America’s World War I Trophy Trains: War Relics as Propaganda

It was a scene out of the Old America West. Bandits on “pinto steeds” raced to overtake an iron horse in California’s San Fernando Valley. The thirty men, newspapers reported, had “lariats and plenty of guns to do the job right.” The gunmen aimed their pistols at the locomotive’s engineer, forcing him to “back to the train to a lonely spot where the passengers and [he] were searched while covered with rifles and revolvers.” Those who “showed fight” were lassoed by the bandits. Other of the marauders raised a “cloud of dust” as they galloped around the stopped locomotive and cars.

Then, through that cloud, from the rearmost of the train’s flatcars, emerged another “iron horse” to fend off the bandits. A swift Whippet tank chased the bandits and forced its leader, William S. Hart, to surrender.

Hart gave in. But only after he made “a strong Victory Loan speech to the crowd” which had gathered to watch the spectacle.[1]

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William S. Hart, Motion Picture Magazine, June 1917

So this was not a case of a captured villain turned virtuous patriot. Actor William S. Hart, a popular “good bad guy” of film Westerns, had lent his support to the federal government’s efforts since the United States formally entered the Great War on April 6, 1917. At the behest of Treasury Secretary William S. McAdoo, Hart had offered speeches at large rallies from New York City to Chicago and back in the American West in 1918. Now, though, the war had ended. Hart’s speech reminded the audience that peace came with a price, from honoring debts and securing the armistice to bringing the boys home and seeing to their care.[2]

 

Hart’s message was one echoed by many Victory Liberty Loan speakers and reinforced by another Treasury Department campaign tactic. The train captured by Hart and his desperados was one of twenty-four touring the continental United States in April and May 1919. Called war exhibit trains, war exhibition trains, war relic trains, and especially during the Victory Loan drive trophy trains, these popular rolling museums brought the material culture of military training camps and French battlefields to Americans where they lived: as a war loan official observed, “carrying the war into the homes and the hearts of the people as it never had been brought them before.”[3]

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War Relics Train, Fourth Liberty Loan, Ishpeming, Michigan, Fall 1918 (National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

The interchangeability of trophy and relic in reference to these traveling exhibitions intrigues. Trophy more often refers to the weapons or other spoils of a defeated army collected and arranged as a memorial to victory. This the United States surely did at war’s end, distributing German Pickelhauben and Stahlhelme and other symbolic war objects throughout the nation. Relic, on the other hand, refers to objects to be revered and to objects that have survived. In American usage, relic also was used with some poignancy and humor to refer to war veterans. War exhibit trains carried both material and living relics of the Great War, all offering assurance or resolution and all requiring care.

 

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PERSHING’S BAND ON “VICTORY WAY” NEW YORK CITY, N.Y. The A.E.F. Headquarters Band, known as Pershing’s Band formally started big Victory Loan drive in New York City by assisting in opening of Victory Way on park Avenue and 46th Street. Shows band passing one of the Victory pyramids composed of Hun Helmets captured during the war. (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

Origin and Influences

Research in incomplete government records has not yet revealed the decision making to employ war exhibition trains in Liberty Loan drives. The War Loan Organization, established in 1918 by and in the Treasury Department, was headed by Director Lewis P. Franklin and Assistant Directors Clarkson Potter and Labert St. Clair. Frank R. Wilson, Director of Publicity, R. W. Emerson, Chief of the Division of Publications, and Charles F. Horner, Director of the Speakers’ Bureau, rounded out this team of men originally from the publishing, journalism, and advertising fields. These men marshaled the five Liberty Loan drives by adopting the structure of the then-new Federal Reserve system in which the nation was divided in twelve fiscal districts.[4] A Central Liberty Loan Committee was formed in each district and each assigned a monetary amount of bonds to sell. The War Loan Organization was responsible for the sales, publicity, and speakers of these campaigns.[5]

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Exhibit car interior, Better Farming Special Train, June 1910 (Montana State University Library, Bozeman, MT)

War Loan Organization administrators likely knew of pre-war use by social welfare agencies and land-grant universities of railroad trains, trolley cars, and trucks outfitted with exhibits and teaching materials. As early as 1906, agriculture and home economics, Red Cross first aid, public health, and food conservation were the subjects of exhibits installed in railroad cars and taken into rural areas. Accompanied by an “explainer,” such an exhibition was considered to be “a method of intense cultivation of public interest.” “By means of this new method of telling your story through pictures, models, objects, and other devices,” one exhibition planner wrote, “a new life and a new force are given to your propaganda.”[6]

