World War I
World War I
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War in World War I

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of War

Home by Christmas

World War I was like no other conflict, and no other war since has equaled it in terms of futility and sheer needless slaughter. In a military sense it began almost exactly like previous European wars, especially the Franco-Prussian War, which was the model that everyone in Europe expected the war to follow. That war had been one of maneuver, and had been won with an artillery duel and envelopment maneuver in which the Germans surrounded nearly the entire French army near the city of Sedan. It was relatively bloodless and short.

As German troops crossed the Belgian frontier on 4 August 1914, most people in Europe believed that the "boys will be home by Christmas." If they meant Christmas 1918, they were right. But of course, no one believed the war could possibly drag on so long. Previously, various authors had opined that, due to the massive expense of modern war, any future European hostilities would be short. Many people believed that assessment, but they forgot about one important thing: credit. No, there wasn't enough gold in the world to pay for a long war with modern weapons; there was, however, enough credit to pay for nearly anything. So when the troops marched off to fight in 1914, they sang their songs, rode their taxis (the Marne front was so close to Paris that the taxis of the city were employed to speed troops to the battlefield) and marched along dusty roads believing they were off for adventure and fun. Instead, they got hell.

War of Maneuver

The war started, like many others, with one army marching to the attack and another marching to the defense. On the Western Front (most important for American history since that is where the American Expeditionary Force fought in 1917 to 1918) the Germans invaded Belgium and quickly put into effect the famed Schlieffen Plan. This called for a "pincer movement" in which the German right wing would be kept strong and would wheel around the center, engulfing Paris and capturing the French army from behind. It didn't work out that way, and with the timely intervention of the British, the Germans were forced to pince too far north, and Paris was saved. What followed is known as the "Race for the Sea," a series of flanking maneuvers during which both sides tried to get around the side of the opposing army. They went all the way to the ocean doing this, and all the way to the mountains of Switzerland before running out of space. Thus, by October 1914, the line had basically solidified into a 1,200-mile maze of trenches.

Trench Warfare

World War I is famous, above all, for its trenches. With the line mostly static after fall 1914, both sides did what armies have always done in the face of the enemy: they dug in. Trenches protected the soldiers from artillery shells and rifle shots from the enemy. Thousands of miles of front-line trenches, reserve-line trenches, communications trenches and dummy trenches sprang up on both sides. The resulting grid patterns allowed troops to travel from one line to another while keeping safe from enemy machinegun fire. From the trenches, where soldiers would sleep as best they could when not out on patrol of No Man's Land, attacks would be launched against the opposing trench line. These were sometimes small affairs with a few thousand men or less, but they were often massive, coordinated assaults. Some, such as Verdun and the Battle of the Somme, involved over a million men on the attack.

Trenches were truly appalling places to live and die. Death surrounded the men all day, every day. Men killed by artillery or other means were buried in the trench where they fell; rats proliferated by the millions, feasting on the decomposing bodies; food was cold and intermittent; rain and subterranean flooding soaked men through for weeks at a time; and they were constantly being shot at and shelled by the opposing side. The blank stare of men returning from the front was the original "shell shock." The only thing that everyone who fought on the Western Front agrees with is that there is no way to adequately describe how hellish the trenches were. The German trenches were generally more impressive than the Allied ones for the simple reason: that whereas the French, British and later American troops could be pulled off the front line and sent to the rear to rest and refit, the Germans could not. They were in enemy territory and didn't have the luxury of towns and depots of friendly civilians. Some German trenches were built of stone, had deep, electrified living quarters, and were centrally heated. That didn't change the fact that men were constantly dying around each other at all times.

