For nearly three years the United States sat on the sidelines as World War I raged across Europe. Despite nationwide anger over Americans killed when the Germans sank the British liner Lusitania in 1915, Americans remained bitterly divided over whether or not America should jump into the fray.
Ethnic groups, labor unions, religious denominations, men and women, President Woodrow Wilson, politicians and military had their own passionate reasons for staying home or joining the fight — separating the hawks from the doves.
Lyrics to a 1914 anti-war song said, “There’d be no war today, if mothers all would say, I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier …” U.S. Army National Guard Captain Harry S Truman hated the song and suggested that women who opposed the war should be in a harem — not in the United States.
Others who didn’t like the song parodied it with “I didn’t raise my boy to be a coward” and “I didn’t raise my dog to be a sausage.”
The war started 30 days after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire then made unacceptable demands on Serbia, and invaded after they were rejected. Hoping to gain new territories, it was the excuse they were waiting for.
Germany immediately backed the Austrians, while on the other side, Britain, France and Russia threw their troops into the fray — and the fire spread around the world.
Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Italy and others joined the Allies, while the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria and others tossed their lot in with the Central Powers.
Across the Atlantic, America watched.
The official U.S. position was to remain neutral, but as the war escalated, American public opinion began to change.
George Washington in his Farewell Address said, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world;” and at his inaugural President Thomas Jefferson said, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.”
It was just such a web of “entangling alliances” among major powers that ensnared them all into war in 1914. President Wilson later called it “The war to end all wars.”
The world was changing rapidly, with nationalism, imperial ambitions, growing militaries, and social unrest giving birth to new political forces.
The industrial revolution was forever changing the way war was conducted — shifting from hand-to-hand combat to deadlier weaponry that could kill more people, destroy more cities and sink more ships.
Empires were being built on the backs of colonies and the raw materials they provided.
Europe’s web of “entangling alliances”:
The Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina who both hoped to link up with their neighbor Serbia — at that time supported as Slavic brothers by the Russians.
Germany had a treaty with the Austro-Hungarians, and the weakening Ottoman Empire that after joining the Central Powers, foolishly started attacking Russian ports in the Black Sea.
Russia and France were linked in the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1891–93, while Britain, France and Russia formed the Triple Entente. Also Britain and Belgium.
When Germany started building a powerful fleet, challenging Britain’s Royal Navy, the British made a pact with Japan in 1902 to curtail Germany’s ambitions in the Pacific.
Later, Italy also joined the Allies.
The Americans meanwhile had alliances with no one except Panama (though through the years, the U.S. did cut short-term deals with other countries).
While America officially remained neutral, it did support the Allied cause by contributing money, raw material and supplies — and unofficial volunteers of idealistic young men and women who raced to Europe to join the action.
American aviators joined the French Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps, dogfighting in small open-cockpit biplanes and dropping handheld bombs.
Then Germany quarantined Great Britain, one of America’s closest trading partners, and began attacking American merchant vessels, with submarines and mines.
A U-boat sank the British liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in 1915, killing 128 Americans among the 1,201 who perished — breaking a promise to give warning before attacking non-military ships.
Finally, the American public had enough.
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war, and on April 6, the request was granted. Just four days later, the first U.S. Navy ships arrived in Great Britain.
The United States however did not rush troops to the battlefront. It wasn’t until the summer of 1918 that General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing led large numbers of American Expeditionary Force (AEF) troops into combat.
The American doughboys were fired up and couldn’t wait to get at the “Huns,” but they soon found out, there was no glamor in the trenches — just misery and death.
During the war, only around Christmas did the world seem sane again as guns stopped firing and an unofficial ceasefire took place on some parts of the front.
Soldiers from both sides mingled, exchanging gifts and bodies of the dead, played a little soccer, smoked cigars and sang “Silent Night (Stille Nacht).” Then they returned to the trenches, the mud and the rats, to await the roar of guns and cries of men at war.
America’s first war casualty was an early volunteer named Edward Mandell Stone of Chicago, a Harvard graduate who was a machine gunner. He died of shrapnel wounds in the trenches near the Aisne River in France on Feb. 27, 1915.