 

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Display window, Saks and Company, New York City, NY, January 1919 (National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

Another possible factor in the creation of war exhibition trains was Americans’ avid interest in the stuff of war. Allied nationals had displayed, privately and in public museums, their countries’ war propaganda posters to raise funds before the United States’ entrance into the conflict. No law or military regulation banned American soldiers from acquiring and shipping home battlefield trophies wrested from the enemy. By January 1918, reports of a “souvenir craze epidemic” at the front lines reached America. Newspapers carried notices of families receiving from their front-line relatives German helmets, bullets, medals, and other objects. Local business owners joined the government’s propaganda campaign by proudly displaying these war trophies and relics, along with American propaganda posters, in their windows.[7]

 

War Propaganda on Wheels

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War Trophy Train poster, likely 1918 (Library Company of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA)

War exhibit trains, as vehicles of propaganda, toured the United States during the Third, Fourth, and Fifth (Victory) Loan drives. In the Third Liberty Loan campaign in Spring, 1918, the trains were deployed only in the southern states (the St. Louis, Dallas, and Atlanta Federal Reserve districts). The American South, since the American Civil War (1861–1865) poorer than other regions and demonstrably reluctant to support the nation’s war effort, became in practice a test site for the war exhibition trains’ fundraising efficacy. [8] The overall plan for the trains was to reach smaller towns and cities, and this strategy worked. The War Loan Organization noted that a war exhibit train visit ignited and increased bond pledges.

 

Just what were Americans purchasing in a Liberty bond? The federal government needed not only to persuade Americans to invest in the war but to show that the purchase of a war bond made a superior and well-supplied fighting force. As one observer in Ocala, Florida, wrote after viewing the war relic train in April 1918, “there were also several stands of small arms, all of which had been used in the trenches until they were worn out. It doesn’t take long to use up a rifle now when its barrel can be heated red-hot in a minute’s firing.”[9] Materialized might and embodied right were combined in an exhibit train: American, British, French, and Canadian weaponry was set against the damaged remnants of German war materiel, while battlefield-scarred veterans from the Allied nations and local speakers extolled democracy as they argued for the war.

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WAR RELIC TRAIN IN MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. After several speeches were made about $200,000 was received for the 4th Liberty Loan. (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

Each war exhibit train, decorated with posters, bunting, and signs, consisted of a Pullman coach provided comfort for the train manager, speakers, and other dignitaries. Much was made of electrically lighted flat cars which carried and displayed larger pieces; in the spring 1918 Third Liberty Loan drive, these included “trench mortars, cannon [including a ‘partly destroyed French 75 gun’[10], parts of aeroplanes and trophies captured from the Germans or collected on the battlefields.” Later loan drives included even more and varied material culture.[11] An electrically lighted baggage car was fitted with an exhibit of smaller battlefield trophies, including German helmets, gas masks, and personal items, as well as examples of American and Allied firepower, such as the Lewis machine gun. Lining the baggage car’s interior walls were hundreds of “large-sized photographs of scenes from actual battlefronts” showing “German atrocities in France and Belgium.”[12]

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WAR ACTIVITIES IN DULUTH, MINN. 9th. Federal Reserve district war train for Fourth Liberty Loan. (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

A war exhibit train’s arrival was usually hailed by a parade or rally welcoming its occupants, making the public event a ritual performance of patriotism. Informative posters and newspaper articles and advertisements urged readers to attend. Civic and war-related volunteer associations, as well as veterans and local military bands, led these parades to the trains. With or without instrumental music, attendees sang patriotic airs. City and town officials called for businesses and schools to close, so that all could visit the train. In some towns time was set aside so that schoolchildren alone could view the exhibits. Though some ministers protested Sunday arrivals of trophy trains, others chose to hold services at the trains.[13] Even during the Spanish Influenza outbreak during the Fourth Liberty Loan drive in Fall 1918, relatively few towns canceled the train’s arrival and at other sites administrators only banned tours of the closed exhibit car.

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WAR TROPHIES CAPTURED BY AMERICANS. Trains bearing war trophies captured by the Americans about to start on its tour of New York State, Northern New Jersey, and Fairfield Co., Conn. To aid in the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive. Visitors waiting in line to see the trophies. (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

Newspaper publishers voluntarily surrendered to the federal government’s Committee on Public Information and various departmental publicity bureaus, so nearly every article published about war relic trains describe visits as attended by hundreds and thousands — sometimes more than the population of a given town or county — and almost always successful in driving up loan purchases. Reports of people disappointed that they could not view the exhibits, given the large crowds and the train’s necessary adherence to schedule, only magnified the program’s popularity.

