Thursday, April 6, 2017

100 Years Ago Today the Americans Enter WW 1, to "Oh, were the Americans in the Great War?"


An American Doughboy receives a medal from King George V, World War 1
Updating this post on April 6, 2017, commemorating one hundred years ago today we entered World War 1.

An odd occurrence connects my recent trips to Italy and England. It concerns two conversations with Englishmen of a certain age (let's say somewhere 60 to 70) in both places.

In general chit chat with each man I asked if he had seen the play War Horse. Neither had, though both knew of it and had read about it.

I was interested to pose an observation to the play—which I've seen both in London and New York—to each: that it was an extraordinary theatrical experience, but I was surprised that there was no character, or piece of dialogue, or even hint that the Americans fought for the Allies in World War 1. There is a battle scene in France, with the Brits, French, Germans, and then all of a sudden, it's Armistice, Victory, end of the war.

I was simply surprised that there wasn't one line of dialogue about the Yanks coming over. I don't mean that there should have been a whole scene, or even American character, just a reference to the forces that entered and helped to bring the war to its end. (I know the play doesn't reference the Russians, Austrians, or Italians either, but that little Second Battle of the Marne turned the tide of the war, so we're not just a footnote.)

Then each Brit—in two different countries—said the same thing to me in response:

"Oh, were the Americans in World War 1?"

Wow. Ouch. There was no irony here, it was not leg pulling. These men were highly educated guys. How could they not know that we went "over there." It's a George M. Cohan song: "and we won't come back 'til it's over, over there" sung at the end of the James Cagney film Yankee Doodle Dandy. On the actual battlefields it was the Doughboys, remember?

Service & Sacrifice

It is notable, to an American visiting France, England, Italy, to see the names of the war dead cut into stone memorials in every town, no matter the size, as well as into churches and colleges across the country. (That is not our way, even though towns across the midwest lost tens of thousands of boys to the foreign fields during WW1 & WW2.)

I was reminded of this again at my recent visit St. John's Chapel, Cambridge, and in the Uppingham parish church, each of which had the all too-long list of a generation of young men, killed during WW1 and remembered by name.

The number of American lives lost---around 116,000---does not compare in number to the almost 3 million British lives lost. But remember that the US was no super power in 1914. We were a nation of teaming, recent immigrants from Germany, France, and Ireland, which argued for US neutrality, something Woodrow Wilson fought hard to maintain.

Lest we forgot, here's a quick recap if WW1, courtesy of lots of Wiki pages:

•German U-Boat's dominated the early part of the war. The Lusitania— a passenger liner which later was proved to be carrying ammunition—was torpedoed and sank on May 7, 1915, in 18 minutes.

1,959 crew and passengers; 1,198 died, 761 survived. 139 of the dead were Americans, 9 survivors.

Unlike the attack on Pearl, this was not enough to pull the US into the war immediately, although it was something the country remembered.

•President Woodrow Wilson worked hard for American Neutrality, following contemporary leaders from all walks of life who descried the war and insisted the US stay out of it: Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ford, Samuel Gompers, and the Progressive Movement Jane Adams, just to name a few

*In 1917 Germany stepped up the Uboat activity even further, threatening passenger liners directly with the hopes of bringing the US in the war. That combined with the Zimmerman Telegram--a proposal from German Empire to Mexico to declare war against the US that was intercepted and decoded by the British---finally tipped the scales.

•President Wilson asked Congress for "a war to end all wars" that would "make the world safe for democracy," and Congress voted to declare war on April 6, 1917.

By June 1917, 14,000 U.S. soldiers had arrived in France, and by May 1918 over one million U.S. troops were stationed in France, half of them on the front lines, with troops arriving at a rate of 10,000 a day at a time Germany could not replace its losses.

In total we mobilized 4 million military personal and fought in 13 campaigns

Cambrai, November 20 to December 4, 1917
Somme Defensive, March 21 to April 6, 1918
Lys, April 9 to 27, 1918
Aisne, May 27 to June 5, 1918
Montdidier-Noyon, June 9 to 13, 1918
Champagne-Marne, July 15 to 18, 1918
Aisne-Marne, July 18 to August 6, 1918
Somme Offensive, August 8 to November 11, 1918
Oise-Aisne, August 18 to November 11, 1918
Ypres-Lys August 19 to November 11, 1918
St. Mihiel, Sept. 12 to 16, 1918
Meuse-Argonne, Sept. 26 to November 11, 1918
Vitto Veneto, October 24 to November 4, 1918

My grandfather, Arthur Cornelius Brown, was drafted in in May 1917, and served through June 9, 1919. He was one of the lucky ones.  He was not shipped overseas, but served his time in Brooklyn, in Fort Hamilton. The family story explains that he could not wink.  Which meant that he would be a very lousy shot when trying to fire a gun.

I have a feeling that if the war had continued on longer, he would have been sent regardless, being otherwise an able-bodied man.



The American World War 1 Cemeteries
Many men were not as lucky as my grandfather, as the cemeteries of Europe attest to. Off they went, Over There, never to return to the farms and cities they left.

There are 8 American World War 1 cemeteries in Europe: 6 in France, 1 in England, 1 in Belgium. Not surprisingly, they shadow the campaigns. The cemeteries are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which has produced a small video for each.

From some of the close-ups on the tombstones you see Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Ohio et al., reminding us that it was the farm boys who left the farm to fight against the strange sounding Kaiser,  and died so many miles from home.
 

Belgium: Flanders Field American Cemetery & Memorial

John Mcrae wrote his haunting "In Flanders fields the poppies grow/Between the crosses, row on row" in 1915, after burying a friend following the second battle of Ypres. McCrae himself is buried in Wimereux Cemetery, in the Commonwealth War Graves section. He died of pneumonia at a field hospital in Boulogne.

England: Brookward

France: Suresnes

Aisne-Marne

Oise-Aisne, it's where the poet Joyce Kilmer is buried

Somme American Cemetery

St. Mihiel

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
14,246 Americans are buried there, the largest interment of U.S. war dead in Europe in one cemetery


9 comments:

Tim Footman said...

Not to denigrate the US contribution to WWI, or the lives lost, but it was nowhere near as long or decisive as the country's role in WWII. If the US hadn't declared war in 1941 it's quite possible that Germany and Japan could have won; the Americans may have accelerated the defeat of Germany and Austria by joining the fight in 1917, but it would have happened anyway. (I'm guessing that quite a few Americans don't know all the countries that sent troops to Iraq in 2003.)

M.A.Peel said...

I agree completely with your points, especially about Iraq. I think it's a failure of journalists not to add recent context/history to ongoing reports, because people don't remember.

Anonymous said...

I think you meant to say "attack on Pearl" instead of Peal.

M.A.Peel said...

Yes, it's a typo. Fixed.

Anonymous said...

I think you meant to say want instead of wan.

Ellen O'Neill said...

Yes. Typo fixed.

MonkeyZero99 said...

Also, Bryan, not Bryant.

Ellen O'Neill said...

Yes. Fixed. Thanks MonkeyZero99.

Anonymous said...

It's disturbing that American involvement in WWI has been forgotten by some. I remember a man in my home town who was gassed in the war (poison gas was a new and still legal weapon in that war)...he still suffered from the aftereffects.