America Joins the Fight in World War I

John J. Pershing during World War I

Library of Congress

In November 1916, Allied leaders again met at Chantilly to devise plans for the coming year. In their discussions, they determined to renew the fighting on the 1916 Somme battlefield as well as mount an offensive in Flanders designed to clear the Germans from the Belgian coast. These plans were quickly altered when General Robert Nivelle replaced General Joseph Joffre as commander-in-chief of the French Army. One of the heroes of Verdun, Nivelle was an artillery officer who believed that saturation bombardment coupled with creeping barrages could destroy the enemy's defenses creating "rupture" and allowing Allied troops to break through to the open ground in the German rear. As the shattered landscape of the Somme did not offer suitable ground for these tactics, the Allied plan for 1917 came to resemble that of 1915, with offensives planned for Arras in the north and the Aisne in the south.

While the Allies debated strategy, the Germans were planning to change their position. Arriving in the West in August 1916, General Paul von Hindenburg and his chief lieutenant, General Erich Ludendorff, began construction of a new set of entrenchments behind the Somme. Formidable in scale and depth, this new "Hindenburg Line" reduced the length of the German position in France, freeing ten divisions for service elsewhere. Completed in January 1917, German troops began shifting back to the new line in March. Watching the Germans withdraw, Allied troops followed in their wake and constructed a new set of trenches opposite the Hindenburg Line. Fortunately for Nivelle, this movement did not affect the areas targeted for offensive operations (Map).

America Enters the Fray

In the wake of the Lusitania sinking in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson had demanded that Germany cease its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Though the Germans had complied with this, Wilson began efforts to bring the combatants to the negotiating table in 1916. Working through his emissary Colonel Edward House, Wilson even offered the Allies American military intervention if they would accept his conditions for a peace conference before the Germans. Despite this, the United States remained decidedly isolationist at the beginning of 1917 and its citizens were not eager to join what was seen as a European war. Two events in January 1917 set in motion a series of events which brought the nation into the conflict.

The first of these was the Zimmermann Telegram which was made public in the United States on March 1. Transmitted in January, the telegram was a message from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to the government of Mexico seeking a military alliance in event of war with the United States. In return for attacking the United States, Mexico was promised the return of territory lost during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as substantial financial assistance. Intercepted by British naval intelligence and the US State Department, the contents of the message caused widespread outrage among the American people.

On December 22, 1916, the Chief of Staff of the Kaiserliche Marine, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff issued a memorandum calling for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Arguing that victory could only be achieved by attacking Britain's maritime supply lines, he was quickly supported by von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. In January 1917, they convinced Kaiser Wilhelm II that the approach was worth the risk of a break with the United States and submarine attacks resumed on February 1. The American reaction was swift and more severe than anticipated in Berlin. On February 26, Wilson asked Congress for permission to arm American merchant ships. In mid-March, three American ships were sunk by German submarines. A direct challenge, Wilson went before a special session of Congress on April 2 declaring that the submarine campaign was a "war against all nations" and asked that war be declared with Germany. This request was granted on April 6 and subsequent declarations of war were issued against Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.

Mobilizing for War

Though the United States had joined the fight, it would be some time before American troops could be fielded in large numbers. Numbering only 108,000 men in April 1917, the US Army began a rapid expansion as volunteers enlisted in large numbers and a selective draft instituted. Despite this, it was decided to immediately dispatch an American Expeditionary Force composed of one division and two Marine brigades to France. Command of the new AEF was given to General John J. Pershing. Possessing the second-largest battle fleet in the world, the American naval contribution was more immediate as US battleships joined the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, giving the Allies a decisive and permanent numerical advantage at sea.

The U-boat War

As the United States mobilized for war, Germany began its U-boat campaign in earnest. In lobbying for unrestricted submarine warfare, Holtzendorff had estimated that sinking 600,000 tons per month for five months would cripple Britain. Rampaging across the Atlantic, his submarines crossed the threshold in April when they sunk 860,334 tons. Desperately seeking to avert disaster, the British Admiralty tried a variety of approaches to stem the losses, including "Q" ships which were warships disguised as merchantmen. Though initially resisted by the Admiralty, a system of convoys was implemented in late April. The expansion of this system led to reduced losses as the year progressed. While not eliminated, convoys, the expansion of air operations, and mine barriers worked to mitigate the U-boat threat for the remainder of the war.

The Battle of Arras

On April 9, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, opened the offensive at Arras. Beginning a week earlier than Nivelle's push to the south, it was hoped that Haig's attack would draw German troops away from the French front. Having conducted extensive planning and preparation, the British troops achieved great success on the first day of the offensive. Most notable was the swift capture of Vimy Ridge by General Julian Byng's Canadian Corps. Though advances were achieved, planned pauses in the attack hampered the exploitation of successful assaults. The next day, German reserves appeared on the battlefield and fighting intensified. By April 23, the battle had devolved into the type of attritional stalemate that had become typical of the Western Front. Under pressure to support Nivelle's efforts, Haig pressed the offensive as casualties mounted. Finally, on May 23, the battle was brought to an end. Though Vimy Ridge had been taken, the strategic situation had not changed dramatically.

