How the First World War Kicked Off a Century of Conflict and Bloodshed

By James A. Warren

Americans have no accepted narrative of the Great War. Its causes remain obscure, its ending inconclusive, and its legacies contested. But for good or ill, it changed everything.

The United States officially joined the ranks of the combatants in World War I on April 6, 1917—a bit more than 100 years ago. Our collective memory of the conflict, it seems, is rather foggy. Indeed, to most Americans today, “the war to end all wars” is pretty much a mystery. We may vaguely remember from our history courses that it was the first “total war,” and the first conflict in which airplanes and tanks figured prominently. And of course, it was a war of trenches, poison gas, and horrendous casualties. The Germans were the bad guys, but not perhaps quite as bad as the Germans in the Other World War.

Newspaper stories and TV documentaries about the Middle East and the Balkans never fail to remind us that recent conflagrations in those regions have their origins way back in the First World War, when the victors redrew the map of the world in cynical ways. Yes, we are told again and again, World War I “shaped the trajectory of the contemporary world in many ways” . . . but how, exactly?

It’s hard to say, because we Americans have no generally accepted narrative of the conflict. The war’s causes remain murky and obscure, its ending inconclusive, and its legacies contested.

Just what was America’s role in this tragic event? What effect did the war have on American society? We’ll turn to those questions after briefly exploring the contours of this mammoth conflict while America stayed on the sidelines, from August 1914 until April 1917.

Long before the opening salvos, imperial ambitions and mutual suspicion among Europe’s great powers made war a likely if unwelcome prospect. The complicated web of alliances among the key states encouraged mutual belligerence rather than stability. “Europe,” writes historian Barbara Tuchman in her classic account, The Guns of August, “was a heap of swords piled on delicately as jackstraws; one could not be pulled out without moving all the others.”

Given the unprecedented size of the armies involved, and the immense destructive power at their disposal, statesmen and generals across Europe anticipated a very short war. A long struggle would have destroyed civil society outright—or so the thinking went. Victory was sure to go to the alliance whose forces mobilized first, and struck hardest.

The first of many rude awakenings came early, when Germany’s massive opening offensive against France was stopped cold at the First Battle of the Marne in early September. More than half a million German, French, and British casualties fell in the first three weeks of fighting. The war in the West soon fell into a grim stalemate along a 470-mile, heavily fortified front from the North Sea to the Swiss border in northeastern France.

The stalemate would remain for another three and a half years. The growing deadliness of rifle, machine gun, and long-range artillery fire, coupled with a lack of reliable tanks and instant communications, made it nearly impossible for offensive thrusts to break through defensive lines. But the “cult of the offensive,” widely shared among the major armies, insured that the quest to find a way to break through defensive positions would continue until war’s end.

As the corpses mounted at an unprecedented rate in futile attacks and counterattacks in France, the Allies tried in April 1915 to seize the Dardanelles straits, hoping to open a sea supply route to Russia, and relieve pressure on the Western Front. The Gallipoli Campaign, the largest amphibious operation in the history of warfare until that time, was an unmitigated disaster.

The Turks, allies of the Germans and Austro-Hungarians since November 1915, repulsed assault after assault by the Anglo-French invasion force, keeping it stranded in elaborate trench networks on the beaches. By the time the Allies completed their humiliating withdrawal in December 1915, they had suffered 300,000 casualties.

In early 1916, the German general staff proposed to bleed France dry by drawing a large portion of her army into a decisive battle of attrition at Verdun. In the largest and costliest battle of the entire war, 1.25 million men fell, but the front line was in about the same place in December when the battle finally ended as it was when it began in February, and France remained unbowed.

In July 1916, the Allies launched their own offensive along the River Somme. The British suffered 60,000 casualties on the opening day, and when the battle was over in November, about a million British and German troops had been killed or wounded. The British managed only marginal territorial gains for their vast effort.

Ironically, the huge losses on both sides precluded serious discussion of peace negotiations. The quest for victory on both sides simply became more desperate.

