When he was growing up in Canada, historian and university Professor William McNeill remembers being taught in school that Britain, France, and Canada had won World War I, with the United States showing up at the end to take the credit. Everyone knows it was a bit more complex than that, but most people still know comparatively little about The Great War; serious scholarly study of it has been neglected for so many years. McNeill attributes this in part to the fact that the “War to End All Wars” induced an atmosphere of pacifism, both in this country and abroad. Any discussion that did take place was often simplistic. Thus, it was as if history had stopped in 1914.
On 26-27 August 1993, the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation and the U.S. Naval Institute convened a seminar about just this subject at the latter’s First Division Museum on the grounds of “Cantigny,” Colonel McCormick’s former estate in Wheaton, Illinois. The two-day conference— the first in a projected series of similar academic historical gatherings—served as a prelude to a reunion of 70 living veterans who had been invited to the estate to commemorate “The Last Campfire,” the 75th anniversary of the 1918 armistice ending the war.
McCormick, long-time publisher of The Chicago Tribune, had been a citizen- soldier in command of an artillery battalion in the U.S. Army’s First Division during the battle for Cantigny, France, in 1918. Upon his death in 1955, McCormick’s will specified that the assets of his estate be used to further the public good. Today, the foundation bearing his name carries out that mandate in a variety of ways. This series of conferences in collaboration with the Naval Institute will help fulfill the missions of both organizations, facilitating the advancement of knowledge on an array of military-oriented topics. This year, for instance, two cosponsored seminars will focus on the D-Day invasion of Normandy 50 years ago in 1944. The first will be a small, scholarly event in Cantigny in March and the second will be for the general public in April as part of the Naval Institute’s 120th Annual Meeting and Fourth Annapolis Seminar at the U.S. Naval Academy.
In the case of World War I, according to historian McNeill, one factor that contributed to the acknowledged void in its historiography was that World War II began only 20 years later. Hence, the history of the first war was often subsumed as part of a continuum that included the second. The trench warfare of 1914-18 had made the British reluctant to get bogged down again on the European continent one war later under the same conditions.
In its own right, though, World War I was one of the 20th century’s landmark events, McNeill explained. Governments focused their countries’ energies on the war to an unprecedented degree. Indeed, a major theme of the conference was the extent to which national management emerged to enable the various nations of the world to cope with the demands of a major conflict. This management control extended to national economies, allocation of material resources and manpower, and propaganda aimed at directing public opinion toward desired ends.
In a more specific vein, the University of Maryland’s Dr. Jon Sumida offered a refutation of a proposition by historian C. Northcote Parkinson, author of the oft-applied Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson wrote that the large growth in staff of the British Admiralty and employees at Royal Naval dockyards between 1914 and 1928 was out of all proportion to the number of capital ships in the fleet, thus suggesting that a large amount of unnecessary bureaucracy had been added in those years. Sumida looked at the facts behind that argument and suggested that, in fact, Parkinson had not taken into sufficient account the great demands that the support of World War 1 imposed. Rather than say the Royal Navy was overstaffed in 1928, it was instead understaffed—and ill-prepared—in 1914- As it geared up for the industrial and administrative demands of the war, it needed more and more people to see that requirements were spelled out adequately—and met.
Dr. David Trask, a specialist on the diplomatic and political aspects of the conflict, talked particularly about the reluctance of the United States to enter the war. In part it was a manifestation of traditional U.S. isolationism and a concern about the impact a war might have on the nation’s economy. Conventional wisdom has it that President Woodrow Wilson kept the nation out of war as long as he could but was finally provoked into combat by the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the infamous Zimmerman Telegram that indicated a German-Mexican plot.
In fact, argued Trask, President Wilson was greatly concerned about the potential shape of the postwar world. Efforts to seek a negotiated settlement failed, so Wilson eventually agreed to send Americans into battle to ensure that the United States would have sufficient clout to exert substantial influence in the peace-treaty negotiations. The rise of the U-boats provided Wilson the pretext he needed for war. Ironically, Wilson’s dream died, because the U.S. Senate would not ratify the peace treaty he had worked so hard to craft. The country was not ready to move to internationalism as rapidly as he.
