US History/World War I
- 1 Europe
- 2 War Breaks Out
- 3 The Early Stages
- 4 The Middle Stages
- 5 The United States Declares War
- 6 Trench Warfare
- 7 The End of the War
- 8 American After-Effects Of The War
- 9 Treaty of Versailles
- 10 Questions For Review
- 11 References
In 1815, Europe had united to defeat French Emperor Napoleon. For a century since that time, there had been no major war in Europe. Countries had organized themselves in a complex system of alliances.
After Napoleon's defeat, the United Kingdom, France, Prussia, Russia, and Austria met in Vienna. These nations decided that if power in Europe was balanced, then no nation would become so powerful as to pose a threat to the others. The most important of these were the German Confederation. In 1871, after defeating France and Prussia, several small German nations combined into the German Empire. This upset the traditional balance of power.
German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck began to construct a web of alliances to protect German dominance. Germany and the United Kingdom were on good terms, as Germany had not built a navy to go up against British sea power. In 1873, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Germany formed the Three Emperors' League. Nine years later, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany formed the Triple Alliance. In 1887, the Reinsurance Treaty ensured that Russia would not interfere in a war between France and Germany.
During this time the British Queen Victoria built alliances in her own way. During years of relative peace, she had her children marry into many of the royal families of Europe, believing that this would solidify relations among the nations. In the first decade of the Twentieth century the Kaiser and the King of England were cousins through Victoria, as were the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia.
In 1890, Bismarck was fired by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who then began to undo many of Bismarck's policies. He decided to build up a German navy, antagonizing the United Kingdom. He did not renew German agreements with Russia. In 1894, this led Russia to form a new alliance with Germany's rival France.
In 1904, France and the United Kingdom decided to end centuries of bitter enmity by signing the Entente Cordiale. Three years later, those two nations and Russia entered the Triple Entente. Imperial Russia began to build its army, as did Germany and Austria-Hungary.
War Breaks Out
Austria-Hungary was a patchwork of several nations ruled by the Habsburg family. Several ethnic groups resented rule by the Habsburgs. In June, 1914, the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, traveled to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, who hated Habsburg rule, assassinated the Archduke and his wife. This assassination triggered the First World War.
The Austro-Hungarian government decided to retaliate by crushing Serbian nationalism. They threatened the Serbian government with war. Russia came to the aid of the Serbs. To oppose this alliance, Austria-Hungary called on Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II said his country would give Austria-Hungary whatever it needed to win the war; in effect, a "blank check." In addition to these open agreements, any of these countries might have had secret agreements with other states. The result was almost all of Europe at war, with the largest battlefield ever seen before.
In July, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany began to mobilize their troops. The conflict in Austria-Hungary quickly spread over Europe. In August, Germany declared war on France. The Germans demanded that Belgium allow German troops to pass through the neutral nation. When King Albert of Belgium refused, Germany violated Belgian neutrality and invaded. Belgium appealed to the United Kingdom for aid. The British House of Commons threatened that Great Britain would wage war against Germany unless it withdrew from Belgium. The Germans refused, and the United Kingdom joined the battle. The Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, were pitted against the Allies, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France.
The Early Stages
German troops entered Belgium on August 4. By August 16, they had begun to enter France. The French Army met the Germans near the French border with Belgium. France lost tens of thousands of men in less than a week, causing the French Army to retreat to Paris. The Germans penetrated deep into France, attempting to win a quick victory.
On August 5, the United States formally declared their neutrality in the war. They also offered to mediate the growing conflict. In the United States, the opinions were divided. Some felt we should aid England, France, and Belgium because they were depicted as victims of barbarous German aggression and atrocities. Others felt we should avoid taking sides.
The Allies won a key battle at Marne, repelling the German offensive. The Germans lost especially due to a disorganized supply line and a weak communications network. The French Army, however, had not completely defeated the Germans. Both sides continually fought each other, to no avail. On the Western Front, Germany and France would continue to fight for more than three years without any decisive victories for either side.
Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, Germany faced Russia. In the third week of August, Russian troops entered the eastern part of Germany. Germany was at a severe disadvantage because it had to fight on two different fronts, splitting its troops. However, despite Germany's disadvantage, no decisive action occurred for three years.
The United Kingdom used its powerful Royal Navy in the war against Germany. British ships set up naval blockades. The Germans, however, countered with submarines called U-boats. U-boats sank several ships, but could not, during the early stages of the war, seriously challenge the mighty Royal Navy.
The war spread to Asia when Japan declared war on Germany in August, 1914. The Japanese sought control of German colonies in the Pacific. Germany already faced a two-front war, and could not afford to defend its Pacific possessions.
