The War to End All Wars (1914–1918)


Corporal Alvin C. York, a conscript from the backwoods of Tennessee, hugged the ground near Hill 223 in the Argonne Forest. Because a draft board rejected his legal claim as a “conscientious objector,” he found himself among the millions fighting the Great War in Europe. He was part of a detachment from the 82nd “All American” Division, which groped its way through rain, mud, and underbrush. Around 6:10 a.m. on October 8, 1918, he watched German machine guns cut down comrades “like the lawn grass before the mowing machine back home.”

Sergeant Bernard Early led York and 16 others on a patrol around the enemy defensive position while attempting to take the machine-gun nests from behind. They captured a headquarters battalion, but Early fell under hostile fire from the hillside. Suddenly, York became the “acting sergeant” for the patrol. He took cover on the slope, where he saw the Germans shooting from a nest above him about 25 yards away. Because of the slope, however, the gunners were forced to raise their heads above their earthworks just to see him.

Taking a knee, York began to skillfully work his rifle. He emptied several clips in a matter of minutes. Six Germans rose up and charged downhill with bayonets, assuming that no American would be able to kill them all. Calmly, he pulled his pistol and shot them one at a time. “That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home,” he mused.

York acted instinctively, but he wished to kill no more than necessary. “Give up,” he yelled to the Germans in the gun pits, “and come on down.” A captured German officer attempted to intercede, promising to “make them give up” if York stopped shooting. The officer blew a whistle, which prompted the Germans to throw down their weapons.

The remainder of York's patrol helped him to gather the disarmed men into a column, while he kept his pistol trained on the back of the German officer. Eventually, he marched back to regimental lines with 132 prisoners. For his actions that day, he received the Medal of Honor.

Figure 10.1 Sergeant Alvin C. York, 1919. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


York became the epitome of an American “doughboy” able to do everything by intuition, although no one was prepared for the kind of war that began on August 1, 1914. Triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, it eclipsed all previous wars among the world's most powerful nations. Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy formed the Triple Alliance, or Central Powers, to battle France, Russia, and Great Britain, who formed the Triple Entente, or Allied Powers. The belligerents fought with machine guns, hand grenades, poison gases, recoilless artillery, tanks, airplanes, and submarines. Fighting in the European trenches demanded men and materials, which the U.S. possessed in abundance.

The tugs of trans-Atlantic commerce dragged the U.S. into World War I, albeit belatedly. While the nation tried to steer clear of participation initially, progressive impulses helped to organize an industrial society to feed assembly lines as well as howitzer batteries. With no passion for militarism, President Woodrow Wilson vowed to make the world “safe for democracy” and to make it “at last free.” Pacifists in Congress notwithstanding, Americans grew alarmed about the frightening prospect of German domination in Europe. After declaring war on Germany in 1917, the U.S. devised comprehensive measures to mobilize the armed forces without abandoning democratic principles.

Great Britain and France slighted U.S. contributions to coalition warfare, but the American military gave the Allied Powers a timely advantage in the theater of operations. With exhausted troops staggered by German aggression, the War Department shipped citizen soldiers by the tens of thousands to the Western Front. Naval actions secured sea lanes and protected cargo, which braced many for a prolonged struggle. From Cantigny to Grandpré, the revitalized armies pushed German divisions from their positions and across the battlefields. Though troubled by it all, American “doughboys” came of age in the dramatic events that ultimately brought the war to an end.


As Europe slid into war, Wilson proclaimed neutrality and urged the American people to remain “impartial in thought as well as in action.” Though none of the belligerents openly threatened the U.S., the War and Navy Departments began to draft proposals for military expansion. A movement for preparedness spread nationwide, which called for a buildup of the armed forces in order to project American power around the world.

Appearing aloof from European affairs, the Wilson administration was primarily concerned with projecting power in the western hemisphere. While deploying Marines to Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, Wilson vowed: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Though undertaken to promote progressive ideals abroad, the military interventions in Latin America fostered animosity toward the U.S.

A revolution in Mexico during 1911 degenerated into a civil war, which spawned the dictatorship of General Victoriano Huerta. On April 9, 1914, American sailors were arrested in Tampico, Mexico, where they gathered supplies in support of an insurgent faction. After their release, the naval commander, Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, demanded that Mexican officials apologize and salute the U.S. flag. Within weeks, 6,000 Marines and sailors went ashore at Veracruz. More than 200 Mexicans died defending the city, while the American occupiers lost 19 dead and 47 wounded. Wilson ordered a withdrawal of U.S. forces later that year, as Venustiano Carranza, an insurgent leader, took power in Mexico City.

With war erupting in Europe that summer, Wilson intended to protect U.S. exports of munitions, food, and supplies flowing to the belligerents. American goods poured into Europe, although trade with Germany and Austria declined from $169 million in 1914 to $1.2 million in 1916. At the same time, American trade with Great Britain, France, and Russia quadrupled from $825 million to $3.2 billion. In addition, the British and the French borrowed millions of dollars from private American bankers in order to finance wartime purchases. Concerned about threats to shipping, Congress created the Coast Guard under the Treasury Department in 1915. While a Royal naval blockade disrupted the flow of trans-Atlantic commerce, the U.S. tried to uphold long-standing principles regarding freedom of the seas.

The German government resolved to break the British blockade with countermeasures provided by underwater boats, or U-boats. According to “cruiser rules,” a submarine was required to surface to verify the nationality of the target and to allow crews and passengers to abandon ship. Preferring to retain the element of surprise, German commanders authorized “unrestricted” submarine warfare. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed a British passenger liner, the Lusitania, in the Irish Sea. The liner quickly sank, which resulted in the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, including 128 Americans. Though Wilson stated that Americans were “too proud to fight,” he issued a stern warning to the German government. The sinking of a French steamer named the Sussex in early 1916 further angered the American public. Promising to halt “unrestricted” submarine warfare, the German government issued the Sussex pledge to keep the U.S. on the sidelines of the European conflict.

Assuming U.S. involvement in the European conflict sooner or later, advocates for preparedness focused on universal military training, or UMT. With support from former President Theodore Roosevelt and ex-Chief of Staff General Leonard Wood, many envisaged a national service program for all able-bodied 18-year-olds. First organized in Plattsburg, New York, college students and businessmen gathered for privately funded summer encampments that included marching, shooting, and exercise. By the summer of 1916, more than 10,000 volunteers attended 10 different camps nationwide. Foreshadowing the organization of officer candidate schools, many alumni of the Plattsburg camps entered the armed forces thereafter.

Thanks to the lobbying of non-partisan groups such as the National Security League, the Wilson administration reluctantly endorsed congressional efforts to strengthen the armed forces. In 1916, the National Defense Act enlarged the regular Army as well as the National Guard to compete with Europe's massive forces. Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison offered a blueprint for a million-man force called the “Continental Army plan,” but he resigned after Congress scuttled it. Nonetheless, Army appropriations included funding for the Council of National Defense, which advised the commander-in-chief on the coordination of resources, finances, agriculture, and industry. That same year, the Naval Construction Act authorized more than $500 million for a three-year expansion program. The preparedness measures by the federal government aroused protests from pacifists, who opposed militarism in any form.

