New Mexico WWI Exhibit Marks a Defining Moment in Early Statehood

Servando Gonzales, left, with violin, and fellow musicians, ca. 1919. Private Servando Gonzales, of Tijeras, played the violin with his division, the 19th Infantry, Company E.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A gas mask shrouds the face of Pvt. Tomás Rivera in a formal pose from 1919.

The 35-year-old schoolteacher from El Rito enlisted in the Army in May 1918. He fought in the trenches of France, returning home in 1919.

The image is one of many encapsulating New Mexico's experience during World War I.

The permanent exhibit "The First World War" opens on Veterans Day, the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice, at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe on Sunday, Nov. 11. The display features the stories, images and letters of New Mexicans who served.

In May 1915, the sinking of the British ocean liner the Lusitania by a German U-boat began turning American public opinion against President Woodrow Wilson's proclaimed neutrality. In 1917, British intelligence intercepted and decoded a German telegram to the Mexican government proposing a military alliance if the U.S. entered the war. In exchange, Germany would help Mexico retake the territory it had lost to the Americans, namely New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

The news produced enough outrage that the U.S. entered the war in 1917.

New Mexico ranked fifth nationally for military service in the Great War, enlisting more than 17,000 recruits from all 33 of its counties. By the time the global conflict ended on Nov. 11, 1918, 501 New Mexicans were dead.

Some of the first American troops to arrive on the French front in 1917 were from New Mexico. Others served in Siberia or helped patrol the Yangtze River in China.

John Brockman, a farmer's son from Roy, was drafted as a private in 1917.

"He was at the top of his class, and he played basketball," said Devorah Romanek, curator of exhibits at the University of New Mexico's Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.

The show features Brockman's copious letters home, as well as his uniform. The letters reflect his introduction to Army life, including his dislike of the food and a request for cakes and butter. He asks regularly about the bean crop and talks about buying his own underwear because the issued wool garments "would scratch iron." The correspondence grows tight-lipped and understated as he explains he cannot write at the front. Like most of the New Mexicans serving, he marvels at the amount of rain, saying, "The mud never dries up."

Brockman returned home in 1919 and lived in New Mexico for the rest of his life, finally settling in Roswell.

Native Americans served disproportionately, Romanek said. They were required to sign up for the draft, even though most were denied citizenship. More than 12,500 Native Americans served in the Great War, more than half as volunteers. Many of these attended federal boarding school. At the largest, Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, 90 percent of the male students volunteered for military duty. World War I also marked the first time a Native language -- in this case, Choctaw -- was used as code.

Private Cornelius Cruz of Ohkay Owingeh, a musician and carpenter, wrote in his service report that his ancestors were experienced warriors, fighting both the Navajos and the Kiowas before the European invaders.

"At home, the pueblos were raising funds and holding dances and donating profits from their crops," Romanek said.

New Mexico had achieved statehood just two years before war broke out in Europe in 1914. Recruitment was aggressive, and for some, the call to serve led to global travel and fresh perspectives, along with the yearning for home, Romanek said. Many had served in the Mexican Punitive Expedition, a retaliatory response to Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa's attack on the border town of Columbus. The government also deployed African-American military units known as Buffalo Soldiers across the Mexican-American border throughout the war.

The final major battle of the war on the front, the Meuse-Argonne, was also the deadliest for the Americans. Thirty-two New Mexican soldiers killed in that battle are buried there at the American Cemetery and Memorial.

If you go

WHAT: "The First World War"

WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 11. Through Nov. 11, 2019. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Closed Mondays November through April. Open for free to state residents 5-7 p.m. first Friday of the month, November through April.

WHERE: New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Ave., Santa Fe

HOW MUCH: $12 general, $7 New Mexico residents. Free on the first Sunday of each month to New Mexico residents. Free on Wednesday to New Mexico senior citizens 60 and over. Free to museum members and children 16 and under., 505-476-5200 or 505-476-5100

This article is written by Kathaleen Roberts from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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