The Nivelle Offensive

To the south, the Germans faired better against Nivelle. Aware that an offensive was coming due to captured documents and loose French talk, the Germans had shifted additional reserves to the area behind the Chemin des Dames ridge in Aisne. In addition, they employed a system of flexible defense which removed the bulk of the defensive troops from the front lines. Having promised victory within forty-eight hours, Nivelle sent his men forward through rain and sleet on April 16. Pressing up the wooded ridge, his men were not able to keep up with the creeping barrage that was intended to protect them. Meeting increasingly heavy resistance, the advance slowed as heavy casualties were sustained. Advancing no more than 600 yards on the first day, the offensive soon became a bloody disaster (Map). By the end of the fifth day, 130,000 casualties (29,000 dead) had been sustained and Nivelle abandoned the attack having advanced around four miles on a sixteen-mile front. For his failure, he was relieved on April 29 and replaced by General Philippe Pétain.

Discontent in the French Ranks

In the wake of the failed Nivelle Offensive, a series of "mutinies" broke out in the French ranks. Though more along the lines of military strikes than traditional mutinies, the unrest manifested itself when fifty-four French divisions (nearly half the army) refused to the return to the front. In those divisions which were affected, there was no violence between the officers and men, simply unwillingness on the part of the rank and file to maintain the status quo. Demands from the "mutineers" generally were characterized by requests for more leave, better food, better treatment for their families, and a halt to offensive operations. Though known for his abrupt personality, Pétain recognized the severity of the crisis and took a soft hand.

Though unable to openly state that offensive operations would be halted, he implied that this would be the case. In addition, he promised more regular and frequent leave, as well as implementing a "defense in depth" system which required fewer troops in the front lines. While his officers worked to win back the men's obedience, efforts were made to round up the ringleaders. All told, 3,427 men were court-martialed for their roles in the mutinies with forty-nine executed for their crimes. Much to Pétain's fortune, the Germans never detected the crisis and remained quiet along the French front. By August, Pétain felt confident enough to conduct minor offensive operations near Verdun, but much to the men's pleasure, no major French offensive occurred prior to July 1918.

The British Carry the Load

With French forces effectively incapacitated, the British were forced to bear the responsibility for keeping the pressure on the Germans. In the days after the Chemin des Dames debacle, Haig began seeking a way to relieve pressure on the French. He found his answer in plans that General Sir Herbert Plumer had been developing for capturing Messines Ridge near Ypres. Calling for extensive mining under the ridge, the plan was approved and Plumer opened the Battle of Messines on June 7. Following a preliminary bombardment, explosives in the mines were detonated vaporizing part of the German front. Swarming forward, Plumer's men took the ridge and rapidly achieved the operation's objectives. Repelling German counterattacks, British forces built new defensive lines to hold their gains. Concluding on June 14, Messines was one of the few clear-cut victories achieved by either side on the Western Front (Map).

The Third Battle of Ypres (Battle of Passchendaele)

With the success at Messines, Haig sought to revive his plan for an offensive through the center of the Ypres salient. Intended to first capture the village of Passchendaele, the offensive was to break through the German lines and clear them from the coast. In planning the operation, Haig was opposed Prime Minister David Lloyd George who increasingly wished to husband British resources and await the arrival of large numbers of American troops before launching any major offensives on the Western Front. With the support of George's principal military advisor, General Sir William Robertson, Haig was finally able to secure approval.

Opening the battle on July 31, British troops attempted to secure the Gheluvelt Plateau. Subsequent attacks were mounted against Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck. The battlefield, which was largely reclaimed land, soon degenerated into a vast sea of mud as seasonal rains moved through the area. Though the advance was slow, new "bite and hold" tactics allowed the British to gain ground. These called for short advances supported by massive amounts of artillery. Employment of these tactics secured objectives such as the Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde. Pressing on despite heavy losses and criticism from London, Haig secured Passchendaele on November 6. Fighting subsided four days later (Map). The Third Battle of Ypres became a symbol of the conflict's grinding, attritional warfare and many have debated the need for the offensive. In the fighting, the British had made a maximum effort, sustained over 240,000 casualties, and failed to breach the German defenses. While these losses could not be replaced, the Germans had forces in the East to make good their losses.