The debate over preparedness dominated the presidential election cycle of 1916. “He kept us out of war” became Wilson's slogan to rally Democrats, while bellicose Republicans supported Charles Evans Hughes, a Supreme Court justice. On a platform of peace, Wilson won re-election by a razor-thin margin.

Whereas Wilson regarded America's “melting pot” with suspicion, the war in Europe stoked national anxieties about subversive activities by immigrants. During a “Preparedness Day” parade in San Francisco, California, a bomb detonated on July 22, 1916. Ten people died from the explosion, while dozens suffered serious injuries. Many blamed German saboteurs, though local authorities arrested and tried labor activists for the crime. Eight days later, two explosions damaged warehouses on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor. Shards of metal tore holes in the Statue of Liberty nearby, while seven civilians died from the blasts. From the West Coast to the East Coast, other attacks struck munitions factories and naval yards. Under the direction of German authorities, secret agents entered the U.S. and attempted to disrupt the arms shipments to Europe.

Meanwhile, a civil war in Mexico continued to rage. The unrest in the countryside gave rise to “los banditos” such as Francesco “Pancho” Villa, a frustrated rival of Carranza. In 1916, he seized a train and murdered 16 Americans. Denouncing the gringos, he raided several towns across the border in Texas and in New Mexico. On March 9, his assault on Columbus, New Mexico, killed 17 Americans.

In retaliation, Wilson asked General John J. Pershing to lead a “Punitive Expedition” across the border. Born in Laclede, Missouri, he graduated from West Point in 1886. Bypassing senior officers while rising through the ranks, he exemplified the charisma of a natural leader. The recent death of his wife and three daughters in a tragic fire seemed to reinforce his resilience. With 11,000 soldiers in his command, Pershing chased Villa through northern Mexico for hundreds of miles. Motorized transports and reconnaissance aircraft facilitated the incursion, but little fighting actually occurred. American residents in Mexico fled northward, creating a refugee problem that required the mobilization of 150,000 National Guardsmen. Sporadic violence in Mexico continued for another decade, but American troops from the “Punitive Expedition” came home within a year. Their vexing experiences along the border prepared many for the difficult months ahead.

Mobilizing for War

In early 1917, Wilson announced his plan to stop the war in Europe through active mediation. He called for “peace without victory” and outlined a future in which all nations accepted the Monroe Doctrine as a guarantee of freedom for the entire planet. Moreover, the Russian Revolution created an opportunity for the U.S. to promote democratic principles rather than entangling alliances. Asserting America's prominence on the world stage, the president cast himself in the lead role of a peacemaker.

Known as the primary architect of the war effort in Germany, General Erich Ludendorff scoffed: “I don't give a damn about America.” In accord with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman, he intended to push Great Britain and France to capitulate by cutting off supplies from the U.S. On February 1, the German high command rescinded the Sussex pledge and resumed “unrestricted” submarine warfare. Consequently, German U-boats torpedoed several American ships.

Unbeknown to Americans, the German government began to explore ways to neutralize the U.S. As the army of Kaiser Wilhelm II planned a major offensive in Europe, Zimmerman believed that Mexico represented a potential partner to keep the American military at bay. He also intended to make overtures toward Japan. British officials intercepted a secret telegram sent to Mexico from Zimmerman, who proposed an alliance to help the Mexicans regain “lost provinces” from the U.S. However, the Mexican government expressed no interest in launching a diversionary war along the border. After the Zimmerman telegram became public on March 1, 1917, the Wilson administration denounced the scheme.

Breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany, the Wilson administration decided to call upon Congress to declare war. On April 2, 1917, the president appeared before a joint session to deliver a dramatic speech, which condemned the “Prussian autocracy” and their “warfare against mankind.” Despite fierce opposition from pacifists, Congress passed a declaration of war a few days later.

After Wilson signed the declaration of war, he issued an executive order establishing the Committee on Public Information, or CPI. Under the guidance of progressive journalist George Creel, the CPI enabled the War, Navy, and State Departments to disseminate propaganda on behalf of war aims. For instance, New York illustrator James Montgomery Flagg joined the pictorial publicity division and produced a memorable portrait of “Uncle Sam.” The film division produced cinematic works such as The Beast of Berlin, while “four-minute men” traveled the country to deliver short speeches with upbeat news in theaters. Waging war represented a traditional task of the federal government, but selling war pointed the nation in a new direction.

While traveling by train in New York that spring, George M. Cohan composed a song called “Over There” to sell the war. In the verses, the songwriter told the citizen soldier – Johnny – to “get your gun.” The refrain repeated the title with a warning to “the Hun,” adding that the “Yanks are coming” and “won't come back till it's over, over there.” Noted for its catchy melody and clever lyrics, the patriotic song became a standard for Tin Pan Alley performers and helped to generate enthusiasm for initial mobilization.

Regardless of the enthusiasm, the American military appeared unready that spring. Although young males stood in line at recruiting stations, the regular Army numbered only 133,111. At the state level, no more than 185,000 National Guardsmen were available for wartime duties. “It requires not a few volunteers,” reported the Army Chief of Staff, General Hugh Scott, “but a nation in arms.”

Unsatisfied with the volunteers, the War Department devised a progressive model for conscription. Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, who formerly called himself a pacifist, described it as “selective service.” On May 13, 1917, Congress passed the first Selective Service Act, which promised to distribute the obligations of citizenship intelligently and equitably. Within a month, nearly 10 million males between the ages of 21 and 30 registered for military service. Later, Congress revised the law to include 18- to 45-year-olds. Though coordinated by the War Department, civilian boards examined the registrants for eligibility. More than 3 million registrants received calls during 1917, but the Army took only half a million initially. Several registrants were deemed physically “unfit,” which entailed dubious shortcomings noted by doctors such as flat feet. Moreover, exemptions occurred on the grounds of family dependency, alien status, critical occupations, and religious beliefs. The Selective Service system quickly filled the ranks of the armed forces with what federal laws failed to yield in the past, that is, a truly “National Army.”

While avoiding negative terms such as “draft” and “conscription,” the Selective Service system underscored the positive aspects of both “selectivity” and “public service.” The administrator and provost marshal, General Enoch Crowder, dismissed traditional recruitment for the American military, which he considered socially inefficient. Based upon five categories, civilian boards chose only “unmarried men not needed in industry” from Class I. Classes II and III included married men with “useful” employment, while the other classes included those exempted from military service for various reasons. In terms of manpower, classification demanded that bachelors “work or fight.”

To allocate the manpower, the War Department authorized psychologists to administer a newly developed test measuring an “intelligence quotient,” or IQ. Nearly one-quarter of the test-takers, however, failed to read or to write in English. Even though the tests exhibited numerous flaws, they generated grades from “A” to “E” for assessment. Accordingly, soldiers rated as “feebleminded” lacked mental fitness for military service.

