The President of the United States in 1917 promised to “follow the experts in an expert war”. So he trusted the generals. None of them knew how much none of them knew.
The boys – the dough boys – were photographed on ships on the east coast, waving to the cameras, full of smiles and life, perhaps even elated by the opportunity offered by the war.
Make no mistake: war offers opportunities. Fortunes have been made. Reputations made. Political rewards are returned home after wars.
How many presidents of the United States were first general? Washington, Jackson, the two Harrisons, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower and others. They had the opportunity to leave the farm and make a name for themselves. And a business on the move. The US military offers many opportunities for advancement.
Thus, the president in 1917-18 followed his experts. Right above a cliff. The boys, like many in this war, were sent in charge on the berms. Into the machine gun fire. They say generals fight the last war. But you would have thought that some of them would have studied Pickett’s charge. When flesh meets a concentrated stream of metal, it is never good for the infantryman.
The Americans were placed in the middle of the Great War when the Allied armies of Western Europe were in chaos. As General Pershing pitched his tent and chart table, his troops rushed into battle, often encountering beaten British or French-style infantry moving in the opposite direction. The story goes that a French officer shouted at a naval captain to retreat, and the navy shouted back, “Retreat hell, we’ve just arrived!”
The Russians, in the throes of a revolution, would soon be out of the war. The Germans & Co. could concentrate entirely on the Western Front. Poison gas was a primary consideration, along with illnesses that stem from knee-deep life in the water and human waste in the trenches.
With communication being what it was 100 years ago, officers often did not know where their troops were. And sent messages to units that were no longer there, to do something that was no longer necessary, to fight an enemy long gone.
And the Germans, alerted to the number of Americans landing – by the free and independent American press, no less – knew their time was limited, so they threw everything at the Green units. They called their 1918 summer offensive the Friedensturm, which translates into the Peace Offensive. The artillery bombardments were so frequent and lasted so long that many soldiers in the pits and trenches went mad.
It was not a pleasant experience, being an American soldier at the time.
THE TACTICS was called the rolling barrage or the creeping barrage. World War I experts – generals – discovered that rushing into machine gun fire was viewed, at least by the troops, as bad form. The idea was therefore to clear the ground in front of the troops advancing with artillery and to have the troops immediately follow the bombardment, as it occurred.
To make such a tactic effective, the infantryman had to be right behind the falling artillery. It made sense on paper.
But what if the infantryman moved too fast? He would walk straight into his own artillery rounds. What if he wasn’t moving fast enough? The enemy would retake the fighting positions and cut him to pieces. Or if the infantry sometimes advanced too fast and too slowly at other times – that is, if the infantry units were advancing normally – then they might have to wait in no man’s land and hope that the German artillerymen did not see them first. .
In what can only be described as unusual arrogance even for mankind, World War I was initially called the war to end all wars. Some even called it the Great War. And it was, until a bigger one came along.
Not only the troops in Europe had to dodge, but also the flu. Of all the talk in modern America about the current pandemic, it is sometimes overlooked that the 1918 pandemic occurred when hundreds of thousands of Americans were called to war. Many families have received a death notice without their pastry chef ever getting on a boat.
After several years of war and death, and a year of American involvement that ended it all, the guns fell (for the most part) silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It would be today, November 11. A holiday would be added later.
HISTORY goes that the President who followed his General Experts marked the first anniversary of what they called Armistice Day by inviting a few hundred thousand veterans to the White House for a meal. They might not have called them photo ops back then, but they still had them. The President of the United States was formerly the president of a university. He knew politics.
Back then, people were learning new ways to store canned foods for the long term. If you thought the microwave made cooking easier a few years ago, imagine the first time Mom pulled meat out of a can. No slaughter, no skinning, no mess. What a change that must have been.
And in 1919, on Armistice Day, one dish in particular was all the rage. In one bite, you can get meat, dairy products, grains, and vegetables. So the main course that the president served the veterans that day was. . . .
The President and his guests celebrated the first anniversary of the Armistice by eating canned dumplings. And we imagine it was a special meal in 1919. Today, why not celebrate Veterans Day with an all-American meal like dumplings? Or maybe tacos. Or, if you prefer, moo goo gai pan. With a German beer.
The unofficial start of summer for Americans each year is Memorial Day, during which we remember those who have died in our nation’s wars. Today, however, we can begin the unofficial cold season by celebrating not only those who died in the trenches, or in the deserts, or in the skies or the oceans, but all who served in uniform. From pasta that ate canned ravioli to those serving today, standing on the wall for the rest of us.
From those who stormed the beaches to those who never fired with anger. From those who dug grenade sumps in Vietnam to those who only dug them in training at Fort Sill. From those who flew helicopters in Afghanistan to those who brought home the documents needed to bring the helicopters to Afghanistan. If you have served honorably in the United States Army, you should be honorably thanked. Today we do.
This holiday may have started at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, but, like many American holidays, it has evolved. During this pandemic, it had been a while since we had seen a parade. But Americans can still give a sharp salute.