Several speakers addressed the essential unreadiness of the United States to participate in a conflict on such a scale. Units were in many cases undertrained and poorly equipped. After the U.S. declaration of war in April 1917, more than a year passed before many units were able to make an effective contribution as combat forces—if then.
Other shortcomings were manifest in military aviation, which advanced in great strides during the period. In fact, it was developing too quickly for U.S. manufacturers to keep up. Rigid structures within the War Department did not permit the flexibility needed to adapt with the changing environment. Thus the European Allies were consistently ahead of the United States in state-of- the-art production during that fabric-and-wire era of airplane construction.
Just as McNeill spoke of the delays involved in producing serious scholarship on the war, other participants in the program dealt with gaps that still remain in the historiography. Berlin-born Purdue University Professor Gunther Rothenberg indicated that the role of Austria-Hungary is still largely neglected. The Western Front has received the lion’s share of attention, he said, to the detriment of studies in regard to fighting in the east. Little has been done on the role of the Romanians, Serbs, and Greeks in the war. The irony here, of course, is that the August 1914 assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo provoked building hostilities among the various nations to a climax. Sadly, 75 years after the end of the Great War, Sarajevo continues to be in the news because of ethnic battles in the former Yugoslavia.
Professor William Still of East Carolina University has engaged in the study of the U.S. Navy in World War I, but he still believes much more remains to be covered. He cited the need both for a multivolume study and a good one-volume history of the Navy’s role in the war. Many scholars are familiar, of course, with the 15-volume series that Professor and retired Navy Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison produced to cover the U.S. Navy’s operations in World War II, and it remains the standard work on the subject. But three-quarters of a century later, no comparable work yet covers the Navy’s role in the previous global conflict. Part of the reason is that many historians consider the Navy’s role to have been relatively minor in comparison with that of the Army. In fact, though, it was the Navy that got the Army across the Atlantic; it was the first time the Navy had really fought an overseas war. Professor Still concludes that the Navy was better prepared than most historians have recognized, although to an extent it was ready for the wrong war; it was still building on the lessons of the Spanish- American War.
Other scholars at Cantigny pointed out that histories of World War I have dealt largely with politico-military aspects and too little on the economic side, particularly on an international scale. For example, the U.S. provision of munitions to the Allied cause freed a portion of the British labor force to take up arms. Also, we frequently tend to look at weapon systems as they relate to combat usage and not so much the tie-in with the infrastructure that had to develop and produce them. There were obviously postwar economic implications as well, because of the need to accommodate the bills run up and the work forces depleted because of deaths on the European battlefields. One explanation for the dearth of such economic studies is that the individuals with training in the field tend to work as economists rather than as historians.
While a number of the scholars present for the conference talked in abstractions and at the high levels of statecraft and policymaking, Henry Berry, an oral historian, brought the discussion to a personal level. Some years back he put together a book titled Make the Kaiser Dance, a collection of memoirs he gathered from interviews with veterans of the war. He wove together their overseas experiences in France and the lessons they had learned earlier during General John Pershing’s 1916 expedition into Mexico in quest of rebel leader Pancho Villa. He told of the training, the living conditions, and the cold, cold winter of 1917-18 in France. And he mentioned the role of National Guard troops in supporting the combat effort. General Douglas MacArthur put together the Rainbow Division by blending guard units from different states.
Berry’s interviews also reflected the patriotism that motivated the participants in the war, the idea of taking part in a noble cause. And so it was that large numbers of college men took part, much in contrast to the situation in the Vietnam War, when young men sought college as a refuge to avoid the draft. In a way, World War I marked the end of innocence for the United States, which had until then been largely isolated from the rest of the world. On a personal level it was a watershed experience for thousands of young men who lived in a far, far different society than the one we know today. Americans were much less mobile in those days and knew nothing about the benefits of instant universal communication as we know from television and computers. Imagine the broadening experience of going from, say, a farm in Ohio to the streets of Paris.
