The US in World War I

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.

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Americans on the march

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 These tactics were severely outdated by World War 1.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.

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John J. Pershing

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.

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‘The First Muster’ by Don Troiani

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.

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Meuse-Argonne Cemetery 

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.

Sources:

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 LineNew 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.

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Book Review: Passchendaele

Nick Lloyd released his new book just before the centennial of the Battle of Passchendale (also known as 3rd Ypres). Passchendaele is synonymous with mud and death as British and Dominion troops clashed with Germans over a small ridge and a few wooded plots of land. Names like Polygon Wood. Poperinge, Langemark, and Menin Road became etched in history as some of the bloodiest spots of the entire war. The churned up countryside of Flanders became home to the bodies of 670,000 soldiers and millions of horses. This gruesome battle would put the new British “bite and hold” tactics against the might on the Hindenburg Line.

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Praise:

The book opens with the failure of the Nivelle Offensive by the French in the spring of 1917 and then gives a small description of the Battle for Messines Ridge. These two battles help one understand the background for the Battle of Passchendaele and illustrates the new tactical revolutions the British command underwent. Every chapter opens with a quote about the battle and uncovers some of the feelings of general and private alike. One harrowing quote that opens a chapter is an excerpt from a soldier’s letter to his parents: “Our dead were lying in heaps. It was the worst slaughter I had ever seen.” Another quote in the book was by Hermann von Kuhl, the Chief of Staff to Crown Prince Rupprecht. Kuhl said that “no division could last more than a fortnight in this Hell.” Passchendaele is full of primary sources from both the British and the German forces. Lloyd, a professor at Kings College London, has great access to the collections of the Imperial War Museum and the British National Archives. He also traveled to Germany to collect sources at the Bundesarchiv and the Bayerisches Hauptstaatarchiv. He also has sources from the Australians and Canadians, who played a major role in the latter stages of the battle. The book has about two Victoria Cross citations per chapter during the battle showing the incredible heroism in the face of danger. Lance Corporal Walter Peeler and Sergeant Lewis McGee both captured German machine gun bunkers by themselves under fire at Poelcappe and Zonnebecke.  There are plenty of other amazing stories of soldiers such as them in the battle. Lloyd’s maps are very good too, indicating the objectives which troops were ordered to take. The photographs are very good and one which was very striking was Polygon Wood during the battle, completely leveled by the scars of artillery. The book really shows the internal struggles between the English command. The conflict between Haig and his subordinates caused many problems, as did the fights between the Army generals also, notably Henry Plumer and Sir Hugh Gough. Lloyd’s writing shows how horrible the battle was for a common soldier, shuffling closer to death in a wet, muddy hole. I have used Lloyd’s other books in historical essays and the amount of detail you can gather from his books is astonishing. This book continues that trend. A perfect blend of historical sources, bravery, high command, and gripping battle descriptions make this one of the standout history books of the year. The book also ends quite abruptly without any description of future events, which bothered me a little.

Criticism:

There is not much that I have a problem with in the book. I initially had some problems recognizing when the Battle of Passchendaele officially started. You could easily read a good deal into the book thinking you were still at the Battle of Messines Ridge. Another point which sometimes bothered me was the cutbacks to the Italian Front. The Battle of Capporetto was happening during the Battle of Passchendaele, so Lloyd mentions the fighting in Italy every few chapters. It doesn’t make much of a difference with or without it. Capporetto simply reveals a little more of the character of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Britain at the time.

Passchendaele is a great book to fill in a gap on the Western Front history section. A book like this really needed to be published to tell how much this battle influenced British tactics and damaged the mind of the common soldier. The book also reveals how much of a stalemate the war was in late 1917. Many people simply label the German troops as poor at this point, simply due to the knowledge of the Entente victory in 1918. This is not true. German forces showed incredible resistance and strength during the battle, taking back the ridge within two weeks. Nick Lloyd is a great author and this book makes it to the top of the tree for the holidays this year.

