A few strokes of ink in a railway car in a quiet forest on November 11th, 1918 ended the “Great War.' A hundred years goes just beyond the limits of adult human memory: none of the actors in that war are still alive. Certainly not the grey-haired Supreme Allied Commander with pen in hand, General Foch, but also not the youngest raw recruit.
All the eyewitnesses may be gone, but many of them are still vividly remembered by the living. My French wife grew up with her grandfather, a survivor of four years in the trenches. His brother was not as lucky.
Given the tragedy of it all, any attempt to put WWI in perspective is a task that invites humility. I hope that the gaggle of world leaders who will gather around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris this November 11th will be humble.
All wars begin with hubris and, as one might suspect of a war contemporaneously called “The War to End All Wars,” this one had plenty. All sides thought the war would end quickly. The French and British were particularly confident because advances like machine guns and long-range artillery had made child’s play of crushing any resistance within their empires. No one seemed to consider what would happen if the enemy had its own advanced technology backed up by its own massive industrial complex. Tactics based on sending men on foot and horseback against dug-in firepower were repeated over and over again, each mistaken order given in the hope of a different result.
You could call it insanity, but instead people called it duty, patriotism, and glory. All sides prayed to the same God for a just victory.
The scope of the resulting butchery is hard to comprehend, although, if you travel around the French countryside you get a sense of it: every small town has its war memorial, and each memorial has inscribed upon it a long list of names. How sad to see surnames repeating themselves, sometimes three, four or even five times, as cousins, brothers, sons and fathers fell. Unlike the US Civil War, where rich families, at least on the Union side, could pay the government a handsome fee ($300) in order to spare their sons from the front, the slaughter of WWI cut across all parts of society.
Perhaps none suffered more so than the elite. You can see it in Erich von Stronheim’s iconic portrayal of an aristocratic German officer in Jean Renoir’s film Grand Illusion (1937). Or consider the history of the Chantilly Golf Club, a very exclusive playground outside of Paris, founded in 1909 by ninety-seven men with names like Murat, Balezeaux and Rothschild. Thirty-four of the founders were killed between 1914 and 1918.
Maybe President Wilson and Congress did the right thing by steering clear of the carnage prior to 1917. Wilson was narrowly re-elected in 1916 with the slogan “He kept us out of the war.”
But neutrality didn’t sit well with some Americans, particularly those who remembered how much France had given to George Washington and his struggling army back in the 18th century.
Within a few days of war breaking out in 1914, American volunteers were enlisting in the French army, not to mention civilians serving as ambulance drivers (Ernest Hemingway was one), doctors, and nurses.
By 1916, enough American pilots were on hand to form a distinct squadron of the French Army. The first proposed name was the “Escadrille Franco-Américaine.” But this was during the period of American neutrality, and when Germany objected to such flagrant collaboration, the name was changed to “Escadrille Lafayette.” Painted on the fuselage of each biplane was the profile of Sioux Native American Chief Sitting Bull, in full-feathered head dress. The squadron’s name and insignia continue to this day in the French Air Force.
Dozens of these volunteer American pilots were killed in action over Verdun and other famous battles. Each year AARO has the honor to lay a wreath in memory of all fallen American soldiers during Memorial Day celebrations at the magnificent Escadrille Lafayette Memorial near Paris.
Thanks, in part, to the bells rung by the American volunteers in France, in April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany. At the time, the American army was not only small but preoccupied by deployments along the Mexican border. The problem was not an approaching march of penniless would-be immigrants; rather it was violent incursions into US territory led by the Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa. When General Pershing set foot in France with the first group of US soldiers, in June 1917, they numbered only two hundred. The famous words, “Lafayette, we are here!” were said at that time.
Were those words lip service? No. By August 1917, ten thousand American soldiers were arriving every day. Congress passed the Selective Service Act, drafting 2.8 million men into the army. All told, over 4.7 million American service members were mobilized, more than the combined forces in the US Civil War. By the end of WWI, close to two million “dough boys” had been sent to Europe.
American soldiers distinguished themselves in countless battles, none more telling than that of Belleau Wood. “Retreat, hell! We just got here,” snapped Marine Corps Capt. Williams. “C’mon you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?” shouted Gunnery Sgt Daley. The German infantry called the Americans “Teufelshunde”, or “devil dogs” as they fell back in disorderly retreat despite the heavy casualties they inflicted on the Americans.
US Ambassador to France Jamie McCourt and AARO Board Member and ex-Marine Patrick Morrissey attended the centennial ceremonies of this battle earlier this year. (Permit me this aside: in 1944 an American aircraft carrier, named Belleau Wood in honor of that battle, was hit by a Japanese kamikazi plane, causing fires which set off ammunition. 92 sailors either died or were missing, and many others suffered horrible injuries. My grandfather was the chief doctor on board.)
Over one hundred thousand American soldiers died on foreign soil in WWI and a further two hundred thousand were wounded. Was such sacrifice worth it?
I posit a positive answer, because, with all due respect to the enormous fight put up by Great Britain and France, the two surviving members of the “Triple Entente” (Russia having collapsed into civil war in 1917), the intervention of the USA in WWI was decisive for the victory. Not only was the American assistance massive, it came at a time when the outcome of the war was still anyone’s guess.
Consider this: in the spring of 1918 the Germans and their allies were still on the offensive. Their new super cannon, the “Paris Gun,” also known as “Big Bertha,” was able to shoot projectiles over 40 km (25 miles) high into the stratosphere — mankind’s first venture there — thus minimizing air resistance, with the result being a range of over 130 km (80 miles).
Lacking enough accuracy to strike a military target, the Germans took aim at Notre Dame Cathedral. The gun failed to hit that too, but for a month twenty shells a day rained down on Paris, one hitting another church filled with people celebrating Good Friday mass, killing 91 and wounding 68. Such a blatant attack on civilians was unusual in WWI — a sad contrast to WWII, not to mention our current war against “terrorism.” The end of another grand illusion, that of war with honor.
While the French will no doubt heap praise upon the Americans at this year’s centennial ceremony, it would surprise me if they gave America credit for winning WWI. This is understandable. It was their nationhood at stake, not ours. For better or worse, human beings still cluster around their nations, seemingly more so with each passing election. No nation likes to concede that another saved it.
Hesitate before you snigger at the French, because the intervention of the French during the American Revolutionary War was also decisive for the victory, a story rarely told in American classrooms. We have all heard of Lafayette, the French military officer who fell in love with the cause of freedom and joined Washington in 1777 at the age of 19. His equestrian statue stares straight into the White House from the center of the eponymous square in Washington.
Straight and center for good reason: Did you know that in 1781, at the pivotal battle of Yorktown (Virginia), the siege which broke the British army and drove King George III to the treaty table, French warships were busy engaging British ones in Chesapeake Bay, there being no American navy?
Meanwhile, on the ground, there were nearly as many French troops (7,800) as there were troops in Washington’s Continental Army (8,000). Draw your own conclusions as to which soldiers were better trained and equipped; what mattered most was how well they fought together. Subtract the French support and British General Cornwallis might never have surrendered.
We Americans owe a lot to the French, and they owe a lot to us. So, on this special Armistice Day, let’s tip our hats and raise our glasses to all nations that cooperate for the shared values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.
And let us pray that someday there really will be an end to all wars.
This article was contributed by AARO President Neil Kearney