Podcast # 61: WWI Part 1

World War I or as it was called at the time, The Great War, changed the world as people knew it. By the end of the war, many of the great empires had fallen. Russian Empire, Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire.

Kaiser Wilhelm II told soldiers departing for the war, “You will be home before the leaves fall off the trees”. He couldn’t have been more wrong but he wasn’t alone in his thinking. Most of the great powers involved in the war didn’t anticipate the war to last very long.

Western Front (fighting mostly taking place in France, Belgium and Italy, Eastern Front (fighting in Russia and in the Balkans & in the Middle East and parts of Africa.

30 countries in 6 continents were involved in the conflict.

Today we are joined by Laura from the National WWI Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

Just to some up those Causes of the 1st World War again:

  • System of Secret Alliances
  • Militarism
  • Nationalism
  • Economic Imperialism
  • The Media

In many ways, it seemed as if the world was poised for war to begin. You will often hear historians say that Europe in 1914 was a powder keg. But, there must be a spark that ignites the conflict. In the case of WWI, that spark happens in Sarajevo.

The spark to the war was the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, Sophie. They were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrillo Princip on June 28, 1914. He was a member of a secret Serbian society known as The Black Hand. Serbia had hoped for independence. Germany and Austria-Hungary were allies. Russia was an ally of the Serbs. Each country’s allies were quickly brought into the conflict. In the early 1900s, Great Britain entered what was known as the Triple Entente – an agreement among France, Russia and G.B.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was the son of Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Princess Victoria who married the German Emperor. He ascended to the throne at the age of 29. Militarism – the building up of arms – Kaiser Wilhelm II hoped to create a military stronger than Britain’s. Keep in mind, the majority of monarchs in Europe are related. Many of them are cousins. Queen Victoria married off her children well. She is often referred to as the Grandmother of Europe.

Let’s just take a minute and discuss who is involved in this war.

On one side of the war you have the Central Powers:

German Empire, Austrian Hungarian Empire, The Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

The Allies or Entente Powers was coalition of countries led by France, Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and the United States when we enter in 1917.

When war broke out in 1914, President Wilson pushed for neutrality “citizens should be impartial in thought as well as action” This is easier said than done. As we discussed in our Wilson podcast, you have a number of different hyphenated Americans. The US is a nation of immigrants. Many recent arrivals. You have Millions of German and Italian–Americans who some among their number supported the Central Powers. You have Irish Americans who some among that group have a deep distrust and even hatred towards Great Britain.

We may have been neutral in name, but economically, we have strong ties with the Allied Powers. Trade with those countries increased from the Millions to Billions. With Europe plunged into war, American made goods and food were greatly needed. The US also gave loans. So there is a lot invested in this war. The US gave loans to the Central Powers as well… but much less.

You mentioned the Luisitania. We talked about the economic factor that pulls the US into the conflict but there are two political events which make our involvement more and more likely.

At the start of the war, Great Britain initiated a blockade of Germany to prevent trade and getting needed supplies. Germany considered the blockade illegal and in turn declared the waters surrounding Great Britain to be a war zone. The lack of critical supplies called for desperate measures and Germany practiced unrestricted submarine warfare. Ads were placed in American newspapers warning US Citizens of the dangers of travelling on vessels flying flags of nations Germany was at war with.

In May of 1915, a British steamship called the Luisitania was torpedoed by a German U Boat. The ship had about 2,000 people on board including Americans. While the British claimed it was a passenger liner, the Luisitania was carrying war goods as well as people. Almost 1200 people were killed including 128 American citizens. While some clamored for War, the US remained neutral.

The second event I want to mention is of course the Zimmerman note.

The Zimmerman Note or telegram was intercepted by the British. The German foreign secretary Zimmerman sent a telegram to Germany’s Ambassador in Mexico. It proposed an Alliance between Germany and Mexico. Mexico should take arms against the US and that Germany would help them regain lost territory.

This coupled with Germany’s continuation of unrestricted submarine warfare, no longer made it possible for the United States to remain neutral. Wilson asked Congress for a Declaration of War in April of 1917, stating that the world must be made safe for democracy. Again as you mentioned earlier, that argument could be hotly debated in 1917 and at this very moment.

In terms of fighting, WWI was a very different type of war.

Different type of warfare – very much a modern war with destructive weapons. Chemical or poison gas was being used as a weapon. The Germans used Chlorine Gas which attacked the lung tissues and could lead to death. There were Chemical Warfare units and schools to train soldiers in how to use this new technology as a weapon to kill. There weren’t gas masks readily available for soldiers to protect themselves. In addition to Chlorine gas, green gas and mustard gas was also used during the war. Germany wasn’t the only country to utilize poison gas against their enemies. The Allied powers used it as well.

The use of Zeppelins - these were airships – the technology for airships had been around for a while, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s when the technology and prototypes had been perfected by a German Count, Ferdinand von Zeppelin – who had been sent to the US years earlier during the Civil War to report back on military strategy and weaponry and was taken on a hot air balloon flight. During WWI, zeppelins were used not only for reconnaissance, but also for bombing. The Zeppelins were limited in the amount of bombs that they could hold, but this is the first time that we are seeing bombs being dropped on cities from the air. Advances in technology and the airplane will make this a game changer during WWII.

WWI was a different type of war due to the use of Trench warfare.

