WWI Christmas Scene

Here’s Part 1 of your promised Christmas gift from Gazette665! (Part 2 will follow in a couple days.)

Well, my mom always said don’t watch the commercials on TV (and she’s right), but when a friend sent me this video I knew I had to share. There have been some highly critical comments about this clip being used as a commercial, but I’m asking you to forget that for a moment and see it as a tribute to WWI soldiers and their Christmas 100 years ago. The touching simplicity makes this a historical Christmas clip worth seeing. Enjoy!

It also seemed like a nice way to “finish” our previous posts on WWI this year.

Merry Christmas!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts on this thought-provoking film clip?

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.

New Weapons: New Warfare

What do you think of when you think of World War I? After all the alliance mess and initial outbreak of war, the next thing that comes to my mind is trench warfare.

Technically, trench warfare was not a new thing during the First World War. (It actually started during the American Civil War.) But during WWI trench warfare was the main tactical form of offense and defense on land. Just as a review, trench warfare involved troops living in (usually muddy) trenches, surviving artillery barrages, trying to shoot the enemy across barb wired “no man’s land” and dreading the day when somebody with too many stars on their collar decided it was a good idea for the common soldiers to jump out of the trenches and try to run across the empty fields while getting shot at. Get the idea of trench warfare?

OK, so the soldiers needed some innovative weapons for defense and offense and a number of new technological advancements were made during this conflict. Now, wars – with all their destructive powers – force technology advancement: read on and consider how some of the innovations from WWI battlefields help modern life today.

1. Airplane If fighting on the ground is so hard, how about fighting in the skies? The airplanes of WWI were hard to manage, but daring pilots climbed into the open air cockpits for reconnaissance missions, bombing raids (dropping the bombs by hand) and air to air combat. The mounted machine gun for airplanes was designed with an “interrupter” so the pilots wouldn’t shoot off their own propeller. The mass production of planes and the training of pilots launched the aviation industry which grew rapidly in the following decades, expanding into civilian transportation.

File:AL17 Warren Eaton Photo 000609 (10873949664).jpg

WWI Era Airplane (Source Wikimedia)

2. Zeppelin The Germans used these large “airships” to glide over London and drop incendiary bombs. The Zeppelins were different from our modern day media blimps – they had a solid interior framework and were then filled with gas.

3. Machine gun Returning to the muddy trenches, we’ll find the machine gun. This new technology allowed hundreds of bullets to be fired from the gun, which had a devastating effect on troops making frontal assaults on the trenches. Machine guns tended to be placed in strategic locations (called nests) and could sweep a wide range of open ground. (Have you seen the old black and white film “Sergeant York” with Gary Cooper? Machine gun nests and their effects are shown in this movie.)

4. Tank OK, so the tanks weren’t really effective in WWI, except as a fear tactic, but these metal monsters with tracks were definitely here to stay and would evolve into effective fighting machines in the years leading up to WWII. During the First World War, however, the tanks tended to get stuck in the mud or were unable to get out of trenches; oh, but they were effective for mowing down the barbed wire so the infantry could follow – sophisticated lawn mower?

5. Gas There were several types of gas used for chemical warfare during WWI. Troops were issued gas masks to help prevent the burns and other excruciating injuries caused by the poison gas. Often, both sides suffered when the gas attacks were made because there was no guarantee that the breeze would consistently blow the gas clouds toward the enemy. Thankfully, chemical warfare has not been widely used since WWI and I can’t think of any positive benefits for society from the technology of this weapon.

6. Flamethrower I was really doubtful when someone listed this weapon in a comment last week, so I researched it a little…and learned something new! Yes, indeed, the modern flamethrower was first used during WWI. It was very primitive, and mostly stationary, but it would evolve into the fearsome weapon of WWII and the Cold War era. Interestingly, some of the technology used on flamethrowers has helped to improve tools like welding sticks.

7. Radio For the first time in warfare, communication was becoming easier.  Sure, they still used messengers, telegraph, and carrier pigeons, but with the ability to transmit human voice through wires, communication was on its way to a revolution.

