The Angry Staff Officer

” Look! Here are the Americans!” The U.S. in World War I and Popular Memory

One hundred years ago this week, the United States entered World War I.

“Too late to make a difference!” say some, often British or Commonwealth.

“Should never have joined it at all,” say others, usually non-interventionist Americans.

“World war what?” say many, usually all other Americans.

“Thank you,” say a great many, almost always French.

No matter which way you look at it, the Great War is a contentious topic. The Germans don’t even want to talk about it at all, because why would they? They lost millions killed and wounded and – in some people’s eyes – were never entirely defeated, but yet lost the war. Oh, and yes, there is that little problem of World War I leading directly to World War II. It’s no wonder that the the Germans aren’t enthusiastic about the centennial.

The British, of course, are all over the centennial. Their activities on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme would have made a stone sculpture begin to weep. The French – in their quiet yet noble way – are also commemorating the centennial.

But for them it is far more personal, an almost dangerous remembrance. After all, although the British lost a shockingly large number of men, it was not their land that was occupied for four years and it is not their country that bears the visible wounds of war 100 years on. And the French have Verdun. Verdun, which lasted for a mind-breaking 303 days – with about 2,500 casualties per day. Verdun, where the French said “They shall not pass” and regained the spirit of the nation. Verdun, where American troops in 1918 would attack over the scraps of faded blue uniforms, shattered rifles, and shards of bones that were remnants of the horror of 1916.

It is difficult to explain how the Great War sits in the French memory. Perhaps it can best be described through a personal anecdote. Last year I was in France with some other Army personnel, filming a World War I documentary. We were out in the rolling and beautiful farm fields that had once been shattered by four years of shell fire. Naturally, our little convoy of vans drew no small amount of attention from the local farmers who stopped by to see what was going on. Upon seeing a fellow officer and I in uniform, with the U.S. flag on our shoulders, they immediately became very excited and started talking extremely quickly. Now, neither I nor he are particularly good French speakers, even at normal speeds, so we appealed to our translator for assistance. “They’re thanking you,” he explained. “For World War I. And World War II.”

And there it was.

In the U.S., we look at the World Wars as bookends to a saga of “we had to go over and sort out Europe.” As the French realize,  we didn’t have to go “over there.” And we almost didn’t. Anti-intervention sentiment in the United States was incredibly strong during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson ran on the platform of “he kept us out of the war” in the election of 1916. A year later he asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany to “make the word safe for democracy.” Being remembered as the wartime president, then, carried its own share of irony for Wilson.

No, we didn’t have to intervene. And is it better or worse that we did? Would the belligerents have eventually bled each other to a truce had we stayed on our side of the pond? Would the Germans have been able to marshal enough energy to finally break over the Marne River and take Paris? Simply put, we don’t know – because it never happened.

What did happen was that on June 27, 1917, the first khaki-clad U.S. regulars landed near St. Nazaire, France, in secret. And that on July 4, 1917, a battalion of the 16th U.S. Infantry marched through Paris, proudly announcing “Lafayette, we are here,” as the United States paid its 139 year-old debt to France for their assistance in the American Revolution. It was just a start. Within a year of entering the war, the U.S. had placed nearly two million men and women in uniform and hundreds of thousands were either in Europe or on their way. By war’s end, Europe was overflowing with “Sammies” – the name that the French gave to U.S. troops, because they came from the land of Uncle Sam. They were everywhere: France, Belgium, Italy, England, Germany – even Russia.

While it is possible that the Entente – England, France, and Italy – could have held off the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Turks in 1918, we will never know what would have happened. Because U.S. troops firmed up the lines in the spring of 1918 and pushed into the attack, mounting offensives from July to November. Just as the United States would have been hard-put to win independence without French help, it is equally improbably that an armistice would have been possible in 1918 without the over 5,000 Doughboys that were killed in action during each month of combat operations that year.

‘The Edge.” Illustration by C. Leroy Baldridge, an American painter who accompanied U.S. troops in France. His work “I was there: with the Yanks in France” can be found here.

The United States’ entrance into the war should be marked as a watershed moment in history for that very reason: that our entrance brought an end to the bloodletting. Each of the belligerent nations can see this event in different lights, but that was the end result.

Perhaps the entrance of America into the war is best described in the words of a contemporary British nurse serving in France, Vera Brittain:

“Only a day or two afterwards I was leaving quarters to go back to my ward, when I had to wait to let a large contingent of troops march past me along the main road that ran through our camp.  They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigour in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest.

They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the under-sized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed.  At first I thought their spruce, clean uniforms were those of officers, yet obviously they could not be officers, for there were too many of them; they seemed, as it were, Tommies in heaven.  Had yet another regiment been conjured from our depleted Dominions?  I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect.  But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent.

Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of Sisters behind me.

‘Look! Look!  Here are the Americans.!’

I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so God-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army.  So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!  There seemed to be hundreds of them, and in the fearless swagger of their proud strength they looked a formidable bulwark against the peril looming from Amiens.

…An uncontrollable emotion seized me – as such emotions often seized us in those days of insufficient sleep; my eyeballs pricked, my throat ached, and a mist swam over the confident Americans going to the front.  The coming of relief made me realise all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.”

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.