German submarines registered their first kill early in the war. On October 20, 1914, U-17 sunk the Glitra, a small British ship sailing near Norway. Thereafter, the tempo of attacks quickened. The shipping lanes around the British Isles became dangerous places. On May 7, 1915, in waters close to Ireland, a German submarine put a single torpedo into the starboard side of the Cunard liner Lusitania, which then took but eighteen minutes to sink. The ship was carrying artillery ammunition for the British army and, thus, was a legitimate target for U-20. Of the 1,195 fatalities, 123 were American.
People in the United States, already angry with Germany over “the Rape of Belgium,” were outraged. When months later, more U.S. citizens were killed in a submarine attack, President Woodrow Wilson sent an ultimatum to Berlin: halt unrestricted submarine warfare or the United States would sever diplomatic relations with Germany and, in essence, enter the war on the side of France and Britain. Surprisingly, the Germans did so. But by 1917 the situation was such that the German High Command reinstated the policy. That year the Kaiser’s navy had 111 U-boats in service. Their commanders, armed with skill and courage as well as torpedoes, intended to destroy the maritime lifeline on which Great Britain depended. As the number of ships sunk increased, it looked like they would succeed.
Senior officials in London became alarmed. Among them was Jellicoe, who in June 1917 declared that Britain had lost control of the seas. By then first sea lord, the top position in the Royal Navy, Jellicoe told his colleagues that Britain would not be able to continue to fight in 1918. Needless to say, this message sent shock waves through the British government. Such pessimism could not be tolerated. Jellicoe was sacked. More important, the navy changed its method of combating submarines.
At first, merchant ships sailed singly. Proposals to group them in an assembly of vessels, a convoy, escorted by naval vessels were rejected. The rationale was that a group of ships would be easier for a U-boat to spot and would overload the capacity of British ports upon reaching its destination. However, both analysis and experience eventually showed the rationale to be flawed. Ports could handle the influx of ships. Moreover, the ocean is so large that a submarine is no more likely to find forty ships than it is to find one. And because the convoy would have Royal Navy ships on guard, success by the U-boats would be limited.
Belatedly, Britain’s navy therefore required merchant ships to sail in convoy. This produced the intended result. More and more ships arrived safely. April 1918 was the turning point. From then on, Britain received the supplies needed to continue the war effort.
There was a second failure on the part of the Kaiser’s submarines, one that receives less attention than it deserves. They failed to prevent the transport of American soldiers to France. More than two million “doughboys” crossed the Atlantic to serve in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). All went by ship. Not one U.S. vessel was sunk. However, what the German submarine campaign did accomplish was America’s entry into the war. On April 6, 1917, in Washington, D.C., the United States declared war on Germany.
The United States entered the conflict to save democracy. Added Woodrow Wilson in requesting the declaration:
We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of mankind.
For Wilson, the enemy was German militarism. America was to join Britain and France, themselves democratic states, and rid the world of a government that held in contempt both freedom and justice. Allied propaganda helped sway the Americans and their president. It portrayed the Germans as barbarians, a description seemingly verified by their behavior in Belgium and by their approach to submarine warfare.
Americans were outraged by the sinking of ships without warning, particularly ships carrying U.S. citizens. They also were outraged by Germany’s foolish effort to tempt Mexico into the war. Alfred Zimmermann was the Kaiser’s foreign minister. Early in January 1917 he sent a coded message to the German ambassador in Mexico suggesting that in the event of war between the United States and Germany, Mexico side with the latter. Upon the war’s conclusion (with Germany victorious) Mexico would be rewarded with Texas and other lands it had once possessed. The British intelligence service intercepted the message and passed it on to the U.S. Department of State. Neither Wilson nor the American people took kindly to Zimmermann’s intrigue. The result simply was another reason to go to war.
Wilson, who in 1916 had campaigned for reelection by proclaiming that he had kept America out of the war, had one additional reason for having the United States enter the conflict. As historian Hew Strachan has pointed out, President Wilson understood that if America were to participate in designing the postwar world, it would have to do some of the fighting. And Woodrow Wilson wanted very much to craft that future world. Indeed, he had at least fourteen ideas as to how to do it.
Both then and now, the army the United States deployed to France in 1917 and 1918 was called the American Expeditionary Force. The AEF’s commander was General John J. Pershing.
Known as “Black Jack” because he once had commanded African-American soldiers, Pershing was a combat veteran of the war with Spain and of the insurrection in the Philippines. In 1916, he led an expedition into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa, who had raided several towns in the United States. Pershing was a tough, demanding officer respected by his men but not beloved. His career, no doubt, had been helped by having a father-in-law who was chairman of the Senate’s Military Affairs Committee.
Arriving in France in June 1917 (it was an aide to Pershing not the general who said, “Lafayette, we are here”), Pershing had to assemble, supply, and train a force capable of taking on the Kaiser’s battle-tested army. This was no simple task, for the Americans getting off the ships were neither well prepared nor properly equipped. The AEF had no artillery, no tanks, no airplanes, and no machine guns. The men themselves were little more than raw recruits. Many had never fired their weapons. To turn them into a combat-ready army required time and instruction. It also required equipment, much of which was purchased from the French. Pershing was able to buy what he needed. The AEF bought 3,532 artillery pieces, 40,884 automatic weapons, 227 tanks, and 4,874 aircraft from French suppliers. When the Americans finally went into battle, they did so because French manufacturers had provided much of their equipment.
