America Learns Hard Lessons in the Great War

In 1914, Europe and much of the world were engaged in a horrific struggle that at the time was known as the Great War and that history would ultimately call World War I.  The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria set off a chain of events that resulted in world powers going to war against each other.  Germany, Austria-Hungry, and the Ottoman Empire were allies that collectively became known as the Central Powers.  France, Great Britain, and Russia were the major nations opposing them and became known as the Allied Powers. The war is remembered for its brutality, trench warfare, and the introduction of poison gas, machine guns, tanks, and airplanes as weapons.

The United States under President Woodrow Wilson took a neutral stance at the beginning of the war. As time passed, German aggression towards the U.S. could no longer be ignored. America declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and did the same to Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungry on December 17, 1917.

There were some key factors that led the United States into World War I.  The first was the use of German U-boat submarines against civilian ships around Great Britain.  Although some smaller American vessels were sunk by the Germans, it was the sinking of the British-owned Lusitania off the coast of Ireland that began to turn American public opinion in favor of entering the war. The attack on May 7, 1915, killed 1,198 people, including 128 Americans.  In August 1915, another Italian ship was sunk, killing 27 more Americans. Other unarmed ships were sunk into 1916.   President Wilson threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Germany unless these attacks stopped.  Germany did stop the attacks temporarily.

As the war became more desperate for Germany at the beginning of 1917, the German government resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to defeat Great Britain.  In response, Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany while U.S. ships were being sunk and Americans killed by German aggression.

While the American government was debating its next move against Germany, British intelligence intercepted a message from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman to the German Ambassador in Mexico.  Known as the Zimmerman Telegram, the message was a promise to Mexico that if it entered the war on the German side, Germany would offer territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange.

With public opinion firmly against Germany, the United States went to war in Europe. President Wilson declared he wanted to “make the world safe for democracy.”  The first troops arrived in France on June 25, 1917, under the command of American General John “Black Jack” Pershing. Americans saw combat against the Germans in places such as Saint-Mihiel and Belleau Wood and in a campaign known as the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Approximately 85,000 Americans, along with French and British soldiers, helped turn back the Germans in the Second Battle of the Marne, the last major German offensive of the war. Americans made important contributions on the ground, at sea, and in the air.

trenches world war 1
Americans in the trenches of World War I.

The casualties and loss of human life are head-shaking.  This was due largely to old military tactics being used against modern weapons.  On the Western Front, after a long artillery bombardment along the trenches, soldiers charged “over the top” of their trenches only to be killed by enemy machine guns.

Although figures seem to vary, military casualties on all sides were approximately 9 million killed and 21 million wounded.  The Germans and French had close to three-quarters of a million casualties at the Battle of Verdun alone.  Casualty rates as a percentage of a country’s total forces were extraordinarily high.  This includes France at 73.3%, Russia at 76.3%, and Austria-Hungary with a staggering 90% of its forces listed as casualties.  The civilian death toll as a result of the war is reported as high as 13 million people.

The United States had 116,516 soldiers killed and another 204,000 wounded.  This figure includes those killed on the battlefield, as well as through disease and accidents. America’s overall casualty rate was 7.1%.

The Central Powers began to run out of men and materials after four brutal years of war.  The addition of the American military and America’s industrial strength proved to be an important factor in leading the exhausted Germans to seek an end to the fighting.  Finally, on November 11, 1918, Germany signed an armistice ending the war.  This is why the United States observes Veterans Day on November 11th each year.

The Great War reshaped the map of Europe and led to the end of imperial dynasties in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey.  It was war at its worst.  It also marked an important moment in the 20th century as the United States emerged as a global power.

Americans should feel proud and learn the stories of those who bravely served in World War I.  Unfortunately, the “war to end all wars” did not live up to its name.  Only a few decades later,  the United States and the rest of the globe were plunged into World War II.

chemical attacks world war 1
Soldiers of World War I had to endure chemical weapon attacks.  These attacks were later banned as part of the Geneva Convention.

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