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1914-1918: World War I
By David at 05/11/2009 - 05:13

1914-1918: World War I

Thomas Woodrow Wilson was elected President of the United States on November 5, 1912. Wilson, a minister’s son, was an ardent pacifist. He wanted to avoid, at all costs, the United States becoming embroiled in the erupting European conflict. As a child he had witnessed the horrors of the American Civil War ;and he feared a new conflict would mean a return that barbarity.Moreover, he worried about maintaining national unity in acountry where one citizen in four had been born abroad, or whose parents had come from either of the opposing camps now forming inthe Old World. Wilson had to act with extreme prudence : how could he take sides when Americans of German origin supported the Axis powers; when Anglo-Saxon Protestants on the East Coast supported the Allied powers ; when the Irish detested the English, and the Polish were hostile to the Russians? Assigned the task of negotiating a peace between Paris, London and Berlin,American diplomat Colonel House went to Europe in the Spring of 1914. Then Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarayevo; and all hope for this negotiated peace ended. The much feared conflict began on August 3, 1914. Over the next three years, in his role as a "neutral mediator," Wilson, launched several diplomatic initiatives to end the war. He suggested a plan for "Peace without victory," but none of the belligerents would consider it.

Then in May of 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed and sunk the British passenger ship"Lusitania". This altered the course of events. The United States strongly condemned the act ; there were 128 Americans among he Lusitania’s 1 000 victims. These deaths moved public opinion in favor of the war. But a British publication naming American companies who had violated a trade boycott with the Germans, annoyed those who wished to remain out of the conflict. The coming elections of November 1916, meant that the President could not force the issue. But in January of 1917, the Germans decided, despite ongoing negotiations, to order their submarines to fire on American ships. This strengthened American resolve to fight the Axis, Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Berlin.

"The War to End All Wars"

He did not have long to wait for the next ’act of intentional injustice." Soon after, the"Vigilentia" was torpedoed. On April 6, 1917, at 13:18,the United States Congress voted to go to war. The majority supported this decision, in part, because of the publication of the "Zimmerman telegram.’ The German Minister of War telegrammed his Mexican ambassador to prepare Mexico to joint heir alliance against the United States. The telegram suggested a similar alliance with Japan which further fueled American public outrage. Though the Americans had chosen defense of law over that of peace," they were not prepared for war, The American Army was very small and its only troops with combat experience had fought the Indians, Filippino Insurgents, theSpanish in Cuba and Pancho Villa’s Mexican outlaws . They hardly seemed capable of supporting the massive conflict on the far off battlefields of Europe. This explains the calm assurance with which the Kaiser declared, -If Wilson wants war , let him have it- and so much the worse for him." America, however, rose to the challenge. In very little time, there was concrete evidence of determination and efficacy. Despite what some Democrats called"another form of slavery," Congress approved the Selective Service Act on May 18, 1917.

This Act conscripted all male citizens between ages of 21 and 30 into the Armed Service. Thus the Army increased from 200,000 in February of 1917 four million by November 1918. In the meantime,a committee for public information organized meetings and demonstrations to convince the public that the war was a just cause. The goverment sold War bonds which were promoted by famous film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Picford. The President decreed a "mobilization of every resource in the nation." Created at the end of 1917 the War Industries Bureau, under the direction of Bernard Baruch, took measures to control industrial production : the distribution of raw materials and sources of energy was organized in deference to the war effort; industries were converted; railways were placed under government control ; and the organization of food for Europe was administered by a mining engineer named Herbert Hoover.

The turning point

For the French, the American entry into the war came at the perfect moment : the fall of the Czar meant that the future role of Russia was uncertain ; and there was the bloody failure of the Nivelle offensive in the area of Chemin des Dames;and finally the mutinies at the front gave even those mostoptimistic reason to doubt. The news of the American intervention raised the soldiers’ moral, and revived the govemment’s hope that in time, "we will win.’ In the Spring of 1917, when he took command of the French Army, which had been bled all but white by an extreme and reckless offensive strategy, General Pétain announced that he would wait for the "Americans and the tanks." The arrival en masse of the "Sammies" as the French called them, turned the tide in the Allies’ favor. By the summer of 1918, two milion American soldiers would be on French soil. As important as American military ground support,was the financial aid the United States contributed to the cause.The Allies had long before exhausted the funds, and only the United States Federal Treasury could afford to make such loans.When President Wilson announced, ’America goes to war with allher force," it also meant that the Allied nations would obtain financial aid for the war effort ; this amounted to ten billion dollars between April, 1917 and June, 1920. Logistically,the American Navy was vital in the fight against the German U-Boat blockade. The constrution of new ships, the work of the American Merchant Marine and the capture of German ships anchored in the previously neutral ports of Latin America, made marine transport, which had been seriously limited, available to the Allied Forces.

