100 years ago this week, US entered World War I
CLEVELAND (Tribune News Service) — World War I, 1914-1918, was called the "Great War" until an even greater one came along with World War II in 1939.
But for its time, the First World War was unprecedented in its scale, with millions of combatants, armed with lethal new technologies, engaging in the first major war to be fought on land, sea and air.
The conflict opened with the Allies — primarily England, France, Italy and Russia — pitted against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.
The eventual human cost was staggering, with an estimated 38 million military and civilian casualties.
The war raged for nearly three years before the United States joined the fray, 100 years ago this week, when President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany, saying, "The world must be made safe for democracy."
"It is a fearful thing," he told Congress on April 2, 1917, "to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance."
That request was granted four days later, and America would soon be sending its first troops ever to fight in Europe.
America's role would be short, but significant in terms of the impact of its participation, both at home and abroad.
The war in Europe started as an almost inevitable outcome of jingoistic nationalism, military arms races, interlocking alliances and a desire to settle old scores from previous wars, according to George Vourlojianis, a history professor at John Carroll University.
The spark igniting this explosive mixture was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Serbian nationalist. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia, ultimatums were issued and entangled alliances invoked, and soon Europe was engulfed by war.
"It took on a momentum that once it began, they weren't able to stop it," Vourlojianis said.
The conflict was characterized by the horrendous carnage wrought by modern military technology including the machine gun, poison gas, flame throwers, rapid-firing field artillery, tanks, airplanes and submarines.
"I don't think they realized that this total unleashing of the industrial revolution would create the monster that it really did," Vourlojianis said.
One of those new weapons, the submarine, contributed to America's entry into the war. Germany established a policy of unrestricted warfare in its blockade of Great Britain, resulting in the 1915 sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania, and the deaths of 1,197 passengers and crew, including 114 Americans (seven of them Clevelanders).
Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended, but resumed at the beginning of 1917.
Vourlojianis said overwhelming anti-German propaganda produced by the British also helped sway American public opinion toward the Allies. But "what really breaks the straw on the proverbial camel's back is the Zimmerman telegram," he noted.
The secret telegram was sent by the German Foreign Office to the German ambassador in Mexico, in 1917, proposing a military alliance between Germany and Mexico if the U.S. joined the Allies in the war. Germany promised that Mexico would get the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, after America was defeated.
The telegram was intercepted, decoded and released publicly by British intelligence.
Two weeks after the contents of the telegram were revealed, German submarines sank three American vessels, prompting an outrage that pressured President Wilson --who had been elected in 1916 in a campaign that included the slogan "he kept us out of war" — to ask the nation to join the fray.
Preparations for overseas offensive
America mobilized, building an army of 4 million through enlistments and the draft. About 2 million served overseas.
Ohio contributed more than 200,000 troops, the fourth largest number of all states in the union. Cleveland provided 41,000.
But some 116,000 Americans would die in the effort, including 6,500 Ohioans and 1,023 Clevelanders. There were 204,000 wounded in action.
James Banks, director of the Crile Archive Center for History Education at Cuyahoga Community College in Parma, said the archives' diaries and scrapbooks of local soldiers who served in the war show that many regarded it as "a big, big adventure."
"It was one of the most exciting, thrilling adventures of their entire life," he said. "It's something bigger than yourself. Many had never left Ohio, but they're going to go over to France and see things they'd never seen before."
One of the largest troop-training facilities in the U.S. was Camp Sherman, built near Chillicothe, where some 40,000 recruits learned to drill and fight.
Among the Ohio units was the National Guard's 37th Infantry Division, which came to be known as "Ohio's Own" and later as the "Buckeye Division."
The division fought in such battles as the Meuse-Argonne in Belgium and Ypres-Lys in France, suffering 992 deaths and 4,931 wounded in action.
The all-black Ninth Battalion of Infantry was consolidated with other segregated National Guard units to form the 372d Infantry, and fought with the French 157th "Red Hand" Division.
Lt. Robert C. Allen became the first African-American to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.
Cleveland provided the first U.S. medical contingent in World War I with a group of surgeons and nurses from Lakeside Hospital (now University Hospitals), formed under the direction of Dr. George Crile (who later co-founded the Cleveland Clinic).
The Lakeside Unit first traveled to France in 1915 to treat war wounded for three months at the request of Myron T. Herrick, an Ohioan and U.S. ambassador to France.
