- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Modern Era»
- Twentieth Century History
100Th Anniversary of the Start of World War I and How America Was Drawn Into That War
WW I Was the First War to Be Declared by Telegram
2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The official start of one of the worst wars, in terms of human suffering and mass destruction, in history was a rather simple affair.
On Jul 28, 1914 at 11:10 a.m. the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold, sent the following telegram to M. N. Pashitch, who was both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Serbia:
Vienna, July 28, 1914
The Royal Serbian Government not having answered in a satisfactory manner the note of July 23, 1914, presented by the Austro-Hungarian Minister at Belgrade, the Imperial and Royal Government are themselves compelled to see to the safeguarding of their rights and interests, and, with this object, to have recourse to force of arms. Austria-Hungary consequently considers herself henceforward in state of war with Serbia.
This telegram marks the official start of World War I. It was also the first time that a nation declared war via a telegram.
Traditional Cause of the War
Common belief is that the cause of World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo Bosnia on June 28, 1914 by a Serbian youth by the name of Gavrilo Princip.
While an ethnic Serb, Princip was born and raised in Austrian Empire’ province of Bosnia. The assassination itself took place in Austrian territory and Precip and most of his fellow conspirators had been arrested and were in the custody of Austrian authorities.
However, Austria accused the Serbian government of being behind the assassination, charging that high officials in the Serbian military both planned the assassination as well as provided the training and the weapons used by the assassins.
What should have been a minor diplomatic or military exchange between Austria and Serbia quickly exploded into a major European war as a result of the secret alliances among the European powers which required the signatories to come to the aid of their allies in the event of war.
What Were the Opposing Sides Fighting For?
While millions fought and died in World War I, we are still unclear as to what this war was about. Historians are still debating about what caused the opposing nations were fighting about..
It was not about ideology or religion. With the exception of the Ottoman Empire where the predominant religion was Muslim, the rest of the participants were mainly Judo-Christian. While the religions differed, the war was not about religion. It was also not a clash of competing ideologies, although some nationalist groups as well as socialists and communists benefited from the war. Gains by these groups were a result of the war but not a cause or reason for it.
It was also not about territorial expansion in Europe by the major powers, although there was some desire on the part of some government officials and peoples living in Europe to change borders. In the end the war did involve major changes in European borders and the transfer of overseas colonial possessions among the belligerents.
However, once the war started, Europe and much of the rest of the world got sucked into it. Lacking real objectives, the fighting continued until all sides were too exhausted to continue.
In the end, the Allies (also known as Entente), led by Britain and France, did end up being the victors.
The United States was a factor in the victory by the Allies. Access by Britain and France to loans from American banks helped them to continue to buy war material. Then the entry by the United States into the war in 1917 on the side of Entente provided a fresh injection of men and material which helped to tip the scales in favor of the Entente powers against the German led Central Powers.
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
War was Initially Popular
While the assassination in Sarajevo was the reason Austro-Hungary gave for its declaration of war against Serbia, this is generally agreed to have been the incident or excuse needed to go to war.
Rising nationalism and conflicting political interests played a role in making the idea of war initially popular. The large military establishments maintained by the major European states were also a key factor in the decisions to go to war. Europe had been at peach for nearly a century and many military men were chafing for action. These factors led to an environment in which some type of major conflict was inevitable.
In the beginning, the war was popular among many in the middle and upper income groups especially those in opinion influencing areas like academia, politics and journalism.
When war broke out, people all over Europe cheered in the streets and young men rushed to enlist. All expected a quick and exciting war with thrilling action.
While nationalism fueled the emotions of many to favor the war, others on the left - socialist, anarchists, communists - saw the war as a means to destroy the existing order in Europe and finally open the way for them to seize power.
These radicals were the real winners of the war with Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks taking control of Russia and its vast Eurasian Empire and the rise of numerous fascist (a variation of socialism) and other left wing, anti-democratic regimes in many of the new nations that came about in post-World War I Europe.
United States Reluctant to Enter the War
Enthusiasm for war in the United States was not as great due to many factors
- The U.S. had experienced a terrible war, the Civil War, just a half century earlier. Many of our business, civic, political and religious leaders at that time were veterans of that war or had still living parents and grandparents who had fought in that war.
- There was also the long standing foreign policy tradition, dating back to the administration of our first President, George Washington, to avoid European entanglements and wars.
- The U.S. was ethnically divided with many Irish and German-Americans favoring the Central Powers while those with English and French roots favoring the Allied side.