To arm the soldiers, the advisory committees to the Council of National Defense evolved into the War Industries Board, or WIB. Established in 1917, civilian and mil­itary representatives on the board shared broad powers to coordinate all purchasing by the armed forces, to establish production priorities, to construct new plants, to convert existing plants, and to coordinate the activities of other agencies. General Hugh Johnson vigorously represented the interests of the Army, while Bernard Baruch, a brilliant finan­cier, eventually headed the WIB.

As industrial production grew by one-third, the demand for arms exceeded the supply from factories. The armed forces possessed 2,698 aircraft for service overseas, of which 667 – less than one-fourth – were made in America. Of the almost 3,500 artillery pieces in the hands of Americans abroad, only 477 came from the U.S. Despite possessing the world's largest automotive industry, the U.S. relied on French models for a Tank Corps in support of the infantrymen in the field. Since the Army procured few firearms before the war, most soldiers received French machine guns and automatic rifles. By the summer of 1918, American arsenals were manufacturing the Browning machine gun and Browning automatic rifle, or BAR. Industrialists produced shells, bullets, ships, and locomotives, but mobilization failed to keep pace with the demands of a robust market.

Industrialists soon faced a labor shortage. Job opportunities induced thousands of southern blacks to join the “Great Migration” to northern states, although racial tensions in the cities sparked a series of wartime riots. Employers also sent recruiting agents westward to invite Mexican Americans to the “land of promise.” About a million women performed “war work” at munitions factories, machine shops, steel mills, lumber yards, and chemical plants. Unfortunately, many of the newcomers faced pressures from union members to leave the labor market once the war ended.

Female volunteers found a number of ways to support the war from the start. Thousands organized fundraising drives, conserved food and fuel, aided the Red Cross, and joined the nurse corps. Others entertained troops at training camps scattered across the U.S. Perhaps the best-known uniformed women of the war were telephone operators dubbed “Hello Girls,” who worked for the Army Signal Corps. By late 1918, the Wilson administration even declared that extending suffrage to women was “vital to the winning of the war.”

Figure 10.2 “That Liberty shall not Perish from the Earth,” 1918. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Throughout the war, the Wilson administration attempted to channel the concerns of the progressives into demonstrations of patriotism. The federal government solicited loans from the masses with the sale of “Liberty Bonds,” but most preferred to purchase War Savings Certificates and War Savings Stamps at post offices, local banks, and neighborhood restaurants. In addition, the internal revenue service raised billions of dollars through a graduated income tax, inheritance taxes, and an excess profits tax. Furthermore, individuals who openly criticized the war became vulnerable for prosecution under the Espionage and the Sedition Acts. The Justice Department conducted “slacker raids” in which thousands were apprehended for not showing draft registration cards. In the Supreme Court case of Schenck v. United States, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a wounded veteran of the American Civil War, opined that “a clear and present danger” justified the imposition of reasonable limits upon free speech. As the nation mobilized for military action, the home front became a new battleground in the Great War.

American Expeditionary Forces

During the spring of 1917, British and French delegations to Washington D.C. delivered a blunt request: America must send troops immediately to the Western Front. Based upon the recommendation of Secretary Baker, Wilson asked Pershing, commander of the Army's Southern Department at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, to take charge of the American Expeditionary Forces – the AEF. They met only once, and the commander-in-chief said nothing to the general about the war. At the age of 56, Pershing assumed nearly autonomous control over organizing, training, supplying, and leading the “doughboys” in Europe.

On May 28, 1917, Pershing and his staff of 191 set sail for Europe. After a few days in Great Britain, they journeyed to France. Conferring with General Henri-Philippe Pétain, the French commander, Pershing placed advance elements of the 1st Division in Lorraine, 120 miles southeast of Paris. To celebrate America's Independence Day, he allowed a battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment to march in a Paris parade. Colonel Charles E. Stanton spoke on behalf of the commander, announcing to the crowd: “Lafayette, we are here!”

That summer, Pershing orchestrated the buildup of the AEF from his headquarters at Chaumont. Saint-Nazaire, La Pallice, and Bassens became the main American ports for supplies, while Brest served as a debarkation port for most of Pershing's troops. In the American sector between Verdun and the Moselle River, his staff fixed upon eventually dis­lodging Germans from the railhead of Metz. Anticipating the launch of offensive operations, they asked the War Department to send “at least 1 million men by next May.” The War Department translated the request into a mobilization plan to send approximately 30 divisions with support – almost 1.4 million men – to Europe by 1919.

The AEF began building multiple divisions with personnel from the regular Army, the National Guard, and the “inducted” Army. With the regular Army divisions numbered from 1 to 25, the National Guard divisions received numbers 26 through 75. The War Department assigned the higher numbers to those composed entirely of conscripts. Distinct from the smaller European formations at the time, the “square” division concept consisted of four infantry regiments organized into two brigades. In addition, they included two artillery regiments, an engineer regiment, a signal battalion, and supply and medical units for a grand total of 28,061 men per division. The Army formed 62 divisions before the war ended, though only 43 deployed overseas.

Among the first Americans overseas, “flyboys” enhanced the aviation capabilities of the Army. Flocking to France even before the AEF disembarked, a cadre of volunteers formed the Lafayette Escadrille. The Army incorporated the seasoned pilots into the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps and referred to them unofficially as the Air Service. Though Pershing appointed General Mason D. Patrick, an engineer, to the senior post, Colonel William “Billy” Mitchell emerged as the air combat commander. Eventually, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker became America's most famous “ace” for shooting down 26 German planes. In support of Allied operations, AEF airmen conducted observation and reconnaissance missions to photograph enemy dispositions and movements.

Europeans anxiously awaited the arrival of “two million cowboys,” but the AEF outfits did not match their expectations. American troops included German, Irish, Italian, Greek, Polish, Swedish, and Slavic immigrants fresh off the boats. Stereotyped as “instinctive” warriors with night vision and blood thirst, thousands of Native Americans dashed into action – nearly a third of all adult Indian males in the U.S. As a form of psychological warfare, the War Department even considered organizing “night raids with men camouflaged as Indians in full regalia.” Civil rights leaders urged African Americans to “close our ranks” by enlisting for service, though Jim Crow regulations imposed barriers at almost every turn. While approximately 200,000 black soldiers served overseas in the AEF, three-quarters of the segregated regiments performed hard labor in military camps. Whatever the promise of a “melting pot” Army, Americans assembled a patchwork of forces nearly from scratch.

French and British commanders called for the “amalgamation” of forces into the existing structure of the European armies. However, Pershing refused to permit feeding them into the Allied lines under foreign flags. While maintaining the integrity of his command, he considered suggestions to disperse his troops to other sectors as an affront to national pride. Echoing the sentiments of the commander-in-chief, he insisted upon an “independent army” led by American officers. After all, the U.S. entered the war as an “associate power” rather than as an Allied nation. Following a series of tense negotiations over the “amalgamation” controversy, Pershing eventually permitted a handful of American units to serve as emergency reinforcements in the French and British trenches.

