When World War I started in 1914, the U.S. started with a strict policy of neutrality. The policy was tested when German U-boats sunk the Lusitania in 1915, killing 124 Americans. The U.S. demanded that Germany stop engaging in unrestricted warfare, and Germany agreed, allowing neutral ships with non-military passengers to pass without attack. However, in 1917 Germany resumed unrestricted warfare and sought an alliance with Mexico in an effort to win the war. As part of the alliance, Mexico would recover territory that had once been theirs, including parts of California, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The United States officially declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917.
Women volunteered to aid in the war, both at home and abroad. At home, women raised funds for the Red Cross, worked in canneries, planted victory gardens, and worked in war offices. According to Miriam B. Murphy in the Utah Historical Quarterly, “At the request of Gov. Simon Bamberger, Mrs. R.E.L. Collier chaired a committee to register women volunteers. Almost 24,000 women throughout the state turned in cards pledging their support of the war effort by suggesting ‘thirty-five different lines of work’ they felt both capable and willing to do if called upon.”
Several Utah women went abroad as well. Two women, Maud Fitch and Elizabeth McCune, drove ambulances in France. Others worked in canteens on the front lines, and the majority of those who went abroad worked as nurses.
Utah Women’s Experience in the War
Service questionnaires were distributed after the war to gather information on those who served overseas. One submission was for Maude Mae Butler, who was born in 1891 in Nebraska. She enlisted in the war as a stenographer and made her way to France. Unfortunately, she died of influenza just six months after she enlisted.
Susie Chase served as a nurse during World War I. She was born in Springville, UT in 1896. She trained at the L.D.S. Hospital and was sent to Camp Freemont in Palo Alto, CA. She was honorably discharged at the end of 1918.
Ruth Vilate Clayton was born in Salt Lake City in 1893. She trained at St. Marks Hospital to become a nurse and before the war she was employed by the City Board of Health. She enlisted in the Army in February of 1918 and started training at Camp Fremont in Palo Alto, CA. She was there for six months before transferring to Camp Kelly, TX for two months. In September of 1918 she sailed to France and was transferred to a number of hospitals overseas. The date of her discharge is not known.
Maude Fitch, one of the Utah women who drove an ambulance in France, wrote letters home that were published in the Salt Lake Tribune. She transported wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, and wrote home as often as possible. When it was raining and impossible to write outside, she wrote her letters on the steering wheel of her ambulance. In one of her letters she wrote, “ For three days I’ve had a leak in my radiator which I didn’t dare report for fear of losing out on the work while it was being repaired, and forgot to put in oil, and it has run like a Rolls-Royce for the first time in it’s miserable existence.”
After the war ended in 1918, First Lady of Utah, Afton Mabey, helped establish Memory Grove park in Salt Lake City as a tribute to those who were killed in World War I.
This post marks the end of our year commemorating women’s suffrage. It has been a pleasure unearthing Utah women’s stories in honor of the anniversary of women’s suffrage. To review the timeline of the road to suffrage check out our online exhibit.
Fitch, Maude. “Wounded Americans Superb, Maintain Spirit When Hurt.” Salt Lake Tribune. October 6, 1918. https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=14913463&q=Maud+Fitch&sort=rel&year_start=1917&year_end=1918
Murphy, Miriam B. “If only I shall have the right stuff: Utah Women in World War I.” Utah Historical Quarterly 58.4 (1990): 334-350. https://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=35224
Powell, Alan Kent. “World War I in Utah.” Utah History Encyclopedia. Accessed December 2, 2020. https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/w/WWI.shtml#:~:text=After%20the%20United%20States%20entered,died%20and%20864%20were%20wounded
Williams, Carter. “‘A turning point in Utah history:’ How involvement in WWI impacted Utahns.” KSL. April 6, 2017. https://www.ksl.com/article/43774532/a-turning-point-in-utah-history-how-involvement-in-wwi-impacted-utahns