This was a paper that I wrote last year for school but I have edited it to suit the blog better. I hope you enjoy it because I spent around two months researching:
The great European powers had fought a bloody struggle for three years prior to the United States joined the First World War. When the US declared war in 1917, their military was in a shambles and was completely unprepared for a modern war. In 1916, their army numbered around 100,000 men, an insignificant number compared to the European nations. However, the US’ involvement in the First World War allowed them to complete a necessary transition to modern war by learning lessons they would implement in later conflicts.
The last major war the United States had been involved in before 1914 was the Civil War, which cost the country around 600,000 lives. The tactics of that time were up-to-date for the Crimean War (1853-56) and were of ‘Napoleonic’ style. meaning troops would march in long lines towards one another and pour volleys into each other. These battles were preferably fought on open ground and discipline of formation was crucial. These tactics were severely outdated by World War 1.
By 1914, the US had been involved in two small wars: the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. The Spanish-American War ended quickly, as the US defeated both the Spanish Army and Navy in Cuba and the Philippines. However, most fighting was conducted by the US Navy, so the infantry gained little experience. On the battlefields of France in 1917, an experienced navy would provide no advantage. A Filipino named Emilio Aguinaldo led a rebellion in the US-occupied Philippines, and the war lasted from 1899 to 1902. The US Army finally had its chance, but was shockingly defeated in the jungles in one of the most brutal wars in American history.
In 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian student, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, sparking a conflict that would span the globe. The US tried her best to avoid war, but John Keegan describes what forced a break in their neutrality:
“Two events changed America’s outlook. The first was a German clumsy approach to Mexico, proposing an alliance, baited with the offer to return Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, if America went to war against Germany; this [was the] ‘Zimmerman Telegram’ […] The second was Germany’s decision to resume the unrestricted U-Boat campaign: sinking merchant shipping without warning in international waters.”
On April 6th, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany; the US had officially entered World War I. Wilson was reluctant to join the Entente after the American debacle in the Philippines, but he was eventually forced into doing so as a way to ‘preserve democracy.’ Yet Germany had little reason to be afraid of the US since the American forces were lacking drastically in quality compared to the German war machine.
German suspicions were right; the US Army was in no position to fight a European war. The German Naval Minister, Eduard von Capelle, derided the US by saying, “They will not even come because our submarines will sink them. Thus from a military point of view means nothing, and again nothing, and for a third time nothing.” The Americans mustered in just 107,641 men in 1917, surmounting to the 17th smallest army in the world. Their army was less in number than Belgium, who had been wiped aside by the Schlieffen Plan in 1914. The Germans had twenty times that number on the Western Front alone, with more arriving in late 1917 thanks to the Russian Civil War and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The only American troops of quality were the Marine Corps, spread thinly across Central America, Cuba, the Phillippines, and Guam. They only numbered 15,000 men.
Wilson appointed John J. Pershing as commander of the new American Expeditionary Force (AEF), but even Pershing’s tactics were outdated, as he had graduated from West Point in 1886. The tactics he had learned were of the Civil War, and would be of no use in Europe. If American troops had gone into the First World War like this, they would have suffered tremendously. In 1914, French troops tried this tactic at Mulhouse, suffering horrifying casualties and in just two months, had lost 200,000 men. Pershing’s needs for the AEF were simple: he wanted 3 million men in France, to fight on the offensive, and absolutely no Anglo-French intervention.
When the first American troops arrived in France in June 1917, the Entente forces had varying opinions of the men who had come to their aid. Lieutenant R.G. Dixon of the British Army first spotted the American troops and recalled them as being “infantry, all wearing very broad-brimmed hats, and marching in a very sloppy manner from Poperinghe. We sat up and gawped at them.” Dixon’s first encounter with an American officer did not impress either, as the attitude of the Americans was far from what they expected. The American is quoted as scoffing “Say Buddy, how far is it to this lil’ old shootin’ gallery of yours?” The French, on the other hand, were more welcoming to the AEF. Lieutenant Charles Chenu lauded “we fought alongside them, admired them, loved them.”