- U.S. security wasn’t threatened
There were no real moral or ideological differences between the combatants - the European nations involved in the war were predominantly Christian, were mostly liberal constitutional monarchies and shared the common western culture which the U.S. also shared.
As a result, the United States managed to avoid joining the war until 1917 a little over a year before the November 11th 1918 truce that finally stopped the fighting.
Some Americans did Participate in the War from the Start
However, the allure of war can be exciting especially for young men seeking excitement and glory. Even in the U.S., many young men made their way to Canada, England and France where they joined and fought in the Army or Air Force of those nations years before America declared war on Germany in 1917. While adventure and glory were probably the major motives behind the actions of these young men other, more noble, impulses were also a factor for many of them.
There were also a relatively large number Americans living and working in France when the war started. Many of these lived in Paris, where they were known as the American Colony of Paris.
With Paris initially on the front lines of the war, many members of the American Colony of Paris organized and set up a hospital for the wounded and started an ambulance service driving Ford cars purchased from a nearby Ford automotive plant.
This group eventually organized as the American Field Service (AFS) and followed the French Army providing medical services, driving ambulances and, later in the war, assisting the French Army with logistical support. Many worked near the front lines of the war and over one hundred of these American civilian volunteers lost their lives in the war.
Geographic Summary of World War I
The War was Not Universally Popular with the Masses
While the war was initially popular, especially among elites, it didn’t really catch on with the masses.
Open opposition to the war was limited and rare due in large part to wartime laws forbidding such activity. This silencing of opponents to the war was common in all the nations involved, including the United States.
Once the United States entered the war, outspoken opponents of the war were arrested and imprisoned for violating laws such as Espionage Act of 1917 (which, while amended a number of times, is still in effect and will probably be used to prosecute the NSA leaker Edward Snowdon if he is ever apprehended by U.S. authorities).
Among those prosecuted under the Espionage Act was Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party in the U.S. Debs opposed the World War I draft law and was arrested and convicted for his speeches opposing the military draft. Despite his imprisonment Debs, in 1920, ran a campaign for President from his cell in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. A little over 900,000 people cast write in votes for him.
While many elites and other young men seeking action and or adventure rushed to enlist, these numbers were not sufficient to meet the manpower needs the warring nations felt they needed.
Most of the nations fighting the war had to rely on a military draft in order to fill the ranks of their armed forces.
France, Russia and Germany had military conscription prior to the start of the war. Low enlistments forced Great Britain to institute a draft during the war. The United States also found itself having to institute a draft upon entering the war as enlistments were well below the anticipated manpower needs of the war.
Military personnel needs of all the nations involved were great and WikiPedia, citing the Encyclopedia Britannica, estimated that a total of 65,038,810 men and women served in their nation’s military during World War I. Of course, not all of these people were involved in direct combat or were even stationed in or near the theater of war.
Of these sixty-five million plus people in military service an estimated 9,750,103 died while in military service (about ⅔ of these were combat related deaths and most of the other third were disease). The five and a half month (Jul 1 to Nov 18, 1916) Somme Offensive in northern France alone resulted in over 1,000,000 combatants being killed or wounded.
These huge losses combined with the fact that each side literally dug in, forming long trenches opposite each other. For the most part the lines changed very little and when one side or the other did attempt to advance their position the cost, in terms of lives was great, while the gain, in terms of captured enemy ground, was very small.
The first day of the 1916 Somme Offensive (mentioned above) resulted in 57,470 casualties for the British Army. This was just the first day of a military campaign that lasted for five and a half months. After five and a half months of fighting and 620,000 French and British casualties, the Allies ended up forcing the German Army back about 7 miles. The seven miles of new territory came at a cost of about 1.4 combined British and French casualties for each inch gained.
Combine casualties of this magnitude with lack of progress toward winning the war and the harsh conditions soldiers endured while living in trenches and it became very difficult to maintain public enthusiasm for the war despite propaganda campaigns, censorship and other efforts to maintain public morale.
United States Enters the War
Public opinion in the U.S. generally opposed entry into World War I. Mindful of this sentiment, President Wilson in his first term tried and failed to broker a peace among the warring nations. While he failed at this he did succeed in keeping the nation from being drawn into the war. President Wilson had to run for reelection in 1916 and, in that election, his campaign slogan was He kept us out of war!
Even though the U.S. remained neutral until 1917, the war did have an economic impact on the U.S. On the plus side the massive troop mobilizations and the physical destruction caused by the war in those nations at war resulted in a boom for U.S. exports of agricultural and other products needed by the warring parties.
The bad news, economically, was that each side did its best to blockade the other to prevent them from receiving the needed imports from neutral nations like the U.S.
