Study Guide

World War I People

  • Woodrow Wilson

    Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was the 28th President of the United States, serving two terms from 1913 to 1919. As President of Princeton University and later as Governor of New Jersey, Wilson was a leading Progressive, arguing for a stronger central government and fighting for anti-trust legislation and labor rights. 

    As President of the United States, he passed important legislation on those and many other issues, narrowly winning reelection in 1916 after pledging to keep America out of World War I. Wilson's foreign policy was noted for its idealistic humanitarianism; his Fourteen Points—a statement of national objectives that envisioned a new international order after World War I—ultimately failed, but was one of the clearest expressions of interventionist American values. Wilson suffered a severe stroke during his second term in office and died in 1924.

    Though he pledged to keep America out of World War I, Wilson was obliged to declare war on Germany after the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917. He was relatively uninterested in military affairs, but was able to organize the American economy to provide the food and munitions the army needed to fight in France. 

    At the end of the war, Wilson became the first American president to leave the country during his administration when he sailed for Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Most of Wilson's Fourteen Points advocating for human and democratic rights weren't adopted in the treaty, due to France and Britain seeking punishment for Germany. However, the most important of the Fourteen Points—the creation of the League of Nations—was adopted. Wilson proved unable to get the Treaty of Versailles ratified by the U.S. Senate, and ironically, America never joined the League of Nations.

  • John J. Pershing

    John J. "Blackjack" Pershing (1860–1948) was promoted to General of the Armies during World War I, the highest rank ever held in the United States Army. After unsuccessfully pursuing Pancho Villa through northern Mexico during the Punitive Expedition in 1915 and 1916, Pershing was given command of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I. In his later career, he was instrumental in formulating the plan that would later form the basis for the Interstate Highway System.

    During World War I, General Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. With nearly two million men under his command, Pershing was responsible for more troops than any commander in American history. Further, he helped keep American forces independent, despite repeated European requests to put American troops under foreign command. 

    Though Pershing wasn't known as a brilliant tactician, his soldiers helped turn the tide of World War I to the Allies, and his refusal to allow American soldiers to enter the line before they were fully trained was credited with saving countless lives.

  • Gavrilo Princip

    Gavrilo Princip (1895–1918) was a Serbian nationalist who became the catalyst for World War I when he assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914. The murder started a chain reaction that led to the beginning of the war only one month later.

    A member of a complicated plot against the Austrian heir to the throne, Princip seized his opportunity when a wrong turn forced Ferdinand's car to stall right in front of him. Princip then shot the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, killing them both. At only 19 years old, he was too young to face the death penalty and was sentenced instead to the maximum penalty, 20 years in prison. 

    As the war raged around him, Princip wasted away in jail, dying of disease and neglect in April 1918.

  • Joseph Glidden

    Joseph Glidden (1813–1906) was a farmer who patented barbed wire, which revolutionized the American West and covered the battlefields of World War I. After seeing a demonstration of a type of wire to enclose large spaces for cattle ranching, Glidden perfected the invention and patented his Barb Wire in 1874. 

    It quickly caught on and radically changed ranching in the West, allowing for much larger areas to be enclosed and many more cattle to be run. When he died in 1906, Glidden was one of the richest men in the country.

    During World War I, both sides laid barbed wire by the mile in front of trenches to slow enemy attacks. The wire was so effective at stopping troops that it gave defenders a profound advantage in the war. In the early part of the war, nearly all large scale attacks featured massive artillery bombardments meant to cut the wire. However, due to its open construction, the wire was almost never cut. Glidden's invention—like Alfred Nobel's invention of TNT—was meant for peaceful purposes, but was adapted to kill millions.

  • Manfred von Richthofen

    Manfred von Richthofen (1892–1918), popularly known as the "Red Baron," was the most successful ace of World War I with over 80 credited air victories. Born in Silesia to a noble family, Richthofen began the war as an artillery spotter. In 1915, he joined a new German flying unit and began his illustrious career. He was instrumental in developing the Flying Circus, a new type of mass air attack that confounded the Allies for years (and inspired Monty Python).

    Von Richthofen's famous Fokker triplane, painted red to help his fellow Germans to identify him, is the iconic figure of a pilot in World War I. The Allies dubbed him "The Red Baron" out of respect for his skills. After he was killed in action on April 21st, 1918, the Australian unit that retrieved his body gave him a full military funeral, later dropping propaganda with pictures of the ceremony over German lines.

  • Wilfred Owen

    Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) is one of many World War I soldiers who turned to poetry to express their horror at the war. Like one-third of all Englishmen born in 1893, he was killed in France, only one week before the Armistice. 

    His anti-war poetry stood in stark contrast to the official propaganda about the glories of trench warfare and the heroism of British soldiers. His most famous poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," is a scathing critique of the pro-war sentiment that claimed, "Right and sweet it is to die for one's country."

    Owen represented the many poets who brought the real war home to their readers. The long list included Siegfried Sassoon, John McCrae, and Robert Graves, all of whom fought for England and lost their youth and idealism, if not also their lives. No other war has spawned such a profusion of poetry, which stood as the touchstone of the disenchanted Lost Generation after the war. Owen died in battle one week before the Armistice, but his poems still help readers understand the life of a World War I soldier.