Irishmen registered for U.S. draft 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, on June 5, 1917, the United States conducted its first military draft to support the war in Europe it entered two months earlier. Many Irish-born or Irish-American men lined up to sign up, including my grandfather, Willie Diggin, and his future brother-in-law, John Ware, both emigrants of Kerry. Below is an edited chapter of my book, “His Last Trip: An Irish-American Story,” about draft day in Pittsburgh. MH


The United States tried to isolate itself from the war that erupted in August 1914, but American industry was closely tied to events in Europe. Pittsburgh steel mills operated around the clock to meet the demands of the unprecedented military buildup on the continent. Carnegie Steel alone hired 8,000 additional workers in 1915 as Willie began his career as a streetcar motorman, two years after his arrival from Ireland.

When America finally entered the war in April 1917, Congress quickly authorized a draft to build the military. The first round of registration set for June 5 required men ages 21 to 31 to sign up, including non-citizens. This presented a conflict for Irish immigrants with strong nationalist views who had openly supported Germany against England, Ireland’s historical oppressor. Such a position now became treasonous.

Only a few people openly opposed the war in Pittsburgh. In the final days before the draft four men ages 19 to 21 were arrested and charged with treason for distributing fliers opposing the conscription. Churches asked the mayor to close bars so that “young men under the exhilaration or depression of the day may have removed from them the temptation of drink.” The president of the liquor retailers association promised his members would voluntarily go dry for the day because “it was the least we could do and patriotism demanded it from us.”

Willie Diggin, undated.

Willie registered at the Hazelwood Police and Patrol Station at the corner of Hazelwood Avenue and Lytle Street. The two-story brick building was located a half mile west of the streetcar car barn where he worked. Uniformed police officers bustled about the station, enhancing the military atmosphere. American flags snapped in the breeze as showers and thunderstorms raked across the city. News accounts reported that most registration lines were “orderly and cheerful.”

Nearly 3,200 men registered in Hazelwood between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., a pace of 228 per hour. Many of the men were workers from the nearby B & O Railroad switch yards and J&L steel mill. They shuffled through the lines with smudged faces, dirty hands and soiled clothing. Willie was joined in the line by other streetcar men in their Pittsburgh Railways uniforms.

Willie made a few errors completing his draft card. He listed his age as 28 instead of 23, giving his birth year as 1889 instead of 1894. Such mistakes were common among immigrants. Either age was within the 10-year spread of draft eligibility. Perhaps Willie was under the impression that appearing five years older would make him more or less likely to be selected for military service. It is impossible to know.

He answered the question of citizenship “native born” instead of the provided choice, “natural born,” or the correct option, “an alien.” Yet on the following two lines Willie correctly recorded that he was born in Ballybunion and still a citizen of Ireland. He entered the correct address of the Ashton Avenue house where he lived with his cousins and his employment with Pittsburgh Railways at the Glenwood car barn.

Willie left blank the line requesting a deferment from military service. He was not selected from the 67,276 men who register that day in Pittsburgh. But 31-year-old John Ware, was among the Irish streetcar workers who registered and joined the Army in Europe. He later became Willie’s brother-in-law.

John hailed from rural Kilelton townland, near the north Kerry village of Ballylongford. He was born in 1886 and emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1910, at age 24. (His sister Nora, Willie’s future wife, followed him to Pittsburgh in 1912.) He worked at the Frankstown Avenue streetcar barn in the city’s Homewood section.

John was naturalized as an American citizen in July 1917, a month after his draft registration. He entered the Army as a private in April 1918 and was shipped to France two months later. The Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees of America later boasted 8,000 of its workers were called to arms. The union claimed some 3,000 streetcar men reached the Western Front.

For Willie and other streetcar men who remained behind, Pittsburgh Railways distributed a 24-page booklet about the war that contained speeches by President Woodrow Wilson and other patriotic material, including the words to the Star-Spangled Banner. The booklet reminded workers that “to prevent any accidental injury is a form of patriotic action, as well as a moral, a humane, a civic and an economic duty.”

Irish nationalism did not disappear because of the war. The secretive Clan na Gael stirred up Irish republican sentiment through front groups such as the Friends of Irish Freedom, which kept an office at the Blackstone Building in downtown Pittsburgh. The group sponsored a pro-independence rally nearby in May 1918, weeks before a second military draft. Speakers insisted “the Irish and their descendants in the United States have always proved themselves 100 percent American,” the Philadelphia-based Irish Press reportedBut the crowd voted to oppose the conscription because Ireland was not being recommended for independence after the war, as were Belgium, Poland and other small European countries.

Father Patrick O’Conner was among the Catholic clergy who addressed the gathering. The Irish Press noted the priest’s affiliation with St. Mary of Mercy Church in “Pittsburgh’s famous Irish section,” just a few blocks away. Mass was prayed in Irish at the church.

In general, the American church supported the war effort to blunt critics who doubted the patriotism of the institution and its members. Catholic bishops said their parishioners would be “kindled with zeal…through the inspiration of patriotic effort.” The faithful were urged to “center around the great ideal of prayers for the boys who are at the front, and especially for peace.” Willie probably heard similar appeals at St. Stephen’s Church in Hazelwood, his home parish.

Some 17 million soldiers and civilians had been killed since the war began in 1914. Pittsburgher Thomas F. Enright, an American-born son of Irish immigrants, was among the first casualties from the United States. About 1,530 men from the Pittsburgh area died or were killed in action by the time the armistice was signed in November 1918.

John Ware was among the troops fortunate enough to return from Europe. He was honorably discharged on February 14, 1919, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, having provided seven months of “honest and faithful” service in the Alsace Lorain region of France. The U.S. Army issued him an exit check of $53.54 (about $800), and he returned to Pittsburgh.