One hundred years ago, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918, the armistice — the cessation of fighting — took effect, ending the First World War.
The first global war, fought with the massive means of the Industrial Revolution and involving close to two dozen countries, had many effects on the maps of Europe and Asia and the states which participated. Politically, four European-Asian empires fell: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman. In terms of population, a generation of men was essentially killed or maimed in France, Great Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. About nine million combatants died and about seven to 10 million civilians perished as a direct result of the war. Financially, the war brought Great Britain to her knees and allowed the United States to emerge as the financial capital of the world. Domestically, the principal states became more centralized war machines in search of victory.
The war had begun in August 1914, when Austria-Hungary, following the assassination of its heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, declared war on Serbia. Within two weeks the two major alliance systems of Europe were at war. The principal belligerents stemmed from the two pre-war alliances. The Triple Alliance consisting of Germany and Austria-Hungary (without Italy) was arrayed against the Triple Entente, consisting of Great Britain, France, and Russia. The Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria eventually joined the former alliance and were called the “Central Powers.” Italy, Japan, and the United States eventually joined the Entente powers and were called the “Allies.”
By 1914, the Industrial Revolution had magnified the means of warfare tremendously, contributing to the lethality of the war. War materials — not simply rifles, but also machine guns, entrenching tools, artillery pieces, grenades, mortars, boots, and barbed wire — could now be mass-produced. On the Western Front in Europe, this enabled the contending armies to build trench lines from the English Channel far southeast toward the Alps.
The war saw many firsts: modern chemical warfare and gas masks, flamethrowers, steel helmets, tanks, aerial warfare, IQ tests, guide dogs, propaganda film, the military use of X-rays, and wireless radio communication.
Two key factors led the US to enter the war in April 1917: first, the decision by Germany to resume unrestricted submarine warfare and second, the Zimmermann telegram, indicating Germany’s efforts to induce Mexico to join the war against the United States.
With German submarines sinking American ships at will, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the Congress on April 2. Using high, moral language, he said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Congress responded with rousing emotion and applause, and on April 6, passed a joint resolution declaring war on Germany.
American “doughboys,” as they were called, marched off to war to what became an anthem for Americans during the war: Over There, by George M. Cohan, born in Providence. The chorus:
Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming
The Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming
So prepare, say a prayer
Send the word, send the word to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over
And we won't come back till it's over
While Americans saw action only for the closing months of the war, 117,000 soldiers were killed and 202,000 were wounded. Nonetheless the Americans provided essential military and psychological support to the faltering Allies on the Western Front. Historian Geoffrey Wawro states categorically that the “Doughboys won the war by trapping the German army in France and Belgium and severing its lifeline [in the Meuse-Argonne campaign].”
About 53,000 Rhode Islanders enlisted during the war and 612 died. The First Battalion of the 103rd Field Artillery Regiment was composed almost entirely of Rhode Islanders and served gallantly in the war. The citizens of Rhode Island also helped the war effort by creating “war gardens,” volunteering with the Red Cross, and fundraising. The Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Company in Providence, a major manufacturer of machine tools, contributed significantly to the industrial war effort.
Historian Jackson Spielvogel calls World War I the “defining event of the 20th century.” The superiority of Europe was gone; the United States was ascendant. An unstable peace settled on Eurasia which would last only two decades. After its revolution in 1917, Russia now became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with rising power and an ideology contrary to the democratic, capitalistic Western countries. Within many countries, government had projected itself into new areas of the economy and society. Many women had taken new jobs and had acquired the right to vote. Intellectually and psychologically, World War I was a jarring and disillusioning experience. With so much death and destruction, the faith in our leaders and in the idea of progress was shattered.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, an opinion contributor for The Hill, and a monthly columnist for The Newport Daily News.