National Cowboy Museum remembers Westerners who served in WWI

Soldiers from the 369th infantry regiment -- the first African American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I -- work in a trench.


By BRANDY MCDONNELL | The Oklahoman | Published: March 11, 2019

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (Tribune News Service) — Although many theories have been cooked up to explain why U.S. troops in World War I became known as “doughboys,” the reason for another common nickname for America’s fighting forces is as plain as the campaign hats they wore on their heads.

“All American servicemen when they get off the boats in France, they’re wearing that kind of hat. And when the French saw them, they said, ‘They’re cowboys. … The cowboys are here to save the day,’” said Michael Grauer, who holds the McCasland Curator of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, pointing to a distinctive wide-brimmed hat.

“‘Chapeau de cow-boy.’ They’re wearing cowboy hats, and that’s actually a very standard hat up in the Northern Plains called the Montana hat or Montana Peak. It plays very much on cowboy mythology.”

With the exhibition “Cowboys in Khaki: Westerners in the Great War,” the National Cowboy Museum is tipping the hat to the cattlemen, farmers, roughnecks and others who helped the Allied Powers achieve victory in World War I.

“As a museum guy, we’re always aware of centennials and celebrations. … The centennial of World War I was four years long, 2014 through 2018, and actually continues, if you want to get historically accurate about it, ‘til 2022, because U.S. troops don’t come home from Europe until 1922,” said Grauer, the museum’s curator of cowboy collections and Western art.

“I come from a long line of veterans in my family, all the way back to the Revolution. I do have a great-uncle who fought in the Great War, so it’s very personal to me. This is the way that people like me who didn’t serve I think we can give back to servicemen and thank them. The best way we can thank them is not forget them. And World War I is, frankly, the forgotten war.”

Forgotten history

On view through May 12, “Cowboys in Khaki” features artworks and artifacts from the museum’s military, rodeo and history collections, along with loans from the 45th Infantry Division Museum in Oklahoma City and the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. Grauer was curator of art and Western heritage at the latter before joining the National Cowboy Museum staff last year.

His interest in the history of Westerners in World War I developed while cataloging and researching the hundreds of artifacts from the Great War in the Texas museum’s collection.

“I started to dig more and more into this and found out this is a pretty interesting story. I ended up going back to grad school when I was 55 and wrote my master thesis on World War I. … Since that time, I just got more and more involved with World War I scholarship,” said Grauer, who earned his master of arts in history from West Texas A&M University.

“Everything that’s happening in the world today is a direct result of unresolved issues during World War I. So, even though the armistice is signed in November of 1918, the war never really ended, and we’re still fighting all those different issues today all across the Middle East, the Balkans, etc.”

He said many people don't know that Veterans Day, observed annually on Nov. 11, was originally Armistice Day. It commemorated the signing of the armistice between the Allies of World War I and Germany, which took effect on the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918.

Although recent films like “Wonder Woman” and “War Horse” have been set in World War I, Grauer said it has been largely overlooked in popular culture, especially compared to World War II.

“World War II is far more romanticized. … There is no ‘Saving Private Ryan’ for World War I. I mean, it’s gruesome on a scale that nobody was prepared for, and Hollywood certainly was not and still isn’t,” he said. “People hear about, for example, the Navajo code talkers in World War II. Well, actually they started in World War I, and they were Choctaw. Nobody knows that story except maybe here in Oklahoma, so we have an obligation to tell that national story.”

Making connections

World War I was indeed a global event, and the Western United States proved pivotal on several fronts.

“Before they’re in khaki, they’re cowboys providing beef cattle and farmers providing wheat to the war effort, before the U.S. even declares war,” Grauer said. “The West is very sparsely populated at that time. So, it was a tremendous sacrifice for these communities to give up their young men and women to go into service, when you got harvest, you got cattle to round up, you got wheat to cut.”

One of the most symbolic aspects of the exhibit is the “ghost horse,” a period saddle and tack displayed on a plain armature.

“Most people don’t think of the fact that there were 8 million horses in World War I, that a million and a half of them came from the U.S. And the average lifespan of a horse or mule was 10 days. They got killed because they were always targets,” Grauer said. “They were absolutely vital. This is a mechanized war, but only up to a certain point. When you get to France and Belgium, it’s so muddy you can’t move around. And you know, you can’t have a cowboy without a horse.”

The exhibit also chronicles how other historical events connected to the war, including the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

“It’s a World War I phenomenon. … It was probably started at Fort Riley and Camp Funston up in Kansas, and it was probably due to unsanitary conditions in mobilizing that many men that fast because it was very crowded, very unsanitary. You suddenly go from 150,000 regular Army to 4 million men. … Then, you put them in close quarters on these troop ships; one guy coughs on the next guy, and the next thing you know, the whole troop ship’s sick,” Grauer said.

“We’re trying to layer the story and give more information. … This is part of our heritage – and most people don’t know it.”

“Cowboys in Khaki” is dressing up the corridor that leads to the museum’s popular Sam Noble Special Events Center.

“We love having events here, but we also want to engage people and get them back. And that’s what utilizing this space does,” said Chief Marketing Officer Seth Spillman.

“This kind of exhibit is a demonstration of the width and breadth of Western heritage, how it goes beyond what some see as the stereotypical presentation of cowboys and Indians and cattle. It goes way beyond 1880. It goes way beyond all those stories sometimes Western heritage gets pigeonholed into. It’s exciting to see exhibits like this – and knowing some of the exhibits that are coming – that tell a side of it that may resonate in ways that other Western heritage exhibits may not.”

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