Judging by young people’s scant acquaintance with history before 1960, I doubt if very much is taught about World War I in school today. It’s understandable, of course. It all happened a century ago – as far back as our Civil War was, when I was a lad – and it probably doesn’t seem very relevant, what with critical matters like gay marriage, gender-confusion, safe spaces, and decisions about which restroom to use. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. I’ll try to reform.)
An auspicious, but mostly forgotten centenary will pass this week, so I thought a few words about it might be timely. April 6th will mark the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into the Great War. On April 6, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson asked a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war against Germany and the Central Powers. His stated aim was to “make the world safe for democracy.” For the first time in our history we would enter a war on the European continent.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, the World War – as my grandma always called it – was still visible in the rearview mirror. It happened well before my time, of course, but many sixty-something veterans of the war were still around, including Dr. V. Raymond Edman, president of Wheaton College as well as many neighbors and members of our church. Our junior high music teacher, whose career started in 1915, taught us World War songs like “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.”
In elementary school we always observed a Minute of Silence at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” – i.e., 11:00 AM on November 11th – in remembrance of the 1918 Armistice that ended the Great War. By the 1950s, no one seemed aware that the “11th hour” of the Armistice was actually 11 AM in France, which translated to 5:00 AM in our town. In Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novel “The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club,” the mystery of when an old general had died revolved around the two minutes of silence Britain observed at 10 AM on November 11th and the poppies that all veterans wore on that day.
When we entered the war against Germany, the catastrophic European conflict had been raging for nearly three years. Millions of soldiers had died, and millions more had been crippled by gas and debilitating wounds. With our own civil war barely 50 years behind us, Americans had little inclination to join what some historians were already calling “the European Civil War.” American intervention was unlikely because sizeable numbers of our citizens came from countries on both sides of the conflict. As was our wont, we preferred to hold our fire until the situation clarified. American merchants were also profiting nicely by selling food and armaments to both sides.
The war had erupted in August 1914, when Europe’s network of treaties collapsed like house of cards after the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914. They were shot to death in their open car by a teen-aged Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, who was quickly apprehended and linked to the Young Bosnia society – a group committed to ending Austro-Hungarian rule over the Balkan states of Bosnia and Herzegovina by violent means. Years earlier, the German Kaiser had darkly predicted how the great European war would begin. “Some damned fool in the Balkans will start it…” he said.
Most of Europe quickly forgot the Hapsburg Crown Prince’s untimely demise and went on with life. But high military and government figures of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were quietly plotting how to gain political advantage by taking revenge on Serbia, which they blamed for the assassination. When Austria-Hungary suddenly delivered a surprise ultimatum to Serbia, on July 23, 1914, alarm-bells went off all over Europe. Austria-Hungary had solicited Kaiser Wilhelm’s tacit approval to punish Serbia for what the Kaiser called “this despicable crime.” So the way seemed open for a nice little war of reprisal. On July 28 Austria-Hungary started the Great War by attacking Serbia.
But the ancient Hapsburg emperor, Franz Josef – a contemporary of Lincoln, now aged 84 – had ignored his giant neighbor and rival, Russia. Czar Nicholas II – who believed he should protect all Slavic people, including the Serbs – immediately mobilized his armies, thereby signaling his readiness to fight unless Austria-Hungary backed down.
The Russian mobilization alarmed Kaiser Wilhelm and the German government, prompting a desperate exchange of communiqués between the “dear cousins,” Nicky and Willi, as they tried to stop their countries’ slide toward war. (Both rulers were grandsons of England’s Queen Victoria.) Wilhelm begged Nicholas to cancel his mobilization order, but the Czar could not (or would not) make it happen. Despite the monarchs’ frantic telegraphing, Germany declared war on Russia on August 2, 1914.
After that, it all “went to hell in a hand-cart,” as one old veteran put it. France declared war on Germany, ostensibly to fulfill their treaty-obligations with Russia. In reality, though, French military leaders had been plotting for 40 years to regain the Alsace and Lorraine provinces that were ceded to Germany after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. Germany’s move against Russia gave France the chance they had been waiting for. The French Army put Plan 17 in motion to retake the provinces.
Having anticipated that move, Germany launched its colossal Schlieffen Plan, which sent seven German armies, containing some 1.5 million men, on a sweeping right-hook through neutral Belgium and into northern France. On the German extreme right, their First Army was 300,000-strong. The plan’s designer, Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen, died in 1913 supposedly muttering, “Keep the right flank strong.”
The German high command expected to defeat France in a few weeks before confronting the (supposedly) slow-moving Russian armies that were marching eastward. Their French strategy depended on a quick march through Belgium. Germany asked Belgium to give its armies unopposed passage, but Belgium’s King Albert frustrated the German plans by refusing and mobilizing his own forces. Defeating the Belgian armies cost Germany thousands of casualties and delayed their timetable by several weeks. The delay allowed the Russian armies to reach East Prussia and pose a threat that Germany had to deal with.
Germany’s violation of Belgium triggered Great Britain’s treaty obligations with that country, causing British Prime Minister Asquith to demand Germany’s immediate withdrawal from Belgian territory and cessation of all hostilities. When that demand was ignored, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Three months later, on October 28, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers. And after remaining neutral for nearly ten months, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 5, 1915, with the aim of gaining control of some disputed territory. Ultimately the Allies grew from the initial Triple Entente of France, Russia and Great Britain to include twenty-seven nations. The Central Powers were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria. The war was waged in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East.
