FEW AMERICANS noticed the advertisement that appeared in the New York newspapers on May 1, 1915. Signed by the Imperial German Embassy in Washington, it reminded Americans that Germany was at war with Britain. It warned that British ships in the water near the British Isles were “liable to destruction,” and that “travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”
That same day, the British steamship Lusitania sailed from New York and among the 1,250 passengers were 188 Americans. On May 6, when the Lusitania was off the coast of Ireland, she was attacked without warning by a German submarine. She was struck by torpedoes and within fifteen minutes she had sunk. Of the 1,154 persons who died, 114 were citizens of the United States.
Many Americans were horrified, but they agreed with Woodrow Wilson, who had been president since 1915, that the United States should not take sides in the war. Wilson was re-elected in 1916, after campaigning on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
Since the beginning of the war, agents of both the Allies and Germany had been trying to influence Americans. Although Wilson faithfully carried out his policy of neutrality, he was personally sympathetic to the Allies. As a matter of fact, most Americans favoured the Allies. At the same time, American citizens of German descent had no wish to fight against their old “fatherland,” and Irish-Americans, who disliked British for its treatment of Ireland, felt that the England should be given no aid.
Then the German submarine commanders asked their government to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. By that, they meant that once again they would be free to sink ships of all nations‚ including neutrals, in the waters around the British Isles. Some government officials objected that this would surely bring the United States into the war. The submarine commanders predicted that it would take the Americans a full year to raise and equip an army and transport it to France and by that time, the war would be won.
On the last day of January, 1917, the German government informed Wilson that its submarines would attack on sight all merchant ships in British waters and the Mediterranean. Wilson’s answer was to break off diplomatic relations with Germany and order that American freighters be armed. The German submarine campaign was at first very successful. In February, the U-boats sank 540,000 tons of shipping; in March, 578,000 tons; in April, 874,000 tons. Six American ships were sunk in February and March, carrying 48 men to their death and American public opinion began to turn against Germany.
British agents in America worked harder than ever and they turned over to Wilson a message their Intelligence Service had intercepted. The message was from German Foreign Secretary Zimmerman to the German ambassador in Mexico. If the United States entered the war, the ambassador was to try to win over Mexico with the promise of territory in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Americans were outraged by what became known as the Zimmerman message. The war in Europe suddenly seemed a clear-cut contest between good and evil. Besides, American business interests had large investments in England — investments which would be lost if Britain were defeated. So, Americans strongly supported Wilson when, on April 2, he asked Congress to declare war on the Central Powers. “The world,” he said, “must be made safe for democracy.” The United States would fight “for the things which we have always carried nearest our heart — for democracy, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal domination of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.” Congress acclaimed his speech and by April 6 both the Senate and the House had approved his declaration of war.
The Allies were jubilant at the news, but the British leaders in London knew that German U-boats were sinking so many ships that England’s stock of food was dwindling fast. Before long there was only enough food left to last six weeks. Working day and night, British scientists developed means of combating sub marines — hydrophones, which detected the sound of approaching submarines and depth charges, which exploded under water. Naval officers devised ways of spotting submarines from aircraft and protecting harbours with underwater “fences” of mines set to go off on contact.
The best defense against the submarine proved to be the convoy. A hundred or more freighters, moving together, could be protected if they were surrounded by enough warships to keep submarines at bay. Unlike the United States army, the United States navy was large and ready for combat. It provided sufficient extra warships to make anti-submarine measures effective. By the end of 1917, the U-boats were more of a nuisance than a menace.
In the United States, most Americans enthusiastically aided the war effort. While civilian boards began to draft men for army service, tens of thousands of eager volunteers hurried to enlist. Artists designed recruiting posters. Composers turned out popular songs with war themes. Famous stars of the stage and motion pictures, appearing before huge throngs, urged the public to help the Allies by buying “Liberty Bonds.” Shipyards and munitions factories hummed and women took their places beside men at the machines. In hastily-constructed camps across the land, young men fresh from country farms and city streets drilled, charged at dummies with leveled bayonets and learned to fire Rifles‚ machine guns and light, movable field pieces called howitzers.
While the Americans prepared to fight, the French and British held the line on the western front. The French, who had done most of the fighting and had suffered terrible losses, were near collapse. A general named Robert Georges Nivelle, who still believed that a breakthrough was possible, ordered an attack, but the operation was a total failure. So many French soldiers were killed that mutiny spread through the army. General Henri Pétain, the defender of Verdun, relieved Nivelle and restored morale, But he said no more about an attack. “I am waiting,” he announced, “for the Americans and the tanks.”
After that, the British carried the heaviest burden. Late in 1917, they fought the Battle of Passchendaele, which lasted three months. They lost 400,000 men and advanced only five miles.
At the very end of the year they staged an attack with 380 tanks, taking the Germans by surprise. The tanks pushed deep into German-held territory, but had to retreat for lack of infantrymen to hold the territory.
Meanwhile, in the south, Austro-Hungarian and German troops overwhelmed the Italians at Caporetto. They poured into northern Italy, where the Italians, with British and French help, finally checked them. So, the stalemate in Europe continued. Both sides waited, one hopefully, the other fearfully, to see what would happen when the American troops arrived.
THE LAST GAMBLE
In the spring of 1918, the Germans, having won the war in the east, decided on a last desperate gamble. They launched a massive attack, the greatest of the entire war, hoping to overwhelm the French and British before the Americans came to their aid. In March, German troops swarmed over the Allied trenches and charged 41 miles until exhaustion and lack of supplies forced them to stop. They attacked again in April, May, June and July. By July 15 they were on the Marne River, only 37 miles from Paris.
There were now nine American divisions in the Allied line. Marshal Foch, the Frenchman who had recently been named Allied commander-in-chief, used them to spearhead a counterattack and on July 18, the Germans began to falter. More than 250,000 fresh American troops were now landing in France each month and they were rushed to the front. In August, some 354 British tanks rolled over German barbed wire, machine guns and trenches, smashing the defenders’ lines. In September, the Allies opened a gigantic offensive, with American troops in the eastern wing of the attack.
This was more than the badly overstrained German forces could take and late that month the High Command notified its government that it could not win the war. An armistice, or ceasefire, was arranged and at 11 A.M. on November 11, all firing ceased along the western front. Germany’s allies had already surrendered and the war in Europe was now over. Ten million men had been killed and twenty million wounded.
World War I was unlike any armed conflict before it. It was a new kind of war — total war, involving civilian populations as well as armies and navies. Governments took on new powers, controlling industry and the flow of goods. Millions of men were drafted into the armed forces, while others were assigned to essential war work, such as mining coal, manufacturing weapons, and building ships.
To keep up morale, governments controlled the war news in the newspapers, playing down defeats and emphasizing victories. To stir the people to greater effort, they spread propaganda, even inventing stories about the enemy’s cruelty. The British, for example, reported that Germans had cut off the hands of Belgian children. The Germans pictured the British as monsters who were deliberately letting German babies die by cutting off the supply of milk with their blockade.
When the war ended, people waited for life to return to normal, but what could be called normal? The war had toppled some once mighty rulers from their thrones and had made the United States into a great world power. It had thrown different social classes together and had broken down standards of morals and behavior. The past began to seem like a time of stability, when people respected authority and believed in progress. Now they distrusted authority and questioned the old ideals, but one thing was certain — the world had changed and would never be the same again.