Rating:

4.5 / 5

Wargame Miniatures: Swiss Infantry 1914-18

Switzerland has always been a nation synonymous with neutrality, but they almost found themselves at war in 1914 with Germany and France at their borders. The Swiss were worried the French would try to use Switzerland as a shortcut to Germany, but the Germans attacked Belgium and France before any skirmishes erupted. These figures are great for doing any early war “what if?” scenarios.

Swiss Infantry

Book Review: The Alps

Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.

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Praise:

O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy  The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.

Criticism:

Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.

For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.

Rating: 3/5

The Ross Rifle: Canada’s Nightmare

Canada became involved in the First World War thanks to Great Britain. Canada, being a dominion of the British Empire, was entitled to join in any war that Britain was in. The Dominion of Canada joined the war effort in August 1914 and the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force) soon arrived in Europe in spring of 1915.

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The Ross Rifle’s Firing System

Along with the Canadian troops came one of history’s most infamous weapons: the Ross Mark III Rifle. The Ross originated in 1902 after Canada’s government chose to create its own weapon instead of the British Lee Enfield, which would have cost the nation much more to produce. Charles Ross, a legendary Scottish hunter, Baronet, veteran of the Boer Wars, and businessman; was tasked with the creation of the firearm. Canada’s Mounted Police, the legendary ‘Mounties’, were given the first rifles to see how they would operate in the field. The weapon immediately received negative reviews. In 1913, the Mark III arrived on the scene to equip the Canadian troops heading off to Europe.

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Canadian Recruitment Poster

The Ross had a straight-pull bolt action system which was a strange choice for a firing system. Most rifles of the period were regular bolt action, including the Lee Enfield. The Ross was extremely cumbersome to handle in the trenches. It was long, heavy, and its bayonet commonly fell off while firing. The weapon also became clogged easily in the Flanders mud and rendered the bolt action useless. If a minor jam occurred, it was common for the problem to worsen as a forceful kick to the bolt would damage the firing system. The bolt also could malfunction and slam into the face of the user if put back together improperly. Along with that, British ammunition would not fit in the Ross and made things horrible if ammunition was mixed up. The Ross was notorious among Canadian troops. An officer said that “It is nothing short of murder to send men out against the enemy with such a weapon.” The jamming was a massive problem in the trenches, causing Canadian troops problems at the front. Many Canadian troops quickly threw their Ross rifles away in favour of Enfields or perhaps a Mauser. Strangely, the Ross preformed superbly in the hands of snipers and marksmen, using them to great effect.

The Ross was officially replaced in 1916 with the SMLE along with the infamous leader of Canada’s war effort- Sam Hughes. The rifle was actually found to be successful once a British weapons manufacturer got his hands on it and fixed the few problems in the mechanism which drove Canadians insane at the front. By then, the Ross’ reputation was so tainted that it was too late, and the rifle went down in history as one of the most infamous and notorious weapons of all time.

Historical Field Trip: The Veneto

Italy’s history dates back to the times of the Etruscans and Romans, and one of the nation’s most memorable cities is Venice. The winding canals, seafood, and magnificent churches make it a massive tourist destination. While Venice and the surrounding region, the Veneto, are big tourist stops, many breeze over their complex history and the few interesting landmarks and monuments off the beaten path.

Venice:

Venice was a very complicated republic in its early history. Run by the doge, Venice controlled lands from Italy to Croatia and even parts of Greece. Both Byzantine and Classical influences spread throughout the city for its many magnificent buildings.

1. Doge’s Palace

The Doge, or Duke, of Venice controlled the Republic. You can tour the apartments of the Doge and also look at the judiciary chambers of the republic. The prison is connected to the palace as is the armoury, which contains many weapons from the 14th century as well as some artifacts from the Battle of Lepanto.

2. Revolution

Venice’s uprising took place in European rebellion’s favourite year- 1848. A monument to the battles remains in the backstreets of Venice in the San Marco area at Corte Tagliapietra. The monument is to the “heroic resistance” of Austrian rule at the time and a plaque has been put up next to a statue of the Venetian Lion. The plaque is lined with Austrian cannonballs fired at the Venetians. Daniele Manin led a revolt in order to create a new Venetian Republic, but it ended in disaster for the Italians

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Austrian cannonballs used in the 1848 uprising
The Venetian Lion atop the monument

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Veneto:

The Northern Veneto was the sight of many battles of the First World War between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Though many overlook the Italian Front, it is one of the most intriguing topics of the war.

