Remembering the War That Built the Modern U.S. Military
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 5, 2008 Serbian nationalists who attacked the U.S. embassy in Serbia last month over American recognition of Kosovo’s independence provided a somber reminder of how another violent incident nearly a century ago in that faraway place spiraled into a world war.
On June 28, 1914, Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot to death Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, in an attempt to break up Austria-Hungary’s south Slav provinces so they could be combined into a greater Serbia.
Princip was part of a young nationalists group that opposed independence for Kosovo and other Serbian provinces. Within a month of the assassination, most of Europe was at war, as nations aligned themselves in long-held military and political alliances.
Known as “The Great War” and “The War to End All Wars,” World War I was neither. It was, primarily, Europe’s war, having followed a longstanding arms race and power play among European nations, and it was contained mostly to European interests and locations. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson held firm to this belief, keeping the United States in a neutral stance as long as possible.
It wasn’t until three years into the war and following numerous German provocations that Wilson, with support of Congress, declared war on the German-Austro-Hungary alliance, known as the Central Powers, on April 6, 1917.
Now, 90 years after the war’s end, World War I seems to have little resonance among Americans. Maybe it is because Americans forces fought there only six months until the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918. Despite that, the First World War caused momentous and lasting change.
It broke up Europe’s monarchies and created many of the independent nations that exist today. It caused changes in military tactics, weapons and strategy that either exist today or that leaders vowed never to use again. It was the war that introduced military air power, aircraft carriers, submarines, tanks, machine guns, radios, and, regrettably, trench warfare and chemical weapons.
For Americans, it was the war that spawned Selective Service registration and the draft – and made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens so they could be drafted. It prompted the National Defense Act of 1916, which grew the military into a superpower, created the Reserve Officer Training Corps and allowed for federal call-up of the National Guard.
Another reason World War I will be long remembered was its tremendous casualties – 20 million killed and at least 20 million wounded. It also shed light on the United States’ lack of preparedness in the early 20th century. “World War I was the war for which we were least prepared,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Michael D. Doubler, a military historian and author. When the United States declared war in April 1917, it had fewer than 400,000 soldiers. The target strength for American troops in Europe was 4 million.
While France and Britain looked to the United States to be their savior, they soon learned it would take a year for U.S troops to deploy in any significant way and be prepared for battle. France and Britain appealed to Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, to allow Americans to be pulled out to augment French and British units. Pershing refused, except for one unit of African-American soldiers, the 15th New York Infantry, who were dubbed the “Hell Fighters” by their French counterparts for their fighting prowess.
Pershing was given extraordinary autonomy in military decisions, and he insisted he would not break American military cohesion or submit to coordination problems that hurt the French and British.
Despite the slow start, Americans rallied around the war effort in a flurry of patriotism, fueled by Wilson’s propaganda campaign, and allowed the military to meet many of its goals. By the end of the war, Army troop strength was at 3,685,458.
“It’s the war that marked the U.S. as a world power, militarily,” Doubler said in an interview with American Forces Press Service. “It proved to the world that we were willing to go anywhere to promote democracy.”
In his speech to Congress to request war authorization, Wilson famously said, “The world must be safe for democracy. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”
Wilson was elected to a second term in 1916 based on his platform of isolationism and staying neutral on the war. But Americans found out that to stay neutral in a world war is easier said than done. Despite the neutral stance, trade was strong among the allies, and the United States maintained the right to trade with anyone.
But when Germany made unprovoked declarations of war on Britain and France and began disrupting U.S. shipments, the United States increasingly partnered with Britain and France and less with Germany. Allied news reports of German bombings of civilian London and other British communities -- as well as Germany’s use of poison gas in battle and unrestricted submarine warfare against commercial shipping -- softened American attitudes on neutrality.
By 1917, U.S. businesses and banks had contributed so much to the Allies that they depended on an allied victory. If the allies lost and had to pay war reparations to Germany, it would have devastated the U.S. economy.
To do business with the allies, the United States needed freedom of the seas. Germany made this impossible with submarine warfare against merchant and passenger vessels. Even ships of neutral nations that ventured into the “war zone” that Germany declared around the British Isles in February 1915 were subject to attack.
American attitudes became sharply anti-German after Germany sank the British ocean liner Lusitania, killing 124 Americans and 1,198 others on May 7, 1915. Wilson issued a stern warning to Germany, which caused Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a firm neutralist, to resign in protest that the United States might enter the war.
Germany sank another passenger ship, The Arabic, in August 1915 before restricting its submarine operations to avoid drawing the United States into war.
In December 1916, Germany crushed Romania in the Battle of Arges River. More than 300,000 Romanians died either from combat or disease. Germans gained much with control of Romanian grain and oil fields. The win emboldened German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to propose a peace agreement that would have annexed parts of France and Belgium to Germany. The Allies considered the proposal outrageous and soundly rejected it.
