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WWI Series - A Hundred Years Ago
A hundred years ago, September, 1915, America is not yet at war. The war is Europe's war. American citizens know the players and the issues as well if not more so than the citizens of Europe and Britain who are fighting the war. Americans from east to west across the country read the papers.
Russia still has serfs owned by landowners in a feudal system. Governments are still kings and queens, or Czar or Kaiser. As a result of nationalistic fervor and expansionism, the nations of Europe are in a precarious balance of power. When one nation gains an advantage the others balance that advantage. This balancing is done with treaties and alliances.
Germany and Britain are in an arms race as well. Britain's navy rules the seas but Germany maintains the greatest army in the world. The only place left for German colonization is Russian dominated eastern Europe. Russia is allies with France so as early as 1912 Germany plans a pre-emptive strike against France.
The flashpoint is the Balkans, a soup of nationalistic fervor and racial tensions. Serbia is looking for a greater Serbia and Austria-Hungary is struggling to maintain power and prestige. When a Serbian shoots the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, the can of worms is opened. Germany has an excuse to fight. In the beginning the war is popular in Germany.
Beneath the listed reasons for war - nationalism, expansion, military balance of power, and alliances and treaties - are social issues boiling to explosion. Industry has developed through standardization and mass production weapons so fearful that only the American Civil War can provide evidence of the horrific effect. Germany is over-confident in their industrial development.
The ruling class fights change. But change has come. Change came with the industrial revolution. A new class of people who were not farmers nor merchants nor aristocrats or investors. This growing group of people is called labor. This group of citizens have expectations of a quality of life. This group of people embraced socialism around the globe, and they were willing to fight for their ideals.
Socialism expounds a greater equality in the distribution of wealth. This is an appealing idea especially to a growing middle class who are better educated. Socialism in various forms becomes popular among the growing middle class.
The cataclysmic event that was WWI, that spawned Bolsheviks, communist, and Nazis changed the world. Rebellion in Russia is not a possibility, it is a reality. Only a quick and decisive victory against Germany can save the Czar short term. Only reform in government can save the Czar long term. Americans know these things. This world structure is part of their world. On the whole Americans have little sympathy for Russia.
The school book causes of war - nationalism, expansion, military balance of power, and alliances and treaties - did not sit on a shelf in a bottle like ingredients in a recipe. These political facts wait for an excuse, for a flashpoint. Most political and military leaders in Germany wanted war. They believe that Germany will win,will widen their sphere of influence, will rule all German speaking people in Poland, Russia and France. The initial outbreak of war is cheered. Victory expected by Christmas, 1914. So while Germany is considered the aggressor and is the nation held accountable in the end. However, all of Europe failed to stop the war from happening. A failure in what they did and what they failed to do.
Likely no living man in 1915 could see the snowball effect of the violence.
Washington Post, August 15,1915
Newspapers in America
A hundred years ago Americans sought information as the war progressed through a period of stagnation in winning or losing. While stagnant in one area, the battling nations expanded the area of the war to colonies such as India. The arms race expanded to frightening weapons. Day by day Americans across the country bought the paper and read about the war.
For a neutral nation, the press reported factual events in detail every day but the slant obviously rooted for England and France despite millions of Americans of German ancestry. Americans are well informed even though their only sources of information are newspapers, radio, and word of mouth. The film industry is a growing source of propaganda but not yet day to day. The newspapers are powerful. The newspapers reflect the changing attitude of the country while reporting the events in detail of war in Europe.
The Washington Post: Saturday, March 18, 1916 reported on page 2 the following headlines:
BATTLE SHIFTS ON FRONTS AT VERDUN
IRISH GUARD HONORED BY KING AND QUEEN
GERMAN TAXES UPHELD
TORPEDO HIT TUBANTIA - Officers Saw Its Wake, Asserts the Netherlands Admiralty
Shells Wreck Serb Throne Room and Lay Waste Belgrade Streets
Latest War Events in Field and on the Seas Told in Brief Glances - PARIS - Gerrmans launched five violent attacks against French in the village and fort of Vaax, northeast of Verdun. All were reported, with heavy loses, by the French. On the west bank of Meuse there is a slackening of the terrific bombardment. VIENNA - Violent artillery duals in progress in both Russian and Italian theaters of war.- LONDON - Reported Brazilian government seized 44 German ships interned in Brazilian ports. - BERLIN - Two French assaults in effort to dislodge Germans from positions on Dead Man's Hill, northeast of Verdun, were repulsed. - Petrograd - Russians capture . . .
England Considers Drafting Married Men Into the Army
Americans in Australian Ranks Fall Fighting Against the Turks.
While leading their own lives, Americans across the country read the above news a hundred years ago.
Other news included such events as a great elephant fossil found by soldiers while digging a British trench. The war grew in the minds and hearts of Americans everyday, the majority, certainly those who voted for President Wilson, held firm to neutrality. But the war was becoming too big, too consuming. The cost of war in lives and taxes is not lost between the lines. Only a few industrialist and investors begin to express views that America would benefit from joining the war.
The Washington Post: Sunday, August 15, 1915
"I LOVE MY SOLDIERS, BUT NOT THEIR WIVES," SAYS GEN. JOFFRE" - Kindness One of Characteristics of French Generalissimo. - CONFIDENCE IS UNSHAKEABLE.
Joffre is the commander of the French army. In the early months of the conflict the French government almost ceased to exist. It fled to Bordeaux to avoid the embarrassment of being trapped in Paris, and granted generals Gallieni and Joffre authority to run the city of Paris and the war. This power to run the war and the city could not be taken back. Joffre then made a big mistake in his guess as to what Germany intended. He did exactly what the German army wanted by thrusting east into Alsace and Lorraine thus weakening the French lines at the point the Germans intended to strike in the north.
Americans knew this, and still embraced the French General. American newspapers give sympathetic print to Joffre. The American public as a whole sympathize with France, a beleaguered nation. So, as events unfold day by day, Americans are pulled toward war.
Diverse - Divided
This series began with a woman of German ancestry in a farming community in South Dakota. The next issue moved to a factory worker in Detroit, a French socialist. The next issue moved to San Diego, a Russian-American reacting to the naval growth. Then a wealthy industrialist in Baltimore considers the possible benefit of war for America.
From east to west and north to south, a diverse America react to Europe's war as it happens. We can try to understand how America came to fight only as much as we can empathize with their lives.