Britain with the world’s largest navy was successful in turning back much of the shipping bound for its enemies and this with no physical harm to U.S. merchant ships and sailors. Germany, on the other hand, had to resort to more destructive measures.
Attacks on U.S. Shipping Before U.S. Entry into the War
The first U.S. shipping casualty was the U.S. flagged merchant ship the schooner William P. Frye which was detained off the coast of Brazil by the German raiding ship Prinz Eitel Fredrich on January 27, 1915.
The William P. Frye and its cargo of wheat for an English firm were headed for the United Kingdom. On order of the captain of the Prinz Eitel Fredrich the American crew began dumping their cargo into the ocean. The next day, January 28th, with the dumping of the cargo not going fast enough the crew was removed and the ship sunk with explosives.
The Prinz Eitel Fredrich put the unharmed American crew ashore in Brazil and resumed its raiding.
Schooner William P. Frye First U.S. Ship Sunk by Germany in World War I
Prinz Eitel Fredrich Detained by U.S. in March 1917
By March the Prinz Eitel Fredrich, now carrying some 300 British and French prisoners and running low on supplies, put into port at Newport News, Virginia which is located in what was the the still neutral United States.
Reluctant to face the Allied warships waiting for her outside the U.S. territorial limit, the Captain of the Prinz Eitel Fredrich ended up keeping the ship in port longer than international law allowed and this resulted in the ship and its crew being interned in the U.S.
When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917 the Prinz Eitel Fredrich was seized and converted to a U.S. Navy troopship. The Prinz Eitel Fredrich was renamed the USS DeKalb (after the Prussian General Barron Jonann de Kalb who helped train American troops at Valley Forge during the American Revolution).
The USS DeKalb served throughout the American participation in the war and was then sold to United American Van Lines which renamed the ship SS Mount Clay and refitted her a trans Atlantic passenger ship.
Like other German assets located in the U.S. when the U.S. declared war and owned by the German government or private German businesses / investors, the U.S. government kept USS DeKalb / Prinz Eitel Fredrich without any compensation to their German owners.
Including the sloop William P. Frye, a total of twenty-nine American flagged merchant ships were captured or sunk by German surface ships, submarines and mines between the start of the war in Europe and America’s declaration of war on April 6, 1917. Once the U.S. entered the war even more U.S. flagged merchant ships were sunk.
World War I U.S. Navy Troop Ship USS DeKalb
Acts Which Led to America Declaring War on Germany and Central Powers
While attacks on U.S. flagged merchant ships angered Americans, these acts alone were not sufficient to drag the nation into war. The U.S. was, and still is, a nation heavily engaged in international trade employing trans ocean shipping. Freedom of the seas has also been a guiding principle of American foreign policy since the War of 1812.
German Ad Warning Americans Not to Sail on the SS Lusitania
The May 7, 1915 sinking of the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania by the German U-Boat U-20 in which more than 1,300 passengers, including over 130 Americans traveling on the ship, died, did much to anger and turn American sympathies against Germany.
However, as many have pointed out, both before and since the sinking, that the RMS Lusitania was not only logical target for German attack but Germany went so far as to place an advertisement in the New York Times before the ship left New York harbor that they intended to sink it.
There has also been a continuing debate to this day as to whether the RMS Lusitania’s cargo included munitions bound for England. While alternative theories have been advanced over the years, many continue to claim that the second explosion which followed the torpedo explosion was the result of the torpedo hitting military cargo.
While Americans were upset with incidents like the sinking of the schooner William P. Frye and the loss of American life on the RMS Lusitania, both of these took place in 1915 a full two years before America entered the war. Since they also took place a year before Americans re-elected President Wilson on a He kept us out of war! platform it is difficult to conclude that they were instrumental in the American decision to go to war.
Publication of Zimmerman Telegram Angers Americans
Two incidents in early 1917 had a more direct effect on the decision by the United States to enter the war.
The first of these was the public release, on February 28, 1917, of what became known to history as the Zimmerman Telegram.
The Zimmerman Telegram refers to a telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, to Germany’s ambassador in Mexico City in January 1917. In the telegram the German ambassador was instructed to offer Mexico generous funding to enable them to attack the U.S. and retake U.S. southwestern states that had been created out of territory acquired by the United States as a result of its victory over Mexico following the 1846-1847 war between Mexico and the United States.
As a result of political instability in Mexico the U.S. already had troops under General Pershing (who became U.S. commander in Europe when the U.S. entered World War I) helping to defend Arizona and New Mexico against raids by Mexican factions led by Mexican General Francisco "Poncho" Villa and other commanders involved in the turmoil in Mexico.