The Battle of Cambrai

With the fighting for Passchendaele devolving into a bloody stalemate, Haig approved a plan presented by General Sir Julian Byng for a combined attack against Cambrai by the Third Army and the Tank Corps. A new weapon, tanks have not previously been massed in large numbers for an assault. Utilizing a new artillery scheme, Third Army achieved surprise over the Germans on November 20 and made quick gains. Though achieving their initial objectives, Byng's men had difficulty exploiting the success as reinforcements had trouble reaching the front. By the next day, German reserves began arriving and fighting intensified. British troops fought a bitter battle to take control of Bourlon Ridge and by November 28 began digging in to defend their gains. Two days later, German troops, utilizing "stormtrooper" infiltration tactics, launched a massive counterattack. While the British fought hard to defend the ridge in the north, the Germans made gains in the south. When the fighting ended on December 6, the battle had become a draw with each side gaining and losing about the same amount of territory. The fighting at Cambrai effectively brought operations on the Western Front to a close for the winter (Map).

In Italy

To the south in Italy, the forces of General Luigi Cadorna continued attacks in the Isonzo Valley. Fought in May-June 1917, the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo and gained little ground. Not to be dissuaded, he opened the Eleventh Battle on August 19. Focusing on the Bainsizza Plateau, Italian forces made some gains but could not dislodge the Austro-Hungarian defenders. Suffering 160,000 casualties, the battle badly depleted Austrian forces on the Italian front (Map). Seeking help, Emperor Karl sought reinforcements from Germany. These were forthcoming and soon a total of thirty-five divisions opposed Cadorna. Through years of fighting, the Italians had taken much of the valley, but the Austrians still held two bridgeheads across the river. Utilizing these crossings, German General Otto von Below attacked on October 24, with his troops employing stormtrooper tactics and poison gas. Known as the Battle of Caporetto, von Below's forces broke into the rear of the Italian Second Army and caused Cadorna's entire position to collapse. Forced into headlong retreat, the Italians attempted to make a stand at the Tagliamento River but were forced back when the Germans bridged it on November 2. Continuing the retreat, the Italians finally halted behind the Piave River. In achieving his victory, von Below advanced eighty miles and had taken 275,000 prisoners.

Revolution in Russia

The beginning of 1917 saw troops in the Russian ranks expressing many of the same complaints offered by the French later that year. In the rear, the Russian economy had reached a full war footing, but the boom that resulted brought about rapid inflation and led to the break down of the economy and infrastructure. As food supplies in Petrograd dwindled, unrest increased leading to mass demonstrations and a revolt by the Tsar's Guards. At his headquarters in Mogilev, Tsar Nicholas II was initially unconcerned by events in the capital. Beginning on March 8, the February Revolution (Russia still used the Julian calendar) saw the rise of a Provisional Government in Petrograd. Ultimately convinced to abdicate, he stepped down on March 15 and nominated his brother Grand Duke Michael to succeed him. This offer was refused and the Provisional Government took power.

Willing to continue the war, this government, in conjunction with the local Soviets, soon appointed Alexander Kerensky Minister of War. Naming General Aleksei Brusilov Chief of Staff, Kerensky worked to restore the spirit of the army. On June 18, the "Kerensky Offensive" began with Russian troops striking the Austrians with the goal of reaching Lemberg. For the first two days, the Russians advanced before the lead units, believing they had done their part, halted. Reserve units refused to move forward to take their place and mass desertions began (Map). As the Provisional Government faltered at the front, it came under attack from the rear from returning extremists such as Vladimir Lenin. Aided by the Germans, Lenin had arrived back in Russia on April 3. Lenin immediately began speaking at Bolshevik meetings and preaching a program of non-cooperation with the Provisional Government, nationalization, and an end to the war.

As the Russian army began to melt away at the front, the Germans took advantage and conducted offensive operations in the north which culminated in the capture of Riga. Becoming prime minister in July, Kerensky sacked Brusilov and replaced him with anti-German General Lavr Kornilov. On August 25, Kornilov ordered troops to occupy Petrograd and disperse the Soviet. Calling for military reforms, including the abolition of Soldiers' Soviets and political regiments, Kornilov grew in popularity with Russian moderates. Ultimately maneuvered into attempting a coup, he was removed after its failure. With Kornilov's defeat, Kerensky and the Provisional Government effectively lost their power as Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in the ascent. On November 7, the October Revolution began which saw the Bolsheviks seize power. Taking control, Lenin formed a new government and immediately called for a three-month armistice.

Peace in the East

Initially wary of dealing with the revolutionaries, the Germans and Austrians finally agreed to meet with Lenin's representatives in December. Opening peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, the Germans demanded independence for Poland and Lithuania, while the Bolsheviks wished for "peace without annexations or indemnities." Though in a weak position, the Bolsheviks continued to stall. Frustrated, the Germans announced in February that they would suspend the armistice unless their terms were accepted and take as much of Russia as they desired. On February 18, German forces began advancing. Meeting no resistance, they seized much of the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and Belarus. Panic-struck, Bolshevik leaders ordered their delegation to accept Germany's terms immediately. While the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk took Russia out of the war, it cost the nation 290,000 square miles of territory, as well as a quarter of its population and industrial resources.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "America Joins the Fight in World War I." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). America Joins the Fight in World War I. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "America Joins the Fight in World War I." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).