History of the World War I Draft
When the United States declared war against Germany on 6 April 1917, its military was undermanned and unprepared to go to war. The first estimate for the number of men needed to send to the battlefields of France was one million. The standing United States regular Army was at just over one hundred thousand men. Despite a robust enlistment drive and the federalization of a number of National Guard units, the government realized within six weeks that not enough men were volunteering for the Army or Navy to fill the needed quota of men required to be at full strength; to that point only seventy-three thousand had volunteered.
On 18 May 1917, the United States Congress passed what became known as the Selective Service Act of 1917, which gave President Woodrow Wilson the authority to conscript all able men between the ages of 21 – 30 into service in the National Army through a draft registration. The law also directed that the quota of men drafted from each state and territory was to be proportional to its’ percentage of the national population. It also set up guidelines for exemptions and forbade the use of substitutes (which were sometimes used in the draft for the Civil War) and set the punishment for evading the draft to misdemeanor charges and up to a year of imprisonment.
There were actually three draft registrations for World War I:
|First Draft Registration||5 June 1917||All men between the ages of 21 – 30 (men born between 1886 – 1896) |
“Twelve-Question” Draft Card
10,500 numbers drawn
|Second Draft Registration||5 June 1918 |
24 August 1918
|All men who reached the age of 21 after 5 June 1917; and others who hadn’t yet registered |
A supplemental draft took place on 24 August for all men who had reached age 21 after 5 June 1918.
“Ten-Question” Draft Card
1,200 numbers drawn
|Third Draft Registration||12 September 1918||All men between the ages of 18 – 45 (this expanded age range included men born between 1873 – 1900) |
“Twenty-Question” Draft Card
17,500 numbers drawn
By the summer of 1918, there were still more men needed. In a congressional hearing, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker testified, “There are two ways of fighting this war. One is to make every possible effort and win it soon, and the other is to proceed in a somewhat more leisurely fashion and win it late.” Therefore, in an amendment to the Selective Service Act of 1917, dated 31 August 1918, congress expanded the range of eligible men for the third draft to ages 18 – 45.
Over 24 million men were registered in the drafts for World War I. Of those, 2.8 million men were drafted; just over 500 thousand in the last half of 1917 and nearly 2.3 million men in 1918.
How were men drafted?
When men registered for the draft a serial number was assigned to their draft card (numerical order for each local draft board). After registration a selection process took place in which random numbers were drawn to show the order in which men were to be called for service. In the photo at right, a blindfolded Secretary of War Baker pulled the first number of the second draft, number 246, out of a bowl. This meant that all the men in the second registration with serial number 246 received order number one and would be the first to be called for service. Men were then classified into five categories; category one was “fit for service” with no exemptions, categories two through four were men with dependents who were temporarily exempt (until the class or classes before them were exhausted), and category five was for men with exemptions that would altogether discharge them from the draft. Using the order numbers and classifications, the local board would call draftees until their quota was filled. If a man was selected then he was given a date to report for a physical exam and, if still eligible after that process, he was given a date and time to report to the local draft board to entrain for a mobilization camp.
What information can be found on a draft card?
Information varied slightly based on the number of questions found on the card (see the table above), but generally it provided a man’s full name, age, address, birth-date and birthplace, citizenship status, occupation and employer, next of kin, and a physical description. The men also signed their names to the card (illiterate men signed with an “x” and their name was then inscribed around it by another person). At right is the front of the draft card for famed Detroit Tigers baseball player Ty Cobb, who registered in the June 1917 draft at his home in Augusta, Georgia.
Why is the draft card important to research?
Although a draft card does not automatically mean that man served in World War I (a common misconception among new researchers and family historians), the card does provide a wealth of information about the man, himself. Genealogically speaking, the World War I draft cards are among the greatest sources of information we have for men who were born before birth records were required in the United States. From a standpoint of military research, the draft card is the starting point in the experience of a lot of World War I veterans. Used in conjunction with the draft board’s classification lists (these are kept at a National Archives facility and not digitized anywhere) a better timeline can be understood as to when and if he was called for service or if he voluntarily enlisted after registration.
Curious if one of your male ancestors was among the 24 million who registered for the World War I draft? Or would you like to obtain the classification list that corresponds to your ancestor’s draft card? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help you get started!
- Bain News Service, “Registration Day for Men of Draft Age: Scene at one of the Exemption Boards, New York City,” February 1918; National Archives ID 45543491; Record Group 165, Series: American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918.
- Margaret Wood, “World War I: Conscription Laws,” 13 September 2016, Library of Congress Blog.
- United States. Congress. Public Laws of the Sixty-Fifth Congress of the United States, 1917 (Washington D. C. : Government Printing Office, 1917), Chap. 1., Pub. Res., No. 1, “Joint Resolution Declaring That A State of War Exists.”
- National Archives, “World War I Draft Registration Cards,” National Archives Military Records.
- United States. Selective Service Regulations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1917).
- United States. Congress. Public Laws of the Sixty-Fifth Congress of the United States, 1917 (Washington D. C. : Government Printing Office, 1917), Session I, Chap. 15, Public, No. 12, “An Act To Authorize the President To Increase Temporarily The Military Establishment of the United States.”
- United States. Congress. Public Laws of the Sixty-Fifth Congress of the United States, 1918 (Washington D. C. : Government Printing Office, 1918), Session II, Chap. 166, Public, No. 210, “An Act Amending the Act entitles “An Act To Authorize the President To Increase Temporarily The Military Establishment of the United States.”
- United States. Selective Service System, “Induction Statistics,” Selective Service System.
- United States. Selective Service System, “World War I Timeline,” Selective Service System.
- “U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” images, Ancestry, card for Tyrus R. Cobb, no 9, Draft Board Precinct Augusta City, Georgia; National Archives Record Group M1509.
- War Department, “Second Draft. The first number drawn was 246, and was picked from the urn by Secretary of War Baker…“, February 1918, National Archives ID 533713; Record Group 165, Series: American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs.