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 August 4th, 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.
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's where the American Expeditionary Force fought from 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.
So, by October 1914, the line had basically solidified into a 1,200-mile maze of trenches.
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, like Verdun and the Battle of the Somme, involved over a million men on the attack.
Guys, 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's 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 couldn't.
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.
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, like at the Somme on July 1st, 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 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 weren't 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 May 28th, 1918 wasn't 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 June 6th to June 26th, 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 couldn't 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 September 26th, 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'd been fighting and marching continuously for nearly three weeks, couldn't make much progress. The attack was suspended on September 30th, resuming on October 4th 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 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month," also known as 11:00AM on November 11th, 1918, on a railway car in a French forest.
Talk about the ultimate 11-11-11.
Although, fighting went on in scattered positions for several days following the 11th, and the war wasn't 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 losses 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've meant as many American deaths as in World War II.
World War I slowed the flow of European immigrants into the United States at the same time that it increased the need for industrial workers in the Northeast and Midwest.
To help fill the void, previously segregated factories began hiring African Americans from the rural South. Over the course of the war and the next several decades, large numbers of African Americans moved from the former slave-holding South to the industrial Midwest and Northeast.
So many African Americans made the journey north that the entire period's known as The Great Migration. During the war, more than 1 million Blacks left the poor, rural South for better jobs in the North, radically altering the racial balance of the United States.
Before 1910, the Black population of Chicago was 2%. By 1970, the figure was 33%, and much of that change happened during the years immediately following the war. One of the great lasting legacies of World War I is its influence on the racial makeup of the United States.
African-American soldiers actually served in the United States Army long before WWI.
Free Blacks and slaves enlisted in state militias and the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The 54th Massachusetts regiment, immortalized in the movie Glory, is but one of the many Black units that fought for the North in the Civil War. The famous Buffalo Soldiers on the western frontier were revered for their martial abilities, and African Americans fought in the Spanish-American War as well.
But World War I marked a turning point for Black soldiers, both on the battlefield and when they returned home.
Over 200,000 African Americans fought with American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France. But none of them fought alongside white American troops. Instead, the fully-segregated Black units fought with the French Army and took orders from French commanders. This was partly a bargain struck by General Pershing to appease the French, who needed fresh troops in their lines ASAP.
Mostly, though, it was a sign of how pervasively racist the United States and the AEF were. White troops refused to fight alongside Black troops, even though they were all fighting on the same side.
Although Black units were eager to fight in the front lines, most were used only in supporting roles. Still, 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor for their heroism in battle, and the 369th Infantry, an all-Black unit, was one of the most decorated American units of the war. At war's end, over 600 African Americans had been commissioned as officers, a rank denied to them before the war.
So, though still segregated and suffering terrible prejudice, Black soldiers made important strides for race relations during the war.
Black soldiers fought for their country, facing German bullets and winning decorations for bravery in Europe. But back home in the United States? Yeah, little changed in terms of race relations.
Returning Black soldiers suffered terrible prejudice in the South, and the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was quick to rise to the defense of aggrieved veterans, though with mixed success.
Angered at the humane treatment with which the French had treated African Americans during the war, white mobs lynched 70 Black veterans—many still in uniform—in the first year after the war. Many Americans of all races were appalled at the treatment these men who'd fought for their country received.
So, some of the early seeds of the Civil Rights Movement were sown during the first years after World War I, when returning veterans were abused and lynched simply for having fought and demanded something like equal treatment.
With more and more Blacks moving north and west to work for expanding industries, the racial character of America was changing. The terrible treatment of returning black World War I vets would have a profound effect on race relations in all parts of the country for decades to come.
The war that consumed the Great Powers of Europe wasn't America's war. In fact, at the beginning of the conflict, most Americans were happy to allow the Europeans to destroy themselves rather than squandering American lives and money by intervening in Europe's Great War.
Over time, however, this sentiment—known as isolationism—began to waver as the war dragged on and ideological concerns joined with more mundane issues like freedom of the seas to provoke President Woodrow Wilson and Congress to send American soldiers to the trenches of Europe.
Possibly the most surprising thing about America's involvement in the Great War—great as in big, not great as in really cool—was that it happened at all.
President Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 and won by embracing the slogan "He kept us out of war." Much of Wilson's platform had to do with following George Washington's suggestion in his Farewell Address to avoid foreign entanglements, in this case keeping America out of the war in Europe. Added to that was a strong pro-German sentiment in many parts of the country, most notably among the German immigrants and their descendants in the Midwest, which made the choice of sides somewhat unclear.
Unlike during World War II when American opinion was far more anti-German, World War I was less about ideology and good versus evil, so both sides in the conflict gained support from the American people.
Part of the problem for those advocating intervention, however, was that no one really knew what the war was about. In August 1914, it was a war over tensions between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkan Peninsula. But by 1917—when the United States entered the war on the side of Britain, France, and briefly Russia—the goal of the war had become simply to win.
And winning in this war of attrition meant killing more of the enemy's soldiers than he killed of yours: not a situation in which an American president wanted to get involved.
Now, guys. At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States wasn't the world power it would be 50 years later. America's last war of aggression—the Spanish-American War—began a slow change in America's role in the world. For the first time, the United States owned foreign territories, and for the first time, Americans could rank themselves among the imperial nations of the day.
By 1914, moreover, the U.S. had almost no Army, and its Navy wasn't up to par with those of the Britain and Germany. Isolationism—at least, when it came to European entanglements—wasn't just a fad. It was a way of life, and most Americans didn't want to intervene in the war in Europe.
But by the time public opinion changed, it was almost too late.
The principal reasons America entered the war were submarines and propaganda.
German submarines, called U-Boats, were a new and terrifying weapon in 1914. They were also seen as unchivalrous: they hid in the ocean and attacked without giving their enemies any warning, killing innocent civilians and military personnel at the same time.
They were also very effective at destroying Allied shipping in the Atlantic. The most famous U-Boat sinking was the passenger liner Lusitania, sunk on May 7th, 1915 off the Irish coast. Controversy erupted immediately on both sides of the Atlantic. The Germans claimed that the Lusitania was carrying war material, citing the fact that only one torpedo was fired, yet there were several large explosions.
However, with 128 Americans dead and public opinion appalled by this "outrage" against civilized society, the United States demanded and received an informal assurance from Germany that it would stop unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping.
In English? That meant the U-Boats would no longer shoot any ship entering into the zone of their attempted blockade of Britain, but would instead make positive identification that the ships they were attacking were military ships.
With U-Boats mostly out of the equation, the United States entered into an interesting limbo. While technically neutral and taking no side in the war, the U.S. was the only major industrial power from which the Europeans could buy weapons and food. And while the U.S. was willing to send arms to anyone who purchased them, the reality of a British blockade of German and Austrian ports meant that only France and Britain were actually buying American products.
Lots and lots of products: ships, foodstuffs, guns, bullets, uniforms and everything else you can think of. This had the effect of tying the United States closer and closer to the allies, and since the U-Boats couldn't cut the lifeline of Atlantic trade due to the restrictions the Americans put on their use, Britain, France, and the United States slowly moved to the same side.
Helping move the United States to support the Allies was a massive British propaganda operation, the likes of which the world had never seen before. From the very beginning of the war and the so-called "Rape of Belgium" in which the German Army was portrayed as defiling innocent Belgians (and even of raping nuns), British propaganda efforts had worked hard to keep up morale at home and to gather more allies for the Allies.
This effort came to a head with the Zimmerman Telegram in January 1917. British intelligence intercepted a telegram from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, telling von Eckhardt to try to get Mexico to fight against the United States alongside Germany. The Germans promised huge financial and military support to Mexico, as well as assuring the Mexicans that when the war was won, Mexico could recover its "Lost Territories" of the American Southwest.
Mexico declined the offer but not before the British leaked the telegram. It had an unbelievable effect on American public opinion, and anti-German sentiment went through the roof.
Then on February 1st, 1917, Germany informed all nations that it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships from all nations in European waters.
Without the submarine menace, Britain and France were receiving huge quantities of war supplies from the United States, so this declaration had the effect of making it almost inevitable that America would enter the war.
On April 2nd, 1917, Wilson went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war on the basis of "making the world safe for democracy." On April 6th, Congress voted America into World War I, with six senators and 50 congressmen voting against involvement in the conflict.
America was at war.
By and large, Americans rallied around their president and Congress and supported the war effort.
Men enlisted by the thousands, and Wilson rammed through a Selective Service Act to institute a national draft. Anti-war sentiment still existed in some circles, but overall, those who avoided the war were known as "shirkers" and weren't really treated kindly.
Though the total number of objectors is hard to know, it's illustrative that the government was worried enough about antiwar sentiment that Congress passed several repressive, anti-opposition laws. Two of those were the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, aimed at repressing dissent during wartime. The effect of these acts was to throw into jail prominent members of the Socialist Party, including presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, and anyone else who spoke out against the war.
The irony of such laws to prevent citizens from speaking out against a war ostensibly being fought for a democratic world seemed to be lost on Wilson and Congress.
Like we said, to enlist enough troops, Wilson forced through the Selective Service Act of 1917, organizing the first national draft in American history. Though not overly popular, the measure allowed the U.S. to raise over three million soldiers in a matter of months, something that voluntary enlistments could never have accomplished.
On top of that, war bonds were sold to raise money and women made bandages much as they had during the Civil War. But this time, women were also asked to work in factories and take over other jobs that were traditionally done by men. Unlike their daughters 25 years later, these women didn't demand to stay in their factory jobs after the war was over, but it was a major step forward for women's rights in America.
In fact, when President Wilson finally came out in support of the 19th Amendment, granting women's suffrage, he did so by arguing that it was an urgently needed war measure that would help bring the nation together during the difficulties of wartime.
America's European Allies had their own ideas about how the American soldiers could best be used in battle. Suffering unbelievable casualty rates and exhausted by two and half years of gruesome warfare, the French and British high command saw the American troops as a perfect stop-gap measure. They instructed General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), to put small American units into the line under the control of French and British commanders.
Pershing would have none of it, instead negotiating, obfuscating, and delaying until larger American units were trained and could be put into the trench line under their own commanders. To the dismay of the Europeans, this meant that there were still few American troops on the line when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive in 1918, a last-ditch effort to break the Allied line, which nearly succeeded and was finally stopped in part by brave action of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Throughout the war, the American command had to deal with their European counterparts in a partnership that had its ups and downs. This was best illustrated after the Armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918 when Wilson became the first president to travel abroad while in office, so that he could personally appear in Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles.
There, Wilson elaborated his Fourteen Points, a plan for reordering the world according to his idealistic notions of peace, justice, and democracy.
Sounds nice and all, but they were a huge failure. Britain and France weren't interested in being nice to Germany after such a brutal war, and the one thing that Wilson did get, a League of Nations, was defeated in the American Senate, which had returned to its isolationist roots following the war.
American public opinion had clearly changed after the war: Wilson's Democratic Party lost majorities in Congress and the presidency by 1920.
Despite Wilson's failure at Versailles, World War I was the first time that the United States had flexed its military muscle far from its own shores against the so-called Great Powers of Europe. With America providing both the economic and military power to finally win the war, the U.S. solidified its position as a nation to be reckoned with on the international stage.
World War I was so deadly primarily because it saw the use of 19th-century military tactics with 20th-century technology.
At the beginning of the conflict, the cavalry was still the premier branch of military service, and the commanders believed that this war would be like the last big European fight, the Franco-Prussian War. Mini-lesson: Prussia was a German principality until that war, when Prussia was able to unite all of Germany into the German Empire, the first time in history that there had ever been a "Germany."
Fought in the same way as the Napoleonic Wars of the early-19th century, the Franco-Prussian War taught commanders that offense could still beat defense. In other words, an attacking army could still out-maneuver an enemy on the defensive.
The American Civil War had shown that this wasn't always true. The combination of more accurate guns, more powerful artillery, and the mobility of railroads made defenders far stronger than attackers in many battles. In fact, the Battle of Petersburg near the end of that war showed what entrenched soldiers fighting a defensive battle could do. It took nine months for Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant to break through the Confederate lines, and then only at a huge cost.
European observers scoffed at these lessons, however, and believed that a similar situation would never occur in more civilized Europe. They were to be proved very, very wrong, at the cost of millions of lives.