In October, 1914, the Ottoman Empire entered, allying itself with the Central Powers. The entry of the Ottoman Empire was disastrous to the Allies. The Ottoman Empire controlled the Dardanelles strait, which provided a route between Russia and the Mediterranean. The Ottoman sultan declared holy war- jihad- against the Allies. Muslims in the British Empire and French Empire were thus encouraged to rebel against their Christian rulers. However, the Allies' concerns were premature. Few Muslims accepted the sultan's proclamation. In fact, some Muslims in the Ottoman Empire supported the Allies so that the Ottoman Empire could be broken up, and the nations they ruled could gain independence.
The Middle Stages
Between 1914 and 1917, the war was characterized by millions of deaths leading nowhere. Neither side could gain a decisive advantage on either front.
In 1915, the Germans began to realize the full potential of Submarines. German Submarines engaged in official unrestricted warfare, engaging and sinking any ship found within the war zone regardless of the flag flown. Germany's justification for this use of force was that there was no certain method to ascertain the ultimate destination of the passengers and cargo carried by the ships in the war zone, and thus they were all taken as attempts at maintaining the anti-German blockade.
In May, 1915, Italy broke the Triple Alliance by becoming an Allied Power. In October, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers. Each side had induced their new partners to join by offering territorial concessions. Italy prevented Austria-Hungary from concentrating its efforts on Russia, while Bulgaria prevented Russia from having connections with other Allied Powers.
In May, 1916, one of the most significant naval battles in World War I occurred. The Royal Navy faced a German fleet during the Battle of Jutland. The Battle proved that the Allied naval force was still superior to that possessed by the Central Powers. The Germans grew even more dependent on U-boats in naval battle.
In August, 1916, Romania joined the Allies. Romania invaded Transylvania, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But when the Central Powers struck back, they took control of important Romanian wheat fields.
In 1917, the liberal-democratic government of Russia that was lead by Aleksander Kerensky was over thrown by V.I. Lenin. When Lenin took over in Russia one of the things he promised was to change world politics. The terms by which Lenin wanted to changed world politics challenged Woodrow Wilson's and Lenin's Bolshevik-style revolutions spreading world wide was something that western leaders did not want. 
The United States Declares War
Through all of this, America was neutral. It adopted the policy of isolationism because it felt that the increasing colonialism in Europe did not affect North America. There was a strong pacifist strain in American society, as evidenced by such popular songs as "I Didn't Raise my Boy to be a Soldier" and "Don't Take My Darling Boy Away," though at the same time many ethnic groups agitated for involvement. Economic links with the Allies also made neutrality difficult. The British were flooding America with new orders, many of them for arms. The sales were helping America get out of its recession. Although this was good for the economic health of the United States, Germany saw America becoming the Allied arsenal and bank.
On May 7, 1915, the German navy sunk the Cunard Line passenger ship R.M.S. Lusitania, operating under the flag of Great Britain. Of the 1,959 passengers 1200 died, including one hundred twenty Americans. The ship's quick explosion was due to a hidden cargo of American weaponry, a fact the US government denied. Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist, resigned over Wilson's responsibility for the placement of arms and the consequent inevitability of war. Various American citizens from different ethnic groups put pressure on their government to join the war. However, the US government was calmed by the Germans, who agreed to limit submarine warfare. In 1917, the Germans reinstated unrestricted submarine warfare in order to cripple the British economy by destroying merchant ships, and break the sea blockade of Britain.
On February 24, 1917, the American ambassador received a telegram in London from the British. It enclosed a British-decoded message, originally sent as a cyphered telegram from the German foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmerman, to the ambassador in Mexico. Zimmerman proposed that the event of the war with the United States, Germany and Mexico would join in alliance. Germany would fund Mexico's conflict with the US: victory achieved. Mexico would then be able to gain their lost territories with Arizona. The message was published in American newspapers on March 1st.
On the evening of April 4, 1917 at 8:30 P.M., President Wilson appeared before a joint session of Congress, asking for the declaration of war to make the world "safe for democracy." He was hoping for a quick resolution of the conflict. Congress complied on April 6, 1917. The United States was at last at war with Germany.
The last American war had been the minor Spanish-American War a generation before. A draft of men above the age of eighteen followed the call to war, but many more volunteered. Men wanted to escape their lives and join the military for a job and an adventure.
