WASHINGTON, March 14, 2014 – It was called The Great War even as it was going on. It engulfed the world, and the world is still feeling its effects.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, and U.S. officials are gearing up to mark the centennial.
In his day job, Robert J. Dalessandro is the director of the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Lesley J. McNair here. He also is the acting chairman of the World War I Centennial Commission.
The Great War began in July 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This triggered an interconnecting network of alliances to spark mobilization, bringing in the empires of Europe. England, France and Russia lined up against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
A generation of men died in battle on the fields of France. The Somme, Verdun, Ypres and Meuse-Argonne became killing grounds. On the Eastern Front, millions of Germans, Austrians and Russians battled. Overall, about 16.5 million people were killed in the war.
At first, the United States stayed out of it. In fact, when President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916, his campaign slogan was “He kept us out of war.”
But on April 7, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and the other Central Powers and raised a military force of more than 4 million men. The United States lost 116,516 service members in World War I. Another 205,690 were wounded.
While the United States didn’t enter the war until 1917, the U.S. commemoration commission is beginning its mission of education now to provide Americans some context for the epochal war.
“You can’t just drop into World War I in April of ’17 without understanding the road to war,” Dalessandro said in an interview. “It was complex politically and internationally, and Americans today need to know what Americans then thought about the war.”
This summer begins the centennial, Dalessandro said, calling the archduke’s assassination “the Fort Sumter of World War I,” referring to the site of the U.S. Civil War’s first engagement.
Congress chartered the commission to encourage private organizations and state and local governments to organize activities commemorating the centennial. The panel will coordinate activities throughout the United States tied to the centennial and will serve as a clearinghouse for the dissemination of plans and events, he said. While its charter covers the United States, the commission also is looking at international events, and will mark those appropriately, he added.
“We want to lead efforts that raise awareness, that encourage a spectrum of organizations to plan programs and develop an education program targeting America’s youth,” Dalessandro said.
The education aspect may be the commission’s most important challenge, he added. “We need to wake up the interest of a new generation of Americans on the effects of World War I,” he said.
Americans today need to know that World War I changed everything for America, Dalessandro said. In the short term, he explained, the experience of the slaughter of the Western Front turned America away from entangling alliances in Europe. But the lesson for leaders, he added, was 180 degrees from that. “They learned we have to be engaged in Europe and involved in business,” he said.
While the Civil War saw a draft, Dalessandro said, World War I saw the first universal draft.
“The first question is if you have a universal draft for men, what do you do with African-American men?” he said. African-American leaders were determined that black men fight as combat soldiers and fight in integrated units. They also pushed for black officers, Dalessandro said. “Part of that happened,” he added.
For many African-Americans, he noted, the experience in France was their first taste of an environment without Jim Crow laws. “There, they are looked on as equals and that is a revelatory experience,” he said.
World War I was the first time masses of American women entered the workforce, Dalessandro said. There were nurses, “yeomanettes,” telephone operators, Red Cross workers, “Doughnut Dollies” and women working in factories. And at the end of the war, women had the vote.
“In the Civil War, you have Irish and German immigrants in great numbers in the Army,” Dalessandro said. “But in World War I, you have Italian-Americans, Eastern Europeans, Jews, large numbers of Russians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks — soldiers from ethnic groups that have emigrated, and it’s a quick road to citizenship.”
The question was whether these men would fight together — whether they would consider themselves Americans, he added. And the answer was yes, he said.
Some historians call The Great War just Act 1 of a greater war that includes World War II and the Cold War. Fascism grew out of the experiences in the war. Revolution took hold in Russia, and the Soviet Union was born. The Versailles Peace Treaty set the stage for Act 2 in 1939.
The Battle of Meuse-Argonne was the largest American battle up to that point. More than 500,000 doughboys and Marines fought, and many died, on the fields and forests of France. They faced not only bullets and artillery, but also poison gas, tanks and planes. And yet, the American impression of the war is “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” or movies such as “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Paths of Glory” or “Wings,” Dalessandro said.
“This is our biggest challenge,” he added, noting that a scene at the end of a recent British movie shows two soldiers going over the top in the Somme in 1916. “There isn’t a person in the United Kingdom who doesn’t know these guys are not coming back,” he said. “We [in America] don’t have a national consciousness like that.”
World War I set the stage for the rest of the 20th century. It destroyed four empires: the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It also set the stage for current conditions in the Middle East by the Balfour Declaration, which called for a Jewish homeland in the region and by the victors drawing the borders of new countries.
One hundred years on, World War I continues to cast a shadow, Dalessandro said. The nation needs to learn from it, he added, and the commemoration is a place to start.