When the war to end all wars ended
This week, 100 years ago, marked the beginning of the end for the German war machine in World War I.
A few weeks later, on Nov. 11, 1918, Germany and the Allies signed the Armistice that ended the war.
The difference-maker was the American army.
For more than four years, the Germans had faced off against the British and French in a horribly debilitating trench warfare stalemate, with neither side able to push to a victory. Casualties, spurred additionally by the devastating Spanish flu, were very high on both sides.
It took the Americans several months to gear up for military engagement, because the U.S. military was woefully small and unprepared when President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in April of 1917. But mobilization of both men and industry in the U.S. made great strides, and a year later millions of well-equipped American troops were engaging the enemy and tipping the scales of battle.
By the autumn of 1918, the Entente (primarily Britain, France and the United States) was prepared to mount its final offensive.
The venue was a 30-mile east-west line in northeastern France near the Belgian border, along the Meuse River and throughout the Argonne Forest north and northwest of Verdun — the brutal Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
(Remember Snoopy in “Peanuts” doing his World War I schtick? That setting is the Meuse-Argonne.)
The Germans — some 40 divisions over a period of time — were solidly dug in along the heights above the river and in the hilly and dense forest. The only way to dislodge them was a series of deadly frontal attacks into the teeth of hundreds of machine gun emplacements. And that’s what the American, French and British troops undertook.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest American engagement of the war, was the most deadly battle in American history.
American fatalities totaled 26,277 men, with another 95,786 wounded, in just a little over six weeks.
The Germans lost 28,000 dead.
The offensive began Sept. 26. Its ultimate goal: the German rail hub at Sedan to the north in northeastern France. Its capture would break the German railway net in France and Belgium and force German troops to retreat eastward. The Entente hoped to then keep them on the run.
The offensive opened with a bombardment of 800 mustard gas and phosgene shells, followed by American, French and British troop advancement supported by tanks and 500 aircraft.
In the first week, however, the inexperienced American troops floundered significantly, and the hilly terrain and dense forest caused tank operations to bog down. The slow progress allowed the Germans to regroup and put up a stiff defense.
American Gen. John J. Pershing called a halt to the offensive after a few days, reorganized the divisions and equipment deployment, and reopened combat on Oct. 4. The determined effort, coupled with German exhaustion and shortages of war materiel, moved the front steadily northward toward Sedan, although at a terrific cost in killed and wounded troops.
Progress speeded up as October ended, and by the end of the month the Allies had finally cleared the Argonne Forest.
By early November they were advancing several miles a day along the entire front.
The Germans, in addition to their other difficulties, were also plagued by the Spanish flu epidemic.
As the Allies reached the hills above Sedan, the Americans deferred to the French for the capture of the town, in respect of a defeat France had suffered at that site in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War.
American troops pivoted instead to the east and crossed the Meuse River, penetrating German defenses and pursuing the enemy close to the Belgian border.
The German high command and political leadership realized, as they had feared for several weeks, that their victory was now impossible and their military retreat was inevitable. They requested, and received, an armistice, with no promises from the Allies except those contained in President Wilson’s optimistic “Fourteen Points” proposal for the postwar world.
The aftermath of the war found the United States as the only industrial nation with its essential infrastructure and production capacity still intact.
After 1918, America emerged as a true world power, determined once again to avoid foreign entanglements.
America’s rejection of Wilson’s League of Nations spelled the doom of that new institution, and the punitive demands by Britain and France on their defeated enemies set the stage for economic devastation in central Europe, the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, and the opening guns of World War II 20 years later.
The effects of World War I continue to be felt 100 years later.