The US had to mobilize its military before it could aid the Allies by sending troops. The cadre of the U.S. Army had experience in mobilizing and moving troops from its Mexican expedition, but the Army needed to expand to over one million men, most of which were untrained. This new draft was for a "scientific" army. Military officers were selected by the new "IQ" tests. The new conscripts met en massein embarkation camps in places such as Yahank, New York. Companies exercised together and drilled together. At this time, soldiers were taught techniques such as assembling and disassembling weapons blindfolded. They drilled constantly in formation. There was much amusement at these shaven-headed, first-time solders. The chorus of a contemporary song went, "Good morning, Mister Zip-Zip-Zip,/ With your hair cut just as short as mine,/ Good morning, Mister Zip-Zip-Zip,/ You're surely looking fine!/ Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,/ If the Camels don't get you,/ The Fatimas must . . . [Camels and Fatimas were brands of cigarettes.]
Then they went into ships to be transported to Europe. On the battlefield, they were placed in companies with other Americans, rather than being embedded with other nations.
American business and industry became involved as men created more military supplies, and jobs opened for building and designing new materials to be used in battle. However, for purposes of the battle, most of the weapons American soldiers carried had been designed by Europeans. An American-style tank was produced, but only came out after the war.
In the same way, the Navy could send a battleship division to assist the British Grand Fleet, but needed to expand. To supply the American forces, new supply lines in France would be needed south of the British and French lines, which meant the U.S. would take over the southern part of the Western Front battle line. The US could and did help the Allies with monetary assistance. Increased taxes and the sale of war bonds allowed the US to raise enormous sums of money. Politicians and celebrities, as well as such movie stars as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, headed huge patriotic "Bond Rallies," where people were encouraged to buy bonds.
A government committee to influence the public on the war was formed, the Committee on Public Information or CPI. Among its organs of publicity were the "Four Minute Men," speakers who talked on pertinent subjects on Vaudeville stages, in movie theaters, and in public assemblies. There was also an organization of private citizens formed to root out German sympathizers, the American Protective League. A hit movie, "The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin," was one hit of 1918. To strengthen the United States in this time of stress, families were encouraged to grow Victory Gardens, and American women and African Americans were encouraged to go into jobs the servicemen had left. This is the beginning of the Great Migration, when Southern African Americans began moving to Northern cities for jobs.
The U.S. commander, General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, faced immense pressure from the British and French governments to use American forces in small units to reinforce depleted British and French units. This was impossible politically. Pershing insisted to General Foch, the Generalissimo of the Allied armies, that the U.S. Army would fight as a single Army. Pershing did not want to give his men to other Allied commanders, many of whose strategies he disagreed with.
The European method of fighting, as it had been since the Boer War, was trench warfare. An army on the French battleground protected itself from the enemy with zigzag trenches, mines, barbed wire, and a line of rifles and machine guns. Between the enemy lines was a contested area, "no man's land." An attempt to advance toward the enemy was met with gunfire. These trenches stalemated military advances, as any man who raised his head from the trenches would be shot. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, for example, Allied troops suffered 600,000 dead and wounded to earn only 125 square miles; the Germans lost 400,000 men. Rain fell in the trenches. As one song put it, a soldier was "Up to your waist in water, up to your eyes in slush." The damp produced a foot disease known as "trench foot": if untreated, it could rot flesh from the bone. The close, unsanitary conditions of the front lines encouraged fleas and lice, and typhoid, typhus, and dysentery caused deaths unrelated to gunfire. Worst of all, perhaps, was that sometimes the enemy would gas your trench. There was no way to escape, and sometimes no masks to protect you.
First used by the Germans in April 1915, chlorine gas stimulated overproduction of fluid in the lungs, leading to death by drowning. One British officer tended to troops who had been gassed reported that, “quite 200 men passed through my hands . . . Some died with me, others on the way down . . . I had to argue with many of them as to whether they were dead or not.” Chlorine, mustard, and phosgene gas would continue in use throughout the war, sometimes blistering, sometimes incapacitating, and often killing.
The End of the War
Despite the fact that the Germans could concentrate their efforts in one area, the Central Powers faced grim prospects in 1918. Encouraged by the United States joining the war, several nations joined the Allied Powers. The four Central Powers of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria faced the combined might of the Allied Powers of the United Kingdom and the British Empire, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, France, Belgium, Japan, Serbia, Montenegro, San Marino, Italy, Portugal, Romania, the United States, Cuba, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, Costa Rica, Brazil, Liberia, Siam (Thailand) and China (some of the above nations did not support the war with troops, but did contribute monetarily.) The Germans launched a final, desperate attack on France, but it failed miserably. Due to Allied counterattacks, the Central Powers slowly began to capitulate.
