Swedish born soldiers in the Great War: What made them participate and choose side?

This is one of the most common questions I get when I do my talks to different kind of audiences, and I always want to answer it with the most correct answer as possible.

It may be hard to find the most correct answer, as I am looking into a combination of different reasons and aspects, but maybe I have found some answers when looking into the great sources of information, the small books which honores the soldiers from each county in the US, who participated in the great war. The people in the county who wrote these texts knew their inhabitants well, and the information given in those different books is probably as close as we can get when I ask myself why and on which side these Swedish soldiers choose to participate on in the Great War.

Currently I am trying to find as many books I can who honor their local soldiers who participated in the Great War, and I have already found and read some of them, from different states. I am now looking into the states that is known for having a larger population connected to Sweden and Scandinavia.

In this case I have studied the Book “Chisago County, Minnesota, in the World War”. The reason for that will be described below.

Back in 1920 Chisago, Minnesota, was the the most typical Swedish-American County in America. They assessed at that time that 95% per cent of the inhabitants were of Swedish birth, or children of Swedish born parents. It had the largest congregation in proportion to the total population of any county in the United States at that time.

The Swedish settlers already presented themselves in the Civil War. Minnesota was the first state in the Union to offer a regiment to President Lincoln at that time. Many sturdy Swedish boys from Chisago County, boys who could hardly talk the language of their new land, but their souls fired with love to their new-found land, “taught by their noble pastors, that loyalty to their country was the first duty of a Christian Citizen“, as it is described in the book.

One pillar of their determination to participate can maybe be brought from their christian heritage. One piece from the book says:

The early pioneers of this county were of the sturdy, disciplined, religious type, thorough and faithful Christians. Closely following the first pioneers came the ministers of the Gospel sharing cheerfully the privations of the settlers, utterly unselfish, bent only on keeping the religious faith of their people untarnished.

Think of the sacrifice these men had to offer. All of them extremely poor, some with a young wife, and many children, others with aged parents to support, most of them heavily in debt, small patches of clearing in the heavy forest, wild animals prowling in the timber, Indians not entirely friendly, living nearby.

Yet these splendid young men volunteered in great numbers, many of them never to return. The attitude of these Swedish settlers toward their newly adopted country is a shining, glorious mark in Chisago county’s history.

Other pillars in their determination could have been as described below:

Why were these men so solidly loyal? Why was there not one single copperhead among the Swedish boys? Many, no doubt were actuated by a spirit of adventure, the joy of battle which had made the name of their Viking ancestors immortal in history. It is also easy to imagine that human slavery, the buying and selling of human beings, though their skin was black, fired the souls of these liberty loving Swedes with indignation, and they freely offered their services and lives to destroy this dreadful institution. But in addition to the splendid attitude of their religious leaders previously noted, one tremendously important matter must here be noted.

One reason could also have been the influence of the only newspaper the Swedish settlers read at that time, the newspaper “Hemlandet”, which was active to the end of 19th century, and of course media, as today had a great influence of what to think and what to do, and maybe a feeling of security to stand among a common taken stand in their new country?

The statement to support its new country was probably rooted already during the end of 19th century and brought further on into those who emigrated later on, with Swedish born children and children born in US by Swedish parents, who later were in the age of to be drafted to the first world war. Read more from a text from the book below:

Prior to and during the Civil War, our people read really only one newspaper, the glorious old “Hemlandet.” There were no other papers in circulation here among the Swedes. Hemlandet was the semi-official organ of the Swedish Lutheran Church, and its principal contributors were the Lutheran ministers. Thank God for these men! They wrote strong editorials on the duty of a Christian to support the flag of their country they espoused, the cause of human liberty, they upheld the cause of the Union in the plainest and sturdiest of languages. Oh, that full credit might be given to these noble men for the wonderful influence they wielded for loyalty, justice, and devotion, to their God, their country and their flag

In the book you will find a great amount of soldiers born in the US, by Swedish born parents, and quite many of them paid the ultimate price, by dying of disease or in battle. Most of the soldiers from the county of Chisago died of disease, some of them on the battlefield in France, where some of them also have their final resting place.

One of those 37 soldiers who died when in duty for the American Army was born in Sweden. Most of the other 37 who died were born by Swedish parents in the US. It is interesting in itself to read the surnames of those who died and are honored in the book. Many of the names has clear Scandinavian and Swedish connection. See pictures below.

Perry M Matsson was born as Per Martinus Mattson in Brunflo parish, Jämtland, Sweden, and it is noted in the Swedish church book that Per left with his mother Märta Klingberg, widow after J Mattson, and his sister Anna, in 1900, as described in the picture above.

Why not the German side?

Further on we can read about a very interesting perspective described in the book about why Sweden and Swedes didn’t participate on the German side which would have been more natural, or?

