Today, April 6, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the US declaring war and entering the Great War. We were latecomers to “the big show,” which had been raging since 1914. Even with the declaration, it took months before US troops began to arrive in France, and even longer before we actually waded into combat in 1918. We fought in significant battles for a few months until the war ended on November 11, 1918. As the author of several books on the Great War, I cannot simply let this event pass without a few random and wandering thoughts of my own.
My first exposure to the war came in childhood. I remember my great grandparents had a farm handyman that was a vet – I think his name was Ernie. Quiet man, never talked much. It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime I knew a WWI vet. All have “gone west” now.
The US doesn’t embrace the Great War the way we do WWII. The First World War was a quick event for us, unlike the rest of Europe who bore the scars of it to this day. We lost a lot of men though. The Meuse Argonne Cemetery is filled with more Americans than the cemetery at Normandy, or so I read. While the war was horrific – with flamethrowers, gas, tanks, bombs, trench warfare, etc.; our troops were only in it for a few relatively short months. It failed to scar us enough to be remembered the way we do WWII.
It was a war that changed our country though. We realized that standing on the sidelines, hiding under neutrality, did not spare you from the war. It was the first war that brought about terrorism. The US Capitol was bombed by the Germans. Munitions plants in New Jersey were blowing up – even damaging the Statue of Liberty. We were the victim of unrestricted submarine warfare. In fairness, we were selling tons of munitions to France and England…so our neutrality was at best, a means for us to profit from the war.
While there are bound to be a lot of ceremonies marking this event, I would like to remind folks that we actually had Americans fighting in the war years before the official US entry. Volunteers, mostly college students, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1914, looking for adventure. Many of them transferred into the French Air Service, joining the Lafayette Flying Corps and the all-American (French led) Lafayette Escadrille. These men would later become the heart and soul of the fledgling US Air Service when American did finally formally arrive in France in 1917. Others joined the American Ambulance Service.
That’s right. American men were flying and fighting and dying in the Great War four years before the rest of the country caught up to them. They knew in their hearts what was right long before the rest of the nation did and took action – many giving their lives for a cause that the rest of the country ignored. On this day of commemoration, let us not forget the men who went before.
Nor let us forget the commitment to our allies, still strong today. As Colonel C. E. Stanton said to our French comrades upon our arrival, “What we have of blood and treasure are yours. In the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying the war to a successful conclusion…”
“…Lafayette, we are here!”