Training also was provided by the French, as well as by the British. Veterans of combat, these instructors taught the Americans how to survive and fight in the hellish world of trenches, barbed wire, mud, poison gas, machine guns, and deadly artillery fire.
Pershing himself wanted the Americans to emphasize the rifle and the bayonet. His war-fighting doctrine stressed marksmanship and maneuver. He envisioned the AEF making quick frontal assaults, then breaking through German defenses and advancing rapidly, destroying the enemy as it moved forward. That this approach made little sense in the environment of the Western Front appeared not to register with General Pershing. It certainly made an impact on the average American soldier. Many of them died or were wounded needlessly. The consensus seems to be that the number of casualties suffered by the AEF—255,970—was larger than it should have been.
By war’s end the American Expeditionary Force had grown to just over two million men. In total, the United States Army numbered 3,680,458. This was a staggering increase over the 208,034 that constituted the army in early 1917, at which point the American army ranked worldwide sixteenth in size, just behind Portugal.
Transporting the AEF to France was no easy task. It was done by ship, of course, and took time. More than one senior official in London and Paris wondered whether the Americans were ever to arrive. True, at first the buildup was slow, but by the summer of 1918, fourteen months after Congress declared war, U.S. troops were pouring into France.
French and British generals wanted the arriving soldiers to be allocated to their armies. The Yanks were to replenish Allied regiments depleted by three years of warfare. The generals reasoned that the Americans not only lacked combat experience, they also lacked staff organization essential to large military units. Developing these staffs, gaining the necessary experience, would take time, valuable time. Better, they argued, to place the Americans among experienced French and British troops, and do so right away. Waiting for a fully prepared, independent U.S. Army risked defeat on the battlefield. Time was of the essence. The best way to utilize American soldiers was to distribute them among seasoned troops already on the front line.
Pershing said no. Though directed by the secretary of war to cooperate with the French and the British, the commander of the AEF had been ordered to field an independent American army and to lead it into battle. This is exactly what he did.
Senior French and British generals, several of whom thought Pershing was not up to his job, frequently tried to have the American troops amalgamated into their armies. And, just as frequently, Black Jack replied that Americans had come to France to fight as an American army, pointing out, probably correctly, that U.S. soldiers likely were to fight more effectively under American officers in an army whose flag was the Stars and Stripes.
Yet, to Pershing’s credit, when in May–June 1918 a battlefield crisis arose and both General Ferdinand Foch and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig urgently needed additional troops, Pershing dispatched several U.S. divisions to bolster French and British forces.
The principal fighting unit of the AEF was the division. At twenty-eight thousand men, it was twice the size of British and French counterparts. All forty-three divisions that served in France were infantry divisions. While an AEF division would have its own artillery and support units—plus 6,638 horses and mules—its principal component was the rifleman. The United States entered the war deficient in modern weaponry. As previously noted, the AEF lacked artillery, aircraft, tanks, and machine guns. What it did possess, and what it did contribute, was manpower. By the summer of 1918, the French army was worn out. The British army, still ready for battle, was running out of men. Pershing’s army represented a vast influx of men, men whose number and willingness to fight would play a decisive role in the outcome of the First World War.
Two of the forty-three divisions of the AEF were composed of black Americans. These were newly raised units, the 93rd and 92nd Divisions. The former was loaned to the French army and fought extremely well. One of the 93rd’s regiments, the 369th “Black Rattlers,” served with great distinction. The 92nd had less success. It remained in the AEF and went into battle in September. Due mostly to poor leadership and incomplete training, the division performed poorly. This, unfortunately, left a legacy in the American army. Throughout the postwar years, the army’s officer corps were skeptical of the ability of African-Americans to both command and fight.
Racism was alive and well in America during the years of the First World War. This permeated the nation’s army, wherein blacks usually were given jobs of secondary importance. In 1916 there were four “colored” regiments in the regular army. None of them served in France. However, some two hundred thousand other African-American soldiers were part of the American Expeditionary Force. Yet most of these men were put to work in what essentially were labor battalions, digging ditches and unloading ships. This, despite the fact that U.S. authorities had established an officer training school for blacks in Des Moines, Iowa, that produced more than eleven hundred officers for the United States Army.
Women too faced discrimination in the army. Given that in 1917–1918 they did not have the right to vote, this is not surprising. About ten thousand women served as nurses in the AEF. Though treated as officers, they were not paid as such. Nor, according to historian Byron Farwell, did the army provide them with uniforms or equipment. Those came from the Red Cross. Despite the inequity, the women’s services were indispensable and performed with skill and dedication.
Also performing essential medical services were Americans who, prior to the United States’ entry into the war, drove ambulances for the French military. They were volunteers, many of them students or graduates of America’s finest colleges. Serving as noncombatants, they transported wounded French soldiers from the battlefield to the hospital. More than two thousand young men so volunteered, eventually carrying some four hundred thousand soldiers to safety.
Nurses were not the only group of women attached to the AEF. To operate the telephone switchboard established at corps and army headquarters, Pershing recruited some two hundred women fluent in French. Trained by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in Illinois, they were attached to the army’s Signal Corps. After purchasing their uniforms in New York, they were shipped to France and went to work. Known as the “Hello Girls,” they provided yeoman service and received praise from Pershing himself. What they did not receive was official discharge papers, medals, or veteran benefits. They were bluntly informed that, despite their uniforms and services, they were employees of the army, not members. They were not, therefore, entitled to benefits given to the men of the AEF. Not until 1979 was this injustice rectified, by which time, of course, it was too late for most of these women.