Battleship Closure Alert . . .

The War to End All Wars

Welcome to our blog series honoring the centennial of the First World War. In this introductory post, we’ll outline a quick history of the global conflict, highlight Texas’s contributions to the fight, and share commemorative initiatives.

 

Historical poster stating "Uncle Sam Wants You!"
This Uncle Sam-themed recruitment poster became one of WWI's most enduring visuals. (Library of Congress)
Historical black & white photo of soldiers climbing out of a trench
Soldiers train for trench warfare. (Texas Military Forces Museum)

Ever used the expression, “cup o’Joe” or “no man’s land”? Did you know you’re using slang from World War I?

Here’s a harder question: Could you correctly name the years of the war? Or list the nations involved?  

A century ago, World War I changed the geopolitical landscape of Europe and introduced the United States to the world stage. Its global reach and scale of destruction were unlike previous armed conflicts. A style of battle based around entrenchments rewrote the rules of war. Weapons and artillery became more efficient - and deadly - a cruel result of the technological advances of the 20th century. At the time, many believed WWI was “The War to End Wars.”

WWI

The beginning

European map showing alliances in WW1.
Alliances of WWI (U.S. Military Academy at West Point)

Historians mark June 28, 1914 as the beginning of WWI, when Serbian revolutionaries assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophie. Ferdinand was heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an area that today covers Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and parts of Serbia & Montenegro, Romania, Moldova and Italy. In retaliation for the archduke’s death, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Existing tensions in Europe ignited. Russia mobilized to support Serbia, while Germany sided with Austria-Hungry. Soon after, France joined Russia against Germany. Great Britain declared war when German troops invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg. By the end of the summer, the entire continent was entangled in the conflict.

America's debate

Though separated from the war by the Atlantic Ocean, Americans debated how to respond. A number of men volunteered to fight with the French Army. [1] Others marched for peace, including many suffragettes. Several believed the war was “over there” and of little concern. President Woodrow Wilson declared America neutral, though that did not ensure protection. Over 100 Americans died when German U-boats sank the British passenger ship Lusitania.

Photo of the content of the telegram
The Zimmerman Telegram, coded and decoded (US National Archives)

Remaining neutral, however, became increasingly difficult. Great Britain and France were two of the United States’ strongest allies. Reports of U-boats off the East Coast surfaced in the press. The interception of the Zimmerman telegram in early 1917 forced Wilson’s hand. It outlined a secret German plan: should Mexico enter the war with Germany and win, it was promised the return of former territories, including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Congress voted to declare war on Germany on April 6, though the United States was entering a stalemate. Three years of trench warfare had resulted in minimal gains for either side. Machine guns and mustard gas caused millions of casualties. Weary French and British troops hoped that fresh American soldiers and munitions would turn the tide against German troops and their allies. But first, the U.S. had to raise a modern fighting force.  

Military buildup

Woman working on a machine
Manufacturing grenades (US National Archives)

WWI led the United States to invest in its military on an unprecedented scale. Thousands of volunteer and drafted would-be servicemen needed uniforms, training, and equipment. Private industry ramped up production of ammunitions and built ships and airplanes, the newest battle weapon. Factory jobs offered new employment options for those on the home front.

Poster promoting buying Liberty Bonds
Colorful posters urged Americans to support the war effort. (Library of Congress)

Poster urging women to knit socks for soldiersThe Committee on Public Infor­ma­tion, a new federal agency charged with generating public support for the war effort, mounted a massive propaganda campaign to convince Americans to do their part. [2] Leaflets and posters blank­eted large cities and small towns alike. Local communities purchased war bonds and conserved food. Women knitted socks for servicemen and volunteered with the Red Cross.

The tide turns

The influx of American troops and supplies bolstered the Allied effort. A decisive victory at Amiens, France, in the summer of 1918, followed by the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that fall, seriously weakened the German army. An armistice was declared on Nov. 11. President Wilson travelled to Paris in January to participate in peace negotiations, where he called for the creation of the League of Nations, an organization dedicated to resolving international disputes.

historical photo of men walking
President Wilson meets with Allied leaders in Paris to broker the terms of peace. (History.com)

On June 28, 1919, the Allied Powers and Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson’s efforts won him the Nobel Peace Prize, though domestic infighting prevented Congress from ratifying the treaty, barring the U.S. from joining the League of Nations. Instead, the war between the U.S. and Germany formally ended with a joint resolution in 1921.

One million American men served abroad during WWI; 116,000 of them gave their lives (more than the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined). Many survivors sustained physical impairments and psychological trauma, coining the term “shell-shock.” Despite wartime calls for unity, African American soldiers returned stateside to a segregated nation. Wilson’s vision for peace remained only partially fulfilled.

The United States emerged victorious from WWI a new world power, though not unscathed.

Texas’ Role in WWI

Historic map showing Texas' war efforts
Explore this map of Texas sites associated with WWI. (GLO)
Postcard showing 3 soldiers aiming machine guns
A soldier stationed at Camp MacArthur in Waco mailed this postcard to a friend in Madison, WI. (Portal to Texas History)

Texas experienced significant development during WWI, particularly at its military sites. Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, the state’s largest city in 1917, grew rapidly. Texas’s climate and wide open spaces appealed to military advisers. Several training camps and air fields were constructed across the state.

Nearly 200,000 Texans served in armed forces during the war, the majority of them in the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) 36th and 90th Infantry Divisions. African-American Texan soldiers were typically assigned to two segregated infantry divisions, the 92nd and 93rd. Four-hundred-and-fifty Texan women were nurses. More than 5,000 Texans perished during the war; four earned the Medal of Honor.  [3]

Photo of the battleship.
Battleship Texas served in WWI and WWII. (TPWD)

Docked today at San Jacinto Battle­ground State Historic Site, the USS Texas, com­mis­sioned in 1914, ranked among the war’s most powerful weapons. She served with the British Grand Fleet and was the first battleship to mount anti-aircraft guns, demonstrating the changing nature of warfare in the 20th century.

WWI Centennial Commission/TXWWICC

WWI was not “The War to End Wars,” but it shaped international relations for decades to come. Yet the conflict is not widely recognized in the United States. The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission is working to change that through education, advocacy, and the establishment of a national memorial in Washington, D.C. You can read about their mission at www.worldwar1centennial.org.

The Texas WWI Centennial Commission (TXWWICC) shares WWI stories closer to home. Texas Parks and Wildlife, along with the Texas Historical Commission, Texas General Land Office, local museums, county historical commissions, cemeteries, military bases, schools and others are partnering with TXWWICC to educate fellow Texans, organize commemorative events and exhibits, and generate new research about the war and its impact on the Lone Star State. Visit www.texasworldwar1centennial.org for details.

WWW1CC logo

 

This blog series is a collaboration among Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Historic Sites and Structures Program, Interpretive Services Program, and Battleship Texas State Historic Site. Stay tuned for our next post!

 

 

[1] Ruane, Michael E. “First Americans to die in WWI may have been volunteers in French army.” The Washington Post, February 14, 2015.

[2] Daly, Christopher B. “How Woodrow Wilson’s Propaganda Machine Changed American Journalism.Smithsonian Magazine, April 28, 2017.

[3] Handbook of Texas Online, Ralph W. Steen, "World War I," accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qdw01. Texas Historical Commission, “WWI Centennial: The War to End War,” accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.thc.texas.gov/preserve/projects-and-programs/military-history/world-war-i-centennial. The National Archives and Records Administration has digitized thousands of WWI images. To view the Texas-related collections, visit http://bit.ly/TXWWINARA