to the Red Cross medical supply that provided more than 250 million medical dressings to local and army hospitals. 15 Young Women and Young Men Mutual Improvement Associations promoted War Savings Stamps that helped government fundraising. Boy Scouts distributed more than 30 million pieces of literature supporting the war, collected bond purchases, and gardened on hundreds of unused farm acreage to grow a food surplus. 16 In Britain, women organized relief committees to collect and deliver clothing and books for soldiers, visited the wounded in army hospitals, and sold produce to support soldiers at the front. 17 The enormous casualties—between 9 and 10 million dead and another 20 to 21 million wounded—and global scale of the conflict prompted a number of Saints to discourage participation in the war and, in a few cases, resist enlistment as conscientious objectors in court. 18

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I Saw the Hosts of the Dead

Hospital of wounded soldiers during World War I.

Irregular record-keeping across the various militaries of the war prevents calculating a definitive number of Latter-day Saint soldiers and civilian casualties; some estimate total Latter-day Saint soldier deaths between 600 and 700. The immigrant status of many Latter-day Saint enlistees further complicated how they experienced combat. 19 For Latter-day Saints in many parts of the world, the war intensified feelings of nationalism. Throughout Europe and North America, Latter-day Saints who had spoken of government persecution began to express patriotic commitment to their home country. 20 In some Latter-day Saint communities patriotism caused friction between members of various backgrounds, and President Joseph F. Smith advised all Latter-day Saints to accept everyone of any nationality into their communities and uphold immigrants “in the purest kindness.” 21 As areas in Europe reopened to missionary work after the war, Latter-day Saints witnessed unexpected growth across former war fronts, which broadened the Church’s international reach beyond its 19th-century limits.

Related Topics: World War II, Joseph F. Smith, Political Neutrality, Influenza Pandemic of 1918

  1. Samuel R. Williamson Jr., “The Origins of the War,” in Hew Strachan, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 11–17.

  2. Hew Strachan, To Arms, vol. 1 of The First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 65.

  3. Strachan, To Arms, 69–102; Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, eds., The Origins of World War I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 17–22; Hew Strachan, The First World War (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004), 7, 13, 35–41. These alliances came to be known after the war as the “Central Powers” and “Allied Powers,” respectively. Principal nation-states that had formed the Triple Alliance/Central Powers by 1914 included Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Romania; those of the Triple Entente/Allied Powers included France, Russia, and Britain; see Williamson Jr., “Origins of the War,” 13; James Perry, “British Latter-day Saints in the Great War, 1914–1918,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 44, no. 3 (July 2018), 71–72; Tammy M. Proctor, “The Great War and the Making of a Modern World,” Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 86, no. 3 (Summer 2018), 193–94.

  4. Gordon Martel, Origins of the First World War, 4th ed. (London: Routledge, 2017), 5–6.

  5. Strachan, The First World War, 48–51, 67–69; Proctor, “The Great War,” 194. See also Michael S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005) for narrative histories of each battlefront of the war.

  6. Strachan, The First World War, 323–27.

  7. James I. Mangum III, “The Influence of the First World War on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 2007), 108.

  8. Patrick Q. Mason, “‘When I Think of War I Am Sick at Heart’: Latter Day Saint Nonparticipation in World War I,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 45, no. 2 (Apr. 2019), 4.

  9. Mangum, “Influence of the First World War,” 78–83.

  10. “The Experience of Married Women Missionaries,” Pioneer Magazine, vol. 63, no. 1 (Spring 2016), 29.

  11. Mangum, “Influence of the First World War,” 105–6.

  12. Perry, “British Latter-day Saints in the Great War,” 73–75.

  13. Mangum, “Influence of the First World War,” 37–42.

  14. Helen Z. Papanikolas, “Immigrants, Minorities, and the Great War,” Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 4 (Fall 1990), 367–68; Kenneth L. Alford, “Joseph F. Smith and the First World War: Eventual Support and Latter-day Saint Chaplains,” in Craig K. Manscill, Brian D. Reeves, Guy L. Dorius, and J. B. Haws, eds., Joseph F. Smith: Reflections on the Man and His Times (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2013), 434–55.

  15. Alford, “Joseph F. Smith,” 434–55.

  16. Mangum, “Influence of the First World War,” 160–67.

  17. Perry, “British Latter-day Saints in the Great War,” 80–82.

  18. Antoine Prost, “War Losses,” in 1914–1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/war_losses; Perry, “British Latter-day Saints in the Great War,” 76–77; Mason, “Latter Day Saint Nonparticipation,” 5–18.

  19. Mangum, “Influence of the First World War,” 95; Papanikolas, “Immigrants,” 370.

  20. Ethan R. Yorgason, Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 167–68.

  21. Papanikolas, “Immigrants,” 368–70; Proctor, “The Great War,” 198–200; Joseph F. Smith, Remarks, Apr. 6, 1917, in Conference Report, Apr. 1917, 11–12.