The U.S. in WWI – Part 2

Author’s note: This is a very broad overview. Please bear in mind that the Eastern Front is my specialty. US participation in WWI is a topic that can be a blog in and of itself, and there are several very good web sites on the war.

The United States declared war on Imperial Germany a hundred years ago last week (April 6, 1917). We had: no army; an air force of 30 planes give or take, the majority of which were used to supply parts for the others; a minimal navy; and some experience with fighting – in northern Mexico, or tropical climates. Granted, we had been supplying things to Britain and France, and US citizens had been serving as volunteers in the Entente armies since 1914, but we weren’t exactly ready for all-out war Over There. And a goodly number of the residents and citizens of the US were not entirely in favor of fighting for Britain. A smaller number opposed our fighting against Germany, and a number, mostly socialists, communists, and trade-union organizers recently immigrated from Europe, were opposed to our doing anything to help anyone in the war. And a number of US citizens read the proclamations of “Fighting to make the world safe for democracy” and wondered who was kidding whom, because they had limited rights at best – African-Americans, Indians, and women.

But that didn’t stop the Wilson administration, although the calls for African-Americans to be allowed participate in military combat units did give Wilson and others pause. Would armed black men remain quiet about the Jim Crow laws, black codes, and casual insults hurled at African-Americans in the North and South? Wilson agreed to allow a few African-American units, and told the military leadership to plan in using them as support troops, to keep them out of combat. 375,000 blacks registered for the draft and most who were called up served in the army, most famously with the 369th Infantry Regiment. This group was made up mostly of men from New York City and nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters.*

The draft began in May of 1917, after the initial call for volunteers produced a mere handful of the needed men. This was the Selective Service Act of 1917. It led to almost three million men called up, mostly white but from all ethnic backgrounds. Those who resisted service by claiming to be contentious objectors were first harassed, then tried in military tribunals for a number of things, after military boards decided if their objection was really “sincere” or if they were just trying to get out of their national duty. Many men were sentenced to hard labor at Ft. Leavenworth, and this persecution and  wilful denial of pacifist beliefs by the government led to the organization of several denominations into the “peace churches”, and to lobbying for exemptions for Mennonites, Quakers, German Brethren, Amish, and a few others. A legal challenge to Selective Service, based on the 13th Amendment’s “unlawful servitude” clause, was denied by the Supreme Court.

So the US military rushed to turn an enormous mass of men into soldiers, while the French and British clamored for supplies and soldiers. General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the US overall commander, went to France in 1917 to begin the task of preparing for the US soldiers’ arrival. He was not pleased, to put it mildly, to be informed that the Entente armies wanted Americans under French and British commands, shoved into their armies as replacements instead of fighting as Americans under American control. Pres. Wilson had told Pershing to refuse such suggestions, and Pershing raised some hackles. He also saw first-hand the meat grinder, man-killer trench warfare of the Western Front.

To train that many soldiers, the Army had to build places for them to train. Army posts expanded overnight, literally, temporary barracks were built, and sergeants and junior officers scrambled to teach enormous numbers of men how to do it the “Army way.” The Navy and Marines saw some increase in numbers, but the scale of the surge into the Army threatened to overwhelm the system.

The US Army Air Service grew from thirty-five pilots (!) in January of 1917, to 1400 trained pilots with more on the way in December 1917. After all, if the Army only had 35 or so planes, why have too many more pilots? US aviation technology was a bit behind that of the Europeans, but we learned quickly, and the Curtis JN-4 in its various variants became the main trainer. Those Americans already flying with the French and British stayed in their units. By November 1918 there would be over 10,000 new trained military pilots and a support group of almost 200,000 men, from aircraft designers to pilots to mechanics to cooks and radio-men. The most famous US pilot would be Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, a first-generation American and former race-car driver who forced his way into aviation by sheer stubbornness and ended up our first ace, with a total of 26 victories to his credit. We also had observation balloons and their crews. And no parachutes, at least not at first. Parachutes were thought to encourage cowardice by allowing men to bail out of perfectly good aircraft rather than fighting. The Americans had some rather choice things to say about that British and French idea!

The US Navy concentrated its attentions on the Atlantic, with mixed successes. U-boats were not easy to learn how to sink, Q-ships seemed to avoid coming into contact with military vessels when possible, and British efforts to “lock” the Imperial German Navy into the North Sea and coastal waters seemed to be rather successful. A few US battleships and other vessels served with the British fleet, but not many, in part because the British did not have enough coal to fuel their warships, their merchant marine, and US Navy ships. The Marines fought ashore, most famously in 1918 at Belleau Woods, where they earned the nickname the Devil Dogs from the Germans, and earned the ire of the Army by stealing the Army’s press coverage and glory. One Army artilleryman from Missouri, Harry S Truman, was most un-impressed.

US troops, in US units, did not reach combat until early 1918. Troops had been in France since June, with more arriving in August 1917 as support and headquarters staff, and to get used to France. Some served as foresters, providing wood for the front. The 369th Regiment arrived in December of 1917 and got stuck in service positions, until Pershing decided to make an exception and put them under French command. The French, used to African troops, had no qualms about assigning African-Americans to the front lines and did so. The Hellfighters rose to exceed everyone’s expectations. Likewise other American troops, once they got used to the strange conditions of trench warfare, and how to work around it.

The US was given a “quiet sector” early in 1918, in the south. Apparently no one informed the Germans that they were supposed to go easy on that area, and when the Second Battle of the Marne exploded in March 1918, the Americans were pulled in, although we saw more action in the later phases of the long slog. The Germans discovered that Americans learn quickly, we improvise well, and when surrounded, tend to attack in all directions. Keep in mind, the men who survived WWI would become the spiritual and physical fathers of that most dreaded thing: a Little Group of Pissed-Off Paratroopers (LGOPP). French and British commanders came to accept Americans as equal in skill and courage with their own troops.

What was the final cost, after Germany agreed to an armistice on November 11, 1918? 116,700 dead, and 205,600 wounded. More would die of the Spanish Flu, which actually got started in Meade, Kansas, then reached Ft. Riley and thence the world. The fatalities do not include men who died later from injuries, most notably the effects of poison gas. They DO include those who died in the invasion of Russia in 1918-1920, when the US and others tried to stop the Russian Civil War and put anyone but the Communists in power. it was not a success, and we didn’t really have many soldiers involved. Just over 800 civilians died in ships sunk by the Germans, including the Lusitania and Merchant Marine sailors. Compared to the British losses, including men from the Commonwealth and colonies, and the Europeans, the US was unscathed. For the families that lost brothers, sons, and fathers, the losses were tremendous.

While the armies mobilized, the government did its best to stir civilians into the war effort. That will be the subject of a later post.

The wiki bibliography is really good. Yes, I know, Wikipedia. But many of the books I’m familiar with that I would recommend are there, as are many new to me, or about areas I’m unfamiliar with. The individual battle pages on Wiki also have excellent citation lists and bibliographies. The literature on the US in WWI is growing daily, probably hourly.

For those interested in visual learning, the recent 6-hour American Experience documentary is excellent. It is very well done, even-handed, and brings up points not generally covered in most popular accounts of WWI.

*Because this is a very, very broad-brush overview, I’m not going to discuss the problems faced by African-American troops.