World War I

The sinking by a German U-boat of the British ocean liner Lusitania in May 1915 killing 128 Americans helped turn the tide of American public opinion steadfastly against Germany, and in February 1917 Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill intended to make the United States ready for war. After the sinking of seven US merchant ships by submarines President Woodrow Wilson called for war on Germany.  On April 2nd, 1917, he appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany. US Congress declared war on April 6th, 1917.

With Germany, able to build up its strength on the Western Front after the armistice with Russia, allied troops struggled to hold off another German offensive until promised reinforcements from the United States could arrive.  The Western Front contained more than 1,000 kilometers of front-line and reserve trenches. Soldiers in the trenches endured conditions ranging from barely tolerable to utterly horrific. They dealt with ‘trench foot’: a gangrene of the feet and toes, ticks, lice, rats, flies, and mosquito’s.  Cholera, typhus, and dysentery thrived because of vermin, poor sewage and waste disposal, stagnant water, spoiled food and bodies. The territory between its opposing front lines was strewn with mines, craters, mud, live ordinance, barbed wire, discarded rubbish, bodies and body parts in all stages of decomposition.

On July 15th, 1918, Germany launched the last offensive of the war, attacking French forces (joined by 85,000 American troops as well as some of the British Expeditionary Force) in the Second Battle of the Marne. This battle turned the tide of war decisively towards the Allies, who gradually regained much of France and Belgium.  By the fall of 1918, the Central Powers were unraveling on all fronts.

Despite the Turkish victory at Gallipoli & later defeats by invading forces, the Turks signed a treaty with the Allies in late October 1918. Austria-Hungary, dissolving from within due to growing nationalist movements among its diverse population, reached an armistice on November 4th.   Facing dwindling resources on the battlefield, discontent on the home front and the surrender of its allies, Germany was finally forced to seek an armistice.  At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ends. At 5 a.m. that morning, Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiégne, France.  The First World War left nine million soldiers dead and 21 million wounded, with Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Great Britain each losing nearly a million or more lives.

WWI produced two highly decorated hero’s, Edward “Eddie” Vernon Rickenbaker of the U.S. Army Air Service and Alvin Cullum York of the U.S. Army.  Rickenbacker downed seventeen enemy fighters, four reconnaissance aircraft, and five balloons for a total of 26 aerial victories. He received an unprecedented eight Distinguished Service Cross’, the French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. The Distinguished Service Cross he earned for attacking seven, downing two, German aircraft, on September 25th, 1918 was elevated to the Medal of Honor by President Herbert Hoover on November 6th, 1930.  He was also considered to have won the most awards for valor by an American during the war.

Alvin Cullum York, also known as Sergeant York, was one of the most decorated United States Army soldiers of World War I.  He received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 35 machine guns, killing at least 25 enemy soldiers, and capturing 132. York’s Medal of Honor action occurred during the United States-led portion of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, which was intended to breach the Hindenburg line and force the Germans to surrender.

World War I was the first time aircraft were used on a large scale.  They were normally unarmed and used for reconnaissance until the machine gun was affixed to the aircraft to create the “fighter” airplane.  Many aircraft types emerged from the fighting – scouts, night bombers, night fighters and ground attack.  These served to pave the way for the new, post-war aircraft that followed.  It was also the first time for the use of submersible submarines, flame throwers, depth charges, anti-aircraft guns, tanks, and chemical warfare.

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