Remembering the Great War

April 17, 2017

by Jerry L. Wallace

Over there, over there.  Send the word, send the word over there, that the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, the drums rum-tumming everywhere,

So prepare, say a pray’r.  Send the word, send the word to beware, We’ll be over, we’re coming over, and we won’t come back till it’s over over there. 

              –George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” 1917

April 6th marks the Centenary of America’s entry into the Great War, as World War I was call back then.

Some of our anniversaries are more significant than others.  This Great War anniversary is most definitely one that warrants public recognition and solemn commemoration.  And it is especially meaningful for those of us born in the last century.

Why?  The war was a mighty engine of destruction and change.  The old order of things was consumed by it, with a new order taking its place.  The war, no doubt, became the greatest historical force shaping the 20th Century. For example, in its wake, the United States would rise to the status of a major world power.  In far off Russia, the Czarist regime would be replaced the Soviet Union, which would attempt through force and subterfuge to impose its communist ideology on the world.  In the Middle East, the consequences of the break up of the Ottoman Empire into small, artificial states still haunt us to this day.

The guns of the Great War had first sounded on August 1, 1914.  But for the United States, its entry into the war would not come for until another two years, eight months, and six days.  What set off the conflict was the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, and the failure of diplomacy to defuse the ensuing crisis.  Europe divided into two warring camps:  the Triple Entente, consisting of Great Britain, France, Russia, and later Italy; and the Central Powers, made up Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire.

Americans, enjoying a pleasant summer and focused on events at home, were shocked by this terrible calamity, which came like a lightning bolt out of the blue.  Suddenly, one hundred years of relative peace in Europe under the Pax Britannia had ended and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had commenced their deadly ride.  Pope Benedict XV, sensing the dire implications of the Great War, would label it, “the suicide of Europe.”

President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to remain neutral in the conflict, being “impartial in thought as well as in action.”  This was an important consideration given the large number of our citizens—especially those with English and Germanic roots—having ancestral or personal links to the various belligerent nations.

As a whole, Americans generally agreed that the United States had no business in this European conflict.  Indeed, many immigrants had come here to escape Old World militarism.  The thinking was that this war was Europe’s folly, not ours.  Had not George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned Americans against the evil of foreign entanglements?

The Great War’s impact was felt almost immediately here at home with a marked fall-off in trade, followed by an economic slump.  This bleak situation, however, soon changed for the better as war orders flowed in from the belligerents.  Indeed, as the war progressed, American commerce and industry boomed and workers prospered and the national treasury filled with gold.

As the war dragged on, the public’s attitude gradually shifted from one of strict neutrality to one favorable to the Entente powers—that is, Great Britain and France and their allies.  The Germans came to be viewed as modern day barbarians—“the Huns,” they were called—wanting to dominate the world through their militarism and impose on it their German Kultur.

One of the most significant events in bringing on this change in attitude was the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania in May of 1915. Nearly 1,200 persons went down with her, including 128 United States citizens.  Many Americans, among them former president Theodore Roosevelt, began calling for war.

In early 1917, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II (better known as “Kaiser Bill” here at home), and his military advisers decided that in order to win the war, Germany must cut off the flow of goods and munitions from America to England.  This meant implementing a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare–something the Germans had previous promised that they would not do.  This new policy was unacceptable, an affront to the United States.

At this time, it was also publicly revealed that Germany had secretly urged Mexico to invade the United States and regain its lost territory of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

With our merchant ships being sunk, President Wilson, who had pledged to keep America out of war in his recent re-election campaign, had no choice but to act.  He called Congress into special session on April 2, 1917, and speaking before a joint session, he called for a Declaration of War against the German Empire.

In doing so, the President spoke in noble, idealistic terms, emphasizing that “We have no selfish ends to serve.”  Our purpose, he proclaimed, was to “make the world safe for democracy.”  Later, he would add another goal, turning the struggle into a “war to end all wars.”  The Senate granted the President’s request on April 4, in a vote of 82 to 6, and the House followed suit on April 6, after an extended debate, voting 373 to 50.

The United States had joined the Great War.  Belatedly, some would argue.  Our entry came not a moment too soon for our hard-pressed allies.  This was especially true for France, which was then on the brink of collapse.

The country immediately moved onto war footing, mobilizing for Victory all its vast resources:  its manpower, its industry, its agriculture, and its great wealth.

Raising a large military force was the first order of business.  Many men immediately answered the call to the colors.  On June 5, 1917, a national draft registration, the first of three, was held for all men between the ages of 21 and 31.  To the cheers of their friends and neighbors, draftees would soon be sent off to training camps, where they would be turned into soldiers or “Doughboys,” as they were popularly called, for the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.).

On June 26, 1917, 14,000 U.S. Infantry troops landed in France.  “Lafayette, we are here,” proclaimed General John J. Pershing, commander of the A.E.F.  A year later, American soldiers were arriving in France at the rate of 10,000 per day.

There they fought bravely and with distinction along the Western Front during the Aisne Offensive at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood and in the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives.  Before it was over, the United States mobilized 4.7 million military personnel.  They would suffer causalities of 117,000 deaths and 204,00 wounded.

On the home front, patriotic Americans would do their part as well to support the war effort.  There was an all out dedication to victory, uniting all classes, races, ethnic groups, and bridging the old division between North and South.  Everyone was expected to do his part—“to stand by the boys in the trenches,” as it was said. They would conserve food and energy and buy war bonds and even give up baseball.  Women were active in the Red Cross and young boys, too, did their part in the Boy Scouts.  Slackers were frowned upon.  And of one’s loyalty to the homeland, there must be no question, no doubt. There was “no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism,” so trumpeted Theodore Roosevelt.

The long and bloody Great War came to an end on the Western Front at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918.  In the United States, it was at an early hour in the morning when the guns fell silent.  The news of the Armistice was greeted with a sense of great relief and happy celebration that only those there that day could truly appreciate.

The war to make the world safe for democracy and to end all future wars had ended.

Let us all join to remember and commemorate the Great War during this centenary period, especially recalling those who gave their all in service to their country:  “the home of the brave and the land of free.”

 

Jerry L. Wallace is a professional historian who spent 30-years with the National Archives in Washington, DC.  After his retirement, he and his wife Delia moved to Oxford, Kansas, where, for a time, he was historian-archivist for a local college.  He is now engaged in historical research and writing on the Calvin Coolidge and his decade of the Roaring Twenties, along with work on local Kansas history.  He has been a member of the Coolidge Foundation since the early 1970s, having served as a trustee, 1998-2003, and is now a member of the National Advisory Board.  Mr. Wallace is currently researching the early use of radio by Presidents Harding and Coolidge.

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