8. Submarines Scientists and inventors toyed with the idea of underwater attacks for centuries, but in WWI the science fiction became reality. Dark vessels ploughed along underwater, surfacing to fire torpedoes at unsuspecting targets, before sinking into the ocean depths again. The Germans had a strong submarine fleet and they practiced unrestricted submarine warfare; they would fire torpedoes at any ship, even neutral civilian vessels. This practice of unrestricted naval warfare alarmed the world and was a key factor to bring the United States into the conflict.  (Oops, did I just give away next week’s topic?)

So what were the effects of the new weapons of WWI? Well, to be blunt, more battlefield and civilian deaths in this large scale war. On a more positive note, some of the technology did transfer into the peaceful world, making life safer and easier (ironic, isn’t it?). Ultimately, WWI weaponry changed warfare and these innovations ushered in a new way of fighting that would be further developed in WWII, about three decades later.

Now, wars are fought on land, sea, and air. Communication, revolutionized by radio, continues to improve. Tanks evolved from metal monsters stuck in the mud, to the fast units that speed across deserts today. Submarines, improved and transformed, now stay underwater for years, guarding and patrolling.

The new weapons of WWI brought a new era of warfare which continues to impact our world today.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts?

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.



Planning A Conquest…Maybe?

Do you pre-plan everything, make hundreds of to-do lists, and strategize your errands around town to avoid traffic?  I do.  In fact, one of the things I’ve had to learn through the years is readjusting my plan as events unfold.  Well, pre-planning is great.  Check lists are wonderful.  And strategy is a good idea.  Sometimes…

You see, before World War I started, one nation had spent a lot of time pre-planning a military strategy for quick success.  We can applaud them as planners and strategists, but, in the end, their plan didn’t turn out well.

This is the Imperial German Army in the decades before WWI.  Count von Schlieffen is the second soldier from the right.  (Image from Wikicommon, Public Domain)

This is the Imperial German Army in the decades before WWI. Count von Schlieffen is the second soldier from the right. (Image from Wikicommon, Public Domain)

May I introduce our topic for this week?  Germany and the Schlieffen Plan.  (If you missed last week’s intro to the pre-WWI world, here’s a quick link.)

With all the alliances that the European powers had been creating, Germany felt threatened.  France and Russia were allies, and Germany was sandwiched between.  Yikes!  To combat this threat, the Germany military developed a strategic plan in 1905, eleven years before the war started.  Named after Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the highest ranking military commander at the time, the Schlieffen Plan hoped to cripple both France and Russia.

Here’s how it was supposed to work:

1. Invade France  The German army was supposed to attack toward the west, first.  The invasion route called for some troops to swing north through Belgium and come down on Paris, while other units entered along the central French border and headed north toward Paris.  The maneuver through Belgium was to avoid strong French fortifications along the German/French border.  This invasion had a six week timetable, which required strict adherence because…

2. Race East  Count von Schlieffen calculated that it would take Russia about six weeks to mobilize for war.  In 1905 Russia was still a developing country, lacking good communication and transportation.  Thus Germany planned to have six weeks after a declaration of war before Russia could present a military threat.  In six weeks, France should be captured and the army would move east.

3. Defeat Russia  An army with one great victory already should be able to quickly defeat Russia.  The war ends and German wins…simple, right?

4. Hmm… The plan was militarily strong, except at one point.  Belgium was a neutral country since 1839 and didn’t want wars or armies within her borders.  Perhaps Count von Schlieffen assumed the Belgians wouldn’t mind an army only running through, maybe he forgot – but this was the weak link in the plan.

In 1905 the Schlieffen Plan looked good on paper, but how would it turn out in actual combat?  Eleven years later the world would find out the extent of Germany’s secret plan.

However, Germany failed to “update” the plan and reassess current situations, leading to serious problems and war a larger scale than they had ever anticipated.

Join us next week for THE START of WWI – how did the conflict begin and how successful was the Schlieffen Plan? (Look for the post on Sunday…see you then).

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Does the Schlieffen Plan seem strategically sound?  What variables do you think Germany failed to recognize?



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?