Wilson intervened by requesting peace talks with the Allies and Central Powers, in which both sides would state their intentions in the war. The peace talks collapsed, however, when it became clear to the Central Powers that the United States was colluding with the Allies.
In January 1917, Wilson tried again at mediation with a suggestion of “peace without victory.” The Allies and Austria-Hungary accepted the proposal. Germany balked, however, and returned to a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, ending Wilson’s position that the United States would remain a “champion of peace.”
Shortly thereafter, Britain intercepted a German telegram to try to lure Mexico into a war with the United States that would serve as the tipping point for the U.S. entering the war in Europe. In what became known as the Zimmerman Telegram, German Foreign Minister Alfred Zimmerman hoped to capitalize on U.S.-Mexican tensions by asking Mexico to be its ally against the United States. Zimmerman promised Japan’s support and said Germany would help Mexico reclaim Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
Britain forwarded the intercepted telegram to Wilson before it was received by Mexican officials, who rejected the idea of starting a war with the United States. Wilson then had the telegram published in American newspapers to increase U.S. support for entering the war.
In February 1917, Wilson severed diplomatic ties to Germany after it sank another U.S. warship. He received approval from Congress to arm U.S. merchant vessels in a policy of “armed neutrality.”
Despite Wilson’s longstanding position of neutrality, a so-called “preparedness movement” was afoot in the United States, led by interventionist-minded leaders such as former President Theodore Roosevelt, financier J.P. Morgan and Wilson rival Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.
Following the sinking of The Lusitania, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Leonard Wood opened the first “businessmen’s military training camp” at Plattsburg, N.Y. By the summer of 1916, 40,000 men had gone through the “unofficial” basic training led by military members.
When Wilson finally agreed to send U.S. troops to war, he enlisted the help of advertising executive George Creel, who led a propaganda effort to sell Americans on the war.
Wilson attempted to bring American business and industry on board by facilitating a war economy with his creation of federal agencies such as the Council of National Defense, the Civilian Advisory Committee and the Shipping Board. Still, America was unprepared to fight, and significant war production didn’t start until 1918.
As America was ramping up, Germany was winding down. German casualties in the spring of 1918 were at 270,000, and things were bad on its home front with a weak economy and growing anti-war sentiment. By that time, the United States was making up for lost time. By the summer of 1918, it was sending 10,000 soldiers per day to France. Its first battle was a loss, but it would soon make up for it.
On April 20, 1918, the first major U.S. battle occurred at Seicheprey, along the Lys River near the Belgian-French border. It was a successful German attack that left 669 Americans dead or wounded while fighting in support of the British.
By May 30, the Germans had reached the Marne River – the site of previous battles – just 50 miles outside of Paris. Pershing rushed the U.S. 2nd and 3rd divisions to reinforce the French along the Marne. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard launched the first U.S. offensive of the war at the French village of Cantigny, 60 miles north of Paris.
Cantigny was a German observation point and was heavily fortified. On May 28, the U.S. 1st Division, known as “The Big Red One,” drove out the Germans over two days of fighting. Back on the Marne, the 3rd Division defended the Marne bridges and inspired exhausted French troops so that, together, they pushed the Germans back across the Marne. Sadly, four companies of the U.S. 28th Division became stranded in the Allies’ initial retreat and were mostly killed or captured.
The Americans won another hard-fought battle in June when, over two weeks, the Marines and the Army’s 2nd Division took, lost and re-took the French town of Balleau Wood at least six times before the Germans were permanently ejected. The Marines and soldiers incurred 9,500 casualties and lost 1,600 as prisoners of war.
By the end of the summer, Allied wins would reach a turning point. In August 1918, the Hundred Days Offensive began. The assault from British, French, Canadians and Australians marked the beginning of Germany’s downfall. The Battle of Amiens on Aug. 8, 1918, was called by a German commander “a black day for the German army.”
The collapse of the Central Powers came quickly. Bulgaria surrendered on Sept. 29, and the Ottoman Empire on Oct. 30. The Austro-Hungarian empire fell in October with Budapest, Prague and Zagreb declaring independence.
Having suffered 6 million casualties, German Chancellor Prince Max von Baden agreed to negotiate with Wilson, who demanded the abdication of the kaiser. On Nov. 9, 1918, Germany was declared to be a republic. Imperial Germany was dead, and the Weimar Republic was born.
Although the United States went in unprepared, historian Doubler said, “it was the greatest full-bore effort the U.S. has ever done. It’s amazing what we accomplished.”
It was the full mobilization of some 2 million U.S. troops into France that led to the German surrender, Doubler said. “Once Pershing’s men were in battle, the Germans realized it was over.”
On June 28, 1919, the Germans entered into the Treaty of Versailles to end the war. The terms of the treaty were harsh to Germany. They included an admission of guilt for the war, a loss of 10 percent of its territory and population, German disarmament and Allied occupation and oversight.
The German populace was so angered by the treaty that it is widely recognized as the impetus for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.