Assessing the operations on the Western Front, Pershing scorned the “bite-and-hold” tactics that accompanied warfare in the trenches. Instead, he insisted that the AEF train for large-scale assaults with a tactical emphasis on rifle fire, artillery support, and individual initiative. Touting American superiority, he dismissed the Allied reluctance to engage in “open warfare” against German troops. Victory was achievable, he maintained, “by driving the enemy out into the open and engaging him in a war of movement.” While bolstering the Allied armies, Pershing's headquarters laid the groundwork for fighting the war the American way.

Because gas attacks claimed many Allied casualties on the Western Front, Americans feared chemical weapons perhaps more than other munitions in the German arsenal. Only 30 miles from enemy lines, the AEF began distributing gas masks with a tight nose clip and uncomfortable mouthpiece based upon a British design. The Army soon established a separate Chemical Warfare Service to provide training and equipment. Nevertheless, over one-fourth of all American casualties by the end of the war resulted from gases delivered by artillery shells.

With the logistical system of the Army in disarray, the War Department attempted to rush as many Americans as possible to France. General Tasker H. Bliss, who succeeded Scott as the Army Chief of Staff in late 1917, ramped up the training program, but Wilson sent him to the Supreme War Council in Versailles that November. General Peyton C. March became the new Chief of Staff in early 1918, when he began to overhaul the General Staff system for the entire Army. Unfortunately, the decisions made in Washington D.C often clashed with Pershing's views on the other side of the Atlantic.

Throughout 1917, the Allies remained on the defensive in Europe. With Italian forces overrun by the Austrians, the Central Powers held the upper hand. Championing “peace, land, and bread,” the Bolshevik takeover in Russia later resulted in a separate treaty with Germany. The German high command began to concentrate the bulk of their forces along the Western Front, where they outnumbered the French and the British. While American gunners fired their first hostile shot of the war on October 23, the shelling, sniping, and raiding of the “Boches” shook their morale. The AEF persevered that winter, but General Robert Bullard, the new commander of the 1st Division, noted in his diary: “Alas, I think we came too late.”

The Atlantic Lifeline

Even though the accomplishments of the U.S. Navy seldom achieved great acclaim, maritime operations remained vital to the AEF. The “unrestricted” submarine warfare of Germany threatened to sever the transportation and communication links between the U.S. and the Allied Powers. Attempting to sink 600,000 tons of shipping per month, German U-boats maintained a torrid pace for attacks in 1917. Without the safe movement of American troops and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean, the armies of Great Britain and France faced doom.

While president of the Naval War College, Admiral William S. Sims journeyed across the Atlantic in early 1917 to meet with British admirals in London. He encouraged the Royal Navy to focus on developing an elaborate convoy system, but prominent officers voiced opposition to his recommendation. After becoming the commander of U.S. naval forces operating in European waters, he insisted that the “mission of the Allies must be to force the submarines to give battle.” Instead of patrolling 3,000 miles of ocean, the convoy escorts – especially the destroyers – would wait for the enemy to come to them.

By the summer of 1917, the first trans-Atlantic convoys began crossing the ocean with immediate success. As hundreds of vessels cruised together, the sinking rate for Allied shipping declined significantly. Without a convoy, the rate of loss was as high as 25 percent. By the end of the year, the rate had dropped to no more than 1 percent. Large quantities of grain, oil, and meat from the U.S. reached British and French lines just in time to avoid massive starvation or widespread mutiny. In fact, officials in Washington D.C. predicted boldly that “wheat will win the war.” To the delight of American merchantmen, German U-boats found it no easier to locate a convoy than to chase one ship sailing alone. If attacked, then the convoy escorts turned the tables on the underwater menace.

Holding the civilian post from 1913 to 1921, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels favored convoying outside of British control. His ban on alcohol on board warships may have inspired the idiomatic phrase “Cup of Joe” for coffee. His Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William Benson, cherished a vision of America standing apart from the world with a battle fleet second to none. The Navy under their management grew to over 2,000 ships, which ranged in class from submarines to dreadnoughts.

To man the fleet, the Navy Department amassed almost half a million personnel in uniform. The state-of-the-art machinery required a higher caliber of crews, who desired the vocational training and technical skills associated with naval careers. Over 11,000 female Yeomen, or “Yeomanettes,” served as secretaries, clerks, translators, draftsmen, recruiters, and nurses. Working at military installations in the U.S. and abroad, a few even designed camouflage to help protect the ships at sea. With the officer corps dedicated to the concept of a “big navy,” most of the fleet safeguarded American coasts, commerce, and transports. Under the U.S. flag, the sailors effectively kept the “doughboys” from swimming with the fishes.

The U.S. desperately needed more transports, which prompted the creation of an emergency merchant fleet. Under the auspices of the War Shipping Board and Emergency Fleet Corporation, the federal government confiscated, purchased, and chartered 700 vessels. Ferrying men and supplies over long distances, the fleet swelled to 3 million tons while losing only 200,000 tons. Nevertheless, chronic shortages and conflicting priorities constantly plagued U.S. shipping during the first year of American belligerence.

While suspending the capital ship-building program, the U.S. invested naval resources in anti-submarine warfare, or ASW. As the number of destroyers increased to 51, the construction time fell to just 70 days. With greater technical virtuosity, light cruisers reached speeds as fast as 29 knots while escorting convoys. A variety of surface ships hunted submarines using hydrophones and depth charges. As a pet project of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a “splinter fleet” of wooden sub-chasers began to probe offshore in search of German U-boats lurking near shipping lanes. By 1918, British and American vessels were sinking enemy submarines faster than German factories were able to build them.

Meanwhile, the U.S. laid a mine barrage across the North Sea to block German access to the Atlantic. Owing to a superior design, American mines employed longer antennae better suited to detonation by electrical impulses. While sinking only four submarines, they damaged countless others and bedeviled the German crews. They forced most U-boats to operate closer to German bases, although several continued to maneuver around or under the barrage.

Naval aviation contributed to the anti-submarine campaign, which included tactical bombings of German bases. At the beginning of the war, the Navy Department planned to build 700 aircraft. Eventually, they amassed more than 2,000 planes to conduct blocking operations. Navy and Marine pilots trained to strike targets in continental Europe, but the Northern Bombing Group operated only during the final weeks of the war. Performing reconnaissance and scouting missions with great success, aviators flew seaplanes, dirigibles, and British-built de Havilland biplanes on thousands of sorties against German U-boats.

In a desperate move, German U-boats went to America to disrupt trans-Atlantic shipping. On June 2, 1918, they sank six vessels off the New Jersey coast, including the passenger steamer Carolina. For almost four months, they turned the nation's eastern shoreline into a war zone but never seriously impacted maritime commerce.

Given the utter failure of “unrestricted” submarine warfare, the Germans did not successfully attack any convoys of transports. In fact, U.S. ships sped across the ocean with few delays. With cargo and men pouring into the Western Front, the Atlantic lifeline rescued the Allied armies from possible defeat by the Central Powers.