It was Foreign Minister Zimmerman’s plan to have Mexico attack the U.S. southwestern border thereby forcing the U.S. to concentrate that immediate problem thereby keeping America out of the war.
As I explained in my earlier Hub, The Zimmerman Telegram, the message had been intercepted and decoded by the British and it provided the British with the leverage needed to bring the U.S. into the war. However, there were a couple of problems.
First, to be effective in turning the American public against Germany, the message had to be made public and, in doing so, Germany would realize that Britain had broken its secret military code and would immediately switch to a new one.
Second, and more important, the British had obtained the original message by tapping into a secure cable, that crossed Britain, installed and used by the U.S. government for its private correspondence with its European embassies.
British Intelligence Service Secretly Wiretaps American Government Diplomatic Cable
In an attempt to convince Germany of its neutrality, the U.S. had allowed Germany to use the American diplomatic cable to correspond with its embassy in Washington.
A century before Edward Snowdon exposed the U.S. NSA (National Security Agency) for listening in on telephone and other means of supposedly secure and private correspondence by foreign governments, these very same governments were eavesdropping on the private communication channels of the U.S. government..
While Britain had learned of the German Foreign Minister’s instructions via a wiretap on an American diplomatic cable, they were able to get around this by bribing a Mexican telegraph operator. While the original German message had been sent via a supposed secure and private diplomatic cable, the only way the German Embassy in Washington could quickly forward the message to the German embassy in Mexico City was with a simple, uncoded, Western Union telegram.
Germany Announces Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
Coming on the heels of the Zimmerman Telegram was the announcement by Germany of their intention to begin unrestricted submarine warfare against ships carrying goods and people to the Allied nations. In fact the Zimmerman Telegram began by describing these plans, saying:
We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
This was too much and America found itself on the road to war. The U.S. had been increasing its military preparations so as to be prepared in the event it was drawn into the war. These new events resulted in the U.S. immediately accelerating its preparations for war.
On April 6, 1917 Congress passed a resolution declaring war on Germany.
End of World War I
Fighting between the Allied and Axis powers in World War I ended at 11:00 A.M. Central European time on November 11, 1918. Following three days of secret negotiations in a railroad car parked in a French forest, officers from both sides agreed to a truce in fighting. The truce was agreed upon at five that morning and, to have time to get the word to commanders on both sides, it was agreed that the truce would officially start six hours later at 11:00.
While today November 11, 1918 is recognized as the end of the fighting in World War I, it was simply a truce in which each side agreed to temporarily stop fighting and allow diplomats to try to negotiate a permanent end to the fighting. To give their diplomats more bargaining power, military forces on goth sides used the hours before the 11 o'clock truce to try to gain as much ground as possible.
The result was that instead of easing, the fighting that morning intensified as each side fought fiercely in the hours before the ceasefire took effect. As a result of this fighting during what became the last six hours of the war over 2,700 soldiers ended up being killed.
Two North American Soldiers are Last to Be Killed in Battle
Private George Lawrence Price, an infantryman in the 2nd Canadian Division, was killed at 10:58 two minutes before the ceasefire took effect. He has the distinction of being the both the last Canadian and last British Commonwealth soldier to die in the war.
However, a second North American, U.S. Army Private Henry Gunther of the 313th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) was shot and killed one minute later thus becoming the last American and last man killed fighting in World War I.
While the truce was intended to give diplomats an opportunity to negotiate a peace treaty officially ending the war, most considered the truce to be just a lull in the fighting with the shooting to resume shortly.
However, the shooting did not resume and on June 19, 1919 the Allied and Central Powers signed the Treaty of Versailles which formally brought the war to an end. While this treaty ended the war, the U.S. Senate did not accept its conditions and refused to ratify it leaving the United States to negotiate and sign a separate treaty with Germany which was signed on August 25, 1921 and ratified shortly after by the U.S. Senate.
Allied Forces Continue Fighting in Russia
While the November 11, 1918 truce ended the fighting and killing in most of Europe, fighting continued in Russia. Following the October 1917 putsch by Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks, which overthrew the Provisional Government that had come to power following the Czar’s abdication in February of that year, Allied forces, including American troops, invaded Russia.
Upon taking power, Lenin and his government withdrew Russia from the war by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918 with Germany.
The withdrawal of Russia from the war eliminated the Allies’ Eastern Front which allowed the Central Powers to move their forces to the Western Front. It also left some 40,000 members of the Czechoslovak Legions trapped in Siberia as civil war raged between the Bolsheviks (reds) and those opposed to Lenin’s communist takeover of Russia (whites). There was also the matter of trying to reclaim the large amounts of war material that America and the Allies had sent to Russia before they withdrew from the war.