The Entente powers influenced America to adopt new uniforms. The US Army in the Spanish-American War wore a blue tunic with khaki or light-blue pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and leather boots. By WW1, the uniform had changed drastically to conform to modern styles. They wore an olive-drab tunic and pants, puttees, a steel helmet, and leather boots. The new uniform provided better camouflage than the blue Americans had worn since the Continental Army of 1776, and the helmet protected the wearer from shrapnel. The US also changed their weaponry and technology prior to the war. The M1903 Springfield was sent into action, replacing the complex breech-loaders that preceded them. Machine guns were also produced. They used the French Chauchat, the US-made Hotchkiss, and sometimes Lewis guns. Artillery also underwent drastic changed, as the French 75mm field gun replaced muzzle-loading cannon. Tanks and airplanes came into production as well, and some American pilots, like Eddie Rickenbacker, made their names as aces on the Western Front.
The Americans began fighting in Eastern France in 1918 at the Battle of Belleau Wood, with the USMC leading the attack. On September 10, the US fought independently against German forces at St. Mihiel. Their combined army assault on Pannes ant Bois de Thiacourt ended superbly with the Renault tanks and American infantry capturing their objectives with ease. Their final major test was the Battle of Meuse-Argonne which lasted from September 26, to November 11 , 1918. The battle began with a 3,980-gun barrage, inspired by the British. The terrain was horrific and a nightmare for organisation, as some pockets of American troops (ex. ‘The Lost Battalion’) became cut off in the brush. The flexibility of US troops in the Argonne was key, and if they had not been able to adapt, it is certainly possible they would have suffered a defeat. Hunter Liggett’s I Corps pushed German forces across the Meuse River, allowing the troops time to lick their wounds. 50,300 men lost their lives and 65,000 died of disease in the campaign. The First World War had given America a costly, yet necessary, experience of modern war.
Thanks to the technology and tactics that had been developed in WW1, the US had a much better grasp of the realities of modern war. In 1926, the US invaded Nicaragua and had a chance to flaunt their new strategies in the field. The USMC was used to begin an attack, just like in Belleau Wood. The key to success in Nicaragua was flexibility, which had been developed in the Argonne forest. One US company managed to march around 30 miles in one day. The fighting in the jungles of Nicaragua was a direct result of the style of warfare that developed in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, and it would be implemented again in Melanesia, Guadalcanal, and Vietnam.
In 1939, World War II broke out, but this time, America was prepared to be involved. President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Selective Service Act in 1940 in an attempt to gather more forces in case of involvement. In 1940, the army numbered 269,000 men, and the next year, the ranks swelled to 1.4 million. US troops engaged enemy forces in small squads, utilizing machine guns to increase firepower. Combined arms attacks in Italy and France proved to be very successful, as were the USMC in the Pacific. WWII also saw a great increase in tanks and aircraft in lieu of their resounding success in the First World War.
The US involvement in the First World War allowed them to undergo a major transition from the old 19th century style of warfare to the style of modern war. The uniforms of American troops changed drastically from a traditional blue to a practical drab. Helmets and new weapons were introduced as well altered tactics with more stringent rules on formations which maximized the soldier’s effectiveness. The involvement also was important in saving the lives of millions of young American men. The truth is that the Americans would have been butchered in France if they had not adapted to modern war. Though thousands gave their lives for their country, the involvement in the First World War changed warfare for the United States and later led to the saving of millions of lives.
Bonk, David. St. Mihiel 1918. Long Island, NY: Osprey Publishing. 2011.
Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York. Basic Books, 2002.
Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-18. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Lloyd, Nick. Hundred Days: The Campaign that Ended World War I. New York: Basic Books, 2014.
Neidell, Indiana. “The USA Before Joining World War 1: The Great War Special.” Youtube. Nov. 9 206. Web. Jan. 26, 2017.
Osburn, Patrick and Marc Romanych. The Hindenburg Line. New York: Osprey Pulishing, 2016
Yockelson, Mitchell. Forty-Seven Days. New York: New American Library, 2016.
Votaw, John. The American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Long Island, NY: Osprey Publshing, 2005.