What began as a war of rapid movement became a stalemate on the Western Front. From the winter of 1914 until the spring of 1918, most of the battles occurred between multiple parallel trenches zigzagging for 400 miles through Belgium and France. Accompanied by lice and rats, millions of soldiers lived in the muddy, filthy excavations. When daring to look over the top through periscopes, they saw the carnage of “no-man's-land” for hundreds of yards. Mine craters, metal shards, unexploded duds, and barbed wire scarred the desolate landscape between the opposing lines. The stench of rotting flesh and human excrement mingled in the air with chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases. Time and again, massive firepower drove patrols back to the trenches with an unforgettable sense of futility and loss.

Figure 10.3 World War I on the Western Front


On March 21, 1918, the trenches along the Somme River fell to Ludendorff's “storm troopers,” who split a seam in the British and French lines. British forces rallied to prevent the capture of Amiens, while the German offensive stalled within weeks. In early April, another offensive struck a narrow front east of the Lys River to form a salient. Despite claiming a tactical victory, the Germans failed to sever the Allied armies as planned.

Though narrowly averting disaster, the Allied leaders attempted to strengthen the combined armies with the appointment of a supreme commander. Accordingly, General Ferdinand Foch of France was tapped to “coordinate the action of all the Allied armies on the Western Front.” As a gesture of support, Pershing made a pledge: “Infantry, artillery, aviations, all that we have are yours; use them as you wish.” However, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig continued to lobby for the “amalgamation” of all available units within his army. “A better procedure,” Pershing countered, “would be for the Allies to amalgamate their weakened divisions into a lesser number and let the American divisions take their proper places in the line.” In exchange for British transportation, he offered Haig thousands of incoming troops from the U.S. for “training and service” near the front. Of course, the AEF commander insisted that they assemble in the British and French sectors under the Stars and Stripes.

In the French sector near Saint-Mihiel, General Clarence R. Edwards commanded the 26th “Yankee” Division of the AEF on April 20. Following an enemy barrage of artillery shells, 1,200 German troops raided the village of Seicheprey. The defensive lines of the 26th Division broke immediately, while the American officers botched the counterattack. The AEF suffered 669 casualties, including 81 dead and 187 captured or missing in action.

The “doughboys” of the AEF regained their footing at the village of Cantigny, a strong point held by the German army. Known as the “Big Red One,” Bullard's 1st Division defended 3 miles of trenches while preparing for an offensive mission. At dawn on May 28, Colonel Hanson Ely led the 28th Infantry Regiment on an assault that featured heavy artillery, machine guns, flamethrowers, mortars, tanks, and aircraft. They swept up a steep ridge to Cantigny, where the Americans secured the village against German counterattacks. The French largely abandoned the area to fight elsewhere, but divisional gunners under General Charles Summerall blasted the enemy with shell and shrapnel fire. Three days later, the intense combat ended with Ely's troops taking control of the heights. The Germans lost 800 dead and another 755 wounded and captured, whereas the Americans counted 199 fatalities in addition to 667 wounded and captured. Although Cantigny smoldered in ruins, the AEF achieved its first victory on the battlefield.

As the German army rolled toward the valley of the Marne, Pétain looked to the AEF for assistance near Château-Thierry, some 50 miles east of Paris. General Omar Bundy's 2nd Division held defensive positions astride the Paris–Metz highway west of the town. In addition to the Army regulars of the division, the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments formed a brigade under the command of General James G. Harbord. As U.S. forces assumed responsibility for holding the line near Hill 142, French troops retreated to the rear in early June. Marine Captain Lloyd Williams remarked: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” While absorbing an artillery barrage, Americans repulsed a series of German thrusts with marksmanship and determination. Before halting their advance, the Germans moved though the poppy fields into Belleau Wood. On June 6, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines took Hill 142, where a neatly dressed wave overwhelmed the enemy machine-gun positions.

The next day, the Marine battalions pivoted toward the enemy stronghold of Belleau Wood. With his men outnumbered four to one, Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, who earned two Medals of Honor, urged them forward by asking: “Do you want to live forever?” They captured the village of Bouresches, but most of the dark forest, tangled undergrowth, and scattered ravines belonged to the Germans. Blistered and blinded from gas attacks, the Marines cleared the terrain by June 26 and earned the sobriquet, “Devil Dogs.” The Battle of Belleau Wood largely gave birth to the sense of institutional pride that inspired the Marine Corps for generations.

All across the line near Belleau Wood, the soldiers of the 2nd Division proved their mettle in battle. To the right of the Marines, the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments captured Vaux, a village near Château-Thierry. In a month of hard fighting, the entire division suffered 9,777 casualties, including 1,811 dead. With the Americans standing firm between the Germans and Paris, Allied confidence in the AEF soared.

The Germans possessed enough strength for a final attempt to capture Paris by crossing the Marne, where the 3rd Division under General Joseph Dickman waited for them on July 15. The weight of their attack hit the 30th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Edmund Butts and the 38th Infantry Regiment under Colonel Ulysses Grant McAlexander. After French troops fell back, they left McAlexander's right flank exposed. Beset by firing from three directions, two American platoons fought to the last man. Dickman's division held the line for two days, which prompted their enduring nickname, “The Rock of the Marne.”

Pershing continued organizing the AEF for major offensive operations, promoting General Hunter Liggett as well as Bullard, Bundy, and Dickman to corps commands. While Summerall took command of the 1st Division, Harbord moved to the head of the 2nd Division. The latter steered toward Vauxcastille on July 18, as the former drove against Soissons. With Americans to their left and to their right, the French Moroccan Division marched in the center against the German salient. Harbord advanced more than 8 miles in two days and captured 3,000 prisoners, but he lost almost 5,000 men. Summerall kept moving for five days, capturing 3,800 prisoners while absorbing 8,365 losses. Vexed by the aggressiveness of the Americans that summer, one German officer referred to their virulent attacks as “inhuman.”

Thanks to the success of the Allied counterstroke, the British, French, and American divisions began to push the Germans eastward into Belgium. The German high command halted the offensive east of Château-Thierry and withdrew exhausted troops from the Marne. Offering his resignation, Ludendorff called it a “black day” for the German army. With U.S. forces rushing into “no-man's-land,” the balance of power tipped decisively against Germany.

Cult of the Offensive

From the start of the Great War, operations on the Western Front resonated with what came to be known as the “cult of the offensive.” Whatever the importance of logistics, training, and tactics, the initiative in battle belonged to the armed forces able to muster the willpower to attack first. For the human element to stand a chance in the fatal environment, the attackers needed five times as many soldiers as the defenders. Irrespective of the odds, unimaginative commanders often hurled their infantrymen with rifles and bayonets against machine guns and field artillery. Showing disregard for hostile fire, the Americans simply called it “guts.”

By August 10, 1918, Pershing patched together the “American First Army” to pinch out the Saint-Mihiel salient near Verdun. Occupied by the Germans since 1914, it was a 200-square-mile triangle jutting 14 miles into the Allied lines between the Moselle and Meuse Rivers. A network of railways stretched to the town of Saint-Mihiel, while barbed wire girded its perimeter. Foch dubbed it “the hernia.” Calling for Allied armies “to continue the offensive without cessation,” he initially agreed to Pershing's plan for sending his 476,000 men to clear out the 23,000 Germans inside the salient.

