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World War I
World War I
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Verdun, the Somme in World War I

1914 - 1917

By the time the United States entered World War I, the conflict had reached a deadly stalemate.  The opposing armies stared at one another across no man’s land, a shell torn, body strewn, machine-gun policed stretch of earth separating the trenches that sliced across France from Belgium to Germany.18

The war had not started out this way.  Hoping to crush France before Russia had a chance to mobilize, the Germans had stormed though Belgium in August 1914 and then, fanning out into a giant arm, had swept toward Paris.  Germany’s victory seemed certain.  But then, the French rallied in the First Battle of the Marne and the German advance came to a grinding halt.  

Meanwhile, Russia mobilized more quickly than anticipated and applied pressure on the Germans in East Prussia.  Forced to transfer divisions from the western to the eastern front, the German Army found itself fighting the two-front war they had wanted to avoid.

In 1915, the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies tried to remove the Russians from the conflict and simplify their military challenge.  The transferred troops to the eastern front and made rapid advances into Russia—but they could not deliver the knock-out blow they needed. Russia refused to capitulate—at least for the time being.

By this point, all of the belligerents had come to realize that the new technology better served defending than attacking armies.  The machine gun, most dramatically, was a cumbersome, virtually unusable weapon on the attack.  But when mounted in a defensive trench or bunker, it was a formidable tool able to spit out bullets at the rate of 50-100 per minute.

Eventually, other weapons would neutralize the advantages given the defense by the machine gun.  Planes and tanks would make movement and attack possible once again.  But WWI belonged to the machine gun, and the result was a deadly, morale crushing war of attrition. 

Periodically, the generals ignored the mechanical facts and conjured up the offensive tactics of the past.  In February 1916, the German tried to simply overrun the machine gun by pouring men against the French and British lines at Verdun.  The two sides battled for six months and shared equally in the loss of 700,000 men before realizing that neither could advance.

The British tried to take the offensive at the Battle of the Somme.  During July 1916, they fired a million shells at the German lines and then tried to storm them with 100,000 men.  Twenty-thousand British soldiers were killed on the first day—not a single British soldier reached the German lines.  This time it took the generals only four months and 1.1 million men to realize that the old ways no longer worked—that the cold efficiency of the machine gun was more powerful than all the gallantry and courage of their men.

Since the war could not be won on the land, both sides tried to win it at sea.  Britain’s mighty navy imposed a blockade around the ports of Central Europe and enforced a sweeping definition of contraband.  Even ships carrying food and raw cotton were turned away from Germany into British and French ports. The Germans answered with the U-boat.  The first subs were crude, limited vessels, but they terrorized ships traveling into the “war zone” declared off limits by the German government.

This then was the war that the United States entered on 6 April 1917.  A demoralizing stalemate on the ground and a pair of suffocating blockades at sea.  Neither side was poised for victory, but the tide seemed to be turning toward Germany and its allies.  The recent French offensives in the north had failed; in the aftermath ten French divisions mutinied.  German submarine attacks were taking a growing toll on Allied shipping; in April 1917, U-boats destroyed more than 800,000 tons.  And political turmoil in Russia threatened to do what the Germans had not—remove Russia from the war.  In fact, by the time America had landed enough troops to play a significant role, the Russians had signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, freeing up German troops for the war in the west.

The American army was really not ready for war in 1917.  Therefore, only 175,000 American soldiers reached France by the end of the year.  But by May 1918, there were 500,000 American soldiers in France.  By the end of July the number had doubled—and they were already playing a part in the war.