The United States in the Great War

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It was the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month one hundred years ago when guns fell silence.   The combat phase of the Great War was over.  The Allies, including Great Britain, France, and the United States were victorious over the Central Powers: Germany and its allies.

The United States joined the war in April of 1917, when the Congress passed a resolution declaring war on the Central Powers at the behest of President Woodrow Wilson, who had been re-elected on a promise to keep the country out of the European war.  Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and their secret promise in the Zimmermann Telegram to Mexico to regain the territory it lost to the United States in the 1840s were the straws that broke the camel’s back as far as the President was concerned.

President Wilson appointed General John J. (“Black Jack) Pershing to head the American Expeditionary Force and sent him to France to meet other allied leaders.  Meanwhile, back the states, the National Guard was federalized and plans were made for a draft in order to have enough men to send to Europe.   Veterans of the American Civil War did not recognize the training recruits were receiving at basic training camps, where physical training was a big part of the daily life.  Training included a voyage across the Atlantic to France and more training before American troops could see combat.

When American troops arrived in France, the French commanders wanted to place them with the already trained French forces, but General Pershing refused to go along with the the French demand.  The situation the Americans were going to find themselves in was a stalemate in trench warfare that would see 50,000 doughboys lose their lives in a little over a year of fighting.  The two million Americans would make a difference in Allies defeating the German and the Central Powers in 1918.

Life in the Western Front was a world of mud.  Americans digging trenches would find parts of bodies from previous battles, but trenches were necessary for shelter from German artillery.   Communications  trenches joined the front line, where the troops went “over the top”, to the dugouts where soldiers waited for orders to attack the enemy and aid stations where the wounded were first treated before being transported to hospitals in the rear.    It’s been one hundred years since the end of that war, and bodies are still being found, as for example this Daily Mail article (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2099187/Bodies-21-German-soldiers-buried-alive-WW1-trench-perfectly-preserved-94-years-later.html)

American soldiers participated a number of major battles in the closing months of the war.   In 1918, the Germans were having a hard time replacing their wounded and deceased soldiers while Americans were landing close to ten thousand men a day.  As 1918 progressed, it was clear, with American help, the Allies were winning the war.  On the other hand, the German people were tired.  Food shortages were brought on by the Royal Naval blockade of the German coast and their young men were being slaughtered.  When the Kaiser finally abdicated and went to live in exile in Holland, the Germans were ready to talk peace.   The armistice came at 11 O’clock, 11 November, 1918.

Robert Rubin noted in his book, The Last of the Doughboys,  that Americans have all but forgotten the lads who fought in Flanders.   There is a memorial plaque in the wall of the narthex of the church I used belong to in Memphis listing the names of congregation members who lost their lives fighting in that war.  The war memorial in  the small town in western North Carolina, where I now live, lists  the names of whose who made the supreme sacrifice in World War I, along with those of Swain County who were killed in the Second World War, Korea and/or Vietnam. The problem, however, is that the wars in the the 20th and 21th century have wiped the away memories of the Great War in America.  Besides, the National World War I Memorial is in Kansas City, not Washington. Then too, the veterans of that war are long since gone:  Rubin interviewed men who were over 100 years old before the last one died in 2011.

Neil Hanson has written a book in which he observers  how the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the United States remembered the dead, particularly those who could not be identified.    At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, the President of the United States lays a wreath on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  In the UK the Sunday before November 11 is Remembrance Day and wreaths are laid at the cenotaph in London and at other memorials through out the country.    In addition to the memorials and cemeteries in the United States, the American  dead from World War I are buried in cemeteries strung across northwest Europe.  The American Battle Monuments Commission is in charge of the cemeteries and the federal monuments in Europe.

Note:  My interest in the Great War is because my mother’s brother, Patrick Morrison,  served in one of Highland regiments in the British Army on the Western Front and Turkey.

The sources I have consulted can be found within the Fontana Regional Library System:

Neil Hanson,  Unknown Soldiers.

John Keegan, The First World War.

Erik Larsen, Dead Wake:  the Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

James Carl Nelson, The Five Lieutentants. 

Richard Rubin, The Last of the Dougboys

 

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