They’re not forget-me-nots, but they could be called that.
The scientific name for the tiny blue flowers that grow in France’s Forest of Verdun is Sisyrinchium montanum.
“They call it the blue-eyed grass of Montana,” a national forest official in Douamont told the American Foreign Press in 2016.
Douamont is lined with graves of 80,000 of the 300,000 French and German soldiers who died in the 300-day Battle of Verdun in 1916, the year before the United States entered World War I.
The flowers aren’t native, Patrice Hirbec told the news service. They were introduced to Verdun as seeds on the hooves of United States Army horses.
It wasn't a good war to be a horse. It's said that on one day during the Battle of Verdun, 7,000 were killed in the shelling. Estimates vary but somewhere between 6 million and 8 million horses, mules and donkeys died during the four years of conflict.
It’s a good bet many of them started their journeys in Montana. The Army had remount stations in Oklahoma and Virginia, but the biggest producer of war horses was Fort Keogh, near Miles City, according to historian Ellen Baumler.
In “Montana Moments: History on the Go,” Baumler wrote that Fort Keogh became the largest horse ranch in the United States after war broke out in 1914. In one three-month period, the military post on the Yellowstone purchased 155,000 horses, and it took 45,000 acres of forage to sustain them.
World War I ended 100 years ago, a victory for the United States and her allies that will be hailed and memorialized Sunday around the world.
Montana has a right to be proud of its part. Horses, copper, food, airplanes, nurses and the elusive notion of peace — the Treasure State's contribution to the Great War went far beyond the men it sent in disproportionate numbers to fight.
Because of a census estimate based on a homestead boom that went bust, Montana was vastly overrepresented in the draft quota. Even then the Treasure State supplied more than its share of servicemen, Great Falls historian Ken Robison said. In a state with half a million people, 39,000 men went into the Army and nearly 1,900 into the Navy.
Tens of thousands more stayed home to work in the mines, mills, fields and woods on behalf of the war effort.
“I’ve got a quote in my book that every American bullet fired in the war was encased in Butte copper,” said Robison, who’ll be part of Sunday’s program at Fort Missoula. "And the longstanding saying was that the world was wired by copper from the Great Falls refineries. Between the copper needed for communication and the copper needed for fighting, it made Butte, Anaconda and Great Falls hugely important."
Robison will talk about his new book “World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares” at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula at 2 p.m. It’s the first of two studies he's writing centered around Montana’s involvement in World War I. This one covers the first year after U.S. entrance into the war on April 6, 1917. In the wee hours of that Good Friday morning, Missoula-born Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin cast her vote against it. She was one of 50 in the House and Senate to say no.
While Rankin subsequently threw her support behind the U.S. troops, the no vote helped torpedo her political career at the time. But her message of peace in the face of war is a legacy that lives on a century later.
It will reverberate in Missoula on Sunday when the Veterans for Peace and Women in Black gather at the Vietnam War Memorial in Rose Park at 10:45 a.m. Missoula’s Veterans for Peace is a small chapter of an international organization, and the only one that meets weekly at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center on South Higgins Avenue. Its members often join the Women in Black, peace advocates who quietly demonstrate on the north end of Higgins Avenue bridge each Friday.
“Armistice Day was designated as a day dedicated to the cause of world peace. The big word there is ‘peace,’” said Rob Holden, a war veteran and one of the organizers of Sunday’s event. “Thereafter Congress decided to rebrand Nov. 11 as Veterans Day. That … quickly went to honoring the military and glorifying war. Armistice Day was flipped from a day of peace to militarism.”
Robison, a retired U.S. Navy captain, brings to the Garden City insights into Rankin’s role in WWI, as well as that of the Student Army Training Corps on the University of Montana campus. The latter was one player in a frantic effort to rev up a fighting machine able to confront the Germans, who after three years of war had a well-oiled, well-equipped force.
“No country ever entered a major war less prepared than the United States did,” Robison said. “We had nowhere near the tactics or the ability to counter that, except by brave men charging forward and suffering heavy losses.”
He referred to the “western fighting spirit” Montanans helped bring to the Front and infused into British and French troops who “maybe suffered overdoses of caution.”
Robison tells the story of Regina McIntyre, who was born in Missoula in 1895 and graduated from Sisters of Mercy Hospital in Kalispell. Enrolled with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, McIntyre is the only known woman tribal member from Montana to have served in World War I.
On Armistice Day she was a Red Cross nurse in one of the four American hospitals in which she worked during a 10-month stint in France that lasted until June 1919. A year after returning from Europe, McIntyre married Thomas Joseph Earley. Less than three years later, Robison said, she died of pneumonia in New York City.
The Polson American Legion formed a graveside guard of honor at the Catholic cemetery there. In July 2017, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes added McIntyre Earley’s name to its Eagle Circle Wall of Remembrance in Pablo. Ed Saunders, a veteran from Laurel who unearthed McIntyre’s story and tribal ties while researching a book on women in World War I, addressed the gathering.
According to Char-Koosta News. Saunders said McIntyre’s name stood out “because her records showed she wasn’t an American citizen.” Congress did not grant citizenship to Native Americans until 1924.
Word trickled out in the weeks following the end of the war that the "spruce production office" in Missoula was closing. There ended a little-known saga of Montana’s war effort.
In 1917 John D. Ryan, president of the Anaconda Copper Mining Co., took leave of his office in Butte to direct the Red Cross’ War Relief Program.
“He started off to be a major player in the Red Cross,” said Robison, “but very quickly they ran into such controversy — it was a matter of corruption and bad management in the whole aircraft production industry — that he was made czar to take over aircraft production, and he did straighten it out. It really began to hum after he’d been in charge for the first six months or so.”
In the spring of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson made Ryan second assistant to the Secretary of War and head of the aircraft production board. Not long after, Ryan wired Kenneth Ross in Bonner, where he headed ACM lumber operations.
In a journal Ross wrote before his death in 1933, he detailed a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with Ryan. There was little press coverage except to recite a telegram from Ryan that "didn’t indicate the manner in which Ross would be used."
In his journal, available in the University of Montana's Mansfield Library archives, Ross wrote that he was directed "to go out west and speed up lumber production" for airplanes.
He traveled by train, first to factories in Dayton, Ohio, and Detroit; then to Spokane and Portland to meet with lumbermen. Ross learned that the coveted spruce wood was needed solely for wing beams 4 by 6 inches in diameter and 22 to 24 feet long, but in June told the mills that white pine would work just as well.
Ross described how he smoothed feathers ruffled by tensions between lumbermen and the military, and provided or promised government contracts to the West Coast mills that cranked out the spruce and pine. He opened offices in San Francisco; Spokane and Tacoma in Washington; Portland and Baker in Oregon, as well as Missoula.
Ross, who had a reputation as a union-buster, seemed to simply bull his way through labor strife on the coast in the name of the war effort. He strove to keep a low profile, but an Associated Press story with a dateline of Missoula, Aug. 15, was picked up by the Los Angeles Times.
“Maximum production of airplane lumber was demanded of northwestern lumbermen today by Kennth Ross, representative of the Federal Aircraft Board, who addressed the joint convention of the Western Pine Manufacturers’ Association and the Montana Lumber Manufacturers’ Association,” the short story said.
“Mr. Ross called upon the lumbermen to speed production to the limit in order to hasten the end of the war. His appeal was met with open enthusiasm.”