Bulgaria was the first to collapse. A combined force of Italians, Serbs, Greeks, Britons, and Frenchmen attacked Bulgaria through Albania in September, 1918. By the end of September, Bulgaria surrendered, withdrawing its troops from Serbia and Greece, and even allowing the Allies to use Bulgaria in military operations.
British forces, led by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), together with nationalist Arabs, were successful in the Ottoman Empire. About a month after Bulgaria's surrender, the Ottoman Empire surrendered, permitting Allies to use the Ottoman territory, including the Dardanelles Strait, in military operations.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire also decided to surrender in October. The royal family, the Habsburgs, and the Austro-Hungarian government desperately sought to keep the Empire of diverse nationalities united. Though Austria-Hungary surrendered, it failed to unite its peoples. The once-powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire was destroyed by the end of October, splitting into Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.
Germany, remaining all alone, also decided to surrender. President Wilson required that Germany accede to the terms of the Fourteen Points, which, among other things, required Germany to return territory acquired by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to Russia and the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to France. Germany found the terms too harsh, while the Allies found them too lenient. But when German Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated the throne, the new German government quickly agreed to Wilson's demands. On November 11, 1918, World War I had come to an end.
The war had been marked by millions and millions of casualties. The deaths were so wide-spread and so vast that people in England talked of "The Lost Generation." Many died in battle, others died from disease and some even died after when hit with an influenza that spread throughout the whole world in 1918. Destruction of factories and farms, not to mention houses, created economic damage, and was one of the factors creating widespread European starvation during the winter of 1918-1919.
In contrast, damage was low in America. Although America had also suffered from the flu, the war had not touched U.S. shores. For years afterward, in Germany, France, and even British Commonwealth countries such as Canada, you could see men wearing artificial tin faces to hide battle wounds, men who wheezed because of damage from poison gas, and "war cripples" begging with bowls on the street corner. But American men were by-and-large intact. U.S. factories had been fully supplied, and the nation was on a sounder financial footing because of profit from the War.
At the end of the war, as American soldiers returned from Europe, employment rose. Some of the veterans returned to find themselves without homes or jobs. Overseas, some Black men were organized into a top fighting unit. However, Homeland outrage at the success helped to fuel riots in the notorious "Red Summer" of 1919. Each veteran returned with a certificate promising certain monies for their service; however, the certificate could not be cashed in until 1945.
American After-Effects Of The War
Suffrage For American Women
An after-effect of the employment of women during the war was the Nineteenth Amendment, giving them the right to vote. There had been a Suffrage movement since the nineteenth century. President Wilson and his contemporaries were reluctant, but conceded it as a quid pro quo. After the servicemen had returned, there were still two million more women in the workforce. However, instead of being in factory jobs, they were largely only permitted in "women's work": the "caring professions" such as nurses or teachers, secretaries or "stenographers," and waitresses, cooks, or washerwomen. These jobs paid little, and women were often expected to quit the job when they got married.
Politically active women still remained excluded from local and national power structures. Their voluntary organizations used tactics that advanced modern pressure-group politics. Issues ranged from birth control, peace, education, Indian Affairs, or opposition to lynching. Women in these associations lobbied legislators to support their causes. At the state level women achieved rights such as the ability to serve on juries. 
Increasing Racial Tension
A force of African Americans had served in the War:
More than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor. In response to protests of discrimination and mistreatment from the black community, several hundred African American men received officers' training in Des Moines, Iowa. By October 1917, over six hundred African Americans were commissioned as captains and first and second lieutenants. Fighting units such as the Harlem Hellfighters proved their mettle. Yet they received no recognition. Upon their return, particularly to the South, they faced resentment and sometimes lynchings.
In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson had segregated the Civil Service, which before had been an employer for black Americans. The war and the Great Migration triggered more oppression and more violence. When Caucasian White Americans were drawn into the army or defense industries, their jobs were sometimes given to black workers, for lower wages. The owners considered this a double good, keeping production going while destroying the workingman unions which agitated for higher pay. But while bosses were dependent, for the moment, on black workers, they did not think they owed anything to these employees.
An influx of unskilled Black strikebreakers into East St Louis, Illinois, heightened racial tensions in 1917. Rumors that Blacks were arming themselves for an attack on Whites resulted in numerous attacks by White mobs on Black neighborhoods. On July 1, Blacks fired back at a car whose occupants they believed had shot into their homes and mistakenly killed two policemen riding in a car. The next day, a full scale riot erupted which ended only after nine Whites and 39 Blacks had been killed and over three hundred buildings were destroyed. The anxieties of war helped fuel violence: Southern and Midwestern war vigilance committees formed the matrix for a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Great Experiment
On August 1, 1917, the Senate voted to send the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution to the states for ratification. The vote was bi-partisan, 65 to 20. Section One read, in part, After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors [. . . ] is hereby prohibited. By 1919, the requisite number of states had ratified the Amendment. The Amendment actually came into effect, under its own terms, one year after ratification.