Famed writer Ernest Hemingway, who late in life retired to Ketchum, Idaho was turned down by the Army because of bad eyesight but served in Italy as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross.
On his first day on the job in Milan, a munitions factory exploded and he had to carry mutilated bodies and body parts to a makeshift morgue — giving him his first taste of the horrors of war. He’d write about it later in “Death in the Afternoon.”
Hemingway survived the war and lived an adventurous life writing about other subjects, other places and other wars — only to take his own life in Ketchum in 1961.
On the other side of the Western Front was a Bavarian Army soldier with the rank of corporal described as a “likeable loner” who relished running messages across dangerous war zones, and preferred talking about history and art rather than women and war.
His name was Adolph Hitler.
In 1917, Russia was consumed by the flames of revolution, led by Vladimir I. Lenin and dropped out of the war.
By the time the war ended and the armistice signed on November 11, 1918, the U.S. had mobilized more than four million military personnel, with 116,000 killed — 43,000 because of an influenza pandemic.
In 1919, President Wilson and other Allied leaders went to France to formulate the Treaty of Versailles to deal with Germany and its allies — Wilson offering his famous “Fourteen Points” plan. They were rejected by hardliners led by France’s Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau who saddled Germany with unduly harsh penalties.
Germany was forced to disarm, give up 10 percent of its land, all overseas territories, and worst of all — forfeit its foreign financial holdings and merchant carrier fleet. Later, more reparations of $30 billion were imposed under threat of invasion if unpaid.
Germany was crippled and couldn’t hope to meet the demands signed at Versailles. Its economy collapsed with its money nearly worthless. By November 1923, a lifetime of savings couldn’t pay for a loaf of bread.
Meanwhile, across a devastated Europe, the smoke of battle had cleared, the dead were buried, the bereaved dried their tears and the diplomats went home — and the gloom and horrors of war began turning into the carefree Roaring ‘20s.
A coup attempt in Germany by enraged militants failed and its leader Adolph Hitler was locked up at Landsberg Prison, 35 miles west of Munich.
There, he dictated “Mein Kampf” to Rudolph Hess — telling the world what he planned to do.
British Prime Minister Lloyd George predicted, “We shall have to fight another war in 25 years’ time,” his prophecy echoed by Clemenceau — “No peace, merely a 20-year armistice.”
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana, “The Life of Reason” (1905)
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Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corporal Lee Duncan, an aerial gunner with the U.S. Army Air Service was investigating the French village of Flirey for a suitable place for an airfield in September 1918. He found a severely damaged kennel with a German Shepherd nursing five puppies. Duncan rescued them and brought two puppies back to the U.S. when the war ended.
He trained the male named Rin-Tin-Tin — launching the dog into a movie career with appearances in 27 Hollywood productions and earning worldwide fame. Rin-Tin-Tin died in 1932.
End of Edwardian Era…
“A generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals.
“Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them.
“They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance.”
— Samuel Hynes, historian (1991)
The final word…
World War I was fought from the fields of Flanders to Russia and the deserts of the Middle East.
The shot that killed Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 set the whole world ablaze.
Europe’s titans sought power and land, and because of the tangled web of political alliances the war engulfed them all — as America watched.
Nineteen months after the United States stepped in, the war was over.
The world would forever remember the great battles — Gallipoli, the Somme, Verdun, Belleau Wood and Meuse-Argonne — their trenches and fields soaked with blood and heroism.
When it was all over, eleven million men in uniform died and 21 million more were wounded.
The U.S. lost 116,516 war dead from all causes, with 204,002 wounded.
The seeds of war that were buried in the ashes of victory and defeat did not have to wait there for long.
“The outstanding feature of the trenches was the extraordinary number of rats. The area was infested with them. It was impossible to keep them out of the dugouts. They grew fat on the food that they pilfered from us and anything they could pick up in or around the trenches; they were bloated and loathsome to look at.
“Some were nearly as big as cats. We were filled with an instinctive hatred of them, because however one tried to put the thought of one’s mind, one could not help feeling that they fed on the dead.”
— Stuart Dolden, World War I veteran