The first part of the 20th Century was a time of creativity, adventure, and invention. It saw the birth of manned flight, exploration of remote parts of the world, and industrial advances that would propel the United States into becoming a power house of military might in the world.
It also saw the beginning of a European conflict that would linger for nearly four decades. It was inconceivable in 1918, that 20 years later, the “War To End All Wars”, would soon be overshadowed by another, more devastating war. Of the 4 years that World War 1 raged (1914-1918), the US was only involved for 1 1/2 of those years. It was a short conflict as far as the American’s were concerned, almost just a skirmish. The memories of the “Great War” were erased when World War 2 broke out in 1941, which consumed the entire nation for four long years.
This is an abbreviated history of the events that brought the United States into World War 1.
In 1914, a major European conflict erupted when tensions between a secret nationalist Serbian society, The Black Hand, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were murdered while riding in their carriage in Sarajevo, Serbia, on June 28th 1914.
The reaction to the assassination was an ultimatum from Austria-Hungary, “that the assassins be brought to justice“. That demand was rejected by Serbia, a decision which ultimately resulted in a Declaration of War from Austria-Hungary on Serbia.
Allies to Serbia soon joined the conflict. Russia, France, Britain, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and Japan, joined in union with Serbia. Germany and Italy were allied to Austria-Hungary by treaty, and quickly joined their side.
Almost a year into the war, on May 1, 1915, the RMS Lusitania, an English passenger liner, left New York City, bound for Liverpool. Unknown to the passengers, it was carrying munitions and contraband destined for the British war effort.
The Lusitania was the fastest ship afloat. Having engines that produced sixty eight thousand horsepower, it could travel at a top speed of 25 knots. It claimed that it could outrun any U-boat.
Known as the “Greyhound of the Seas”, it set the record in its day for the fastest Atlantic crossing.
On May 7th, 1915, the ocean liner was approaching the coast of Ireland, and at 2:10 in the afternoon, German U-boat 88 was waiting for the giant ship. It fired a torpedo at the ocean liner, which hit it just forward of the engine rooms.
Several minutes later, a second powerful explosion occurred in the cargo hold, which was at first believed to be a second torpedo. Some experts believe that the second blast was the contraband exploding from the fires burning on the ship.
There were 1,924 passengers and crew on board. Of those nearly two thousand passengers, 1,119 people died, including 114 Americans. Some of the more notable passengers who lost their lives that day were Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt , millionaire and son of Cornelius Vanderbilt (pictured at left), writer Justus M. Foreman, and artist and philosopher Elbert Green Hubbard. There were only 805 survivors.
Following the sinking of The Lusitania in 1915, the public outcry was enormous. The American people were calling for a declaration of war against Germany, but President Woodrow Wilson was determined to remain neutral in the conflict.
The United States was not prepared for war when it broke out in 1914. The US military was ranked only 12th in size among the industrialized nations, behind Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. In June of 1914, America’s standing army was only 200,000 men. President Wilson needed time.
Russia had an army of nearly 6 million. Germany’s soldiers in uniform numbered 4 1/2 million. The US had little time to get prepared for the inevitable. President Wilson knew he would soon be forced into a war he had tried so hard to avoid. Even with the unrestricted German submarine attacks on the merchant marine ships and passenger liners, Wilson stood fast declaring the US’s neutrality. This position had to be held until he was able to adequately supply the US Armies, and our Allies, with the munitions and equipment necessary to fight and win a war overseas.
German attacks on American shipping continued until in the spring of 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson had enough of the merciless submarine attacks on the merchant marines. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson felt that he had amassed enough equipment and supplies, where he was able to address the congress of the United States, calling for a “Declaration of War with Germany”.
On April 6, 1917, the Congress of the United States passed the resolution to “Declare War on Imperial Germany”.
News arrived on August 11, 1918, about the fate of ship and crew of German U-Boat 88, the ship that sank the Lusitania three years earlier. German authorities confirmed that it had been blown up in a British mine field in September, the previous year. The sinking killed all aboard, including the Captain, Lieutenant Commander Schweiger. As reported in the NY Times article that broke the news, “There is a certain plausibility of poetic justice in his end, but if he had been human and not a German machine, he should have lived until he made away with himself; or, his mind broken with intolerable remembrances, he should have passed long years in a madhouse.”
There was not a lot of sympathy for Captain Schweiger following his death. He was considered a murderer, and thought to be sub-human. Most of the German military were portrayed as evil and inhumane in many publications.That sentiment was widely held in America throughout the war, as in this cartoon, depicting a Victory Parade with the Kaiser being towed behind a bus of Belgian survivors, hung by his feet with a large Iron Cross tied around his neck.
The US Army had been shipping US soldiers to France for months prior to U-boat 88’s sinking. Many US soldiers had been killed by the time the news was published. The public, who vilified this man, welcomed the news of his death in the summer of 1918 as the reports of battles, allied victories, and US casualties kept coming in.
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