Still, some accounts of a war relic train visit reveal that patriotic performance could be perverted to nativism. On October 18, 1918, a war trophy train visited the small Ohio town of Jenera, long considered a “German island” and, at the insistence of the vigilante American Protective League, investigated by the United States Department of Justice after it elected a Socialist mayor in 1917. The town’s Lutheran minister, John Gauss, had only recently been acquitted of espionage charges, but anti-German sentiment meant that he remained vulnerable to accusation and attack.

One of the trophy train’s 25 Marines said to the crowd, “I have been told by many people that Jenera is a pro-German place. My plan would be not to line these pro-Germans up against the wall and shoot them but to place them in their wooden shoes and … send them back over to Germany.” After a visit to the county’s only saloon (owned by a German American), ten Marines entered Gauss’s house, ignored his wife and four daughters suffering from influenza, and marched him to the train. There they demanded he buy another $100 in Liberty bonds. Protesting he hadn’t the funds, the Marines forced him to sign a promissory note. The Marines forced two more men to do the same.[14]

A day after this incident, Fanny Hayes, the granddaughter of President Rutherford B. Hayes, described to her son then serving in France her visit to the same trophy train in Fremont, Ohio:

It was most interesting! In the first place the town was full of country people who were allowed to motor in, if each car was ticketed “Exempted to see Uncle Sam’s Trophy Train only”. … After listening to Liberty Loan speeches by a “kit,” a couple of wounded American soldiers, and a shot-to-bits Frenchman, the double line was formed to go through the two flat cars and one baggage car of “trophies”. …

It took all of an hour to pace slowly back [from the end of the line to the train], and then a brief five minutes to rush through the train. But it was worth it, for the “trophies” were of every sort and description from a Boche “potato masher” to the bow end of an Austrian submarine. blown up by the Italians.[15]

Fanny Hayes’ letter was dated October 20; she did not know her son had been seriously injured five days before. This juxtaposition reminds us that war relic trains did more than sell bonds and patriotism. The battle-scarred speakers, themselves living war relics, may have offered hope to those whose family members were at the front. Yet the tortured, twisted, ruined relics of steel and iron, many with still-attached mud, grass, blood, and hair, may also have served as painful explanations of a loved one’s death or injury in a far-off place.[16]

Tentative Conclusions

Some tentative thoughts to finish: As a curator, I was initially interested in how to use America’s World War I trophy trains as a feature in an exhibition on the war’s propaganda. The trains provided a neat way to include the battlefield in an exhibition about the home front. As a material culture specialist, I wanted to know about the larger circulation of war relics, including how these private possessions and collections ended up in the nation’s museums. But as I wrote this paper, I began thinking about these trains as we wish now museums to be: sites of civic, community, and personal engagement with difficult issues.

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LIBERTY LOAN SPECIAT [sic] AT PREScott, Arizona (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

So I would like to take us back to our opening scene, with “good bad guy” William S. Hart. Hart, who specialized in playing bad guys who find their way to being good, offered Americans a redemptive narrative so typical of the myth of the American West. In a similar way, war exhibition trains offered to those who had killed — the “good bad guys” — and to those who had supported killing sites of vindication, another form of redemption. The only photographic images of trophy train exhibit car interior I have found depict the Victory Loan train held up by Hart. In it featured four jailed Germans — wax figures dressed as German military uniforms.[17] Strewn around them were “plaster casts of the children’s hands which had been cut off by the Huns,” refreshing “the memory of the visitors only too well and forcibly [reminding] them the real object of the visit of the train.”[18] Such atrocity propaganda delineated clearly the good guys from the bad guys, the human from the inhuman.[19]

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TROPHY EXHIBITS, 5TH LIBERTY LOAN SPECIAL TRAIN, PRESCOTT, ARIZONA. (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

Newspapers were careful to point out that no Americans could be found to wear the German uniforms, so wax models were instead prepared. They were, according to a Coconino Sun reporter, “absolutely (no, not human) German in their appearance, and so true to life that it took second looks on the part of many to convince them that they were not really men — and not imitations.”