The unit later returned to France in 1917 after the U.S. entered the war, and stayed for two years.
While there, they learned to deal with wounds of a type and scale never before seen in war, such as the horrors of a poison gas attack once described by British soldier/poet Wilfred Owen: "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs."
The business of war
Back home, however, war was good business.
Cleveland and the rest of the nation benefited from the sale of industrial products and war materials to the Allies, before and after America entered the war.
"Cleveland industry boomed because of the war," said John Grabowski, Krieger Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History at Case Western Reserve University and historian/senior vice president for research and publications, Western Reserve Historical Society
In terms of industrial output, the city went from sixth largest in the U.S. to fifth during the war, according to Grabowski, editor of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
The White Motor Corp. produced 18,000 trucks and ambulances for the U.S. military and a number of Allied nations.
Engineer Theodore Eickhoff came to Cleveland to work with the Warner & Swasey Co. to develop what would later be known as the Thompson submachine gun, capable of firing 1,000 rounds per minute.
Grabowski also noted that Northeast Ohio war production also included a secret poison gas plant in Willoughby where tons of the arsenic-based "lewisite" (named for its developer Winford Lewis), or the so-called "Dew of Death," was manufactured but never used in the war.
Grabowski said Cleveland's industrial boom was hampered by a shortage of workers, once supplied by European immigrants, and men siphoned off by the military draft. Employers turned to blacks migrating from the South, and the city's African-American population grew more than 300 percent from 1910-1920.
Women also joined the work force, becoming factory workers, streetcar conductors or recruited to work on farms. They also served as Red Cross nurses overseas with the U.S. Army.
The city's war boom was also aided by Newton D. Baker, an attorney and onetime mayor of Cleveland who was named Secretary of War by President Wilson.
"He's one of the central figures in the war," Grabowski said. "We had to create an army, and the Secretary of War had to oversee that, so it was not only the draft, but where's the clothing going to come from? Where are the weapons going to come from?
"So if you look at Baker, he has an enormous amount of power, and he's also well connected with industrial Cleveland," Grabowski added, though noting that Baker had a less prestigious image among his troops, who nicknamed him "Newtie the cootie (louse)."
Baker also selected Gen. John Pershing to lead the American forces overseas, insisting that his command remain an independent partner of the Allies, rather than using U.S. troops as replacements to replenish French and British soldiers.
The impact of war at home and abroad
Grabowski said that when World War I started, sentiment regarding the war was mixed in Cleveland, which had a large number of residents of German and Austro-Hungarian ancestry, and immigrants from those countries.
"Many of the Germans were vocal for the German cause, here in Cleveland, in 1914-1915, and then as things changed, post-Lusitania, you begin to see, in Cleveland as in other cities, a questioning as to where the loyalties of people were," Grabowski said.
A growing sentiment against Germany and Austria-Hungary arose. Local German- and Hungarian-language newspapers were censored. Cleveland public schools stopped teaching the German language. The German-American president of Baldwin-Wallace College lost his job after trying to get faculty and students to sing the German language version of "Silent Night" at a Christmas service.
Not everyone backed the war. In 1918, Socialist leader Eugene Debs was charged with violating the Espionage Act, and tried in Cleveland after giving a speech in Canton denouncing the war. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but pardoned in 1921.
America's entry into the war had a significant impact overseas, according to Vourlojianis, whose grandfathers served in the Greek army and navy during the war.
The historian noted that by 1917, the war had become a stalemate in the trenches. "In the face of machine guns and repeating howitzers and poison gas, they (the Allies) had bled themselves to the point where there was no more to give," he said. "The Germans were facing the same thing."
The U.S. provided a needed infusion of fresh blood in the form of troops and material, helping bring the war to an Allied victory in November of 1918.
World War I re-drew the map of Europe as historic monarchies — Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany and the Ottoman Empire — toppled, and new countries, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, emerged.
For America, "nothing will be the same again," Vourlojianis said. "We are now intertwined with Europe, and there's no turning back."
With World War I, "the United States began a march toward being a stabilizing factor in the world," he added. "We went to war without an agenda of taking territory or treasure or anything like that. We totally went to war for ideological purposes, to create a new peaceful vision.
"It also brings us to the fore where people will respect us for what we stand for," he noted.
By fighting in the Great War, America demonstrated its greatness, Vourlojianis said, and showed the world that "the words in our Declaration of Independence, the words in our Constitution, really have meaning, and we are willing to back them up."
©2017 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland
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