3. Travel to the town of Asiago in the Italian mountains to see the Asiago War Memorial. The Italian Front cost both nations massive casualties, and some 50,000 remains are housed in the memorial. The arched monument is quite large and opened in the 1930s. Also in Asiago is a selection of trenches preserved on Monte Zebio. The trenches are both Austrian and Italian, and are exceptionally well preserved.

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Trenches on Monte Zebio

4. The Strada delle 52 Gallerie is a section of 52 roads through the Italian Alps which were built by the Italian army during WWI. These allowed the transfer of supplies, food, troops, and munitions to the front with less danger of enemy rifle fire or artillery. There are some scenic hikes and you can drive through some of the tunnels.

Verona:

Remembered primarily as the city of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is one of the more interesting cities of Italy that doesn’t get much attention. While they don’t have many historical sights, apart from sights of the Shakespeare play, there are still a few interesting spots.

5. On Via dietro Anfiteatro, a plaque sits on the wall of some Italian soldiers. These are members of the Pasubio Division, one of the Italian army units stationed in Verona. They fought in Africa, Russia, Yugoslavia, and in Italy from their years of service from 1866 to 1943.

Pasubio Division

6. The equestrian statue of King Vittorio Emmanuele II sits by the Roman amphitheater in Verona. The unifying king of Italy, Emmanuele is immortalized in Italian history and his image appears all over the country.

Uniforms of the Ages: Hungarians in Austrian Service

The heavily multicultural Austrian Empire divided its army into two main nationalities: Germans and Hungarians. While the majority of these units were not actually of those nations, the Hungarian troops were some of the more elaborately dressed.

Throughout Austria’s history, the Hungarians have retained the same core elements of their uniform, changing only when the uniform style did. The first appearance of specific “Hungarian” troops was around the reign of Maria Theresa and the War of Austrian Succession. There were Hungarian troops prior to this war, but the special uniforms were not adopted until then. Hungary had only been part of the Habsburg Empire since 1541. A large partition had separated it from Bohemia and placed it under the influence of Austria.

Gyulay Regiment  in the 7 Years War

The most notable part of the Hungarian uniform was the gold braiding on the front of the pants in a knotted style. This “Hungarian knot” was a braided lace design that was notably used by Confederate officers in the US Civil War. For the Hungarians, this pattern was on both pant legs in a golden lace. Unlike “German” troops, the pants of these soldiers were a light blue while Germans wore white or gray.

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Confederate General Braxton Bragg with a Hungarian knot

The uniforms changed over time with style of warfare. Tricorne hats and long coats were soon replaced by helmets and higher pants during the Napoleonic Wars. The helmets were extremely cumbersome, and provided little protection to a soldier when he wore them. In 1809, Austrian troops swapped their helmets for the shako, which was used by almost all of the major world powers at that time. The Hungarian pattern, however, remained on the uniform. By the Napoleonic Wars, the trousers of Hungarian troops had been added to as well; a black and gold stripe ran down the side of the pants. 

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Hungarian Grenadiers

Post-Napoleon, Hungarian troops played an even larger role in the Austrian Army. The ratio of German units to Hungarian units was almost even as the population increased. By the next reforms, Hungarian troops wore the new shorter shako and their coats were given gold lace around the facings. These uniforms would carry them through the Italian Wars of Independence and the Austro-Prussian War.

The Hungarians achieved a dual monarchy in 1867, establishing the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Uniforms remained the same until 1908 when a new, modern uniform was introduced. The hechtgrau (pike-gray) uniform was more subtle than the white and light blue the Hungarians previously wore, but their knotted pattern still stayed on their pants. By 1918, the Empire fell after their defeat in the First World War, and the Hungarian uniform disappeared with it.

Hungary used a drab coloured uniform after the fall of the Dual Monarchy, and discontinued any of the previous gold lace on their pants or coats. By the Second World War, the old uniform style was completely gone, and just as the Austrian Empire changed with age, the Royal Hungarian Army changed too.