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Remembering World War I

By Ron Montonye - Pierce County Veterans Service Officer | Oct 10, 2020

As I write this column, I am in the process of reading a book titled “Yanks – The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I.” It was written by John S.D. Eisenhower. As I read this book, it reminded me of many facts that I had either forgotten, or never learned, about World War I. I would like to share a few of these facts, and some thoughts of mine, with you.

World War I was fought from July 28, 1914 to Nov. 11, 1918. The formal state of war between the Allied Forces and Germany officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. Like World War II, the Germans fought the war on two fronts, the Eastern Front against Russia, and the Western Front against mainly Britain, France, and the United States. This global war, also known as the Great War, or “the war to end all wars,” was one of the deadliest conflicts in history. It led to the mobilization of more than 70 million military personnel, with an estimated nine million combatant deaths and 13 million civilian deaths. Of these numbers, the United States mobilized a force of 4,355,000 and suffered 322,000 casualties, including 116,000 killed.

Britain and France fought the Germans on the Western Front for over two years before the United States entered the war. The trench warfare tactics had resulted in very heavy losses and no major victories. They were desperate for the United States to join their efforts to defeat Germany. The use of automatic weapons, machine guns, tanks, early airplanes, and poisonous gases led to horrific casualty rates.

Having led a policy of isolationism during the first two years of the war, the United States military and manufacturing were little prepared for the massive build-up it would take to fight a war of this magnitude. The U.S. officially declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. So, our military involvement in World War I was actually only one-year and seven months.

Once the U.S. declared war, the massive build-up of troops and supplies was almost unbelievable. Major General John J. Pershing was chosen to lead the American Expeditionary Force (A. E. F.). He was more admired than liked. By nature he was strict in manner, attitude, and appearance, and his rigid insistence on military procedures earned him enemies. When he was assigned as a tactical officer at West Point, his obsession with stern discipline made him extremely unpopular with the cadets. Seizing on his previous assignment with the 10th Cavalry, a regiment of African American soldiers, cadets saddled him with the name “Black Jack.” This name stuck with Pershing throughout the rest of his career and long after its origin was forgotten. As it turned out, Black Jack Pershing’s qualities, skills, and traits made him an outstanding leader of the A.E.F.

As mentioned, building up the A.E.F. was a huge task. The logistics to quickly increase the size of the military, to train them, to supply them, and to transport them, was a massive undertaking. From a force of only 200,000 officers and men of the Regular Army and National Guard in April 1917, America raised an army of over four million, of whom about half crossed the Atlantic. The Americans created their own Services of Supply. During the 19 months of American participation, seven and a half tons of shipping was sent from the United States to France. This tonnage included nearly 1,800 locomotives of the hundred-ton type, nearly 27,000 freight cars, and nearly 50,000 trucks. Some 70,000 horses and mules were shipped overseas.

To receive and train new recruits, a series of camps and cantonments were set up, mostly concentrated in the southeastern portion of the United States. Their construction was authorized in May 2017, at about the same time the draft bill was passed. By July 2017, the last site was procured. Before the war was over, a total of 32 camps and cantonments would be established each to house a population of 40,000 inhabitants. About half of these were assigned to the National Guard and the other half to the National Army. In the beginning, the National Guard divisions were generally better prepared than most of the Regular Army units.

World War I saw pioneering advances in modern medicine including plastic surgery (especially for facial reconstruction), blood transfusions, and other medical procedures.

Both Native Americans and African Americans served during the war. Despite the fact they were not granted citizenship in America until 1924, nearly 13,000 Native Americans fought during the war. Over 200,000 African Americans also served, but only 11% in combat and this in segregated units.

Woodrow Wilson ran his campaign for a second presidential term with an anti-war slogan. “He kept us out of the war” was the slogan. However, he immediately reneged on this when he was sworn in, declaring war on Germany about a month later.

The last living World War I veteran died in February 2012 at age 110. Florence Green was a British citizen who served in the Allied forces. Frank Woodruff Buckles was the last surviving American veteran of World War I. He died February 27, 2011.

In reading this book, and realizing there are now no longer any living WWI veterans, two thoughts come to my mind.

First, I hope we as Americans will always remember and honor those who served during this epic war. Because of their heroic deeds, our liberty and freedom, as well as those of the western European nations, was preserved.

Secondly, these men and women who served our country during this time had to have been strong and resilient. Not only did they have to face all the challenges and horrors of war, they also had to do this during the same time period as the global Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. This pandemic also claimed millions of lives throughout the world, including hundreds of those in our military. Following the war, they continued having to face extreme challenges including the Great Depression, then World War II, followed by the Korean War. All these major events occurred within a 35-year time period after World War I. Because of their strength and resolve, our country survived all of these historic events. Hopefully, 35 years from now, historians will look back upon these present times and say the same about us who are now living. With the guiding hand of our Almighty God, may we come through these present day trials as a better and stronger nation. May we be more committed to taking care of each other in a peaceful manner, and more empathetic and understanding of the needs of all humanity.

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