Approximately 4.355 million Americans served in World War I
In 1914, Europe and much of the world were engaged in a horrific struggle that at the time was known at the Great War and that history would ultimately call World War I. The assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand of Austria set off a chain of events that resulted in world powers going to war against each other. On one side were Germany, Austria-Hungry and the Ottoman Empire known as the Central Powers. On the other were France, Britain, Great Britain, Russia, Italy and Japan known as the Allied Powers. The war would be known for its brutality, trench warfare, the use of chemical weapons and new inventions of war such as the machine gun, tank and airplane.
America, 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 German on April 6, 1917 and did the same to Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungry on December 17, 1917. The resources and new troops America brought into the war after close to three years of heavy fighting proved important in the defeat of the Central Powers.
There were some key factors that led America 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 opinions about 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 Telegraph, 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 St. Mihies 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.
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 would charge out only to be killed by enemy machine gun fire. Although figures seem to vary, military casualties on all sides are approximately 9 million killed and 21 million wounded. The Germans and French had close to one million casualties at the Battle of Verdun alone. For the war, these two countries had close to 80% of males between the ages of 15-49 sent into battle. France’s overall casualty rate, or those killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner was about 73.3%. Russia’s was 76.3% and Austria-Hungary’s was 90%. For the entire war, America had about 116,516 soldiers killed and another 204,000 wounded. This figure includes those killed both on the battlefield as well as through disease or 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. Finally on November 11, 1918, Germany signed an armistice ending the war. This is why America observes Veterans Day on November 11.
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. Americans should be proud and remember those soldiers who fought bravely, while at the same time feeling fortunate their suffering was not greater. American military and industrial strength led the exhausted Germans to seek an end to the war. It also marked an important moment in the 20th century as America emerged as a global power.
After the war, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles that, among other provisions, blamed them for the war and made them pay reparations. This left many Germans feeling angry, including a young corporal named Adolph Hitler. The “war to end all wars” did not live up to its name. America and the world did little as the evil of Nazi Germany grew and plunged the globe into World War II.
Soldiers of War World I had to endure chemical weapon attacks. These attacks were later banned as part of the Geneva Convention.