Whitesburg KY

U.S. enters World War I



A documentary on World War I entitled “The Great War: American Experience” is scheduled to be shown in three parts on KET next Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (April 10-12) from 9 to 11 p.m. The three parts will be repeated on KET2 on Sunday nights, April 16, April 23, and April 30 from 9 to 11 p.m.


One hundred years ago, come April 6, America entered World War I. Congress created the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission in 2013 to honor the 4.7 million Americans who served during the war. The Commission’s activities began last month. The Commission’s website is www.worldwar1centennial.org where you may be able to post a story about the service of your World War I veteran ancestor, sign up for the dispatch newsletter to receive weekly updates on current events and history of WWI, and read of other ways that you can participate in the World War I Centennial.

Following is a brief history of World War I.

Tensions that had existed between the countries of Europe came to a breaking point on June 28, 1914, when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Consequently Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia one month later. Because political ties and treaties required other countries to assist in war efforts, a multi-country war broke out. The powers on one side of the conflict were Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany, and Ottoman Empire (now Turkey). This alliance became known as The Central Powers. The opposing powers were Belgium, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Montenegro, Portugal, Romania, Russia, and Serbia. This alliance became known as The Allied Powers. The United States declared neutrality. News of the horrors of trench warfare confirmed in the mind of the American public that their position of neutrality was the right one.

A frequently used method of fighting in the American Civil War was for the opposing sides to dig trenches and erect barricades along parallel lines. At some point one side would be ordered to attack the other. During such an attack, soldiers scrambled over their barricades and charged shoulder-to-shoulder across open fields toward the opposing forces with the expectation that their vast numbers would overpower the enemy.

Military tactics had changed little in the sixty years between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of war in Europe. The military tactics of World War One included scrambling from trenches and charging the enemy. However, military equipment had change considerably. The tank, the airplane, and the aircraft carrier were all used for the first time during WWI. Perhaps the two most devastating of all weapons were the rapid firing machine gun which could mow down the charging enemy and the gas warfare which could kill even those protected in trenches and bunkers.

Germany became involved in the war on two fronts. On the Western Front, Germany’s aggressive military strategy at the start of WWI was to invade France with overwhelming forces and firepower, quickly overpowering the opposing forces for a quick victory. Germany invaded across Belgium into France where they were stopped by the combined British and French armies. The Western Front then settled into bloody trench warfare—a three year long stalemate.

On the Eastern Front, Russia, the initial aggressor, invaded across East Prussia and German Poland toward Germany, but were stopped by the combined German and Austria- Hungarian armies. This assault by the Red Army forced German to move troops from the Western Front to the Eastern Front. The need to move forces to stop the approaching Russians may have cost the Germans their goal of a victory in France.

The fight on the Eastern Front also settled into a blood bath for the next couple of years. The Russians attempted to break through the German lines but were repelled each time. These military failures and the loss of Russian lives created discontent back home in Russia. This discontent led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 that put Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power. One of Lenin’s first acts was to withdraw from the fighting and sign an armistice with The Central Powers. This freed the German troops that had been fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front to face the Allied Forces on the Western Front.

In the meantime, the United States, which had declared neutrality in the warfare, was, nevertheless, shipping supplies to Great Britain. In an effort to reduce the supplies reaching its enemy, Germany used its U-boat submarines to sink any ship approaching Great Britain. Military ships, merchant ships, the ship’s country of origin—none of that made any difference to Germany. Germany sank as many ships as they could. Many of the ships that Germany sank were American merchant ships manned by American crews.

Germany’s constant threat to American shipping and the frequent sinking of American ships steadily eroded the American public’s position of neutrality. The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania and the killing of 1198 of the people on board shifted the American public opinion from that of neutrality to that of opposing Germany.

In February, 1917, Congress appropriated money for America to get prepared for war. In March, 1917, Germany sank four more American merchant ships. On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.

It took time to build the war machine needed to participate successfully in World War I. The Selective Service Act was passed on May 19, 1917. Soldiers need to be trained. Weapons needed to be made. Ships, tanks, and airplanes needed to be built. And gas masks needed to be manufactured.

The first American Doughboys landed in France on June 26, 1917. As the number of American military personnel steadily increased in France, they performed mostly support roles for the Allied Powers. The US troops’ first significant engagement in trench warfare occurred on November 3, 1917, just in time to confront the German troops who were arriving from the former Eastern Front.

With the influx of American troops and American military equipment, the Allied Powers began to slowly push back the forces of the Central Powers. After another year of fighting, the armistice to end World War 1 was signed on November 11, 1918.

Of the 2,171,560 Americans who served in Europe, 1.39 million saw active service on the front. U.S. casualties were as follows: 116,708 total in theatre deaths and 204,002 wounded. Of the 58,000 gas casualties, 2,000 were fatal. (Data source: Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine, April, 2017, issue, page 20.) At least 21 Letcher Countians were killed in WWI.

Following are the military casualties of other counties in World War I. (Data source: www. cnn.com/ 2013/ 07/ 09/ world/world-war-i-fastfacts/)

Austria-Hungary: 1,200,000 dead; 3,620,000 wounded.

Belgium: 13,716 dead; 44,686 wounded.

Bulgaria: 87,500 dead; 152,390 wounded.

France: 1,357,800 dead; 4,266,000 wounded.

Germany: 1,773,000 dead; 4,216,058 wounded.

Great Britain: 908,371 dead; 2,090,212 wounded.

Greece: 5,000 dead; 21,000 wounded.

Italy: 650,000 dead; 947,000 wounded

Ottoman Empire (Turkey): 325,000 dead; 400,000 wounded.

Portugal: 7,222 dead; 13,800 wounded.

Romania: 335,706 dead; 120,000 wounded.

Serbia & Montenegro: 48,000 dead; 143,148 wounded.

Russia: 1,700,000 dead; 4,950,000 wounded.

The four and one half years of war left behind unprecedented carnage. Based on the above data, the Central Powers suffered 2,098,000 deaths and 4,616,058 wounded. The Allied Powers suffered 5,012,099 deaths and 12,551,160 wounded. All totaled, more than 7 million deaths and over 17 million people wounded had occurred. Compare the total casualties of World War I (more than 24 million) with the 2016 combined population ( less than 25 million) of these six states: West Virginia (population: 1,852,994), Kentucky (4,339,367), Tennessee (6,346,105), Indiana (6,483,802), Arkansas (2,915,918), and Mississippi (2,967,297). The enormous number of causalities of World War I is comparable to the killing or wounding of every citizen in these six states.


Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine, April, 2017, issue http:// www.historylearningsite.co.uk/worldwarone  / www.cnn.com/2013/07/09/world/ world-war-i-fast-facts/ http:// www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/ world-war-i-history suburbanstats.org/ population/ howmanypeople- live- in- (name of state)

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