An advertisement for Wells Fargo money orders and checks for U.S. soldiers (inset); One of artist Edward Hopper's illustrations for Wells Fargo Messenger.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

November 3, 2017
Marianne Babal
Marianne Babal

Marianne Babal is a Wells Fargo historian.

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.

Two Wells Fargo employees who served during World War I.
Two Wells Fargo employees who served during World War I.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

This group of Wells Fargo & Co. Express employees in Houston, Texas, also served in World War I.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

Women in New York worked in Wells Fargo's Claim and Accounting departments as men served during World War I.
These women worked in Wells Fargo's Claim and Accounting departments in New York during World War I.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

Camp Surry in Corpus Christi, Texas, was one of the locations where Wells Fargo established agencies in military camps during World War I.
Camp Surry in Corpus Christi, Texas, was one of the military camps where Wells Fargo established an agency during World War I.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

When bank president I. W. Hellman gathered employees together for a dinner celebrating renewal of Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank’s charter on Nov. 6, 1917, all of the bank’s employees and their spouses could fit in one ballroom.
When bank president I. W. Hellman held a dinner celebrating the renewal of Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank’s charter on Nov. 6, 1917, all of the bank’s employees and their spouses could fit in one ballroom of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

Wells Fargo and its employees subscribed to Liberty Loans, raising millions of dollars to fund the government’s war expenses. World War I also brought about the nation’s first income tax legislation.
Wells Fargo Messenger covers featured military themes in 1917-1918. The Wells Fargo Messenger edition from November 1917, left, focused on cantonments or military training camps.
Artist Edward Hopper drew covers, ads, and illustrations for Wells Fargo Messenger.
A receipt for money sent from France by Air Corps Cadet Howard Droste Allen of California.
Wells Fargo and its employees purchased Liberty Loans, raising millions of dollars to fund the government’s war expenses.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
Wells Fargo Messenger, the company's magazine, featured military themes on its covers in 1917-1918.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
More Wells Fargo Messenger covers featuring military themes. The November 1917 edition, left, focused on cantonments, or military training camps.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
Artist Edward Hopper drew covers, ads, and illustrations for Wells Fargo Messenger.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
More of artist Edward Hopper's work in editions of Wells Fargo Messenger.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
A receipt for money sent from France to Los Angeles by Air Corps Cadet Howard Droste Allen.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
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