A war of movement by great armies on the Western Front quickly degenerated into a defensive war, with both sides sheltered in elaborate systems of opposing trenches that stretched hundreds of miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea. Desperate attempts by both sides to break through the enemy’s line produced appalling casualties, numbering in the millions. Sixty thousand British soldiers fell at the Somme on the morning of July 1, 1916. And seven hundred thousand French and German soldiers died at Verdun during the nine-month battle that “bled the French army white,” as German Field Marshall Falkenhayn had intended. Horrific new weapons – including flame-throwers, poison gas, one-ton artillery-shells, guns that bombarded Paris from 75 miles away, armed warplanes, submarines, Zeppelin bombers, and tanks – added to the carnage. My great uncle, who served with the American Army in the Argonne (1918), said little about his experience except that it was “hell” and he felt lucky to have survived it.
Britain and Germany also fought at sea. The British used their naval superiority to blockade the North Sea to keep food and munitions from reaching Germany, while Germany employed its submarine fleet to interdict ships carrying supplies to the British Isles. Germany sank millions of tons of British shipping before the Allies organized convoys with destroyer-protection to fend off the submarines.
Britain’s highly visible surface-fleet blockade sank relatively few ships – and then only after letting passengers and crew debark. But the German submarine was a stealth-weapon that struck from beneath the surface without warning – a practice called “unrestricted submarine warfare.” It was very effective, but the lack of warning produced a public outcry over the weapon’s “inhumanity. International approbation about the surprise attacks reached a climax after the British liner Lusitania was torpedoed without warning off the Irish coast on May 7, 1915. The ship sank in just eighteen minutes with the loss of 1198 lives, including 128 Americans. The ensuing international uproar forced Germany to halt unrestricted sub-warfare.
The Lusitania-disaster turned many countries against Germany and the Central Powers. Shocked by the horror of the event, Americans who had been indifferent about the war began to move toward the Allied side. German atrocities in Belgium – including the wholesale starvation of its people and execution of British Nurse Edith Cavell – virtually guaranteed that America would never join the war on the side of the Central Powers.
President Woodrow Wilson’s warnings to Germany about the submarine-attacks cooled American tempers and allowed him to run for a second term, in 1916, on the slogan: “He kept us out of war.” But by 1917, with their resources in men and materiel running low, the German high command decided to resume unrestricted submarine attacks in a desperate effort to weaken Britain and win the war. Czar Nicholas’s abdication in March 1917 also presented Germany with a chance to knock Russia out of the war. With Russia eliminated they would be able to strike a massive, victorious blow in the west.
The German high command knew that resuming the unrestricted submarine campaign was almost certain to bring the USA into the war, but they gambled on being able to defeat Russia before we could field a significant army. They were also relying on their submarines to prevent American troops from reaching Europe. And, as added insurance, Germany offered Mexico the return of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, if they would fight us in the event that we declared war on Germany.
But British intelligence had broken the Germans’ secret code. So a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann (no relation), detailing the territorial-offer to Mexico, was intercepted, decoded and relayed to the United States in February 1917. Publicity of the “Zimmermann Telegram’s” contents enraged the American people. Added to the submarine-issue, it was the last straw for Woodrow Wilson and the country. Within weeks we entered the war that would change America forever.
Are kids today taught that we “won” the Great War? I hope not. We didn’t, although our entry was timely and significant. We were key players in halting the final German drive in 1918, which kept the Central Powers from winning. By the end of 1918 both sides were exhausted, but America’s 2 million fresh troops in the field – with more pouring in every month – convinced Germany to request an armistice. The combatants signed it in a railway car at Compiegne, France. As noted earlier, it took effect on November 11th.
Although understandable, from a military standpoint, the Armistice was politically unwise. It concluded the War to End War without a clear victory by either side. Germany withdrew its armies from territory they had conquered, but German soldiers did not believe they had been defeated in the field. This important fact helped to create and propagate the myth that the November Criminals – a label which Hitler later pasted on the Jews – had betrayed the German Army by agreeing to an unfair, humiliating peace. Hitler ceaselessly hammered this line during his rise to power to justify rearmament.
The Versailles Treaty, signed in the Hall of Mirrors on June 28, 1919 –
- Stripped Germany of its air force and its navy;
- Forbade Germany to build and operate submarines;
- Limited its army to 100,000 men;
- Severed East Prussia from the rest of Germany via the hated Polish Corridor;
- Divvied up its African and Far-east colonies among the Allied powers; and
- Ordered Germany to pay reparations of $33 billion – an immense figure for the time – to cover civilian damage caused by the war.
The treaty also dealt harshly with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, breaking them apart into numerous weak states. The Allies believed that this would ensure future tranquility. Instead, the redrawn maps of Europe and the Middle East produced instability and strife, which continue to the present day in both areas.
Woodrow Wilson had crafted his famous Fourteen Points for peace before the war ended. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourteen_Points ) His 14th Point presented the novel idea of a League of Nations to settle international disputes. But the nations who had suffered at the hands of the Central Powers mostly ignored Wilson’s high-minded plan, except for the League. They blamed Germany for starting the war, and set about extracting compensation and territory from their “defeated” foe. Even at the time, some statesmen warned that the harsh terms imposed on Germany would incubate a titanic resentment in the German people that would finally lead to another, more terrible war. As we now know, that prediction was entirely correct.
Back home, President Wilson campaigned to convince America to join the League. But he failed and broke his health in the effort. Historians are still arguing over whether our absence fatally weakened the League, or whether it was doomed from the start by having no actual power to counter armed aggression with force. Japan withdrew from the League in 1933 when it faced criticism for its aggression in Manchuria. Germany was admitted to the League in 1926, but also left it in 1933, soon after Hitler came to power. The League was formally disbanded in 1946.
Our late (but decisive) participation in World War I propelled us to great power status. But after the Armistice we eagerly returned to “isolation mode,” until the furies of war once again roused us to action in 1941. With only occasional, brief periods of peace, we have essentially been at war ever since.