The most effective weapon against the Central Powers proved to be the Allied blockade, which by the end of 1916 led to serious food shortages and rumblings of political unrest on the home front in Germany. In late 1916, the Germans calculated that they could bring Britain to its knees in a matter of five months through unrestricted submarine attacks on all merchant shipping headed to the UK.

The Americans had remained neutral up to this time, but public sentiment increasingly favored the Allies, and the Wilson administration continued to provide vast quantities of raw materials as well as generous loans to the both France and Britain. Trade with the Central Powers slowed to a crawl. The United States would certainly join the Allies if the Germans unleashed their subs on American shipping, but the Germans reckoned they would be able to defeat the Allies before the U.S. Army could seriously alter the balance of forces in France.

In January 1917, the Germans announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was a miscalculation with fatal consequences, but this wouldn’t be clear until the summer of 1918. Sure enough, on April 6, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany at the request of the president, a few weeks after a German scheme to enlist Mexico in a joint attack against the United States became known through the publication of the Zimmerman Telegram.

Mistrusting the Machiavellian war aims of the French and the British as well as the Germans, Wilson hoped to use the immense influence that came with American industrial might and a spirited two-million-man army to end the war and establish a lasting peace according to the idealistic internationalist principles embodied in his “Fourteen Points.” As he famously put it to Congress in his request for a declaration of war, “the world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundation of political liberty.” He was looking, he later wrote, for “a new international order based upon broad and universal principles of right and justice—no mere peace of shreds and patches.”

Not until spring of 1918 did American troops finally join the fight, and then only under French command. In June, near Chateau Thierry, a U.S. Marine brigade fought with great élan and courage to help blunt a German offensive by clearing Belleau Wood. Over more than 20 days of intense combat, the Marines turned back several German counterattacks, suffering more than 5,000 casualties. Much of the fighting was hand to hand.

In early September, U.S. Army troops, fighting independently for the first time, reduced a menacing German salient near Verdun in the Battle of St. Mihiel, capturing more than 13,000 enemy soldiers in the process. Later that month, on September 26, virtually the entire American Expeditionary Force was committed to action in the last great offensive of the war.

U.S. troops attacked the infamous Hindenburg Line between the Meuse River on the west and the Argonne Forest on the east. Here, the Germans had constructed the most formidable defense in depth of any of the combatants, a dense network of prepared killing grounds, each with a staggering number of mutually supporting machine-gun positions, and well-concealed trenches to block the Americans’ routes of advance through several valleys. The German infantry had also developed new tactics to check any penetration of the line.

“The Meuse-Argonne campaign was the culmination of the American effort,” writes Edward M. Coffman in The War to End All Wars—a book published in 1968 that remains one of the very best accounts of the American military experience in the conflict. The offensive “began with a gamble, continued through days of bloody, hammering attacks, and ended with a spectacular breakthrough. More than a million Americans participated in this battle . . . Their inexperience and that of their officers compounded the losses caused by a stubborn and skillful German defense.”

General John “Blackjack” Pershing’s initial surprise attack rapidly advanced five miles along the Meuse River, but then bogged down. Attack after costly attack cut ever deeper into the Germans’ defensive positions, but the American effort was plagued by logistical and command-and-control problems pretty much from start to finish. Not until October 10 were the Germans fully cleared from the commanding bluffs of Argonne Forest.

Bitter, sustained fighting continued through November 1, when a massive infantry assault, well supported by the last American artillery barrage of the war, outflanked the main German defenses in the sector, and forced the enemy to disengage and retreat.

By that point, German society was riven with political unrest, on the verge of civil war. Both the government and the general staff realized the futility of continuing to fight an American army that grew in strength and experience with each day of combat.

General Erich Ludendorff, senior army commander, explained the Germans’ thinking in his memoirs: “The pent-up, untapped nervous energy which America’s troops brought into the fray more than balanced the weakness of their allies who were utterly exhausted. It was assuredly the Americans who bore the heaviest brunt of the fighting . . . during the last few months of the war. Their attacks were undoubtedly brave and often reckless.”

