The USA in WW1
How the first of many young generations of Americans went to war
By the early 20th century, the USA was still a relatively young nation. It was steadily progressing but was still a long way off the powerhouse status which it had earned during and after WW2.
When the First World War broke out, there was little to no interest in events in Europe from the USA, other than from those benefiting financially from the slaughter. Yet once the guns fell silent in November 1918, almost five million American soldiers had fought in the trenches, with nearly half a million becoming casualties. So how did the USA change it’s views on war in such a short time?
President Woodrow Wilson pledged American neutrality at the beginning of the war. It was a decision which was agreed with by the majority of Americas agreed with. Opinions began to change once the USA’s trading relationship with Britain started to be affected. Supply ships headed to the UK were damaged from the early stages of the war and in February 1915 Germany declared unrestricted warfare on all ships, neutral or otherwise.
Further ships were damaged or sunk, but it was the events of May 7th which pushed the USA even further towards entering the war. the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner was torpedoed without warning just off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers, 1,198 were killed, including 128 Americans. The German government maintained that the Lusitania was carrying munitions and therefore a game target, but the U.S. demanded reparations and an end to German attacks on unarmed passenger and merchant ships.
Just three months later Germany sunk an Italian liner. There were 27 Americans amongst the 272 who went down with it. with these two events, American public opinion was beginning to turn irreversibly against Germany.
In 1917 Germany recommenced their unrestricted warfare policy and just three days later, after the sinking of American liner the Housatonic, diplomatic relations between Germany and the USA broke down. On February 22nd a $250 million arms appropriation bill was passed by Congress intended for use in war. The sinking of four more US merchant ships led President Wilson appealing to Congress to allow a declaration of war against Germany to be declared. On the 6th April it was granted.
The following June saw the first American soldiers land in France to begin training. Despite only being involved in the war just over a year, the American Expeditionary Force took part in 13 campaigns.
The first major offensive heavily involving American troops took place on 28th May 1918. The Battle of Cantigny began at 6:45am as troops from the 28th Infantry Regiment sent off from their trenches behind a rolling barrage of artillery. The village of Cantigny was an important strategic point as it was providing a key vantage point to German artillery over the Allied lines.
Over 3,500 Americans captured the village by pushing out the German Eighteenth Army, with the help of French aerial cover, the 28th was able to propel German counter attacks and consolidate the victory of securing the village with relatively low casualties. Several counter attacks were repelled through-out the day, with the last attempt at 6:40pm pushed back at the cost of around 200 lives. The success of the day assured the French that American divisions could be depended upon in the line against the German offensive to take Paris.
The Battle of Cantigny wasn’t the first US involvement in the war, and it was not to be the last. French, British and Commonwealth forces had been depleted after almost four years of gruelling warfare. The relief of the fresh American soldiers and supplies was the final nail in the coffin of a German army which, after the capitulation of the 1918 Spring Offensive, was on its knees. Although not being a major player in the war, the USA showed how its soldiers could fight for as hard and for as long as any European army. The next generation of young American men would be pushed to the limit even more.
It can be argued that the intensive naval tactics used by the Germans forced the USA into the war. If the German Navy had maintained their restrictions on attacking any ship which was not German, then American civilians would not have been killed in such a number. In doing so, they may not have ended up with millions more brand-new soldiers between their front line and Paris. German commanders failed to consider the possible permutations brought about by their tightening grasp on the sea.
The actions of German’s navy in the years preceding 1918 ultimately set up her army for an impossible task in the final months of the war. By the time the armistice was signed, American troops had proven themselves as tough fighters and the German army was exhausted.