Camp Bowie: Mobilization in Fort Worth

Upon entering the First World War in the spring of 1917, the United States faced the challenge of mobilizing and training hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Not since the Civil War had there been a need for so many fighting men. The solution to this problem was a series of camps, established all across the nation. These would become the centers for forging the American forces that eventually crossed the Atlantic to join in on the chaos that was the Great War, while also serving as vital parts of everyday life for the cities that they resided in.

Camp Bowie training
Soldiers at Camp Bowie were drilled in a large number of skills, including the usage of bayonets for close combat, a common occurrence in trench warfare. 
“Bayonet Practice. Camp Bowie, Fort Worth, Texas., Ca. 1918.”

Wikimedia, Wikimedia Commons, June 19, 2022

One such camp was established just three miles from downtown Fort Worth, Camp Bowie, and housed over 100,000 men throughout the war. These men were primarily in the 36th Infantry Division and would become a critical and central part of life in Fort Worth during this period, from its creation in July of 1917, until its closing in August of 1919. [1]

Life at Camp Bowie was similar to life in other camps across the nation, and it was subjected to many of the same problems. In its earliest days, the camp suffered from equipment shortages, inexperienced officers, and an unrealistic training schedule. Still, life for the troops was good. An inspection in late September asserted that the men had almost idyllic living conditions, at least as idyllic as a man in training could expect.[2]

Fort Worth parade
The men of Camp Bowie marched through Fort Worth on April 11, 1918. This was one of the largest parades in Fort Worth’s history and demonstrates the close relationship between the camp and the city.
Ruth Dearmin Cooke Photograph Album, University of Texas at Arlington Libraries. Camp Bowie’s 36th Division military review parade in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. 1918. UTA Libraries Digital Gallery.

That would all change over the next few months, as the arrival of more trainees brought overcrowding. The arrival of winter brought the cold and sickness, made all the worse by the continued shortage of proper equipment. And, worst of all, the arrival of disease brought death. Poor hygiene and medical practices subjected the men of Camp Bowie to outbreaks of all kinds, including measles, pneumonia,  and meningitis, and by the end of the year, thousands of soldiers would be hospitalized. This problem would only grow in the fall of 1918 when the Spanish Flu found its way to Fort Worth. Thousands more fell to this deadly disease, and the Camp was subject to quarantine procedures, not entirely unfamiliar to those utilized during the COVID-19 outbreak[3]  Disease was not the only problem facing the men at Camp Bowie. The other, at least in the eyes of reformers of the age, was morality. The average citizen saw the camps as a place of brothels, alcohol, gambling, and debauchery. Fort Worth officials and the reformers of the Commission for Training Camp Activities sought to ensure that the men of Camp Bowie would be of a more wholesome make. The Pass in Review, a camp-based newspaper, declared a “purity crusade” against the brothels surrounding the camp.[4][The singer Samuel S. Losh arrived at the camp to lead the men in group sing-alongs to fill their free time.[5] Fort Worth attempted a crackdown on the sale of liquor in the area, establishing search zones of passing vehicles and confiscating any bootleg alcohol they found, and soldiers were tested for venereal diseases. This relationship between morality and the army would have had the most noticeable impact on city life during this period, and affected civilians and soldiers alike.

The men of Camp Bowie stand at attention. Discipline was a key element in turning these young men from civilians to soldiers.

TCU also played a role at Camp Bowie. Not only did a large number of students from the campus ultimately end up serving in the 36th, and therefore training at Bowie, but the school itself was heavily involved with programs and education for the troops.[6] The Horned Frogs faced off against the men of Camp Bowie in a baseball game, a game in which the troops came out victorious.[7] Members of the Student Army Training Corps from TCU marched alongside the soldiers of Camp Bowie during the military parades that triumphed through the city, parades that were perhaps some of the largest in Fort Worth’s history.[8] Students and faculty provided entertainment and educational programs to the soldiers, and Camp Bowie on occasion sent officers to campus to train cadets in basic drills.[9] With many of its students enlisted, TCU seemed to embrace the camp, and the two shared a cordial and friendly relationship throughout the war.

The men of the 36th would depart for Europe in July of 1918, and Camp Bowie would serve as a center for training and mobilization for the rest of the war. Today the former grounds of Camp Bowie still bear its name, and the Veteran’s Park established there continues to honor and remember all of those who served during this turning point in history.

[1] Lonnie J. White, Panthers to Arrowheads: The 36th Division in World War 1 (Austin, Texas: Military History Associates, 1984), 25.

[2] White, Panthers to Arrowheads, 57.

[3] “Health Conditions Are Being Improved.” The Reconnaissance 1, no. 16 (December 8, 1917) ; “Quarantine Order Isolates Men and Sunday is Spent Here.” The Reconnaissance 1, no. 16 (December 8, 1917).

[4] Lonnie J White, “Camp Bowie,” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association.

[5] “Sam Losh Starts Organized Singing,” The Skiff, October 26, 1918, Special Collections, Mary Couts Burnett Library, Texas Christian University.

[6] “T.C.U. Is to Offer Courses for Troops,” The Skiff, September 28, 1917; “Bar Association to Entertain T.C.U. Student-Soldiers from Camp Bowie,” The Skiff, November 30, 1917; “Call to Arms” The Horned Frog, 1919, 109-111, all in Special Collections, Mary Courts Burnett Library, Texas Christian University.

[7] “T.C.U. Starts Season in Grand Style,” The Skiff, March 15, 1917, Special Collections, Mary Couts Burnett Library, Texas Christian University.

[8] “Members of the S.A.T.C. will take part in parade,” The Skiff, November 2, 1918, Special Collections, Mary Couts Burnett Library, Texas Christian University.

[9] “Miss Gertrude Davies Director of Soldier YMCA Entertainment,” The Skiff, January 11, 1918; “Military Training Assured T.C.U.,” The Skiff, February 15, 1917, both in Special Collections, Mary Couts Burnett Library, Texas Christian University.

For Further Reading

White, Lonnie J. Panthers to Arrowheads: The 36th Division in World War 1 (Austin, TX: Military History Associates, 1984).

This book focuses entirely on the 36th Infantry Division during the First World War. A large section of the book is devoted to Camp Bowie, including its creation, management, programs, training, and the many challenges it faced.

Bristow, Nancy K. Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

This book examines efforts of the Commission on Training Camp Activities during the First World War to enact a large number of social reforms in American society. The commission focused largely on the morality of training camps and made dedicated efforts against drinking, sexual activity, and diseases. This book provides a wide overview of many camps, including Bowie, and the many attempted reforms that were common during this period.

Henson, Will S. “The Reconnaissance (Camp Bowie, Texas)” The Portal to Texas History.

The Reconnaissance was a newspaper published by Will S. Henson that covered the events and news related to Camp Bowie during its operation during the First World War. It’s a great start for anyone looking to get a day to day look at Camp Bowie. The Portal to Texas History has an incomplete, though sizable, collection of issues published during its short run.