In its final six-week campaign, the American Expeditionary Force lost 26,000 killed and 95,000 wounded, but a handful of officers who would lead America’s successful drives against the Germans and Japanese 20 years later—MacArthur, Patton, and George Marshall among them—received invaluable leadership experience in the Meuse-Argonne fight.

By the time of the armistice—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—some 11 million soldiers and seven million civilians had perished in the catastrophe that was the First World War; 53,400 Americans were killed in battle; another 63,000 died of non-battle causes, mostly from the influenza epidemic of 1918. More than 200,000 Americans were wounded in the fighting.

Once President Wilson committed the nation to war, he faced formidable resistance from many quarters on the home front. Influential Republicans railed against violating the country’s long tradition of avoiding “foreign entanglements.” Socialists objected vehemently to U.S. participation in a charnel-house war driven largely, they said, by capitalist greed. Many ordinary Americans found both the causes and objectives of the warring parties remote and confusing. They couldn’t see any good reason for the United States to march into the abyss.

The Wilson administration orchestrated the most formidable propaganda campaign in American history to pull the country together behind the war effort. The Committee on Public Information hired 75,000 writers, scholars, and artists to deliver short, crisp pep talks in theaters, dance halls, and other public venues, selling the administration’s view of the conflict as a war that Americans had to win to insure a peaceful future for themselves, and for Europe. Millions of pamphlets in a variety of languages were distributed in immigrant communities across the nation, equating support for the Allies with “100 percent Americanism.”

Ironically, the war to make the world “safe for democracy” led to the abrupt curtailment of civil liberties at home. Freedom of the press, speech, and assembly were all severely constricted. The Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) laid the groundwork for hundreds of overly zealous prosecutions of dissenters and alleged spies and saboteurs. University professors were fired for expressing “un-American” opinions about the war. An ugly wave of vigilantism directed against German-Americans swept the country.

The United States was formally at war for only 19 months, but the conflict provided a preview of a number of crucial changes in American society that would not come into full view until after World War II. The mobilization process forced government and industry to innovate and integrate in myriad ways. Manufacturing and agriculture realized unprecedented levels of efficiency, thanks to standardization of products and new management techniques.

For the first time, American business came under the close supervision of government committees, cabinet departments, and executive agencies. The federal government actually took over the railroad industry all of a piece. It also borrowed techniques from the newly emerging industries of advertising and mass entertainment to shape the political economy to fit the war effort. The “military-industrial complex” we associate with the ’50s had its origins in the First World War, not World War II, as is commonly believed.

And of course, the U.S. emerged from World War I as the greatest industrial and financial power on the planet. The physical and financial exhaustion of the Great Powers of Europe left a vacuum only the United States could fill.

The war effort brought hundreds of thousands of African Americans out of the South into the industrial cities of the North, laying the groundwork for large black communities in Detroit, Chicago, and New York. More than a million women joined the work force. Most returned to the domestic front after the war, but the immense contribution women made during the war years paved the way for the 19th Amendment, granting them the vote, and to greater acceptance of women’s participation in the public sphere generally.

The consensus among historians today is that the Versailles Treaty, in imposing draconian reparations and territorial concessions on Germany, all but insured the outbreak of World War II. It also left the nations of Eastern Europe, among them Poland and Czechoslovakia, vulnerable to future conquest by both the Nazis and the Soviets. The war destroyed four empires—Russian, Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian—but the complicated web of arrangements agreed to in its wake by the Great Powers failed to establish a stable peace.

The U.S. Senate in 1919 rejected the Versailles Treaty and American membership in the League of Nations—in effect rejecting Wilson’s expansive vision of America’s role in postwar international politics. He had defined American interests in world affairs far more broadly and altruistically than had any previous chief executive. In the end, Wilson wanted the United States to accept a larger burden of responsibility for preserving world order than either the Senate, or the American people, were willing to bear.

Isolationism reigned supreme in America in the ’20s and ’30s. But the idealistic impulse embodied in Wilson’s view of world peace through the assertion of democratic values and collective security resurfaced as a powerful force in American foreign policy after World War II, and remains with us today, despite our failed crusade in Vietnam, and failing ones in the Middle East.