After consulting with Haig and Pétain, Foch surprised Pershing with a different plan. Suddenly dismissing the importance of Saint-Mihiel, the supreme commander envisaged a “Grand Offensive” to attack along the whole length of the Western Front. The converging armies sought to envelop the strong defenses and to deprive the entrenched German troops of the ability to shift reserves along their interior lines. Hence, British forces would advance southeasterly from Cambrai, while combined Franco-American forces would press northward through the Champagne and Meuse-Argonne regions. With American columns split on either side of the French, two French generals would “assist” in commanding them. Once again, the autonomy of the AEF appeared in jeopardy.

To keep the AEF in the fore, Pershing made several counterproposals to Foch. While insisting on conducting the Saint-Mihiel operation, Pershing also offered to use the First Army to break through the frontlines between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River. In other words, he committed at least 14 divisions to two major offensives 60 miles apart within the span of three weeks. In accepting the dual challenge of Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne, Pershing boasted that no other troops possessed “the offensive spirit” of the Americans.

Beginning on September 12, Pershing ordered the Americans to attack along two flanks of the Saint-Mihiel salient. With almost 3,000 guns blasting German targets, a brief artillery bombardment softened the defensive positions. A ruse by the skeletal VI Corps fooled a handful of enemy officers, who prepared for a strike to the southeast at Belfort. At 5:00 a.m., Liggett drove I Corps and Dickman steered IV Corps northward to Vigneulles. Because the British declined to furnish heavier tanks, Lieutenant Colonel George S. Patton commanded a light tank force in support of the advancing infantry. Three hours later, V Corps under General George H. Cameron penetrated the western flank of the salient and rolled southeasterly. The Germans abandoned guns, wagons, and supplies while fleeing to the north and to the east.

In two days, the First Army captured 15,000 German prisoners at a cost of fewer than 9,000 casualties. However, most German troops escaped to the Hindenburg Line to fight another day. An American brigade commander, General Douglas MacArthur, spied Metz through his binoculars but fumed that he was not permitted to smash the emplacements. Despite rain and fatigue, the Americans raced to their main objectives and sealed off the Saint-Mihiel salient on schedule.

The Americans pivoted to the northwest and began shifting their operations to the western bank of the Meuse River. General Hugh A. Drum, Pershing's Chief of Staff, assigned responsibility for planning to Colonel George C. Marshall, a staff member of the First Army's operations section. In a matter of two weeks, almost 600,000 men, 4,000 guns, 90,000 horses, and a million tons of supplies needed to move 60 miles across three dirt roads and light railways without detection by the Germans. “The only way to begin is to commence,” Marshall sighed while spreading a battlefield map on a table. Ostensibly, the Meuse-Argonne offensive of the First Army constituted the biggest logistical undertaking ever attempted by U.S. forces.

In the coming days, the First Army moved through the cover of darkness. With traffic jams at most intersections, the military police tried to keep the vehicles rolling while breaking up fistfights. Pedestrians slept in roadside tents, as the German shelling grew more intense by the mile. Assembling in the trenches after relieving French troops, units marked their attack lanes with white tape in the mud. Assigned to the 35th Division, Captain Harry Truman with Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery marched 200 men almost 100 miles in one week to his new position. “I'd rather be here,” the bespectacled officer announced before the operation commenced, “than be president of the United States.”

The First Army's area of operations stretched across a frontline nearly 20 miles wide, which placed Americans against an enemy occupying formidable defensive terrain. Four miles into the “outpost zone,” Montfaucon rose 1,122 feet above a series of lateral hills and ridges. In conjunction with their French counterparts to the west, the U.S. commanders of I, III, and V Corps prepared to thrust northward to break through the “in-depth” defenses. They would advance 10 miles in less than two days, or so Pershing predicted with optimism. Outflanking the German troops along the Aisne River, their main objective was the rail line between Carignan, Sedan, and Mézières.

At 5:30 a.m. on September 26, nothing was quiet on the Western Front. Whistles blew in the trenches, as determined officers ordered the rank and file “over the top.” Advancing almost shoulder to shoulder in a dense fog, the American infantry crossed the first line of German defenses behind a deadly artillery barrage. They pressed onward through repeated shelling, barbed wire, machine-gun fire, and aerial strafing. Despite confusion and delay, they assailed the high ground and captured Montfaucon a day later.

Slowed by congested roads and mechanical breakdowns, the First Army slogged through the mud but made little progress. Holding strong positions south of Cunel and Romagne, German machine guns mauled the American divisions at every turn. In addition, German artillery poured enfilading fire onto them from the heights of the Meuse and the Argonne Forest. As the bodies hit the ground, sinister puffs of yellow smoke announced the onset of a gas attack. The living and the dead remained motionless in ditches, craters, foxholes, and dugouts, while the stragglers streamed to the rear in search of food, water, and shelter. “Hell can hold no terrors for me after this,” one “doughboy” scribbled in his diary. Unable to advance any more than 8 miles in the onslaught, Pershing reluctantly suspended operations on the battlefield.

Elsewhere on the Western Front, the European armies of Foch's “Grand Offensive” also slowed. The French troops in Flanders stalled in stormy weather, while others in the center of the Allied formation tarried before attacking. Along the Somme, British forces penetrated the Hindenburg Line with the help of two American divisions. Their penetration cut a deep gap in the German defenses, but they paused to improve their interior lines of communication and supply. Logistical chaos not only denied advancing units the support necessary to push forward but also rendered many divisions vulnerable to German counterattacks.

Pershing assigned the 369th Infantry Regiment, the first African American unit of the AEF, to the French Army. Known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” they attained a distinguished record in a number of sharp engagements. They spent more days in combat than any other regiment from the U.S. Within the Meuse-Argonne region, they outpaced the French troops on their flanks. In late September, they captured the town of Séchault.

While Pershing tended to the chaos in the First Army, the 77th “Liberty” Division from New York remained on the attack in the Argonne Forest. Mostly composed of urban conscripts without experience fighting in the woodlands, they endeavored to gain ground on September 28. Major Charles W. Whittlesey led the 1st Battalion of the 308th Regiment, which German infiltrators isolated and besieged for 72 hours. Rescued and resupplied by a relief party, he pushed ahead with 700 men through a ravine the next day. Once again, enemy forces closed the gap in their advance pocket and separated them from their divisional command. “Our mission is to hold this position at all costs,” Whittlesey announced to the “lost battalion.” Sending out carrier pigeons, he communicated day after day with other battalions trying to locate them. German artillery, mortars, grenades, rifles, and flamethrowers took a toll, winnowing them down to 231 men. On October 7, the 77th Division finally pressed forward and found the “lost battalion” still holding their position.

