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Exhibition Echoes of the Great War: American Experiences of World War I

Over There

George M. Cohan's popular song "Over There" accompanied Americans overseas as they joined the bloody battle that had stalemated in Western Europe for almost three years. Moving such a large army, eventually totaling two million soldiers, across an ocean was a feat not seen before, and its accomplishment emphasized that industrialized countries had the capacity to fight massive wars across the globe. In comparison to nations engaged in three years of grueling warfare, the United States faced combat mostly during the war's last six months.

However, Americans encountered unprecedented challenges fighting as part of a coalition in a new kind of war. The Great War was the world's first large-scale military struggle fought among highly industrialized countries. The mass production capabilities of the belligerents, their networks of railroads, and new rapid-firing weapons contributed to the deadlock on the European front lines. Both sides dug into miles and miles of trenches from which neither could dislodge the other. Other new technologies such as airplanes, tanks, and poison gas were widely used in an attempt to end the standoff, but no miracle weapon could break the stalemate and end the war.

Although the struggle in the trenches was brief for Americans, it was intense. After an introduction to battle at places such as Belleau Wood and St. Mihiel in France, the United States fought the deadliest battle in its history—a seven-week offensive along the Meuse River and into the Argonne Forest on the war's Western Front. Medical advances and care for the wounded provided by organizations like the Red Cross kept many alive who might have died in earlier wars. Americans made important contributions to the Allied victory but at considerable cost.

War Over Seas
Industrialized Warfare
Belleau Wood
St. Mihiel
Meuse-Argonne
Saving Lives
Armistice

War Over Seas

With most of the German navy bottled up in the North Sea by the British fleet, the United States never engaged in any major naval battles with the Central Powers. However, the U.S. Navy played a vital role in the extraordinary movement of a massive army across an ocean. By the end of the war, the Allies had shipped two million American military personnel to Europe. Because of the comparatively small size of the U.S. merchant marine fleet, a majority of these Americans were transported by British ships or ships confiscated from the Central Powers. The Navy escorted these troop and supply convoys while under constant threat of German submarine attacks. This successful sealift operation allowed the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), commanded by General John J. Pershing, to become the largest U.S. force deployed overseas to that point.

A Howitzer

U.S. Signal Corps. American 155 mm Artillery Cooperating with the 29th Div. in Position on Road Just Taken from the Germans. Bat[tery] A 324th Artillery, 158[th] Brig[ade] in France. Photograph. National Photo Company Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (118.00.00)

Industrialized Warfare

World War I was unlike any that had preceded it. At the war's outbreak, Europeans had expected the conflict to be short. However, combat soon bogged down into a stalemate. On the western front, both sides dug complex trench networks that stretched for hundreds of miles across Belgian Flanders and northern France. Industry mass-produced artillery, machine guns, and ammunition at extraordinary rates while railroads carried a continuous flow of munitions and soldiers to the front. At the same time, the combatants pursued technological means to break the stalemate. The results—tanks, poison gas, and the military use of airplanes—were too new to have dramatic effects on the outcome of the Great War, but they would transform future warfare.

U-boat Attacks

Carl Flemming. Die Schiffsversenkungen unserer U-Boote. . . . ["Ships Sunk by our U-boats"]. Berlin und Glogau: Carl Flemming AG, ca. 1918. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (108.00.00)

Belleau Wood

The time needed to train and organize the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) meant that American troops did not engage in extensive combat until spring 1918. That spring, German troops had left their trenches and launched a series of major offensives trying to win the war before the Americans arrived in even greater numbers. In early June, the fight for Belleau Wood, a boulder-strewn forest close to Paris, was one of the AEF's early battles. There, the U.S. 2nd Division, a combination of Army and Marine Corps units, helped the French repel a German offensive and then retook Belleau Wood in a ferocious battle that lasted twenty days. For the Marines, who faced the heaviest fighting, June 6, the first day of their assault was the bloodiest day in the Corps' history up to that point, leaving 222 dead. Belleau Wood took on special meaning for Marines as a demonstration of the Corps' bravery and tenacity.

Hard Fought Victory

"German machine gunners retreating, Belleau Woods," June 1918. Photograph. Joel T. Boone Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (135.00.00)

St. Mihiel

By summer 1918, the Allies had repelled the last of the German offensives on the western front and had gone on the counterattack. General Pershing had also achieved his goal of building up a substantial American army of more than 500,000 under his direct command and at the ready to conduct a major offensive against the Germans. On September 12, U.S. forces with the assistance of 100,000 French soldiers, attacked the Germans where the front lines bulged into Allied-held territory around the French town of St. Mihiel. This was the first taste of combat for many American soldiers. The five-day battle succeeded in pushing the Germans out of the St. Mihiel pocket. The quick success came, in part, because the Germans had already begun withdrawing forces from the area before the attack began in order to improve their defensive position.

St. Mihiel Offensive

The St. Mihiel Offensive. Photocopied map with annotations, 1918. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (137.00.00)

Meuse-Argonne

At dawn on September 26, 1918, General Pershing's troops launched an attack along the Meuse River and into northern France's rugged Argonne Forest that would prove to be the deadliest battle in American history. While British forces attacked the German lines to the far north in Belgium, more than 600,000 American and French troops supported by almost 5,000 artillery pieces, 500 tanks, and 500 airplanes slowly forced their way through strong German defenses. During the nearly seven weeks of combat, the Allied forces made significant advances against the exhausted Germans, breaking the stalemate in the trenches and nearly pushing the Germans out of France. The battle lasted until the end of the war, and 26,277 Americans died in this final fight, the highest American death toll for any single battle in U.S. history, not surpassed even by the fierce battles of the Civil War or World War II.

Official War Pictures

William E. Moore and James Russell. U.S. Official Pictures of World War Showing America's Participation. Washington, D.C.: Pictorial Bureau, 1920. General Collections, Library of Congress (146.00.00)

Saving Lives

For World War I, Americans mobilized a medical and public health effort unprecedented in its scale and scope. With only a small medical corps in the standing armed forces, the American Red Cross played a critical role in providing medical care to wounded and sick service members. Thousands of Americans, women and men, volunteered for the Red Cross, many of them staffing dozens of hospitals in Europe. In addition to treating those wounded by war, the medical services struggled to fight the worldwide influenza epidemic that broke out in 1918. The flu killed more than 30 million people around the world, including 675,000 Americans, more than were killed in the fighting of the Great War.

Influenza Pandemic

Lewis W. Hine for the American Red Cross. American Red Cross Nurse at the Railroad Station at St. Etienne [France], Helping Wounded Soldiers on to the Tram Cars which are Being Used as Ambulances, July 1918. Photograph. American National Red Cross Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (155.00.00)

Armistice

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice negotiated between Germany and the Allies ended the major fighting of World War I. The Meuse-Argonne offensive had given the Allies an important victory, but Germany itself had not been invaded and a large German army remained in the field. However, its allies Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria had already abandoned the fight; the Allied blockade increasingly threatened the food supply and economy of Germany; and the prospect of millions more American soldiers flowing across the Atlantic convinced German leaders that their situation would only worsen. Worldwide, the fighting killed about ten million soldiers and wounded approximately twenty million more. Included in these numbers were more than 100,000 dead and 200,000 wounded Americans. Millions of civilians also died directly or indirectly from the conflict, many by starvation and disease. The war had taken a catastrophic human toll.

Armistice

Woodrow Wilson about the armistice, November 11, 1918 [White House Stationery]. Woodrow Wilson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (163.00.00)

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