World War I Hits Centennial

The Great War for World Dominance and Power is Remembered 100 Years Later


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World War I image for American Experience’s The Great War for PBS Media.

More than four million American families sent their sons and daughters to serve in uniform during World War I, a war that lasted four years between 1914 and 1918. November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the “Great War.”

World War I was a conflict of dominance and power between so-called Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allies (Serbia, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium, and the United States).

According to H.W. Crocker III in his book The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I, the seeds were planted for war in June 1914 when Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by 19-year-old Bosnian revolutionary Gavrilo Princip. The event was just a trigger, he states, and the actual causes of the war are more complicated and are still debated by historians today.

By all accounts, several alliances were made between countries during the late 1800s and early 1900s in which they agreed to give each other help when needed. Before World War I the alliances that made mutual defense agreements that would pull them into battle included Russia and Serbia; Germany and Austria-Hungary; France and Russia; Britain, France and Belgium; and Japan and Britain. The United States stayed neutral for a while.

Attempting to increase their power and wealth by bringing additional territories under their control, Britain and France increased their rivalry with Germany, all scrambling to acquire colonies in Africa and elsewhere. The growing European divide led to an arms race between the main countries. The armies of both France and Germany more than doubled in size between 1870 and 1914 and there was fierce competition between Britain and Germany for mastery of the seas.

Entering the fight for dominance and power, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and then Russia got involved to defend Serbia. Germany, seeing Russia mobilizing, declared war on Russia. France was then drawn in against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany attacked France through Belgium, and that pulled Britain into the war. Then, Japan entered the war. Later, Italy and the United States entered on the side of the Allies.

In America Enters World War I (www.history.com), editors report that when World War I erupted in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson pledged neutrality for the United States, a position that the vast majority of Americans favored. Britain, however, was one of America’s closest trading partners, and tension soon arose between the United States and Germany over the latter’s attempted quarantine of the British Isles. Several U.S. ships traveling to Britain were damaged or sunk by German mines, and in February 1915 Germany announced unrestricted warfare against all ships, neutral or otherwise, that entered the war zone around Britain.

One month later, Germany announced that a German cruiser had sunk the William P. Frye, a private American vessel. President Wilson was outraged, but the German government apologized and called the attack an unfortunate mistake.

On May 7, the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner was torpedoed without warning just off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers, 1,198 were killed, including 128 Americans.

The German government maintained that the Lusitania was carrying munitions, but the U.S. demanded reparations and an end to German attacks on unarmed passenger and merchant ships.

In August, Germany pledged to see to the safety of passengers before sinking unarmed vessels, but in November sunk an Italian liner without warning, killing 272 people, including 27 Americans.

With these attacks, public opinion in the United States began to turn irrevocably against Germany.

In 1917, Germany, determined to win its war of attrition against the Allies, announced the resumption of unrestricted warfare in war-zone waters. Three days later, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany, and just hours after that the American liner Housatonic was sunk by a German U-boat.

On February 22, Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill intended to make the United States ready for war.

In late March, Germany sunk four more U.S. merchant ships, and on April 2 President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later, his request was granted.

On June 26, the first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France to begin training for combat. After four years of a bloody stalemate along the western front, the entrance of America’s well-supplied forces into the conflict marked a major turning point in the war and helped the Allies to achieve victory.

When the war finally ended, more than 4.7 million men and women had served in U.S. forces, national guard units, and draft units with about 2.8 million serving overseas. More than 116,500 U.S. soldiers died from combat and disease. Another 200,000 were wounded, a casualty rate far greater than in World War II.

More Americans gave their lives during this war than during the Korea and Vietnam wars combined and it profoundly shaped the rest of the American century. Overall, more than 15 million died and 20 million were injured throughout the world. (Source: www.archives.gov)

The killing ended when Germany formally surrendered November 11, 1918, and all nations agreed to stop fighting while the terms of peace were negotiated. Germany and the Allied Nations (Britain, France, Italy, and Russia) and Associated Powers (United States) signed the peace settlement at the Versailles Palace near Paris — the Treaty of Versailles — June 28, 1919.

The Treaty of Versailles imposed very rigid restrictions against Germany, including limiting its army to 100,000 members.

President Wilson, who opposed parts of the treaty, had developed his own form of reconciliation, called the “Fourteen Points.” The Points included a provision for a League of Nations to prevent “the crime of war.” Wilson also wanted all terms of settlement to be openly negotiated.

But the actual terms of the treaty included secret arrangements for distribution of conquered German territories among the Allied Nations. Many historians believe these terms eventually led to World War II. (Source: www.americaslibrary.gov)

Perhaps because the soldiers who fought in World War I are long gone, it is often called the forgotten war. The war’s centennial is an opportunity to learn about the causes, courses, and consequences of the war; to honor the heroism and sacrifice of all those who served; and to commemorate the centennial of this global event.

For a more thorough and interesting look at World War I, see the PBS film The Great War at www.pbs.org/greatwar. Drawing on unpublished diaries, memoirs, and letters, the film tells the rich and complex story of World War I through the voices of nurses, journalists, aviators, and the American troops who came to be known as “doughboys.”

According to PBS, “The series explores the experiences of African-American and Latino soldiers, suffragists, Native American ‘code talkers,’ and others whose participation in the war to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ has been largely forgotten.


The “Big Four” principal architects of the Treaty of Versailles: (l-r) David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

“The Great War explores how a brilliant PR man bolstered support for the war in a country hesitant to put lives on the line for a foreign conflict; how President Woodrow Wilson steered the nation through years of neutrality, only to reluctantly lead America into the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen, thereby transforming the United States into a dominant player on the international stage; and how the ardent patriotism and determination to support America’s crusade for liberty abroad led to one of the most oppressive crackdowns on civil liberties at home in U.S. history.

“It is a story of heroism and sacrifice that would ultimately claim 15 million lives and profoundly change the world forever.”

 

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