World War I on the Western Front

The Western Front: America enters the War:1917-1918

 

 

Background

 

The role of the United States in World War I is constantly being evaluated by historians. On the one hand, as a neutral nation from 1914 until 1917 it provided aid in the form of material goods and food stuffs to both the Allies and Germany. It also acted as the main monitor of prisoner of war camps from 1914 until 1917 for both the Allies and Germany because according to the rules of international warfare established by the Hague Convention of 1907, neutral nations must monitor POWs and POW camps. Yet, the United States was far from entirely neutral even before its official entry into the war. President Woodrow Wilson, a confirmed Anglophile, privately sided and supported England’s cause in the war. However, he knew that the American public did not necessarily share his support. In fact, many Americans were German American and resisted the idea of fighting against Germany. Still, more Americans were outraged that England had the audacity to seize American naval vessels at sea and strip them of cargo bound for Germany or Austria-Hungary. But as tension on the high seas mounted between Germany and England, hostility toward Germany increased within the United States.

 

American and the RMS Lusitania

 

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the United States pursued a policy of non-intervention, avoiding conflict while trying to broker a peace. Things started to change with the development of the British blockade of Germany, and Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Although the Germans had put notices in many famous American newspapers warning Americans not to sail on any British ship, Americans did not heed the warning.

When the German U-boat U-20 sank the British liner RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, 128 Americans were killed. In response, President Woodrow Wilson insisted that “America is too proud to fight” but demanded an end to attacks on passenger ships. Germany complied, and Wilson unsuccessfully tried to mediate a settlement. Wilson was re-elected in 1916 under the banner, “He kept us out of the war.”

 

The Zimmermann Telegram

 

In January 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, realizing it would mean American entry. The German Foreign Minister, in the Zimmermann Telegram, invited Mexico to join the war as Germany’s ally against the United States. In return, the Germans would finance Mexico’s war and help it recover the territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The United Kingdom intercepted the message and presented it to the U.S. embassy in the UK. From there it made its way to President Wilson, who released it to the public.

 

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Image depicting the states promised to Mexico by Germany in the Zimmermann Telegram, 1917.

 

Wilson asked Congress for “a war to end all wars” that would “make the world safe for democracy” and eliminate militarism from the globe. He argued that the war was important and that the U.S. thus must have a voice in the peace conference. After the sinking of seven U.S. merchant ships by German submarines and the publication of the Zimmermann telegram, Wilson called for war on Germany, which the U.S. Congress declared on April 6, 1917.

 

The American Expeditionary Force (AEF)

 

The United States initially had a small army, but after the passage of the Selective Service Act 2.8 million men were drafted. By summer 1918 America was sending 10,000 fresh soldiers to France every day.

The British and French wanted American units to reinforce their troops already on the battle lines and not waste scarce shipping on supplies. General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) commander, refused to break up American units to be used as filler material. As an exception, he did allow African-American combat regiments to be used in French divisions.

The Harlem Hell Fighters fought as part of the French 16th Division and earned a unit Croix de Guerre for their actions at the Battles of Château-Thierry, Belleau Wood, and Sechault. AEF doctrine called for the use of frontal assaults, which had long since been discarded by British Empire and French commanders due to the large loss of life that resulted.

 

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Painting depicting the Harlem Hell Fighters in France, 1918.

 

Final Battles of WWI

 

The Hundred Days Offensive—the Allies’ series of decisive victories on the Western Front—began on August 8, 1918 with the Battle of Amiens. The battle involved over 400 tanks and 120,000 British, Dominion, and French troops. After an advance as far as 14 miles, German resistance stiffened, and the battle was concluded on August 12.

In nearly four weeks of fighting that began on August 8, over 100,000 German prisoners were taken. The German High Command realized that the war was lost and made attempts to reach a satisfactory end. The day after that battle, Ludendorff said: “We cannot win the war anymore, but we must not lose it either.”

The final assault on the Hindenburg Line began with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, launched by French and American troops on September 27. This offensive attack would prove a turning point, as it resulted in the devastation of German morale.

On October 8, 1918, a gangly, red-haired man from Pall Mall, Tennessee became the most decorated American soldier of the war during one event of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. Corporal (later Sergeant) Alvin C. York, who had initially been a conscientious objector—someone who does not believe fighting in a war is right, led his unit up a hill north of the Chatel-Chéhéry village in northern France. Ordered to assault and capture the position, York and thirteen of his men charged the hill. Using a technique he learned hunting turkeys in Tennessee, York attacked the German soldier at the rear of the advancing line, before attacking the ones at the front. At the end of the day, he had captured 132 German soldiers and destroyed twenty-five machine gun nests. When York returned to camp that night with his columns of German prisoners, his superior officer remarked, “Well York, I see you captured the whole damned German Army.” Modestly, York replied, “No Sir, I’ve caught 132.”  York’s actions earned him the Medal of Honor, the French Medal of Honor, and numerous other awards.

 

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Painting depicting the heroism of Alvin C. York on Oct. 8, 1918.

 

With the military faltering and widespread loss of confidence in the Kaiser, Germany moved towards surrender. Prince Maximilian of Baden took charge of a new German government to negotiate with the Allies.  Maximilian immediately began negotiations with President Wilson in the hope that he would offer better terms than the British and French. On November 9, 1918, Germany was declared a republic. The Kaiser, kings, and other hereditary rulers were removed from power and Wilhelm fled to exile in the Netherlands. The new Germany, known as the Weimar Republic, would emerge as a democratic state fraught with social and political challenges and turmoil.

Soon after the Weimar Republic was enacted, the Germans signed the Armistice of Compiègne, which ended the fighting on the Western Front. It went into effect at 11 a.m. Paris time on November 11, 1918 (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”); this marked a victory for the Allies and a complete defeat for Germany, although not formally a surrender. Although the armistice ended the actual fighting, it took six months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty: the Treaty of Versailles.

 

Legacy 

 

The Western Front proved the decisive front in the outcome of World War I. Some historians claim “the war was won and lost on the Western Front.” However, the Western Front must not overshadow the scope, scale, and losses endured around the world as World War I raged. Many historians argue that Germany could have potentially won the war had the German Army not been scattered across various parts of the world and instead had been solely focused on the Western Front. On the other hand, some historians argue that Germany was doomed to defeat from the moment it went to war because it lacked the industrial, agricultural, and human resources to be successful.

The legacies of Germany’s loss in World War I were felt immediately as the new Weimar Republic struggled to stay afloat. Hyperinflation, violence, and political instability rocked the new country. Meanwhile, England, France, and Belgium struggled to repair and compensate for their countries’ unbearable losses (financial, physical, and human). Only the United States would emerge financially triumphant after World War I. And that triumph would come crashing to a complete collapse in 1929 with the arrival of the Great Depression.