During his visit to the United States in April of 1917, Marshal Joffre explained how desperate the situation remained : three years of bloody combat had weakened the Anglo-French alliance, fresh troops were desperately needed. The French could quickly equip and train these troops in the combat skills required for trench warfare. France thus provided the American Expeditionary Force with: 75 and 155 mm canons; 155 mm shells, all of its tanks; 81% of the airplanes; more than half of its long range canons; 57,000 machine guns; 10 million shells; and more than 200 million bullets.

The Doughboys go "Over There"

One hundred seventy seven Americans of the Expeditionary Force, including the commanding officer General Pershing and Lieutenant Patton, arrived at Boulogne-sur-Mer onJune 13, 1917. They were welcomed by the Allies’ highest ranking military representatives and Colonel Jacques Aldebert de Chambrun (who like all direct descendants of the Marquis de La Fayette automatically possessed American citizenship.) Pershing, Pattonand their men went directly to Paris where they met with the Minister of War Paul Painlevé, Marshal Joffre, and General Foch.In Paris, the Americans received an unprecedented reception: the people mobbed the streets of the capital to cheer the soldiers as they marched to the Place de la Concorde. General Pershing had to appear at the balcony of the Hotel Crillon before the crowd agreed to disperse. Two weeks later on June 28,1917, 14,000 American soldiers arrived at the port of Saint-Nazaire : there were 13,000 men in the lst division (the famous "Big RedOne’) and a battalion of the 5th Marine regiment -soldiers who their commander had planned to send immediately to camps for several months of training. The French, however Insisted that the"Sammies" celebrate the 141st anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The 16th Infantry regiment was chosen to march in the parade ; the soldiers were covered by flowers thrown by hundreds of thousands of Parisians.

"La Fayette, nous voila !"

On his ceremonial visit to the tomb of La Fayette,Pershing, a better soldier than an orator, asked Captain Stanton to say a few words on his behalf. There were just four: ’LaFayette, nous voila!." Immediately, the crowd at Picpus cemetery unleashed a riotous and joyful cheer which, to this day,echoes throughout the world. Pershing refused an amalgamation of the inexperienced American troops and the battle-toughened Frenchor British soldiers. President Wilson and Pershing agreed that the American Army should retain its own identity ; once preparedand strong enough, the Americans would play their own role in the common effort. At the end of July, the Ist division began training near Langres, in the Haute-Marne region, east of Paris.In September, they were joined by the 26th division, composed mostly of National Guard members from New England. Then a brigade of Marines arrived; they were soon followed by the 2nd division.This division included : an infantry brigade of regulars three artillery regiments ; a civil engineering regiment and a battalion of radio transmission soldiers. In October, the 42nd division arrived. It was known as the "Rainbow Division" because its soldiers, all from the National Guard,came from twenty six different states.

"Sammies" in"Looneyville"

Pershing had very little time to prepare the American Expeditionary Force for battle. By the end of October 1917, the Ist division was given a region near Toul and Lunéville, soon called "Looneyville" by the American troops. At the request of Marshal Foch, who had recently been promoted to commander-in-chief of the Allied forces, the other three divisions were deployed to contain the German’s Spring offensive which threatened to break through the Front. The 28th regiment of the Ist Division fought south of Amiens near the village of Cantigny, where they took the territory without much difficulty.Despite seven fierce German counter attacks, which included violent bombardments and canisters of the infamous "mustardgas," the "Sammies" held their ground. In just one battle, they had proven to the Germans that they should not beunder estimated. In June and July, the superb action at Bois-Belleau of the American 2nd division and Marines,re-enforced by French colonial troops, demonstrated their capacity to counter a major German offensive. Through their combined efforts these troops managed, for three long weeks, toblock all enemy movements towards Paris. When the French decided to launch a counter-offensive on July 18, from the Champagne region, 85,000 Americans stood by for combat. Pershing wanted his troops to have a large victory of their own under the Stars and Stripes. This victory came during the major offensive of September, 1918. On September 12, at 05:00 after a long artillery bombardment using 3,000 canons, seven American divisions under Generals Dickmann, Ligget and Cameron, charged the Saint-Mihielbulge assisted by the French 2nd colonial corps.