I have earlier mentioned Sweden’s history with Russia as a natural statement to fight together along the words ” Our enemy’s enemy is our friend”. That would have been a more clear way of choosing side in the war. Our political statement from the period of the first world war were also more leaning towards the German side, and some of the officers from the Swedish army went to war on the German side, but not as many as we thought, as my research also shows when it comes to the individuals who fell for the differents sides.

The Chisago County book also mentions four perspectives that makes Sweden more connected to Germany at that time, but in the end also explains a reason why it not became like that when it comes to the Swedes who emigrated to North America at that time. A short summary of the text from the book below:

  1. For a hundreds years or more (at least) Swedish people had an intense dislike, even hatred for Russia on account of Finland.
  2. England had since the Revolution been our historic enemy. Our school histories, relating the story of the Revolutionary War, influenced the school children against England. The war of 1812 was likewise chronicled in a manner to arouse our indignation.
  3. The Swedish people, in many respects are much like the German people. Both are of the Teutonic race. The language is largely identical, or at least very similar. The German people in the United States were simple, honest, thrifty, kindly persons, splendid citizens, law abiding, peace loving, easy to get along with.
  4. Germany was the birthplace of Martin Luther, the great founder of the church bearing his name, and to this church belonged the vast majority of the Swedish people. It was almost impossible to believe that the Germany of the great patron saint of the church, the gentle, wonderful leader of the great Reformation, could have so utterly changed, and become the great barbarian nation that characterized the starting of this terrible war, and its conduct thereafter. Aided by clever and perniciously active German propaganda, our people were inclined at the beginning to call these stories “English lies.” The rape of Belgium, the “scrap of paper” incident, the enslavement and deportation of Belgian men and women, the horrid atrocities, carried out in accord with their doctrine of “Schrecklichkeit,” the sacking of Louvain, and other acts which would make an Apache Indian blush with shame, were not believed true.

So – what made us not follow these above described perspectives?

The book describes it with those, quite simple words below, and was probably not the whole truth, more a reason in combination with all the others described above the four reasons above:

But there were hundreds of our people, yes nearly a majority, who at once saw thru Germany’s plan, and unhesitatingly took the side of the Allies. When our good president made his appeal to our people to be neutral, and avoid controversy on this subject, those friendly to the Allies, followed his admonition more than the other side, we think.

But was it easy all the way?

I have earlier described in my research that many of the Swedish born soldiers left Sweden before they became 21 and were supposed to be drafted for the Swedish Army through our current service act at that time.

The Chisago county book also describes some anti-war demonstrations, with protests not to send our boys to France. The Audience, many of them probably Swedes, were driven into a frenzy of wild protest against the war. Many asked themselves if the Swedes suddenly had lost the sense giving such aid?

Although, it was then and there determined that there should not be a repetition of such a meeting. The Minnesota Conference later on, of the Swedish Lutheran Church met in annual meeting about a month after declaration of war. About its first act was to pass a resolution of loyalty with much enthusiasm. Even if it was some protest it all went well in the end.

Below some records about the soldiers who participated from the Swedish Lutheran Church in Chisago County:

Almelund – Men in service: 49 – two died of disease while in service

Center City – Men in service: 80 – three died of disease while in service

Chisago City – Men in service: 42 – one died in action and five of disease while in service

Fish Lake – Men in service: 17 – all returned safely

North Branch – Men in service: 46 – one killed in action and one died of disease while in service

Rush Point – Men in service: 17 – all returned safely

Taylors Falls – Men in service: 35 – one killed in action and one died of disease while in service.

Men from Chisago County who died while in service

The reason I want to highlight those is to show the background of the individuals and that the large part of them has scandinavian and Swedish heritage.

Source: Chisago County, Minnesota in the World War

Connections to my research

As the largest group of those Swedish born soldiers, present in my research, who fell and are buried in France or Belgium, were Americans, the reasons explained above are connected to them. It can also include the soldiers who fought for Canada as well, even if I think they probably were affected by English and French values, depending on where they lived in Canada.

I will not draw any final conclusions, but some of the basic religious reasons mentioned above can be applicable on to those soldiers who fought for other countries in the commonwealth, such as Australia and New Zealand.

The poverty and the social situations affected the Swedes and ended up in reasons to emigrate. I believe the economical situation in their new countries affected the individual in a way to see the role as a soldier in an army as a job in itself, without so much influence from any other reasons.

I feel I am a bit closer to present some reasons why the Swedish soldiers mainly fought on either side in the Great War. I think a lot was connected to the inner values but later on affected by the values of the community, in their new home countries. I can see that we have the same situation today, even if the economical and social situations doesn’t affect us as much as back then, in our choice to take part in any modern conflict.

We are not yet in the situation to be drafted as an individual to participate in a specific war for Sweden, and hopefully it will stay like that.

2 Replies to “Swedish born soldiers in the Great War: What made them participate and choose side?”

  1. Hi jocke what a great read and such a lot of information you have found in your search for explanations. Really interesting keep up the great work!

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