Wells Fargo’s role in ‘the Great War’
A Wells Fargo historian explains how the company helped with financial and transportation needs during World War I — and how the end of the war led to a national holiday.
On Nov. 11, a date that marks the armistice that ended fighting in World War I, Americans honor veterans who have served the nation. On Nov. 11, 1918, guns fell silent at 11 a.m., and “the Great War” concluded at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, after taking the lives of millions of combatants and civilians over four years.
By the time the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, European armies had already been at war for three years, fighting to a bloody stalemate in trenches that stretched 500 miles across Belgium and France. The 2 million American troops who joined the fight as part of the American Expeditionary Forces helped tip the balance in the war to lead to an Allied victory.
Answering 'Uncle Sam's call'
From every state in the nation, farmers, miners, factory workers, and bank clerks left their jobs to don military uniforms.
More than 1,600 employees of Wells Fargo & Co. Express answered Uncle Sam’s call to service, and the company continued to pay the wages of National Guard troops called to duty. As men departed, many women filled their jobs and contributed to the war effort on the home front.
George S. Lynn, a former Wells Fargo wagon driver in Oakland, California, who enlisted with the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade in 1914, became the first Wells Fargo employee to die in the war on Oct. 30, 1917.
Wells Fargo's 'familiar and welcoming presence'
Before the first American troops shipped out for France, the military had to train and equip thousands of new soldiers. The U.S. Army and National Guard set up dozens of training camps across the country.
U.S. Army recruits arrived by the trainload to hastily-built military installations. At many of these camps, or cantonments, troops found the familiar diamond-shaped sign of Wells Fargo & Co. Express — and Wells Fargo’s own army of team members — ready to provide for their every financial or transportation need. Wells Fargo established agencies in a dozen military camps, including Camp Dodge near Des Moines, Iowa; Camp George G. Meade in Laurel, Maryland; Brooklyn Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York; Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio; and Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas.
When soldiers and sailors received their pay in camp, they bought Wells Fargo express money orders to safely send funds to their families. Wells Fargo also delivered thousands of care packages from home to service members and transported tons of food, supplies, and equipment to military installations.
When deploying to Europe, officers carried Wells Fargo traveler’s checks as a convenient way to redeem funds in the local foreign currency. Once overseas, Wells Fargo’s offices in London; Liverpool, England; and Paris provided a familiar and welcoming place to obtain financial services, travel assistance, or linger a while to write a letter home or send a telegram. For units stationed in small towns across France, Wells Fargo arranged for American troops to be able to purchase money orders or cash checks at any one of French bank Société Générale’s branches.
Coordinating wartime traffic
Wells Fargo’s extensive network of express offices and fleet of rail cars aided transportation of critical war materials throughout the U.S. and abroad. However, the magnitude of moving the commerce of a nation at war proved too large for any one transportation enterprise. The federal government nationalized America’s major railroads to coordinate wartime traffic, and consolidated Wells Fargo & Co. Express and other domestic express operators into a single entity — renamed American Railway Express Inc. — on July 1, 1918.
Wells Fargo never re-entered the express business in the U.S., but it continued its banking operations in San Francisco, where Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank aided the war effort with loans to manufacturers and agricultural customers straining to meet demand. Wells Fargo bankers advised clients to conserve food and save money in a patriotic “thrift movement” that ballooned the company’s bank deposits to over $53 million in September 1917 — the highest in its history to date. At the time, Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank did business from one San Francisco location only, where business growth in 1917 alone required an expansion of the bank’s workforce from 159 to 233 team members.
When word of the Nov. 11 armistice reached the U.S., Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank rejoiced with the rest of the nation. Bank President I. W. Hellman presided over a board of directors meeting the day after, acknowledging that they met for the first time in many months “under the auspices of peace.” Hellman warned of hard work ahead to build, reconstruct, and reduce the country’s war-induced indebtedness, and help transition the nation’s economy from wartime to peacetime and prosperity.
Becoming a national holiday
America’s first Armistice Day remembrance took place a year later on Nov. 11, 1919. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 stating that Nov. 11 would be commemorated every year “with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through goodwill and mutual understanding between nations.”
Armistice Day became a national holiday in 1938. It was officially renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all who served in war or peace. From 1971 to 1978, calendars placed Veterans Day on the second Monday in November as part of an effort to create more three-day weekends, but in 1978 the holiday was moved back to Nov. 11, its original date of significance. In Canada and other commonwealth nations, Nov. 11 is observed as Remembrance Day.
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