The First World War impacted Montana in both large and small ways. The demand for metals drove production at Butte’s mines to record levels–thousands of men joined the Armed Services; too many of them never returned. It was to their memory, and to commemorate victory in the world war, that Montana communities and families turned to monuments and memorials in the months and years after the United States joined the allies in 1917, one hundred years ago.
Paul E. Davis’ gravemarker at Valley Cemetery, along the historic Mullan Road, in Powell County is an early example of the WWI doughboy bronzed and rooted in Montana soil. The plaque says “America Over the Top,” a reference to the courage it took to jump out of the trenches and charge the enemy but also a reference to how the world war literally put America in a new position of world leadership.
The memorial at the front and to the side of the Missoula County Courthouse in Missoula is probably the best known First World War memorial. The American Legion chapter sponsored this monument to the dozens from the county who died in the war in 1927.
An earlier monument was built south of Missoula in Hamilton, the seat of Ravalli County, in 1921. It remains in front of the historic courthouse, which is now a museum. Here the doughboy stands in salute to his fellow soldiers as he stands on a rocky base. The Service Star Legion sponsored the monument.
My favorite doughboy monument is in Fort Benton, as the bronze soldiers raises a fist in defiance. Unlike the other two, it is not located in front of the county courthouse, but is in a city park facing the Missouri River. Fort Benton is a place where the stories of the early 19th century are told everywhere. I like the monument because it reminds us that Montana communities, even its oldest, do have a 20th century history–one that was significant and is worth remembering.