Where Was America?

Good Morning (Afternoon or Evening)!  This is the fifth and final post in the series “Demystifying WWI.”  In case you want to review or are joining us for the first time, here are some links to  the previous posts this month: Alliances, Plan for War, How It Started, and New Weapons.

You may have noticed that the United States was rarely mentioned in the last four posts.  So, where on earth was America during WWI?  (Umm…on a big continent called North America, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans…) Okay, okay- it is a valid questions and we’ll be answering it today.

Now, before going any further, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating isolationism, international aggression, or any other policies.  I’m simply stating the facts of what happened.  I would encourage you to read the history carefully, consider our political and military situation today, and form your own opinions.

The short answer to the question is: America did not become officially involved in WWI until 1917.  Here’s what happened:

1. Neutrality  As Europe went to war, American president, Woodrow Wilson, issued a declaration of neutrality.  What’s that mean?  Imagine you’re at a sporting event and you sit without any expression of pleasure or dislike on your face, never jump and shout when one team scores, and refrain doing anything, excepting eating your own hot dog, chips, and soda.  That’s a simplified example of neutrality.  America would simply watch.

2. Sympathy  Oh, but it’s so hard to sit passively while the team (side) that you secret support is struggling.  America may have proclaimed neutrality, but the majority of leaders and citizens sympathized with the Allies (Britain, France, Russia).  There were three main factors in the foundation of this sympathy: support of political freedom, economic profits (selling lots of weapons to the Allies), and disagreement with Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare.  The latter factor was key in the minds of the American citizens.  The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 was the first widely publicized act; the luxury ship was sunk by torpedo off the coast of Ireland and 100 Americans were among the casualties.  Then in 1916 after a French steamer, the Sussex, was sunk without warning, President Wilson declared that if German sunk anymore merchant or civilian ships, the United States would break diplomatic ties with that country.

3. Preparation  The National Defense Act was passed by Congress in 1916 and increased the American military.  It also authorized the spending of $500,000,000 for a new and modernized navy fleet

4. The President’s Plan  Woodrow Wilson was an educator and he had good intentions, but utopian ideas.  In January 1917 he spoke to Congress and presented his idea for “peace without victory” which would be a “peace between equals” in Europe’s war.  In other words he wanted no conquered nations, but rather peace and a gathering of nations in mutual respect for discussion of international affairs.  He also advocated that each nation’s people choose their own government, limitation of military armaments, freedom of the seas, and an international organization to ensure world peace.

5. Good-bye, Germany  Well, President Wilson’s ideas for peace and prosperity didn’t impress Germany.  They wanted to win the war and issued a proclamation, enforcing their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and declaring that they would sink any vessel found in a designated war zone.  (The Germans hoped to cut the US supply line to Britain and defeat that nation before America had time to join the war.)  On February 3, 1917, the German ambassador was sent home and America broke diplomatic ties with Germany.

6. Zimmerman Note  The British managed to intercept a German secret message sent from Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German ambassador in Mexico.  Basically, it offered that if Mexico and Germany formed an alliance, Germany would help Mexico invade the United States and re-claim New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.  On March 1, 1917, the message was published in American newspapers and the citizens were horrified and angered.

7. Declaration of War  On April 6, 1917, after Germany sank 4 American merchant ships, the United States declared war and officially entered the conflict.

America mobilized quickly and the war effort was supported by the majority of citizens.  Registering for the draft, purchasing war bonds, increasing industrial output, planting victory gardens, attending patriotic events were some of the ways that Americans volunteered to support their nation and the Allies.  By the end of the war 2,000,000 American soldiers would have served in Europe.

US African American infantry unit near Verdun in WWI (Public Domain; source Wikimedia)

US infantry unit near Verdun in WWI (Public Domain; source Wikimedia)

So what happened next?

The entrance of America into the war tipped the scales in the Allies favor.  The American Navy ensured that troops and supplies could safely reach Britain.  The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) commanded by General John Pershing fought alongside the British and French troops, providing a morale boost.  Also food, sent from America, fed hungry Allied civilians.

Germany made an offensive attack in the summer of 1917.  Russia had signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty and pulled out of the war to handle a Communist Revolution within their own borders.  Germany hoped that one more offensive would break the  remaining Allies.  Fierce battles – Cantigny, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry – might have made Germany victorious, but American reinforcements were with the Allies.  Then the Allies launched a counter-offensive which included the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Campaigns.  The Germans were pushed back and when their communications lines were destroyed, they agreed to sign an armistice.