Trench Warfare while not new, you have the Ancient Roman armies using entrenchment, you have trenches being used in a number of wars in the 1700s and 1800s. Trenches were dug to protect soldiers fighting on the frontlines.

lines of trenches were connected to each other and together created an intricate network of trenches that allowed for protection but to also bring in needed supplies. Trenches contained command posts, supply storage, first-aid stations, kitchens, and latrines.

In an attempt to break the stalemate and advance, European armies attempted all sorts of things to try to protect themselves as they crossed no mans land. High bulky armor to stop bullets iron netting (think medieval armor)… nothing worked. Guns were more precise and the weapons of war more deadly.

I do want to talk about Life in the trenches a bit.

The smell, piles of dead bodies, human waste – latrines are located in the trenches, rats, lice.

Some soldiers got what was known as Trench foot – caused standing with wet boots on for hours and days on end. Soldiers didn’t have extra boots or socks. It can cause numbness and can lead to amputation if not addressed.

European countries have been waging war for years by the time the US gets involved.

April 6, 1917 Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed – narrowly I might add. This was not a popular act.

– this is the first mass conscription. Every eligible man at first between the ages of 21-30 but then was extended to include men between the ages of 18-45 had to register for the draft. Not every single man between those ages will be drafted but many were. What narrowed the pool down – physicals, eye exams, cognitive exams.

The Army was segregated during WWI, Black soldiers were treated differently than white soldiers. In fact, many black soldiers, instead of being able to fight on the front lines, were put in divisions in charge of supplies or construction and labor. Make no mistake about it, Black soldiers did fight on the front lines and with distinction like the Harlem Hellfighters. Almost 400,000 Black Americans fought in WWI. When we get to WWII we will talk more about how fighting for freedom and democracy abroad wasn’t the only place Black soldiers were fighting for freedom and democracy. They are also fighting for it at home in the United States.

Segregation and Racism led to the creation of organizations like the Emergency Circle of Negro War Relief – Segregation left black Americans to fend for themselves and to organize their own groups to aid Black soldiers and their families.

Not only is the propaganda machine churning to get men to enlist and to be in support of the draft, but the propaganda machine is working overtime to sell this war to the American people. The Committee on Public Information was created in 1917. Getting people to support the war and how to prevent people from speaking out against the war effort. Posters, news articles, advertisements, films, speakers traveled around selling war bonds. The war was even sold to the youngest American citizens. Even to children – so-called war toys – things like doughboy soldier dolls or red cross nurse dolls or even field hospital toy sets complete with wounded and recovering soldiers were marketed to children.

US involvement in the war not only meant fresh troops, but also more food and needed supplies. While the United States didn’t have food rationing on the home front, American citizens were encouraged to have meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays. Patriotic cook books were sold that swapped out typical ingredients needed for soldiers abroad with other items. Potato bread anyone?

Rations/ Food for War

900,000 tons of food products were shipped from the United States to soldiers fighting in Europe. This was no easy feat. I was reading on the museum website that it took 70 trucks to move the food rations for just one division.

Being able to feed our soldiers on the frontlines was of great importance and citizens back home were asked to make sacrifices. Herbert Hoover was named head of the newly created US Food Administration.

Typical US soldier rations in WWI – unlike the hard tack soldiers ate during the civil war, field bakeries provided US soldiers with fresh baked bread.

Emergency rations were packed in tins to protect from exposure to gas and other vermin and to ensure soldiers had food to eat if typical supplies couldn’t get through to the men fighting in the front. It is estimated that it cost 26 cents a day to feed each soldier. While that may sound like a bargain the total cost was over 700 million dollars to feed the US soldiers. Lime juice was given as part of the rations if fresh or dried fruit wasn’t available. Lack of vitamin C can cause diseases.

French troops for example even had wine as part of their rations. The rations were cut as the war lagged on and then cut off towards the end of the war.

Unlike European civilians who had been dealing with strict rations and European allied soldiers who had seen rations get cut as the war lagged on, American soldiers were well fed. It's why they were referred to as doughboys! Our soldiers were well fed!

Use of more complex Code words were used to prevent enemy nations from knowing certain information. Just to give you an idea, the term ASHES was used to mean Enlisted Marines, Automatic Rifle was RATIO, A Truck was CEDAR. WE will include a link to the full list 2005.102_small.jpg (739×1200) (theworldwar-prod.s3.amazonaws.com)

There are Images of war – photography, even video of life on the warfront exist. Technology is improving, you no longer need big heavy equipment to take someone’s photograph, not nearly as small as today’s cameras, right? We can whip out our cell phone and take a picture. But certainly easier than in the Civil War, when people wanted to document the war effort.

Life on the Home front


Victory Gardens - People were taught how to can fruits, vegetables and meat.

Women and WWI

AS American men mobilized for war, so too did American women. Gone were the days of saying a woman’s place was ONLY in the home. Women took up jobs in agriculture and factories. Women volunteered for the Red Cross and served as nurses. Tending to wounded soldiers. Women joined the salvation army and prepared dressings for wounds, mended uniforms, helped to write letters for wounded soldiers and helped to prepare hot meals. They worked as switchboard operators, radio technicians, and drivers. The role women played during the war effort further fueled the suffrage movement. Women served in the Navy and Marine Corps for the first time.

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