The Temperance movement had been in effect for more than a hundred years, since the Second Great Revival. The late 19th and early 20th century Anti-Saloon League had been successful in turning the discussion from social discouragement of alcohol to legal prohibition of the substance. It was not simply a creature of Protestant or Catholic Churches, but was "united with Democrats and Republicans, Progressives, Populists, and suffragists, the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP, the International Workers of the World, and many of America's most powerful industrialists including Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Andrew Carnegie – all of whom lent support to the ASL's increasingly effective campaign."
But if Prohibition was not a simple reaction to World War I, it drew strength from the conflict. The War was funded by an income tax, thus unlocking saloon profits from the interests of the nation. The Lever Act of 1917, with the aim of feeding soldiers, prohibited grain from being used for alcoholic beverages. There were nationalist concerns, too: the most famous brewers of beer had German last names.
Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles was the peace settlement signed after World War One had ended in 1918 and in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and other events in Russia. The treaty was signed at the vast Versailles Palace near Paris - hence its title - between Germany and the Allies. The three most important politicians there were David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson. The Versailles Palace was considered the most appropriate venue simply because of its size - many hundreds of people were involved in the process and the final signing ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors could accommodate hundreds of dignitaries. Many wanted Germany, now led by Friedrich Ebert, smashed. Others, like Lloyd George, were privately more cautious. On June 28th 1919, the chief Allied and Associated Powers of the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Italy, and Japan met with the Central Powers in France to discuss a peace settlement. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, American President Woodrow Wilson, and French President Clemenceau were known as "The Big Three." Each of the Allied and Associated Powers had distinct national interests. The UK wanted to keep the Royal Navy supreme by dismantling the German Navy. The British also wished to end Germany's colonial empire, which might have become a threat to the vast British Empire. Lloyd George wanted to be hard on the Germans to bolster his popular support at home in Great Britain. . Italy wanted the Allies to fulfill their promise of territory given to Rome at the beginning of the war. Clemenceau wanted Germany to be brought to its knees so it could never start another war against France. The French also wanted Germany to compensate Paris for damage inflicted on France during the War. Japan had already largely served its interests by taking over German colonies in the Pacific. President Wilson's main goal for the conference was the creation of a "League of Nations." He believed that such an organization was essential to preventing future wars. Many historians believe that Wilson's concentration on the League, forcing him to sacrifice possible compassion toward Germany, helped contribute to the conditions leading to World War II.
The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to cede Alsace and Lorraine to France, dismantle its Army and Navy, give up its colonial Empire, pay massive reparations to the Allies, and take full responsibility for causing the war. The conference also led to the creation of the League of Nations. The US Senate, however, did not consent to the Treaty, and the European powers were left to enforce its provisions themselves. This eventually led to violations of the treaty by Germany, which then led to the Second World War. The treaty crippled the Weimar Government in Berlin and led to great bitterness in Germany, which helped to strengthen Adolf Hitler's National Socialist, or Nazi Party.
Questions For Review
1. What extended a conflict between Serbians and the Austro-Hungarian Empire into the globe-straddling World War I?
2. How did the advances of technology lead to trench warfare?
3. What in 1914-1915 led to an economic advantage for America from the War? What were the nation's post-war advantages?
4. Listen to songs from this period: "I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier." "Oh, How I Hate to Get up in the Morning." "Oh! It's a Lovely War." "Over There." "K-k-k-Katy." What is the song's point of view?
- "Don't Know Much About History" by Kenneth C. Davis
- A People and A Nation
- "A People and A Nation" the eighth edition
- Teaching With Documents: The Zimmermann Telegram. http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/zimmermann/
- A People and A Nation
- A People and A Nation Eighth Edition
- Mary Beth Norton et al., “A People and A Nation: A History of the United States; The New Era; 1920-1929,” ed. Mary Beth Norton et al. (Boston: Cenage Learning 2009).
- "African American Odyssey: World War I & Post-War Society. Part 1: Fighting at Home and Abroad." American Memory, Library of Congress. https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aointro.html , retrieved June 9, 2018.
- Roots of Prohibition. Web page in association of the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/roots-of-prohibition/ Retrieved on August 17, 2014.
- Roots of Prohibition.