I was in Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania, attending a nonfiction writers’ workshop on August 4, 2014, the one hundred year anniversary of the start of World War I.1 I announced the fact to my fellow attendees. Thus began a four-and-one-third-year centennial of one of the most devastating human-made catastrophes in history.
Curiously, I didn’t do a conscientious job of marking the various anniversaries that followed: the Christmas Truce of 1914 (I was a year late), the introduction of chlorine gas (April 22, 1915), the sinking of the Lusitania (May 7, 1915), the assault on Verdun (February 21, 1916), going over the top at the Somme (July 1, 1916), the United States’ declaration of war (April 6, 1917), Passchendaele (July 31, 1917), among others. Readers of this blog will note that I did observe certain events in 1918 as they passed their hundred anniversary marks.
Then came the armistice. The last opportunity for commemoration.
At eleven a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, I stood with a couple hundred of my fellow citizens before the WWI memorial bench in Ault Park, honoring the occasion.
It was a nice ceremony: a bugler played reveille to open and taps to close, a small high school ensemble sang the Star Spangled Banner and two more patriotic songs, our congressman, an Iraq War medical veteran, delivered a keynote address, he and a handful of other officials completed a ceremonial tree-planting, another Iraq veteran read “In Flanders Fields,” a squadron of vintage propeller planes flew over us (before their cue but still). Nice but not completely satisfying.
The program indicated that the high school ensemble would sing “period songs,” but they were simply “patriotic songs.” It could have been any Veterans’ Day, or Independence Day, for that matter. The selections did nothing to capture the specificity of this conflict: this monumentally tragic and historically pivotal war, which ushered in so much that was both great and terrible about the 20th century.
I was pleased that our speaker spoke of my city’s strong Germanic heritage, which had made its world war experience especially problematic. But the non-acknowledgement of the war as first and foremost our Allies’, and Europe’s, more broadly, rankled. I silently confessed to myself that I am a “coastal elite”–my residence in a landlocked swing state, now colored red, notwithstanding. I was never going to be moved by bald invocations of patriotism. I was interested in the specificity of history, acknowledgment of what actually happened, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
For five years, I had immersed myself in this hundred-years-ago war. I researches started with the ambulance drivers of the AAFS, then moved on to the nurses of the war hospitals. Along the way, I familiarized myself with more conventional military history: battles, armaments, strategy, and tactics. But I was always drawn back to the letters, journals, and memoirs of actual American participants who worked alongside Belgians, British, and French during the years of United States’ neutrality.
Yes, Americans were involved in the war before April 1917!
I learned that, while the “Guns of August” still boomed, members of the ex-patriate community in Paris established an American military hospital to serve the French? A mix of professionals and volunteers, internationals and ex-pats, saw to its daily operations. That same hospital created an ambulance service which spun off and grew into the American Ambulance Field Service. More than a thousand American volunteers–mostly college boys, but also bankers, lawyers, businessmen, writers, and artists–drove ambulances for the French Army long before any American troops reached the field of battle.
Yet independent Americans did, in fact, reach the field of battle while their country remained on the sidelines. Forty-three young men rushed to sign up with the French Foreign Legion in the first month of the war. More than 35,000, enlisted in the Canadian Army, which, by treaty, was pledged to “defend the Empire.”
Aviation provided a more glamorous route into combat. Enough American men pursued flight training that by March 1916, the French military agreed to establish a new aviation unit, the Escadrille Americaine. When Germany (rightly) protested, the named was changed to Escadrille de Lafayette, or Lafayette Escadrille.
For women, nursing provided the best chance for seeing action near the front. A few handfuls traveled on their own, or were already in Europe when the war broke out. Most were volunteers who received crash courses in nursing through on-the-job training. A larger number of professional nurses–dozens or perhaps hundreds–served as members of hospital units donating their services for limited, three-month stints.
While the vast majority of Americans went about their business as ignorant as they wished to be about affairs in Europe and the progress of the war, these, mostly privileged, Americans would not stand by idly and let “the greatest battle of history” pass them by. If Vietnam forced the children of the working class to fight a hopeless war while children of the ruling class claimed deferments, during the neutrality years of WWI, the working poor kept their nose to the grindstones, while the sons and daughters of the elite sought action that would put their lives at risk. It was the last time the upper class could believe in chivalry and duty as a matter of course and of education. The World War killed those illusions, along with so many others.
If thousands of Americans actively participated in the war before April 1917, it is true, too, that American Army units took many months after the declaration to enter into combat operations. Medical units were the first to see action, beginning in June 1917, treating British and French wounded. The ambulance service militarized three months later, continuing to serve mainly Allied wounded. American aviation made its first sorties in March 1918. U.S. Army infantry units did not take a significant role in combat operations until July 1918, though some might argue late May/early June.
To the average American, lacking the privilege of time I have had to immerse myself in this history, I wanted to say: Americans did both more and less than you think. And, even as this thought coalesced, I challenged it. The doughboys about whom I read very little did more than just provide a little “backup” to war-weary French and British units. More to the point, the families who sent sons and husbands and brothers “over there”–especially when those family members didn’t come back–the war was no less real, no less theirs. Americans can and should be proud of their ancestors’ role in the First World War.
Patriotism is warranted. But so is a more complete and nuanced understanding of what happened.
1 Historians would not agree that this was the actual start of the war. Declarations of war and mobilizations of armies had begun in Austria-Hungary and Russia as early as July 28. Germany declared war on Russia on July 31, mobilized its Army of the East on August 1, occupied Luxembourg on August 2, and declared war on France on August 3, all before invading Belgium on the fourth.
- History of the American Field Service in France, “Friends of France,” 1914-1917, vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1920: 336.
- Images from Wikimedia Commons, except
- The WWI memorial bench, from https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/local/hyde-park/2018/10/31/tribute-world-war-vets-ault-park-advisory-council-plans-memorial/1826644002/
- Mademoiselle Miss, from https://mademoisellemisscontinued.com/2013/10/19/introduction-to-mademoiselle-miss-continued/
- Kiffin and Paul Rockwell, from https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/rockwell-kiffin-yates