With growing acrimony among the Allied commanders, Pershing rotated his divisions and renewed the Meuse-Argonne offensive in early October. He ordered officers to cease frontal assaults against machine guns while directing them to seek flanks wherever possible. His staff resolved a number of supply and communication problems, but the lack of training and equipment continued to undermine operations. While Liggett's I Corps faced the Argonne bluffs near Exermont, Cameron's V Corps and Bullard's III Corps confronted the heights of Romagne and Cunel, respectively. By the time Pershing restarted the offensive, the German high command had successfully reinforced their principle defensive line at the Kriemhilde Position.

To silence the guns of the Argonne, Pershing expected a miracle from the First Army. At Liggett's behest, Summerall's 1st Division edged past Exermont and proceeded along the Aire River. In a daring maneuver, the 82nd Division moved behind them to storm the heights across the waterway. The hapless defenders encountered an “All-American” named York, while Summerall's troops continued to roll northward. In six days, the 1st Division gained 4.5 miles of ground previously held by eight German divisions.

On the western flank, American divisions provided crucial assistance to the French Fourth Army. Under the command of Marine Corps General John A. Lejeune, the 2nd Division reached the slopes of Blanc Mont ridge just south of the Aisne River. With the timely arrival of the 36th Division, the ridge fell on October 10. Consequently, the First Army helped to clear the loop while driving the outflanked Germans from the Argonne Forest.

Goaded by Foch, Pershing sent the First Army against the main line of the Kriemhilde Position on October 14. On the far left, the 77th Division reached the outskirts of Grandpré in two days. Weeks later, the 78th Division finished the job and captured the town. Three divisions sliced into the hills and forests of Romagne, which fell to the Americans four days later. On the western edge, the 42nd “Rainbow” Division hurled unsupported infantry against intimidating fortifications near Côte de Châtillon. “If this brigade does not capture Châtillon,” bellowed MacArthur, commander of the 84th Brigade, “you can publish a casualty list of the entire brigade with the brigade commander's name on top.” While eventually successful in capturing the hill, his battalions suffered 80 percent casualties. General William G. Haan, commander of the 32nd Division, sent National Guardsmen from Wisconsin and Michigan to the top of Côte Dame-Marie. In fact, a patrol of seven men used rifle grenades to knock 10 machine guns out of action. After weeks of hammering the German lines, the Americans breached the most critical point on the Kriemhilde Position.

With more than a million Americans in action along an 83-mile front, Pershing sensed that victory was within their grasp. Because the AEF grew unwieldy and uncoordinated, he created the Second Army under the command of Bullard to conduct operations east of the Meuse Heights near Toul. While making himself the “group commander,” he relinquished control of the First Army to Liggett. Furthermore, he elevated Dickman to command I Corps and Summerall to command V Corps. To replace Bullard at III Corps, he tapped General John Leonard Hines. Approaching the last phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Pershing handed over operations to his best generals in the theater.

The Armistice

As the American generals endeavored to punch through the Kriemhilde Position, the commander-in-chief remained preoccupied with “the only possible program” for ending the Great War. Based upon the counsel of Colonel Edward House, his key advisor, Wilson presented the Fourteen Points for lasting peace to Congress on January 8, 1918. Most dealt with terms for open diplomacy, freedom of the seas, removal of trade barriers, reduction of armaments, adjustments of territory, and self-determination for various nationalities. The last point called again for a “general association of nations,” which promised to replace the old system of power balances in Europe. If the world embraced his vision, Wilson concluded, then the “culminating and final war for human liberty has come.”

In a series of notes with the Wilson administration that October, the German chancellor offered his “unqualified acceptance” of the Fourteen Points as a basis for negotiating peace. While threatening to pursue separate negotiations with Germany, Wilson sent House to meet with British and French officials. The Allied governments accepted the Fourteen Points in general, albeit with caveats.

In response to a request from the Allied governments, Wilson decided to deploy American troops to Russia. Beginning in the fall of 1918, they secured stockpiles of Russian supplies at Arctic ports and rescued the Czechoslovak Legion on the trans-Siberian railroad. They also assisted the “White” Russians, who continued to oppose the revolutionary government of the “Red” Bolsheviks. The 339th Infantry Regiment and supporting units of the 85th Division – about 5,000 men in total – served as the American North Russian Expeditionary Force. To thwart Japanese ambitions to expand into eastern Siberia, the 27th and 31st Infantry Regiments of the 8th Division arrived in Vladivostok with 8,000 men. By 1920, all U.S. forces had withdrawn from Russian soil.

Freed from directing U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Pershing focused on the coalition strategy for defeating the Central Powers. On October 25, 1918, he met with French and British commanders to discuss the terms for a possible armistice. Foch and Pétain wanted to punish Germany, but Haig preferred a lenient settlement. Speaking last, Pershing indicated that “there should be no tendency toward leniency” and insisted upon the surrender of German U-boats and bases to the Allies. A few days later, Pershing extended his remarks in a note to the Supreme War Council. Rather than granting any terms, he preferred “continuing the war until we force unconditional surrender from Germany.” Because only the U.S. possessed enough reserves and resources to reach Berlin, he expected the First Army to gain “the full measure of victory.”

A “big man” in every sense of the phrase, Liggett found the First Army in deplorable shape after weeks of combat. While providing replacements for decimated divisions, he insisted upon the return of the stragglers to their units. He built up stocks of ammunition and other supplies, although deficiencies in tanks and trucks remained. Aerial photographs enhanced the detail of battlefield maps, which revealed the locations of enemy dumps, batteries, nests, trenches, and roads. While limiting the number of hasty attacks, he reshuffled the lines of soldiers to concentrate their mass and firepower on the German center. Thanks to the strategic pause in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he retooled the First Army in order to release “our full weight” in a concerted blow.

On November 1, the guns of the First Army began shelling the Kriemhilde Position with high explosives and chlorine gases. With the 2nd and 89th Divisions in the lead, Liggett's troops pushed through the village of Landres-et-Saint-George and captured the heights of Barricourt on the first day. By nightfall, they advanced at least 5.5 miles. While III Corps broke through the right, I Corps absorbed greater losses on the left.

As the casualties on all sides mounted, the center of the Kriemhilde Position collapsed. Soaring through the skies, Rickenbacker flew his plane over the battlefield and watched the “retreating Heinies” scramble over the roads in a rout. Over the next several days, the advancing columns of the First Army moved along the heights overlooking the Meuse River and placed the railroad from Sedan to Mézières under artillery fire.

As American divisions crossed the Meuse, the German military began crumbling. The First Army pushed onward to Sedan, although I and V Corps commanders allowed French troops to occupy the historic city. At the same time, the Second Army pressed against Metz to achieve another breakthrough. With the Hindenburg Line unhinged, Pershing's generals steered their armies toward the Rhineland. Before Liggett and Bullard reached their final objectives, however, the armies of the Central Powers largely ceased firing.

The relentless hammering from the Allied armies left the Central Powers thoroughly beaten. The collapse of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary followed crucial Allied victories in Salonika, Syria, and Italy. With defeat imminent, German leaders faced civil unrest and naval mutiny. In early November, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland. After sending a secret delegation to meet with Foch in the forest of Compiègne, the new German Republic agreed to the armistice. They promised to surrender most of their arsenal as well as their ships. Moreover, Allied forces prepared to occupy their territory as far as the Rhine River. Signed at 5:10 p.m. on November 10, the armistice suspended all fighting the next morning. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns in Europe fell silent.