In the armistice treaty the Allies forced Germany to admit sole guilt for causing the war, allow occupation of the country, and surrender most weapons, along with other harsh measures.  The Germans had little choice and signed.  November 11, 1918, was Armistice Day.  (In America we now celebrate Veterans’ Day on this date).

Well, with the war over, the victorious countries sent leaders to negogiate a treaty at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.  President Wilson (America), Prime Minister George (Britain), Premier Clemenceau (France), and Prime Minister Orlando (Italy) were called “the Big Four” and made most of the decisions.  In summary The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to give up territory, demilitarize, admit guilt of causing war, and pay reparation.  Oh, and the League of Nations (think of it as a pre-UN organization) was founded.  America did not join the League of Nations, much to President Wilson’s dismay.

I encourage you to form your own opinions about America’s road into WWI.  However, I’m going to share my thoughts on the outcome.  1) America was now emerging as a key player in international politics  2) America was a nation that could mobilize and army and civilian support rapidly  3) America had great economic interests throughout the world  4) America learned the importance of moving into the “modern era” of technology and military preparation 

WWI ended in 1918 and, in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the seeds of WWII were planted.  They truly believed they had fought “a war to end all wars,” but in reality they had set the stage for an even larger conflict – one where America would join more quickly and officially move to world-power status.

I believe that this often over-looked conflict called World War I ushered in the modern era of international politics and warfare, which continues to unfold today.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. So what did you think? Should America have entered WWI sooner or not at all?  Just your thoughts…

Did we remove some of the mystery surrounding WWI in the last five weeks?  I wish I had a little more time to cover more of WWI, but we’ve come to the end of August and will be moving on to a new topic next month.  If I completely missed something or if you have a question, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it briefly or at least post a helpful resource.

Action & Reaction: How WWI Really Started

For Every Action, There Is An Equal And Opposite Reaction. ~Sir Isaac Newton

“Wait a second…I thought this was a history blog.”  It is.  “Then why’d you start with Newton Third Law of Motion?”  Read on and you’ll see…

Welcome back; this is post #3 in our series: Demystifying the Start of World War I

We’ve discussed the pre-1914 world and Germany’s Schlieffen PlanToday’s the day to find out how the war started and became global.  We’re going to look at it step by step and try to break away the mystery and confusion surrounding the start of WWI.

1. Archduke Goes For A Car Ride  Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was on a state visit to Sarajevo, which was the capital of Bosnia.  Now, the European powers had been having an unfriendly debate about who should control the Balkans area and the Slavic peoples wanted to be free to rule themselves.  On June 28, 1914, Francis and his wife Sophie, were on their way from the train station to the town hall, when a Serbian assassin shot at the car.  Both the duke and his wife were wounded and died within a few minutes.

2. First Declaration of War  The Austrians believed that the assassination was instigated by Serbia, who had been issuing Anti-Austria propaganda.  For about a month, Austria waited and considered.  Then on July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia.

3. Russia Mobilizes Feeling threatened, Russia began preparing for war, causing Germany to…

4. Germany Declares War on Russia  Hoping to win before Russia was mobilized for war, German declared war on August 1, 1914.

5. Germany Declares War on France  It’s always a good time to get back at an old enemy…or is it?  On August 3 Germany declared war on France (Russia’s ally).  It was time to try the Schlieffen plan

6. March Thru Belgium Oops…Belgium is a proclaimed neutral country and German troops marched through (without permission) on August 4.  This is one of the fatal flaws in the Schlieffen Plan because…

7. Britain Declares War on Germany  Angered by Germany’s invasion of Belgium’s neutrality, Britain took a stand and declared war against Germany on August 4, 1914.

This map shows European Alliances at the start of WWI - note that Italy did eventually declare neutrality and later joined the Allies. (Map from Wikicommon Images)

This map shows European Alliances at the start of WWI – note that Italy did eventually declare neutrality and later joined the Allies. (Map from Wikicommon Images)

Do you see how the web of alliance drew the European powers into a conflict that could have been regional? Here’s how the nations aligned for the war:

Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Ottoman Empire (Turkey)

Allies: Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, Romania, Japan, Portugal, Montenegro, Greece, and Italy

Note that Japan is an Asian country involved in the war and the United States will join later.  Also consider that many of the European powers had colonial empires from which they drafted armies and used resources and sometimes even fought in these territories.   The war is global.

