One hundred years ago this June, South Dakotans serving in The Great War were deployed all along the Western Front in France. Those who came to Europe in 1917 with the first wave of American troops already had some frontline experience, but few were prepared for what they would endure between May of 1918 and the signing of the Armistice in November. South Dakotans would be on the frontlines in all the major American battles of 1918: Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, the Meuse-Argonne, and others.
From the Great Plains to the Great War is the latest documentary from SDPB’s Images of the Past series. It tells the story of South Dakota’s involvement in World War One, from the broad view of the global conflict to the personal perspectives of those who served as told in letters, diaries, photos, and the recorded recollections of surviving family members.
At home, South Dakotans were divided by anti- German and anti-pacifist sentiments, but overseas South Dakotans in uniform were united in the struggle for a victory that would let them return home. South Dakotans served in all branches of the service and did all kinds of work. Some were aviators, some were artillery men and machine gunners. Others were drivers and mechanics, while others were wranglers and farriers who brought a lifetime of horse-experience from their home farms and ranches.
The first South Dakotan to fall in combat was a teenager who died in 1916 fighting with Canadian troops, which was before America was officially involved. The last South Dakotan died of wounds several days after the signing of the Armistice. Hundreds of South Dakotans joined the millions who would perish from the flu during the pandemic of 1918. Some were accounted for with only the words “died overseas.” Many are buried in French graves. Others are simply missing, probably forever.
Returning service members were met with parades and celebrations. One South Dakota veteran would go on to be governor. Another would become a vicious gangster. And for the first time, serious attention would have to be given to the special physical and emotional issues inflicted by mechanized, industrialized warfare.
Images of the Past: From the Great Plains to the Great War premieres Monday, June 25, at 9pm (8 MT) on SDPB1. Rebroadcasts Thursday, June 28, at 8pm (7MT) on SDPB1.
SDPB’s Images of the Past is a multiplatform project comprised of documentaries, blogs, and interviews presenting South Dakota history. SDPB producer Brian Gevik works closely with South Dakota historians, museum professionals, archivists and others to take piece together historic images to help tell our stories. See SDPB.org/ImagesOfThePast.
Images of the Past episodes in June on SDPB1:
Settlement Stories – Friday, June 1, 11:30pm (10:30 MT): Stories of the first white settlers in South Dakota.
South Dakota on Film – Thursday, June 14, 8pm (7 MT) & Sunday, June 17, 1pm (noon MT): From early 1890s moving pictures to Dances with Wolves and Destroyer, a look at movies filmed in the state.
Heritage of Arms – Thursday, June 21, 8pm (7 MT) & Sunday, June 24, 1pm (Noon MT): A look at guns in the history and culture of South Dakota.