The Americans achieved most of their objectives by Armistice Day, even though they paid a terrible price. From September 26 to November 11, they counted 26,277 dead as well as 95,000 wounded. They forced 43 German divisions to retreat over 30 miles through difficult terrain and fortified positions. In addition to capturing 468 guns, they inflicted over 120,000 casualties on the enemy. While making the U.S. a decisive power in the war, the Meuse-Argonne offensive represented one of the costliest operations in American military history.

According to the terms of the armistice, the Allied governments convened a peace conference at Versailles on January 18, 1919. French Premier Georges Clemenceau insisted on dealing with the Germans harshly, while British Prime Minister David Lloyd George downplayed the Fourteen Points. Vittorio Orlando, the Italian prime minister, demanded the Austrian province of Dalmatia in the spoils of war. Wilson leaned forward with a covenant for the League of Nations, which pledged collective security to all members in Article X. Making concessions to his counterparts, he permitted a “war guilt” clause that assigned blame to Germany and required it to pay reparations to Allied governments. The German delegation protested but signed the Treaty of Versailles.

With the Treaty of Versailles completed, Wilson returned to the U.S. that summer. In the Senate, the debate over ratification elicited “reservations” about mandates for collective security in the League covenant. On two occasions, the ratification vote fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Although the armistice kept the armed forces at bay, peace treaties among the belligerents were not ratified by the U.S. until October 18, 1921.

To uphold the armistice, a number of U.S. soldiers remained in Europe. Under the command of Dickman, the Third Army marched eastward and occupied parts of Germany. Other divisions lingered in Belgium and France, where disciplinary infractions and training accidents multiplied. As weeks turned into months, everything that sustained morale seemed to disappear. By the beginning of 1919, the War Department had returned 800,000 “doughboys” to the U.S. Eager to receive their discharges, the rest boarded transport ships before the summer. At re-embarkation camps, medics inspected military personnel for venereal diseases in addition to other maladies. Spanish influenza followed many units home and killed more than 43,000 service members. While the hostilities ceased “over there,” the horrors of the Western Front seemed endless.

Leaving the Western Front behind them, veterans returned home with few benefits. Secretary Baker established the “Khaki University” to prepare some for peacetime through academic and vocational programs. Nevertheless, most Americans presumed that military service amounted to a civic duty and merited no special status.

No American wore the uniform more proudly than Pershing, who remained one of the nation's most celebrated soldiers after the armistice. On September 1, 1919, he departed France and arrived in the U.S. after a week-long crossing of the Atlantic. In New York City, he led a victory parade on horseback from 110th Street to Washington Square. Enthusiastic crowds cast roses and laurels before him. With the authorization of Congress, Wilson promoted him to General of the Armies – the highest rank possible for an American officer.


The Great War in Europe pitted powerful nations against one another, but the grand finale came abruptly. Before the U.S. mobilized for war, the absence of decisive battles represented a strategic problem on the Western Front. The proliferation of armaments increased the bloodshed with each salient. The contested ground degenerated into trenches of desolation, which no one foresaw at the outset. America's entry during 1917 led Congress to create the Selective Service system, although few “doughboys” saw action until the next year. Naval convoys immediately safeguarded shipping across the Atlantic Ocean. Under Pershing's leadership, the AEF penetrated German lines at Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. The Allied Powers eventually overcame the Central Powers through attrition and exhaustion – not with tactics. As a result of their enormous sacrifices, the French, British, and American troops paved the way for the armistice. Unfortunately, the peace conference in Versailles laid the groundwork for another war two decades later.

Amid unprecedented carnage and unspeakable cruelties, survivors of the Great War incorrectly judged it “the war to end all wars.” The catchphrase originated in 1914 with British intellectual H. G. Wells, who was renowned for authoring science fiction, popular history, and political commentary. Likewise, the specter of German militarism inspired a 1916 novel, The Conquest of America, in which the American author Cleveland Langston Moffett imagined countermeasures to a “sneak attack.” Without a doubt, the most widely read prose and poetry of the era emerged from an outpouring of anti-war literature. Authors such as Erich Maria Remarque, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos dwelt upon feelings of alienation, despair, and loss. Soon, motion pictures unveiled the horrors of the frontlines to civilian audiences in the U.S. and in Europe. In the wake of massive destruction, an endless war of memory overshadowed the lofty goals of the belligerents.

The American military played a role in the massive destruction, which made the Allied Powers victorious. The U.S. suffered approximately 112,000 fatalities in the European theater, while France and Great Britain counted more than 2 million deaths between them. In other words, the French and British governments contributed much more in terms of lives, resources, and planning than the Wilson administration. At least 10 million people perished worldwide during four years of armed conflict, although American casualties in a matter of months skyrocketed to 320,710. Out of a U.S. population in excess of 100 million, service members numbered 4,743,800 in wartime – less than 5 percent of the nation's citizenry. Nearly two-thirds of them were conscripts, while the National Guard provided most of the rest. With an estimated 2 million American warriors crossing the Atlantic, the majority joined a “Grand Offensive.”

As the discharged veterans rushed home to civilian life, the primary lesson of World War I seemed troubling to the American people. To be sure, the preservation of peace required the preparation of the military. After U.S. forces fought in Europe for the first time in history, however, Washington D.C. left them in a state of disorganization and disrepair. Owing to the inherent difficulties in mobilizing men and material, the fumbling and miscalculations reinforced lingering doubts about America's ability to succeed in coalition warfare. U.S. commanders stood among equals in the war effort, but they lacked sophistication in the conduct of combat operations. The poor posture of defense afterward weakened the nation, which repudiated the responsibilities of great power and withdrew into relative isolation. Even though the vastness of the oceans no longer promised security, Americans remained as unprepared as ever for the hostile fire of “total war.”

Essential Questions

1 How did the U.S. mobilize for World War I?

2 What were the strengths of the AEF? What were the weaknesses?

3 Why did World War I end without a decisive battle?

Suggested Readings

Chambers II, John Whiteclay. To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Grotelueschen, Mark Ethan. The AEF Way of War: The American Army and Combat in World War I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Harries, Meirion, and Susie Harries. The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917–1918. New York: Random House, 1997.

Jensen, Kimberly. Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Keene, Jennifer. Doughboys, the Great War, and the Remaking of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Kennedy, David. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kennett, Lee. The First Air War, 1914–1918. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Koistinen, Paul A. C. Mobilizing for Modern War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865–1919. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Lengel, Edward G. To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918. New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

Slotkin, Richard. Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Smythe, Donald. Pershing: General of the Armies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Storey, William Kelleher. The First World War: A Concise Global History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

Trask, David F. The AEF and Coalition Warmaking, 1917–1918. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Trask, David F. Captains & Cabinets: Anglo-American Naval Relations, 1917–1918. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1972.

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