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TROPHY EXHIBITS, 5TH LIBERTY Loan Special Train, Prescott, Arizona. (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

The reporter continued:

But there was nothing make-believe about the boys on that train — soldiers, sailors and marines; nor nothing artificial about the scars, wounds, mutilations that will mark them for life as a result of their gifts to the country they love. Cripple legs, withered arms and gassed lungs were all there; and one “Lady from Hell” who had a piece of his shin-bone grafted into and made a part of the back of his skull.[20]

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“THE LADY FROM HELL” ON THE Liberty Loan special. Whipple Barracks, Arizona. (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

The “Lady from Hell” in this case was Private P. L. Smith, of the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, pictured here at the Whipple Barracks, Arizona. The train containing the German wax figures made this unplanned stop because 250 veterans, recovering there from tuberculosis and from being gassed at the front, requested it.

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SOME OF OUR BOYS FROM “OVER there” and “over here”, recuperating at Whipple Barracks, near Prescott, Arizona. Watching the Liberty Loan Special. (Original caption; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC)

At the end of the Great War, Americans had won trophies and collected relics of German barbarism, reveling in private possession and public display of Pickelhauben the Allies’ symbolic scalping of the Imperial German Army. The war had also created human relics — those men who had fought but did not return physically unscathed. Although the war exhibit trains of the Third, Fourth, and Victory Loans campaigns were intended as propaganda — and successful propaganda at that — these rolling reliquaries of awful artifacts of destruction provided venues in which Americans could grapple not only with the fierceness of the fighting and the financial cost of the First World War, but its political, emotional, and psychological costs as well.

NOTES

[1] “Loan Quotas Are Fixed; City’s is Nearly Thirty-two Millions; County’s Thirty-nine.” Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles, CA], April 15, 1919, Section II, 1, 2; “Bandits Hold Up Special Train; Thirty Mounted Men Stop Victory Loan Train Near Los Angeles,” Rapid City Journal [Rapid City, SD], April 17, 1919, 1; “Hart Helps Loan Drive,” Akron Evening Times [Akron, OH], June 25, 1919, 8. William S. Hart details his participation in the third and fourth Liberty Loan drives but omits mention of his Victory Liberty Loan work: My Life East and West (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1929).

[2] “Good bad guy”: “William S. Hart Museum History,” https://hartmuseum.org/william-s-hart-museum-history. Accessed June 17, 2019. Hart, My Life East and West, 246–251; 278.

[3] Labert St. Clair, The Story of the Liberty Loans; Being a Record of the Volunteer Liberty Loan Army, Its Personnel, Mobilization and Methods. How America at Home Backed Her Armies and Allies in the World War (Washington, DC: James William Bryan Press, 1919), 61. St. Clair, a Washington, DC., news reporter, served as assistant director of the War Loan Organization.

[4] The Federal Reserve system was signed into law in 1913 and began operations in 1915. See Henry Parker Willis, The Federal Reserve System: Legislation, Organization and Operation (New York: Ronald Press Company, 1923); Donald R. Wells, The Federal Reserve System: A History (Jefferson, NC, and London, Eng.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017).

[5] The Abridgement 1919; Containing the Annual Message of the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress, 66th Congress, 2d Session; With Reports of Departments and Selections from Accompanying Papers (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920), 57–60 on War Loan Organization publicity. St. Clair, The Story of the Liberty Loans.

[6] Quotations, Evart G. Routzahn and Mary Swain Routzahn, The ABC of Exhibit Planning (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1923), 18, 19. On agricultural demonstration trains see David D. Vail, “Farming by Rail: Demonstration Trains and the Rise of Mobile of Agricultural Science in the Great Plains,” Great Plains Quarterly 38:2 (Spring 2018): 151–174. For discussion of war exhibition trains as part of a larger movement in traveling exhibitions see Mary Swain Routzahn, Traveling Publicity Campaigns: Educational Tours of Railroad Trains and Motor Vehicles (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1918).

[7] “Souvenir Craze Epidemic at Front; Soldiers on Firing Line Become Confirmed Hunters for War Relics; German Helmets Made Now of Paper Are Not Considered Valuable as Mementoes,” Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia, PA], January 14, 1918, 12.

