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World War 1 begins over there

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Most people in the United States no little about WWI – when it started, ended or even what countries were involved. The United States entered the conflict in 1917 and most countries in Europe became involved before it ended.

That War actually began in July 1914 when Austria-Hungary declared War on Serbia. To the world powers at the time this seemed to be a very small conflict that would soon be resolved. Heads of State in Germany, Great Britain and Russia were all first cousins!

The United States entered that War in April 1917. President Thomas Woodrow Wilson had won his second term in office with the watchword that the United States would not get involved in foreign entanglements.

That was not exactly true because we had been involved with Mexico across our southern border against the bandit Pancho Villa since 1916. One of my uncles was down there.

However Wilson finally used the excuse of the sinking of the HMS Lusitania (a British ship) off Ireland to enter WWI. Over 100 U.S. Citizens were onboard.

We had loaded that passenger steamer’s hold with ammunition for the British –against our non-aggression pact with Germany. We then had our ships attacked by German Submarines and that gave us an excuse to join in the War alongside France and Britain.

The Allied Powers in WWI were: France, the British Empire, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, Montenegro, Japan, Italy, Romania, Portugal, Hejaz, Greece and Siam. The Central Powers were: the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

Casualties due the conflict were terrible: Military dead 5,525,000, military wounded 12,831,500. Civilian dead were over 4 million.

Poison gas and the outbreak of influenza (called the Spanish Flu) were the big killers. The United States lost 675,000 civilians and 43,000 military alone to the flu.

It is estimated that the Spanish Flu Pandemic that started in January 1918 and ran through 1919 killed 50 million people worldwide. It spread from country to country and continent to continent in just weeks.

I was not born until nine years later, but my father and three of my uncles were in that war. They all survived, however one uncle was gassed, which gave him health problems for the rest of his life.

However very soon Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and France would be drawn into another conflict because of treaties that obligated them to defend the other nations. One after another these nations entered hostilities on the continent.

After Germany started shooting at French and British troops, the fighting developed into trench warfare. Russia became involved against Germany that opened a second front that ended when the Russian Revolution took over and Russian troops quit fighting Germans and began fighting their own countrymen.

WWI was generally known as the World War, the Great War or the First World War. After it was settled it was known as “the War to End all Wars” due to the huge number of causalities and devastation in the countries involved.

WWI finally ended with a temporary Peace Treaty signed with the Germans on Nov. 11, 1918, in a Railway Car at Compiegne Forest outside Paris. The actual Peace Treaty was named the Treaty of Versailles and was signed by all parties on June 29, 1919. President Wilson attended the signing.

This was at first called and celebrated as Armistice Day. President Eisenhower changed it to Veterans Day after in the end of the Korean War in 1954.

However the harsh WWI Peace Treaty terms demanded by France and England turned out to be the cause of WWII. Japan and Italy were our allies in WWI and our enemy in WWII.

The U.S. government also did a huge wrong to our returning military personnel after WWI. They were mustered out with no benefits except hospitalization for the sick and wounded, some who remained sick and crippled for life. We did not make that same mistake with our WWII returning Veterans.

Ed Mergele, PhD, is historian of the VFW Post 688.