World War I introduced machine guns, modern artillery, and airplanes to the battlefield. Railroads made the supply of vast, stationary armies possible, and even the taxi cabs of Paris were employed to bring men to the front in 1914. Horses were removed from the battlefield except as beasts of burden, and tanks entered service in 1916.
But the most destructive weapon of World War I was invented in DeKalb, Illinois in 1874 to help cattle farmers keep control of their flocks. Farmer Joseph Glidden invented a useable form of barbed wire after seeing an example at a county fair. Initially used to fence large sections of the American West, during World War I, barbed wire was strung by the mile in front of the opposing trenches.
As soldiers from one army charged across the shell-cratered hell of No Man's Land, they'd become tangled in the wire, easy pickings for the machine gunners in the opposing trench. The massive artillery barrages that characterized the first years of the war were aimed primarily at cutting the enemy's wire, a job at which they failed utterly.
Before World War I, there were no machine guns. Instead, hand-cranked Gatling guns could fire hundreds of rounds quickly, and riflemen had to reload after every shot. By 1914, however, gas-driven, water-cooled machine guns had been perfected. Now a two-man team could fire hundreds of rounds per minute. Carefully-placed machine guns could command the entire front of a trench line, and when combined with barbed wire to slow or stop attacking troops, machine guns ruled the battlefield.
Airplanes were also used for the first time in battle. World War I started only 11 years after the Wright brothers had flown the first power-driven airplane at Kitty Hawk, but aviation had made great strides during that time.
Airplanes were initially used only for reconnaissance, replacing hot-air balloons. Quickly, each side sent their own planes to deny the enemy any advantage through the air, and so, the Flying Circus was invented. The most famous pilot of the war was Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the "Red Baron." Famously parodied in the Charlie Brown cartoons, Richthofen's record of 80 planes shot down was no laughing matter to the Allies.
When Richthofen was killed in 1918, the Allies gave him a full military funeral and dropped leaflets with pictures of the ceremony over German lines to inform the Germans of their actions. The era of chivalry died hard, even after four years of bloody warfare.
The most feared weapon of the war was poison gas. First used by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres on April 22nd, 1915, chlorine, mustard, and other gases were used to try to break the stalemate of trench warfare.
And the effects of gas were gnarly.
Chlorine caused the lungs to break down and choke a victim to death. Mustard gas blinded its victims, and other forms of gas caused the skin to burn and nerves to seize. The most famous of the many poems to come from the trenches, Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est, speaks of the horror of watching a friend fail to get his gas mask on in time. Gas never managed to create a decisive advantage for either side, and its use diminished after 1916.
Another technology aimed at breaking the brutal stalemate on the Western Front involved yet another 20th-century invention: the automobile. Desperate to break through German wire, the Allies built the first primitive tanks in 1915 and 1916, but their use didn't become widespread until 1917.
There were some successes and many failures, and the tank wasn't the decisive weapon its backers thought it would be. However, during the Allied summer offensive of 1918, which eventually won the war, the tank played an increasingly large role and was instrumental in breaching the German lines.
Armies and air forces weren't the only branches of service to undergo technological revolutions prior to and during World War I. Navies were what got Europe into the war in the first place.
That is, the naval arms race between Britain and an upstart Germany that embarked on a major naval building spree at the end of the 19th century was one of the main causes of the war.
In 1906, Britain launched HMS Dreadnaught, the largest battleship ever to that date. It was massive and it revolutionized naval ship building for all time. Submarines were also perfected before and during the war, and they played a major role by bringing the United States into the war when Germany declared renewed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917.
Other technologies that had a major impact on World War I were wireless telegraphy, invented by Italian Guglielmo Marconi in 1910, that allowed communication with ships at sea; radio and telephone that allowed communications over land; effective battlefield medicine that cut death rates markedly from previous wars; and powerful artillery guns, one of which—the famous German Big Bertha—was moved on railroads and could fire a shell the size of a VW Bug over 70 miles.
None of these weapons proved decisive, and all of them managed to increase the death toll to unheard-of levels. Only with the effective development of the German blitzkrieg of World War II would offense once again become stronger than defense, allowing for a war of maneuver. During World War I, the world learned the high price of too much firepower and not enough mobility.