The Attack

Much of life in the trenches was a simple struggle to avoid being killed, but every once in a while a major attack would be organized and men would be sent "over the top." A preliminary bombardment with millions of artillery rounds would last for up to a week, in an effort to cut the enemy's barbed wire that inevitably failed. Then the officers would blow a whistle and thousands of men would stream out of the attacking trench and run across No Man's Land into a hail of machine gun bullets from the other side. The idea was to put so many men into such a small space that the enemy couldn't kill them fast enough, and the survivors would then manage to get through to the opposing trench. Sometimes this worked, and sometimes it didn't. Millions of men were killed charging blindly into barbed wire and machine guns. Sometimes so many men died that the enemy stopped shooting out of compassion, as at the Somme on 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day of the war. Still, the generals in charge were wont to consider even the capture of small pieces of territory at incredible cost to be successes. For nearly four years, this wasteful, stalemated warfare went on as the casualties mounted and the front stayed basically the same.

The Americans are Coming! The Americans are Coming!

The arrival of the American Expeditionary Force in late 1917 was a blessing for the Allies, and the beginning of the end for the Germans. After so many men were wounded and killed, there were not enough fresh soldiers to send to their deaths in the European armies. Adding to Allied troubles, the French army had mutinied in large numbers in 1917, and there were places where the Germans were basically unopposed. With the Russian Revolution and the end of the war on the Eastern Front, Germany was now able to send all her troops to the Western Front, where the Spring Offensive of 1918 almost won the war. The Americans, over 500,000 strong in spring 1918 with numbers rising to over two million by the end of the war, helped to stop the German advance, and were the main force to start driving them back.

The Battle of Cantigny on 28 May 1918 was not a large conflict by World War I standards, but it was the first major American engagement. After successfully stopping the Germans at the small town of Cantigny, the Americans repulsed six separate counterattacks that cost nearly 10,000 casualties. Following that success, the Americans were heavily involved in the Battle of Belleau Wood that stretched from 6 June to 26 June 1918. After an initially horrendous day in which the Marines were chewed up crossing an exposed wheat field, the Americans doggedly kept sweeping the woods of Germans for three weeks, finally throwing the Germans out. Casualties were high as the "Doughboys" (as American soldiers were called) learned how to fight and American commanders learned how to lead.

American forces were fully engaged in the Battle of St. Mihiel, a salient (part of the battle line that projects close to the enemy) on the southern end of the line near the Swiss border. Beginning in early September, Pershing and 300,000 American troops attacked the German lines, suffering terrible casualties. Over 1,400 aircraft supported the American attack, making St. Mihiel the site of one of the largest uses of airpower during World War I. American casualties were high but the Germans could not hold, and the salient was straightened in a matter of a few days.

The exhausted troops were quickly turned around and rushed north to take part in the major Meuse-Argonne Offensive that would ultimately win the war. On 26 September, 400,000 men of the American Expeditionary Force were engaged in a massive drive to take the largest German salient left in the line. The fighting was brutal and the Americans suffered more than 100,000 casualties, a testament to their outdated tactics, lack of fighting experience, and the tenacious defense of a wilting German Army. More than 300 tanks and 500 airplanes supported this attack, but the exhausted American troops, who had been fighting and marching continuously for nearly three weeks, could not make much progress. The attack was suspended on 30 September, resuming on 4 October and continuing until the end of the war.

With continuing attacks on the Canal du Nord in the north and the Argonne region in the south, the AEF kept pressure on the Germans. By November, widespread revolution at home was sapping the strength of the German army, and soldiers began to leave in droves. Finally, after more than four years of horrendous slaughter, an Armistice was signed "at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month," also known as 11:00am on 11 November 1918, on a railway car in a French forest. Fighting went on in scattered positions for several days following the eleventh and the war was not officially over until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

During World War I, over 2 million American soldiers arrived in France, of which about 1 million saw action at the front. It was quite a feat for a country with only about 120,000 men in the entire army two years previously. The United States suffered 264,000 casualties, of which 50,554 were fatal. Another 63,114 servicemen died of disease, many of them of the Great Influenza Pandemic after the war ended. Compared to the American Civil War or World War II, America's loses in World War I seem small; it should be remembered, however, that the AEF only actively fought for about eight months in World War I. That rate of attrition over the whole war would have meant as many American deaths as in World War II.

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