Now It Is 100 Years

By the end of the first week of November 1918, rumors had been making the rounds among the American troops for weeks that the German leadership was negotiating with the Allies. However, nothing official had yet come down from on high. The German soldiers actually opposing them, while increasingly ragged, were still fighting, often with all of their deadly old skill – and killing Americans.

The mid-November planned offensive northeast towards Sedan-Metz would jump off as scheduled until someone – meaning, President Woodrow Wilson – ordered otherwise. Always thinking and planning ahead, General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), believed that, in the spring, his army, which was growing in size daily and was by now nearly 2 million strong, would be carrying the major offensive load in the final push into Germany. After the horrendous casualties of the previous four years, the French to their left in the Allied line, and the British beyond them up to the English Channel, had few new men to call upon. Pershing and his officers were sure once they invaded Germany itself, the Allies would win the war in 1919.

Suddenly the most urgent of cables appeared at Pershing’s headquarters. An armistice had been agreed with the Germans and all hostilities would cease at 11am on the 11th. The Great War was ending.

We know that war now mostly by another name: World War I.

[At the Battle of Verdun Memorial, 1996. Photo by me.]

The scale of the French military cemetery outside Verdun, in eastern France, cannot but leave anyone who visits it utterly speechless and overwhelmed. Been there, done that: I have no desire ever to see it again. I recall tears running down my face much of the time…

[At the Battle of Verdun Memorial, 1996. Photo by me.]

Near Verdun, in February 1916 the Germans launched a massive offensive aiming hopefully to break the French line, or at minimum destroy France’s will to fight by killing as many French soldiers as possible. The French held on for months. “They shall not pass” became the cry as the French fought to stop the Germans – and finally did…

[At the Battle of Verdun Memorial, 1996. Photo by me.]

…and, somehow, the French counterattacked for more months. It ended in December as the biggest single slaughter of the war.

[At the Battle of Verdun Memorial, 1996. Photo by me.]

Some 163,000 French were killed in just that one battle. 163,000.

And 146,000 Germans.

[At the Battle of Verdun Memorial, 1996. Photo by me.]

There are no words.

[At the Battle of Verdun Memorial, 1996. Photo by me.]

It defies our normal comprehension.

[At the Battle of Verdun Memorial, 1996. Photo by me.]

And yet 1916 Verdun was just one of many mass horrors of the war. My wife’s 28 year old great-great uncle died in the mud during a British debacle offensive (Third Ypres) in Belgium in October 1917: his body was never found. Millions of Europeans have similar terrible tales in their families. A good part of a generation of young British, French, German, and other European, women never married: that many young men had been killed between 1914-1918.

When US troops began arriving in 1917 to fight on the side of France and Britain, the three allies decided the American troops would take up the eastern part of the Allied line. Their zone encompassed the Verdun area the French had desperately held in 1916. The US army fought in large-scale battle from only about May 1918 until the armistice on November 11, but in just that short time – about six months – suffered 116,000 deaths.

It was America’s first major European involvement. Since then, for better or for worse, the country has been on the world stage in a way the likes of America’s foremost founder, George Washington, never imagined it would be. In Democratic President Woodrow Wilson‘s (in office, 1913-21) September 25, 1919 speech in Pueblo, Colorado – he would collapse hours after this speech, and suffered a stroke October 2 – reproduced in part here in Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him (1921), a book written by his private secretary (today, he’d be called the White House Chief of Staff), Joseph Tumulty, the President told the crowd:

[From Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him (1921), by Joseph Tumulty. “Memorial Day” – every May – was then known as “Decoration Day.”]

After its publication, however, Wilson was infuriated by Tumulty’s “tell all” and fell out with him over it. Wilson was, even when living, hard to know. And as we look back on his presidency – and particularly now from our early 21st century – some of his wartime domestic policies are controversial and even condemned.

But in 1918 and 1919, Wilson was the most popular and respected leader in the world. After he arrived in Europe on the USS George Washington (yes, seriously) for the Paris peace conference, he was mobbed by massive, adoring crowds everywhere he went. Based mostly on his “Fourteen Points” for peace that he had put forward early in 1918, virtually overnight he became for ruined millions a symbol of a better tomorrow and was believed to be the one major leader who sympathized with and would stand up for the aspirations of long-oppressed peoples emerging from the wreckages of defeated empires.

It was an unlikely role for Wilson, to say the least: born in the pre-Civil War South (the first southerner elected president since before the Civil War) of a secessionist family (he could recall in childhood once standing next to Robert E. Lee), Princeton academic, and briefly governor of New Jersey. Early in his presidency he allowed the segregation of black employees from white in Federal government buildings (if they work apart, he told one critic, there will be less racial friction), was late in backing women’s suffrage (in his 1916 re-election, he was the last US president chosen by a mostly male electorate), and presided over an at times disturbingly authoritarian domestic wartime security apparatus. He was by temperament perhaps a “progressive conservative” (future president Franklin Roosevelt was in his cabinet, traveled to Europe with him, and greatly admired him), but not someone most would have considered a “world changer.”

Yet in Paris leaders and would be leaders from new countries and would be countries Americans had never before heard of now believed if they could only sit down and speak with President Wilson, that their dreams could be realized. It was when he was actually here in Europe that – as that part of that speech shows – the awesome magnitude of what was expected of him now as US president, and of the United States of America generally, evidently began really to hit him. His presidency during 1918-1919 was nothing at all like that of his first year, 1913-1914.

[From Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him (1921), by Joseph Tumulty.]

It is little surprise he had a stroke. Never the healthiest of men, he pushed himself like never before. As if seized by the zeal of a convert to a new faith, after he returned to the US in mid-1919 he undertook a barnstorming tour of the country, giving speeches much like that one hoping to rally Americans’ public support for joining the League of Nations, an international organization – largely his idea – to have countries sit down and talk about their differences… rather than shoot each other’s young men in the millions. However, much of the US Senate and many ordinary Americans were skeptical, fearing joining would mean America would be drawn into future wars – often pointing to George Washington’s warning in 1796 about avoiding entangling alliances. In the end, the Senate refused to ratify that “Treaty of Versailles,” which included US membership in the League.

[From Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him (1921), by Joseph Tumulty.]

Not joining the treaty signed by Britain and France and others, the US went its own way and negotiated individual “smaller” treaties with Germany and other former enemy states declaring US hostilities over. The League came into existence and would be located in neutral Switzerland. In the failure of the US to join the League, Wilson foresaw another war; and, sadly, there would be one: World War II. (The League was basically the forerunner and blueprint for the United Nations that would be created after World War II.)

It is hard not to wonder: if the US had joined the League of Nations, might World War II have been avoided?

Everyone who fought in World War I and survived has by now, insofar as I know, been claimed by the natural passage of time. So have most everyone who actually remembers that time. Thus the war is now fully “history.”

At 11am tomorrow, Great Britain, France, and much of Europe will fall silent in remembrance…

I’ve set my phone alarm for just before 11am on Sunday. We should just take that moment at least and remember. Likely none of us will be here a century from now.

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