WWI impact: in York and around the globe

Chris Hertig
Spring Garden

The “war to end all wars” shaped the world we know today. More than we realize. While we recognize that it drew the current borders in the Middle East and that it set the stage for WWII; WWI is largely forgotten and not understood in relation to its social and economic significance.  A recent trip to a book store revealed few selections on it; a possible symptom of our ignorance about the Great War

The war itself was a truly international conflict, much more so than the Boxer Rebellion or even the 7 Years War. There were nine nations involved, five European countries plus Turkey, Japan, Russia and the U.S. These nations fought on an immense scale. Millions battled resulting in over 18 million deaths, both civilian and military. There were 23 million wounded. The Battle of Jutland remains the largest naval battle in history.

Militarily, WWI saw major changes in warfare. The demise of the cavalry and flamboyant uniforms in favor of functional ones. The emergence of the tank, airplane and submarine as game changing weapons. The expansion/perfection of trench warfare. The extensive use of chemical agents; partially due to German prowess in chemistry.

WWI is a great place to study Homeland Security. The slogan “loose lips sink ships’ as well as the extensive use of posters as propaganda are well known. The 250,000-man American Protective League of private citizens conducting counterintelligence operations is not. The APL operated in 600 cities, including York, which also had a separate committee established by the mayor doing similar work.

Historian June Burke Lloyd has found a League application for a man named Jonas H.  Menges. Anyone with knowledge of Jonas Menges should email June Lloyd at

Contract security firms guarded key infrastructure such as railroads and bridges; much like they do today. The Pinkerton Agency, William J. Burns Detective Agency and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency were major players in that era’s homeland security. They also had a significant investigative role as we did not have governmental agencies like the FBI. In some cases Baldwin-Felts men were sworn in as railroad police; filling a void that had to be filled.

On the broader social scale, WWI accentuated class struggles. This was epitomized by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia; a major milestone in 20th century history. That revolution may have overshadowed the class struggles which happened worldwide in varied ways due to the rapid industrialization that took place. Most notable are the expansion of labor unions and the entry of women into the larger workforce.

European unions grew as did those in America where they served as melting pots for different ethnicities. Former sharecroppers migrated to Northern cities for factory jobs. York experienced a significant influx of people during this period. It was one of the major migrations for York.

Women’s roles changed substantially due to their employment in factories; performing jobs that men had done earlier. For many women in the U.S. and Europe, this was the first time that they had earned wages. They felt empowered and this in turn helped drive the women’s rights movement. The movement came of age during the WWI Era with suffrage for U.S. women arriving in 1920.

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Unfortunately, York women were required to pay a county tax, answer questions about their weight and whether they owned or rented their residence. Polling places were not easily accessible: progress comes in small steps.

Along with the massive demographic shifts, there was a dramatic increase in xenophobia and racism. Partly due to suspicion of Germans as well as Russian anarchists and Marxists; it was also driven by perceived job competition from immigrants.  

Many Americans turned against the outsiders.There were horrific race riots in many cities where whites attacked blacks. Some of the nastiest, most virulent race riots in US history   occurred during this period. White on black violence as depicted in the film “Rosewood 1923” struck across the nation. Tulsa had particularly ugly disturbances and the Ku Klux Klan reached its zenith during the 1920s.

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York was a hotbed of Klan activity: A 1929 Konklave in North York drew 5,000 spectators and inducted 51 men, 23 women and 13 junior candidates into the Klan.

Clearly there is ample opportunity for research into how the WWI era affected York. Race relations is one area of inquiry among many. Our reaction to the Spanish flu, women’s roles, protective measures taken and how industrialization and the labor movement interfaced are all worthy of investigation.

Chris Hertig, Spring Garden, was the principal author for the "Evolution of Asset Protection" chapter in "THE PROFESSIONAL PROTECTION OFFICER."