"A Magnificent Victory"

At the end of the combat, 16,000 Germans were taken prisoner, and more than 300 canons were confiscated. Foch congratulated Pershing, "The American Ist Army, under your command, has managed a magnificent victory with a plan of action that was as carefully conceived as it was magnificently executed." The next offensive, launched at the end of the month, in the Argonne region, became a mud bath because of the incessant rain. Pershing wrote of this operation : "Under the icy rain in these dark nights, our civil engineers not only have to build new roads over terrain made sponge-like byshelling, but they must also repair the damaged roads and build bridges over flooded rivers. Our artillery, thinking not of sleep, moves hand-pulled carts through deep mud and clay, to bring the equipment necessary to support the infantry."Badly nourished, subjected to constant enemy bombardments,confronted with appalling weather conditions and stuck on difficult terrain, Ligget’s troops held their position while threatened from all sides. Fortunately the Germans weakened and the 197 divisions they had on paper, could not resist the 220 Allied divisions. Moreover, the 42 American divisions were now receiving 250,000 re-enforcements each month. Thesere-enforcements added to the two million "Sammies"already deployed by the end of 1918. Wben the armistice wasfinally signed on November 11, 1918 in the Compiégne forest, itbrought to an end the bloodiest conflict in human history-collectively the war cost nearly 8,500,000 lives and 30 million more had been injured - 50,000 Americans had died on French soil.

A Rendez-vous with Death

ALegion since the beginning mong those casualties was the poet Alan Seeger, who had been a volunteer in the french Foreign of the conflict. Several days before he met Death, the centerpieceof his poetry, he wrote, ’We are leaving for another assault tomorrow. This will probably be the toughest I have ever seen. We have been given the honor to be on the front line. No duffel bag,but a backpack, a canvas sheet hanging off one shoulder, lots of cartridges and hand grenades, as well as a bayonet on the end of our rifle. I am happy to be in the first assault wave. If you must go into battle, it is best to be thrown in completely. Thatis the supreme experience." On July 4, 1916, Alan Seeger kept his rendezvous : he was killed in action and became thesymbol of the young Americans who sacrificed their lives in the name of Liberty.

France and America, Partners for Peace

In 1928, ten years after World War I, France and America united to ban armed conflict forever. Even though it was hailed as the dawn ofa new age of universal peace, the"Kellogg-Briand Pact" could not defuse the antagonisms that would become WWII. "Never again!" In 1927, France and Germany were on a honeymoon unimaginable a year before. As President had Wilson hoped, the League of Nations worked vigorously for the foundation of universal peace. Despite their ascent to the a rank of worldpower, the United States had returned to its pre-war isolationism. The country that had inspired the League of Nations was not even a member! In April, on the tenth anniversary of America’s entry into World War 1, Aristide Briand made a remarkable speech inviting the United States to become more involved in European affairs. Briand, a much respected politician, had been President of the French Council several times before being appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs by successive governments on both the Left and the Right. Briand’sspeech came at an opportune moment. Preparations for the conference to discuss disarmament were going badly. And the problem of French war debts weighed on the Franco-American relationship. In June of 1927, Briand proposed to American Secretary of State Frank Kellogg that their nations sign a pact of mutual renunciation of war. Secretary Kellogg readily accepted. This accord, purely symbolic, would unite their two nations in peace and friendship; in time it would grow to include every nation on earth. The "Kellog-Briand Pact," as it was called, was signed on February 6, 1928 by France and the United States. It prohibited recourse to war as a political instrument. There were no sanctions planned other than the censure of the other signatories. But as one newspaper edit noted, "at least the moral conscience will act as a serious obstacle to those wishing to break the agreement." The accord remained in Washington DC, under the protection of the United States, where it would stay until future adherents signed.The Kellogg-Briand Pact was eventually ratified by 63 countries including Germany, the British Empire, Japan, Poland, Italy and Czechoslovakia. For their work toward world peace, both the French and the American statesmen were awarded the Nobel peace prize.


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