So, how did the Schlieffen Plan turn out?  Well, the Belgians weren’t happy about their peaceful country getting invaded and fought defensively; they were ultimately defeated.  Fatigue and the need to send an army to Russia caused a change in the Plan, allowing the Allies to make a stand at the Marne River outside of Paris.  The Battle of the Marne (September 5-10, 1914) saved Paris from capture and the war locked into a stalemate on the Western Front, with both sides digging entrenchments.  Germany was surprised at how quickly Russia mobilized; it didn’t take six weeks.  This caused Germany to have to send troops to hold Russia back on the Eastern Front.

And there, in approximately 500 words, you have a simplified and condensed account of the start of World War I.  A spider-web of alliances set the stage and allowed a tragic assassination to trigger a war from local conflict.

According to Sir Isaac Newton, there is always an equal and opposite reaction to every action.  I think the start of WWI clearly exemplifies this statement in the political and military arenas.  What do you think?

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Now the world was at war…what new weaponry was tested or accepted during this conflict?  If you can think of some inventions that became widely used during World War I – leave a comment and we’ll discuss your answers next Friday.



Two (2) Alliances Too Many

This past June while we were busy talking about The Normandy Invasion of 1944, there was another anniversary of a very historic event.  On June 28, 1914, – just over a hundred years ago – the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated.  (“Okay, I’m sorry, but so what?”)  His assassination triggered the start of World War I.

I believe that in many ways World War I is one of the “forgotten” wars of modern times.  This month (August 2014) we’re going to examine the causes of World War I, how the war actually started and became global, where the USA stood for most of the war, and what new weaponry was tested during the conflict.

For this week, let’s talk about the political situation before World War I and who was friends with whom.

1. A World With Minimal Conflicts “At Home”  After Napoleon was banished from Europe in 1815, the European powers set out to balance the power between nations and hopefully avoid large scale wars involving the whole continent.  They were somewhat successful.  Aside from liberal revolutions within the countries, the Crimean War, and the Franco-Prussian War, European nations managed to “play nice” in the international sandbox.

2. Imperialism  While the  European continent itself remained relatively peaceful, those same countries wrangled and fought over territorial conquests in other parts of the globe.  Imperialism was the fad.  (Imperialism – according the dictionary – is “the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies.”)  Particularly in Africa and parts of Asia, the European powers squabbled or fought colonial conflicts over land and resource control.

3. Ideology  We won’t go into a lot of detail here, but there were a lot of philosophies that were becoming popular in the era before the Great War.  Nationalism was a key factor, prompting countries to desire territories that had originally been theirs, but were now possessed by other nations.  Other philosophies – Darwinism, Modernism, Materialism, Socialism, Communism – were tearing at the foundations of society and producing moral confusion.

4. Alliances  They seem like such a good thing.  If you’re a nation and you get attacked, you’ll have lots of “friends and allies” to fight with you and help keep you safe.  Good idea, but…  When France lost the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), she obviously wasn’t happy.  Prussia (Germany) was an old enemy and it wasn’t pleasant to lose to this new up-and-coming world power.  European nations had been forming and breaking alliances for several decades, but just prior to World War I there were two very important agreements:

#1. Triple Alliance – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy (Italy decided to be neutral during the actual war, but the Ottoman Empire joined the other two)

#2. Triple Entente – Great Britain, France, Russia

Each of the nations within the Alliance or Entente was pledged to support each other in case of war.  Smaller nations tried to align with the bloc they thought would be successful or least dangerous. These would be a key factor in the globalization of World War I.

This map shows the Alliances at the start of WWI.  Note that the Triple Alliance has shifted to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire.  (Image is Public Domain, Wikicommons)

This map shows the Alliances at the start of WWI. Note that the Triple Alliance has shifted to Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. (Image is Public Domain, Wikicommons)

5. Mistrust  Alliances can be good, but in this era, the alliances were created because the nations feared each other.  Lack of communication, national pride, and unwillingness to communicate, fueled a sense of mistrust which spiraled deeper as time ticked closer to 1914.

Although superficially desiring peace, the European powers squabbled in imperialistic pursuits, adopted destructive ideologies, formed far-reaching alliances, and looked at each other with mistrust. It was a powder-keg waiting for a spark…and one nation made plans for swift invasion once the fuse was lit.

(Join us next week for a discussion of this nation and it’s bold military strategy!)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you see any similarities between the pre-1914 Europe and our world today?  What is positive?  What is negative?