A portion of the conference dealt with the question of the effectiveness of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in contributing to the overall war effort. In many instances, several months passed before U.S. soldiers could make a substantive contribution. Inadequate weaponry and supplies was part of the problem. For example, many of the U.S. soldiers wound up carrying British .30- 06 rifles, because they were more effective than their old standby, the 1903 model Springfield. Soldiers were in many cases not trained as well as they needed to be. One benefit from the experience was that relatively junior officers—notably, George Marshall—observed the condition of the AEF. When World War II approached a generation later, those same officers determined that the nation would be better prepared than it had been for World War I.
Despite its shortcomings in equipment and training, the U.S. force still performed comparably to foreign armies in World War I in terms of courage and staying power. Marines sent to France had difficulties getting into the fight because of interservice rivalries with the Army but fought magnificently in engagements such as the Battle of Belleau Wood, once given the opportunity.
Results were mixed in the area of aviation, in part because U.S. aeronautical development still lagged considerably behind that of the European countries. Professor I. B. Holley, who taught for many years at Duke University, observed that survival in the air depended on incremental improvements in aircraft performance. Changes were taking place month by month in Europe but not in this country. When the United States entered the war in 1917 it had no combat planes comparable in performance to those developed overseas, nor did it have a mechanism for translating operational requirements into design improvements or mass-producing combat airplanes. U.S. factories were enthusiastic in their efforts to produce planes but often not well organized. Worse, they were often turning out planes that were outmoded from the moment of completion, because designers were dealing with a moving target in terms of capabilities and requirements.
General Pershing at one point sent back a cable, directing the suspension of construction of Bristol bombers because they weren’t as capable as needed. The old horse soldier had not really adapted to the demands of a technologically evolving theater of war. Interestingly, the engine makers did better than the airframe manufacturers in adapting, because they had a base of experience developed out of producing engines for automobiles.
John Morrow of the University of Georgia talked about the romanticism associated with the air aspects of the war. Pilots such as Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the notorious “Red Baron,” became heroes because they were able to soar above the foot soldiers who were in the mud and trenches below. Because the pilots were above it all physically, they spawned a new type of aristocracy in warfare. Their exploits became the stuff of myth and legend. Skill and heroism were valuable commodities, but the quality of the aircraft and their weapons was what most often made a difference in who won or lost.
On the ground, observed John Votaw, director of the Cantigny Museum, the emergence of the machine gun had an important psychological effect, even though it was primarily a defensive weapon rather than an offensive one. Tanks also had a psychological impact, although no one recognized it as quickly. At first, tactics exploited only its armor and automatic weapons; the tank was essentially just a moving pillbox. Only later did its mobility enable it to be used as a means of intimidation against the foot soldier. Artillery was the biggest killer of tanks on the battlefield. Americans were slow in getting with the program on tanks and providing a flow of information from the front. One of the few officers involved in such efforts would be heard from later—George Patton.
In the cultural area, propaganda absorbed a good deal of the energy on both sides. The warring nations sought to ennoble their own war aims and methods while simultaneously denigrating those of their opponents. Intellectuals were mobilized in the effort to an unprecedented extent. One device was the demonization of the enemy, relying on themes that highlighted atrocities committed against innocent victims. In the United States, posters showed subhuman “Huns” killing and mutilating children. Hatred became institutionalized on a national level, and people did things that now seem silly in retrospect, such as avoiding Germanic names by renaming sauerkraut “victory cabbage” and turning hamburger into “Salisbury steak.” Other propaganda aimed at building and sustaining morale, both among those on the battlefield and those on the home front. Many works of art, literature, and music grew out of the Great War. People sought to memorialize—and at the same time to justify—the efforts of those who had died in a noble cause. And thus came about the sentimental poem about honoring those who lie buried in Flanders Field, “where the poppies grow.”
Some of the cultural legacy that survived came in the form of popular novels such as Ail Quiet on the Western Front and songs, such as the stirring “Over There.” Many of those images came alive at Cantigny last year with the gathering of the veterans and in the observations of the collected historians. Seventy-five years after the end of The Great War, it is indeed appropriate to reflect on what happened so many years ago, the scholarship that exists concerning those events, and the work that remains to be done.