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RETRO: America’s Stunning 1918 Emergence

Doughboy Maurice Anthony Moore (the author's grandfather) in uniform in 1918.

FOR MY GRANDFATHER: MAURICE ANTHONY MOORE (1891-1959)

Even after President Wilson and the U.S. Congress declared war against Germany on April 2, 1917, it wasn’t until 1918 that America had major forces on the ground.

However, contrary to the canard that the USA played no ultimate role in the Great War, the tipping points in 1918 on the Western Front–when the Doughboys were landing in France at the rate of 10,000 men per day–were largely dependent on America’s ability to ship overwhelming amounts of soldiers, materiel, food, and medicine to Europe. The morale of the mutiny-plagued Allies skyrocketed.

Ironically, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) sometimes fought with French weaponry, due to a lack of Made-in-the-USA munitions. And with those borrowed French tanks and machine guns, the AEF often fought in combined armies that led to French-and-American breakthroughs or British-and-American allied triumphs.

A poster commemorating the relationship between Yank and French fighting men.

Somehow, it’s all been consigned to oblivion. The achievements of 1918 never became entrenched in our curriculums or national consciousness. Historian Edward G. Lengel (To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918), summing up how the Civil War and World War Two loom larger, writes: “Johnny Reb, Billy Yank, and the GI live forever in the American psyche. The Doughboy has been forgotten.”

The reasons are debatable. But our amnesia about 1918 is a damned shame.

Some of the names: Belleau Wood. Soissons. Chateau-Thierry. St. Mihiel. At each of those battles in 1918, the newly drafted, speedily trained, inexperienced Yanks (two million of whom eventually served in France out of a wartime conscript army of four million civilian-soldiers) surprised fellow Allies and pulverized the Germans.

Germany’s military experts assumed that the Americans wouldn’t have the grit to fight, let alone fight well.  The scabrous homicidal excesses of the war’s attrition as 1914 bled into 1915 and then hemorrhaged throughout 1916 and 1917 (France, Russia, Great Britain, and Germany suffered killed-in-action casualty counts exceeding one million; and millions more were wounded or missing amid the generational annihilation) created the notion that the arrival of the Americans would not mean much.

Wrong. It meant everything. Only one German general intuitively sensed this.

One hundred years ago, in 1918, Gen. Erich Ludendorff launched four doomed offensives between March 21st and late summer to try to smash the Allied lines, aiming to defeat France by sacking Paris before the momentous American build-up achieved critical mass. Time after time, in four successive campaigns, deploying ghastly amounts of artillery (firing over one million shells within five hours on day one of the first attack) and vast numbers of infantry, inducing grim casualty counts and battering the French provinces (as well as hitting targets in Paris), it was Ludendorff’s goal to destroy Allied morale and neuter the onrushing Americans.

European nurses tend to American soldiers, 1918. Courtesy of Getty Images.

American soldiers recover in a French hospital, 1918.

But as those 10,000 Yanks landed daily, the Doughboys in France tilted the balance, ruining Gen. Ludendorff’s plans. In a fifth and final German offensive beginning on July 15, 1918 (known as the Second Battle of the Marne), Ludendorff failed again. Time after time, whether attached to French or British divisions or fighting on their own, the AEF altered the course of the war’s final months, galvanizing the Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive that induced Germany’s collapse.

From the Battle of Amiens to the Meuse-Argonne campaign (also called the Battle of the Argonne Forest), the role of the Yanks in choreographing a conclusion to the war on the Western Front–thus forcing an end to the gruesome conflict–fast expanded from a minor presence at Amiens to our predominant role in the Argonne fighting. Blazing away in autumn 1918, the epic Argonne campaign (which the AEF fought in tandem with the French 4th Army) actually began on September 26th and would not finally cease until November 11th. During that 47-day crucible: 1,200,000 Yanks fought in what still stands as America’s deadliest single battle; 95,786 Americans were wounded; the Lost Battalion became a legend; and 26,277 Doughboys died.

In six weeks.

ALVIN YORK: A NEW BIOGRAPHY OF THE HERO OF THE ARGONNE by Douglas V. Mastriano, about the life of the notable Sergeant York, one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers of World War I.

DVD cover of THE LOST BATTALION (2001) TV movie.

Ultimately, it was the latter-day presence of the AEF in France that ensured Germany’s failure to conquer Paris and win the war. The Armistice followed, ending the war at 11 a.m. (Paris time) on the 11th day of the 11th month:  November 11, 1918.

One hundred years ago, between March and November 1918  (a mere nine months) the Doughboys gave birth to our modern world, by forcing an end to the Great War.

The New York Times announces Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

(M. J. Moore is Honeysuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist. His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, was published in 2017. In April 2019, Heliotrope Books will publish his new book – the first-ever biography of author Mario Puzo. It’s called Ace of Hearts ~ The Writer’s Quest of Mario Puzo.)

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