“We understand…Continue to Stand for the Ideals”

I can’t believe this is the fourth and final post for the month of June – our last post to commemorate the Normandy Invasion of 1944.  Earlier this month, world leaders met on the Normandy shores to remember the events that took place there and speeches were made to honor the sacrifices.

Today, we’re going to look at some quotes from United States’ President Ronald Reagan’s address at the 40th commemoration of D-day.  Without further commentary, here are some excerpts from his speech:

“The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next.  It was the deep knowledge – and pray God we have not lost it – that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.  You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause.  And you were right not to doubt.”

“You all know that some things are worth dying for.  One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.  All of you loved liberty…”

“The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home.  They…felt in their hearts, though they couldn’t know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4 a.m., in Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying, and in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.”

US troops during the Normandy Invasion, June 1944

US troops during the Normandy Invasion, June 1944

“Something else helped the men of D-day: their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause.  And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer, he told them, ‘Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do.’  Also that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: ‘I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.'”

“These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies…”

“…let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for.  Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: ‘I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.’  Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.”

I believe that President Reagan’s speech is one of the most inspirational ever delivered at the Normandy commemorations.

I hope that the history we’ve discussed in the last few weeks and these inspiring words of honor will challenge you “to continue to stand for the ideals” of American patriotism.

Your historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. We’ll have a new topic for the month of July.  Watch for the first July post on Thursday the 3rd.  (Yeah, it’ll be one day early since Friday is a holiday: 4th of July!)  I’ll give you one hint for next month’s topic: He’s one of the best known heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Please leave a comment if you’ve enjoyed the Normandy Invasion posts or want to guess who will be featured in July!

June 6 – What Happened Today?

What happened today? Um…hmm – you’re most likely thinking. Is it someone’s birthday or anniversary? You’re getting closer. It’s an anniversary of a costly fight to preserve liberty and freedom of thought around the world.

June 6, 1944, was D-Day of the Allied Invasion of Nazi occupied Europe.  Seventy years ago American and British troops set foot on the shores of Normandy and battled to secure the beaches.

Attack troops go ashore in the Normandy Invasion

Allied troops go ashore in the Normandy Invasion

Sadly, this day will pass with comparatively few people – young people especially – remembering the sacrifices that were made.

If you’re wondering: what was D-Day exactly? Here are some fast facts to get started. (In my next three posts for June, we’ll explore some more in-depth stories, so “stay tuned.”)

  • The term “D-Day” is actually a military name for the day a combat attack will start; “The Normandy Invasions” is technically the correct term to use when referring to the June 6, 1944, operations
  • There had been no major land operations by the Allies in mainland Europe since the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940
  • The campaigns in North Africa (1940-1943) and invasion of Italy (1943) were preparation and cover for the invasion of mainland Europe
  • United States’ General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the supreme commander of all Allied Forces in the invasion while General Erwin Rommel commanded the German divisions stationed in Normandy
  • The code name for the invasion was Operation Overlord
  • There were five beach landings in Normandy; the code names for the beaches were Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword
Map of Allied Invasion of Normandy Beaches Left to Right are Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword

Map of Allied Invasion of Normandy
Beaches Left to Right are Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword

  • In the months prior to the landings, the Allies executed bombing raids and a fight to secure air superiority
  • French Resistance Forces played an underground role assisting the Allies in the preparation and attack
  • Paratroopers and Gilders were the first wave of the June 6th attack
  • A naval bombardment of the German “sea wall” defenses preceded troop landings
A British ship during the Normandy Invasion

A British ship during the Normandy Invasion

  • Over 5,500 sea vessels were part of the Normandy landings, making it the largest seaborne invasion in history
  • Approximately 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day
  • Utah and Omaha Beaches were attacked by American troops; Gold, Juno, and Sword were captured by English and Canadian soldiers
  • Allied casualties were approximately 12,000 (dead, wounded, missing) and German casualties were between 4,000 and 9,000
  • The objective was achieved and in the following months Allied forces broke out of Normandy and began a rapid, fighting advance through Europe which culminated less than a year later with the capture of Berlin, Germany and VE (Victory in Europe) Day

Freedom isn’t free and many soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice because they wanted liberties they enjoyed to remain for the next generation. Do we – those next generations – value our freedom and do we honor their sacrifices?

Start today – remember. Ask your friends, acquaintances, co-workers, or strangers if they know what happened 70 years ago and gently remind them of their patriotic duties. Fly the flag that waved victoriously over the beaches. Thank veterans of all wars for their service. And always REMEMBER.

Your historian,

Miss Sarah