For someone who decided of her own free will to spend this year reading as if I were living in 1918, I have a curious aversion to reading and writing about World War I.
Part of it goes back to my education. In the seventies, when I was in school, battles and the like were out of fashion among history teachers. It was all cause and effect—the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand one day, Versailles the next.
Also, there’s a horrible, reactionary part of my brain that, when faced with a lengthy article by the New York Times’ military critic* about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, says, “Battles are for BOYS!” Believe me, I know how crazy this is. Just within the community I’ve become a part of through this project, Connie Ruzich has been telling the story of World War I through its—often horrifyingly graphic—poetry and Pamela Toler has a book coming out in February on women warriors through the ages. Not to mention Barbara Tuchman, author of The Guns of August, one of the classics of World War I history.** Which I actually have read. Even so, battles aren’t, and never will be, my thing.
In my post-college years, I learned about the war through novels like All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms and memoirs like Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. These left me with a clear sense of the traumatic effects of the war but a sketchy knowledge of how it actually transpired.
Now, on the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, I still can’t tell you how it played out French town by French town, but I have a better understanding of what happened during its last year, both on the battlefield and back home (mostly in the United States***). Here’s some of what I’ve learned.
First of all, the Americans got off to a sloooooow start. I’d always had the idea that the Doughboys showed up in 1917, went to the front to replace the depleted French and British forces, and saved the day.
Well, not so much. Or not so quickly, anyway.
To begin with, the United States didn’t have an army that was up to the task; American soldiers needed a huge amount of training. The U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, but American troops didn’t arrive in France in large numbers until almost a year later. When they arrived they were clueless,
Observers were unimpressed, if this AP report from the American sector, which I’m surprised made it past the censors, is anything to go by:
A few American soldiers had prior combat experience from fighting with British or French forces. One of them, Captain Jimmy Hall, was shot down in May 1918, just as he was finally able to fly under American colors, and presumed dead. He survived, though, and was captured by the Germans. Hall went on to co-author Mutiny on the Bounty with fellow former aviator Charles Nordhoff.
The U.S. armed forces were segregated, and most African-American units were led by white officers. A few African-Americans received commissions, though, including Benjamin O. Davis, a Spanish-American War veteran who was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1918 (for the duration of the war, anyway—his rank later reverted to captain). Davis went on, during World War II, to become the first African-American general in the U.S. armed forces. His son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was the first African-American general in the Air Force.
On the logistical side, America’s entry into the war was a colossal screw-up. The United States wasn’t producing many weapons or planes, and a fuel shortage, exacerbated by one of the coldest winters on record, slowed the shipment of what military equipment had been produced. In January, Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield took the drastic step of ordering all industry east of the Mississippi to shut down for a week, and then for the next five Mondays. There was grumbling, but surprisingly no one questioned whether closing down the country was in the fuel administrator’s job description.
Meanwhile, Food Czar Herbert Hoover, who had gained celebrity status by organizing relief efforts in Belgium,**** was coordinating a food conservation campaign focused on “wheatless Wednesdays” and “meatless Tuesdays.” “Hooverize!” was the watchword.
Anxiety over German spies was high.
A few real ones, like 23-year-old spy ring leader Despina Storch, were rounded up, along with a lot of people who had committed “crimes” like painting pencils a treasonous color.
Women took over men’s work,
although they were reminded not to get too attached to their “war jobs,”
and thousands of American women served in Europe in military or civilian roles, most of them as nurses.
Americans took the war with deadly seriousness. “Slackers,” as draft evaders were known, were widely condemned,
and pacifists were vilified. The staff of The Masses, a socialist magazine that was shut down in 1917, went on trial twice in 1918, charged under the Espionage Act with conspiracy to obstruct military recruitment. Both times, the jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision and a mistrial was declared. Art Young, one of the defendants, sketched the proceedings for The Masses’ successor, The Liberator.
But just because war is a serious business doesn’t mean there’s no room for humor. Lt. Percy Crosby’s Private Dubb was a big hit,
as were Edward Streeter’s***** “Dere Mable” letters, supposedly written by semi-literate soldier Bill to his girlfriend back home.
Once deployed, Dubb, Bill, and their compatriots rose to the task. American casualties mounted sharply as the Allied troops fought back the last German offensive in the Battles of Meuse-Argonne, which began on September 26 and lasted until the armistice. This remains the deadliest battle in United States history–26,277 American lives lost.
American participation in World War I didn’t last long enough to produce a literature equivalent to that of the British war poets, whose ranks included Rupert Brooke (who died in 1915), Wilfred Owen (who was killed a week before the war’s end), and Sigfried Sassoon (who survived). American veterans like Ernest Hemingway (who was seriously wounded while serving in Italy as an ambulance driver) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was commissioned but never made it overseas) would make their mark writing about the scars the war left on their generation.
Some American voices of the war stay with us, though. American Alan Seeger, who fought with the French Foreign Legion and was killed in 1916, left behind his poem “I Have A Rendez-Vous with Death.”
I’ll end with a poem that is not as well-known but that has stayed with me since I read it, toward the beginning of this project, in the February 9, 1918, issue of The New Republic.
Corporal Hogan was killed on October 18, 1918, 24 days before the Armistice. He was 21 years old.
*An actual job title.
**Or all the women who have actually fought in battles, like Maria Bochkareva and the Battalion of Death.
***This is as good a place as any to point out that the America-centrism of this blog is not just because I’m American, it’s also because of differences in copyright laws that make American publications from 1918 more available than publications from other countries.
****1918 being an era when fuel administrators and relief coordinators and food safety scientists were celebrities.
*****Streeter later wrote the novel Father of the Bride.