By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
They called it "The Great War," and it was a titanic struggle that decimated Europe and killed the young men who were the brightest hope of that generation.
President Woodrow Wilson called it "The War to End All Wars," but he was sadly mistaken. When another conflict erupted 20 years later, "The Great War" became simply World War I.
The war began in 1914 over "some damn foolish thing in the Balkans," as German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck prophesied. A Serb nationalist stepped from a crowd in Sarajevo and shot the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, killing both.
Within weeks, the European continent was split into two camps, with Germany and Austria facing off against France, Russia and Great Britain. Millions of men fought on the Western and Eastern Fronts. All the combatants expected to make quick work of their enemies, but then all aspects of national power came to the defense of the nations, and the war quickly evolved into a stalemate.
Both fronts became killing machines, as generals and admirals, unused to the destructive power of the technologies they unleashed, still ordered attacks using the old rules of warfare. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, 60,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded on just the first day. The Battle of Verdun -- February to December 1916 -- cost both German and French forces almost 800,000 casualties.
On the Atlantic, German submarines came close to strangling Great Britain as the tonnage of Allied shipping sunk rose.
The United States remained neutral through the war's first years. Wilson was re-elected president in 1916 with the slogan "He kept us out of war." But in 1917, Germany instituted unrestricted submarine warfare, and the U.S. Congress declared war.
The first American troops journeyed to France in June 1917. Following a parade through Paris, Army Col. Charles E. Stanton said: "Lafayette, we are here," a phrase that gave heart to the Allies.
Army Gen. John J. Pershing commanded the American Expeditionary Force. His mission was to join the fight, but only as an American Army under American commanders. The allies wanted American units piecemeal as replacements for their own decimated forces. Adding to this pressure was revolution in Russia and its pullout from the alliance.
German and Austrian forces could concentrate on the Western Front, and in a gamble that almost paid off, German forces attacked toward Paris before the Americans' strength could be mustered.
French and British leaders asked for American units to stop the Germans. The 1st Infantry Division at Cantigny; the 2nd Infantry Division, which included the 4th Marine Brigade, at Belleau Wood; and the 3rd Infantry Division becoming known as the "Rock of the Marne" showed that Americans were up for the fight. Some 60,000 American soldiers and Marines had saved Paris.
From May until the armistice in November 1918, more than 50,000 Americans died in battle. More died of illnesses. At the war's end -- at "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" -- about 113,000 Americans had paid the ultimate sacrifice.