On August 15th and 21st of 1918 the first of what became the 7,950 man American Expeditionary Force Siberia arrived in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East. A second, 5,000 man American force, known as the Polar Bear Expedition or American Expeditionary Force North Russia (AEFNR), was dispatched to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk (Archangel) on the White Sea in the far northwest of European Russia.
The last of these American soldiers fighting in Russia did not leave until April 1, 1920. As a result of fighting, disease and accidents a total of 424 of the American soldiers sent to Russia died serving there.
U.S. Troops Sent to Siberia
Human Cost of World War I
Wars are expensive in terms of lives lost, resources expended, infrastructure destroyed and money.
Over 65 million people (mostly men) served in the military of their various nations during the war. A majority of these probably did not see combat or even serve in a combat zone. However, their lives were disrupted by the war. Of these, it is estimated that 9 million or more died while serving. Most of these were combat related deaths but some were due to accidents and disease not associated with combat.
In addition to deaths 21.2 million military personnel were wounded and another 7.8 million taken prisoner or declared missing in action.
In addition to military casualties, it is estimated that 7 million or more civilians died as a result of war related actions. This in addition to civilians who suffered physical injuries as a result of the war.
1918-1919 Spanish Flu Pandemic
As if these casualties were not enough, a flu pandemic in 1918-1919 resulted in the deaths of 20 to 50 million or more people world wide.
This epidemic came in three waves with the first wave starting in March of 1919 in Asia and the United States. This first wave appears to have started at Ft. Riley Kansas, a U.S. Army training camp packed with recruits in training.
While the first wave was mild the second third waves that followed were vicious. Beginning in September 1918 the disease spread wildly in the U.S. and in Europe where the war still raged. It also spread throughout the rest of the world.
The third wave, which raged from the end of 1918 through the spring of 1919 was equally deadly.
Most believe that the massing of men in armies combined with the massive destruction in war torn areas were what caused it to spread so fast and so widely. Throughout history disease has generally caused more military deaths than combat. It is only in modern times that we seem to have developed weapons that are more efficient at killing than is disease.
Because the pandemic started before the war ended, some of the military and civilian non-combat deaths were also due to the flu and are included in the numbers associated with the flu as well as the war. The statistics for both are estimates which tend to vary by a few million or so depending upon their source.
Finally, the disease which frequently is referred to as the Spanish Flu, had nothing to do with Spain other than the fact that Spain was not a combatant in World War I and consequently did not have any wartime censorship. Since Spain was the only major western nation where newspapers were free to report on the flu. Spain was the source of flu information rather than the source of the virus.
U.S. Soldiers in Hospital sick with Spanish Flu
Financial Cost of World War I
The monetary costs are more staggering with the direct financial cost of the war being estimated in the neighborhood of $187 Billion. This was just the direct cost of fighting the war.
In addition as Terence Corcoran describes in his July 26, 2014 article in Canada’s Financial Post (Terence Corcoran on World War One: The War That Eded Growth), the war ended a century long period of growth in Europe during which real incomes had been steadily increasing leaving almost everyone, including those in low income categories, with both more money and more leisure time.
With the Treaty of Versailles the Allied Powers demanded that Germany pay 266 gold marks which was the equivalent of $63 billion in 1919 dollars (and about $768 billion in today’s dollars) in war reparations to the victors. The Allies, in effect, tried to make Germany reimburse them for a major portion of the Allies share of the $187 billion cost of waging the war.
While the Allies later reduced the repatriation amount to $33 billion, it wasn’t until October 3, 2010 that Germany paid the final $94 million dollars owed as a result of the World War I reparations. This payment was actually a repayment of bonds sold by the German government in the 1920s and 1930s in order to raise the money needed to pay the reparations. Most of these bonds were purchased by American investors.
It should be noted that, while American negotiators supported the European Allies demand for reparations, the U.S. was not a recipient of these reparations (although the U.S. government did keep the property owned by the German government and private German citizens which was confiscated by the U.S. government at the start of the war).
The "War to End All Wars" Didn't
In a final tragic irony, this war which was proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson as the War to End all Wars opened the way for the rise of totalitarian dictatorships (Communist, Nazi, Fascist) that enslaved much of Europe for the rest of the 20th Century.
It also sowed the seeds that led directly to World War II and the Cold War that resulted in that century being nearly 100 years of hot and cold wars.
© 2014 Chuck Nugent