On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia in response to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo a month earlier. Germany allied itself with Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers); Great Britain, France and Russia jumped in on the side of Serbia (the Allied or Entente Powers). Thus began what was to become known as the Great War.
Eventually, in 1917, the United States entered the war after a series of submarine attacks against U.S. merchants and the publication of The Zimmerman Telegram, a German proposal to Mexico to attack the U.S. in the event America entered the war. In return, Mexico was offered repatriation of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas (Natl Archives).
American participation under the command of Army General John J. Pershing shifted the advantage to the Allies, and the war ended with an Armistice on November 11, 1918 (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”).
When the guns had fallen silent, WWI had resulted in over 22 million Allied casualties (365,000 Americans), and over 37 million casualties for the Central Powers. The map of Europe was redrawn, and severe penalties were awarded to Germany – thus setting the stage for Hitler’s rise to power twenty years later.
WWI saw the first use of American troops to protect and defend major foreign powers on their soil, setting a precedent that would be repeated several times in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They faced trench warfare, brutal machine gun and artillery barrages, and poisonous gas attacks – the precursor to weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, they prevailed and returned home to a hero’s welcome, tempered by a sober understanding of the sacrifices of war. The brave Soldiers, Marines and Sailors of the American Expeditionary Force – almost all of whom are no longer with us – are our heroes of the week.
On a personal note, my grandfather and his three brothers were members of the 117th Ammunition Train of the famed 42nd “Rainbow” Division under Col. Douglas MacArthur. All four brothers survived the war and returned to their home near Rosedale, Kansas, where a memorial stands to this day.
My grandfather’s medals are displayed proudly (along with my father’s WWII medals) in my shadow box.