On sending trophies and relics, see, for example: “Foe Helmets Flood Mails; Americans Sending Home Captured Trophies of Battle,” Evening Public Ledger [Philadelphia, PA], August 2, 1918, “Captured German Helmet; Lenoir Reed Sends His Father a Trophy From Battle Fields of France,” Norton Telegram [Norton, KS], September 12, 1918, 14; “Receives Battle Trophy; Nephew of Dundee Citizen Sends Medal Taken From Dead Body of German Soldi[e]r,” Lincoln State Journal and Lincoln Daily News [Lincoln, NB], April 30, 1918, 3; “Has German Gas Mask; John Weikert, Pennsy Man, Exhibits Trophies From Battle Front,” Fort Wayne News and Sentinel [Fort Wayne, IN], September 16, 1918, 5; “Hun’s Hair Clings to Dress Parade Helmet Captured by American,” Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis, IN], September 27, 1918, 16; “German Helmets and Trophies of Battle Are Making City Mails Heavy,” Harrisburg Telegraph [Harrisburg, PA], December 13, 1918, 1.

On public display of war relics: “War Relics to Be in Oakland Window,” Oakland Tribune [Oakland, CA], December 29, 1918, 18; Advertisement, Meier Frank Co., Oregon Daily Journal [Portland, OR], September 9, 1918, 14; “Battle Zone Trophies on Exhibition Here,” Pittston Gazette [Pittston, PA], October 2, 1918, 2; “Exhibits Battle Trophies: Hun Helmet Among Souvenirs Sent W. A. Mulcahy By Son,” Baltimore Sun [Baltimore, MD], September 20, 1918, 9.

On use of captured relics to raise funds: “Souvenir For Red Cross; Dr. Guy Sends a War Trophy From Battle Field,” Winfield Daily Courier [Winfield, KS], December 17, 1918, 8; “Trophies Will Be Shown at Whist,” Oakland Tribune [Oakland, CA], September 14, 1918, 24.

[8] Jeanette Keith, Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South During the First World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[9] “Bought $107,200 Worth of Liberty Bonds; Ocala Patriotism Greatly Stimulated by Visit of the War Relic Train,” The Ocala Evening Star [Ocala, FL], April 20, 1918, p. 1.

[10] “While Exhibit Train Stops for Ten Minutes Camilla Buys $28,000,” Atlanta Constitution [Atlanta, GA], April 19, 1918, 14.

[11] “Everything Now in Readiness For Liberty Loan Train Tours,” Atlanta Constitution [Atlanta, GA], March 31, 1918, p. 9A;

[12] “War-Relic Train Stops Four Hours in Homer,” The Times, April 24, 1918, ; “War Relic Trains Greeted By Crowds; Many Buy Liberty Bonds When They See Horrors of German Militarism As Shown By Exhibits Now Touring District,” New Iberia Enterprise and Independent Observer [New Iberia, LA] April 20, 1918, 4.

[13] Ministers at Dothan, Alabama, held services at the train: “Dothan Church Services Held at War Relic Train; Thousand School Children Sing Songs and Addresses Are Made by Soldiers of Train,” Montgomery Advertiser [Montgomery, AL], April 29, 1918, 5.

[14] On election of Socialist mayor: Richard W. Judd, Socialist Cities: Municipal Politics and the Grass Roots of American Socialism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989). On the Gauss case: Stephen Scott Gurgel, “The War to End All Germans: Wisconsin Synod Lutherans and the First World War,” M.A. thesis University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 2012, 112–121.

[15] Fanny Hayes letter to Dalton Smith Hayes, October 20, 1918, Dalton Smith Hayes Collection, Ohio History Connection, Columbus, OH. Available at: https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p16007coll51/id/5070.

[16] “War Exhibit Train Drew Large Crowds; Engines of Warfare Taken From Huns Inspected By Many,” Evening Kansas Republican, September 28, 1918, 3.

[17] “German ‘Prisoners’ Among Exhibits on Loan Trophy Train,” Arizona Republic [Phoenix, AZ], April 8, 1919, 3.

[18] “Record Crowd Makes Visit to Trophy Train; Nearly 8,000 People Pass Through Coaches Here — Exhibits Attract Much Attention, Especially Tank,” Arizona Republic [Phoenix, AZ], May 3, 1919, 16.

[19] The use of plaster children’s hands refers to the story that Germans mutilated Belgian babies. See Celia M. Kingsbury, For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 67.

[20] “Trophy Train Boosters For Last Victory Loan Meet Vast Throng; Flagstaff Turns Out in Full Force to Greet Overseas Heroes and Cheer Them on Their Patriotic Tour of the Country,” Coconino Sun [Flagstaff, AZ], May 2, 1919, 1.

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