Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Giving Thanks: Soldiers Celebrate End of War and Thanksgiving in 1918

Thanksgiving dinner at Camp Pike, Nov. 28, 1918

As World War I drew to a close, soldiers around the world – and in Arkansas – prepared for celebrations.

On Nov. 10, 1918, Benjamin Franklin Clark, a soldier in training at Camp Taylor in Kentucky, wrote home to his girlfriend, Flora Hamilton in Enders, Arkansas. Clark believed the Great War, having raged for over four years, was finally coming to an end. He penned, “My, when it is over, the quickest way home will be too slow for me.” A day later, he got his wish as the German army signed an armistice ending WWI.

Back home in Arkansas, soldiers at Camp Pike, the military training camp for soldiers in Arkansas, were gearing up for Thanksgiving. With the end of the war, officials at Camp Pike planned to have a Thanksgiving celebration that was unmatched in Arkansas.

The amount of food delivered to Camp Pike was staggering. There were 24 tons of turkey, 24,000 pounds of potatoes, 3,000 gallons of ice cream, along with a generous quantity of cranberry sauce.   Due to the number of soldiers in the camp, Thanksgiving festivities were divided by unit. Soldiers and their guests quickly overwhelmed the dining room of the 162nd Depot Brigade, forcing them to relocate dinner to Sixth Street and South Avenue.

Camp Pike Thanksgiving, 1918
The day’s events began with a victory service at the YMCA auditorium. The auditorium was standing room only for over 2,000 soldiers crammed into the building to hear a chorus sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Rabbi Louis Witt opened the program with a speech reminding the audience, “Two years ago, on Thanksgiving, I well remember we gave thanks to God for having kept us out of war… But when we understood that the war was one of right against might, and heard the cry of the nations, ‘Where is America?’ our answer went forth and our boys by the thousands could be heard in a steady tramp, tramp through the streets of Paris… America has done her duty, America has saved her soul, America has shed her light of liberty on the world.” 

Camp Pike Thanksgiving menu, 1918
Gov. Charles Hillman Brough followed Rabbi Witt with the keynote address, reminding the crowd the war was over, and they could be thankful for peace – a peace that was permanent. At the conclusion of the governor’s remarks, Col. Charles Miller addressed the audience remarking the soldiers at Camp Pike should be thankful for the educational opportunities they had received and urged them to take what they had learned home with them to use to make their communities better places. Miller was followed by a 60-man chorus of Camp Pike soldiers who were accompanied by the 11th Battalion Band. They were directed by George Knapp, a song leader on the camp grounds.

The 112th Ordinance Depot Company did its best to rival the 162nd Depot Brigade’s dinner. The 112th Ordinance Depot Company held a dance in their mess hall, which was decorated with autumn leaves, pine boughs and festoons. The company enjoyed a seven course meal followed by a 2-foot-wide cake decorated with the company’s insignia.

Officers and men of the Quartermaster’s Department found their mess hall decorated with flags and national colors. The 126 soldiers and their guests enjoyed roast pork with apple sauce, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, apple pie, bananas, oranges and apples.

All soldiers not on guard duty were given the day off, and there were plenty of activities to occupy their time. As a benefit for the Soldiers’ Entertainment Fund, camp officials scheduled a vaudeville show at the Liberty Theater on Camp Pike. The show, advertised as “A Breath of Broadway,” featured music, dramatic plays and the Great Chapetta, who performed an escape act from a whipping post.

Tickets to the event were 20 cents for general admission and 50 cents for reserved seating. As a premium for those who bought reserved seats, patrons received a program in the shape of a military hat. J.M. Edgar Hart, director of the War Department Commission on Training Camp Activities, organized the event, saying, “The people will be able to see a $5 show for the mere sum of 25 cents or 50 cents, and the money obtained will be for an excellent purpose. Surely the civilian population will support us.”  The day’s festivities were concluded with a boxing tournament.

The end of the war brought many celebrations. That it happened right before Thanksgiving might have been a coincidence, but it made the holiday that much sweeter.

For more information about Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at archives.arkansas.gov, email state.archives@arkansas.gov or call 501-682-6900.