The Great War


Ed. Note: This account of the history leading up to the United States’ entry into World War I was written by Harry Orcutt, Adjutant of American Legion Post #68 in Locke’s Mills, in observance of the April 6, 2017 100th anniversary of that event.

World War I began for the United States a century ago on April 6, 1917.  This past Veterans Day, in 2016, I presented an Adjutant’s Address at American Legion Jackson-Silver Post 68, Locke Mills, detailing how America became involved with the conflict, what it cost in lives during the duration of the war to November 11, 1918, and the unintended consequences that resulted after hostilities ceased.  The American Legion, which was founded by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps at Paris, France, in 1919, now commences its Centennial of continuing service to the Nation.  Every Post in Oxford County, Maine, and throughout the Nation provides numerous important activities for and services to citizens of the communities in which they are located.  Being a veterans organization, its primary focus is on serving veterans.  With a scant percent of the populace having been involved in the military, no one understands the experiences veterans have had better than other veterans.  Eligibility for membership in the American Legion requires that an individual has served at least one day, at home here or overseas, in a declared conflict of the United States.  Perhaps it is fitting that this week we remember how it all began.


April 6, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the United States having declared war on the German Empire and her allies, in what was then thought to be “the War for Democracy; the War to end all Wars.”  In that conflict, our country, which began active participation with a miniscule Army and Navy, outnumbered by Germany alone 20 to 1, drafted 2.8 million men, training and equipping them.  By the summer of 1918, it had sent to France more than one million soldiers, with 10,000 more arriving every month thereafter, until the end of the war on November 11, 1918.

About half of our Army (including Marine battalions), were engaged in actual combat.  Of those, 53,402 were killed in action; 63,114 died of other causes; 3,350 were unaccounted for; and 204,002 were wounded.  We remember them and all the soldiers and sailors who served with them; we also remember, as well, all those who, throughout U.S. History, have served as our comrades in times of peril.

That said, it strikes me that on the occasion of this annual remembrance, we never mention how the United States became involved in this World wide conflict in the first place.  History, to be of any value, must teach us lessons that should ever be remembered and never forgotten.  One hundred years may have past, but the circumstances of our entry into the conflict, are as recognizable as today’s mass media headlines.

In 1917, we had a U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, who styled himself a Progressive.  In fact, it was at about that time, that the word “Progressive” entered the lexicon of our political language.  Wilson had been a college professor of Political Science who railed against the U.S. Constitution before becoming the President of Princeton University in 1902, Governor of New Jersey in 1910, and in the election of 1912, our Chief Executive.  He won reelection in 1916 on the slogan: “He kept us out of War.”  The overwhelming sentiment of our citizens was that they did not wish to be involved in Europe’s devastating conflict.

Wilson avoided war with Germany from August 1914 to the beginning of April 1917, by ignoring repeated provocations such as the submarine torpedoing of the British Passenger Liner Lusitania in 1915, with the loss of about 100 Americans of the more than 1,000 who perished.  Unrestricted submarine warfare was the one issue that made Americans really mad.  The Germans suspended the practice after this incident.

As the British had cut German cable communications with the Western Hemisphere, Wilson allowed Germany to use the American Consulate cable through Denmark to send diplomatic messages to the German Embassy in Washington D.C.  He did this so that he could continue to communicate with Germany for the purpose of peace proposals, the only proviso being that all messages submitted to the U.S. Ambassador in Berlin for transmittal were to be in the clear (uncoded).  These exchanges were still considered miraculous, and were, so to speak, the internet of that time.  In January 1917, the American Ambassador accepted a coded message from Arthur Zimmerman, Germany’s Foreign Minister, and sent it.

The fly in the ointment was that all cable traffic between Europe and the Western Hemisphere went via the British cable station at Porthcuno, near Land’s End, in England, which boosted the signal to get it across the Atlantic.  All such messages were intercepted, decoded, and read by British Naval Intelligence.  It is very convoluted thereafter how the British were able to supply the U.S. Government with the contents of Zimmerman’s telegram without confirming to the Germans that they had broken their secret diplomatic code, but those details are in a Wikipedia article that interested parties may refer to.

Basically, Zimmerman’s message was to be forwarded from the German Embassy in Washington, to its Embassy in Mexico City, thence to be placed before the Mexican President for his perusal.  The message, in essence, stated that the German Government was again going to initiate unrestricted submarine warfare in order to knock Britain out of the war.  If the U.S. then entered the conflict against Germany, Mexico was invited to declare war on the United States, and would receive from Germany financial help to wage that war, with the resulting peace accord giving back to Mexico its lost territories of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, which had been forcefully ceded to the U.S. 70 years before.

Mexico considered the proposal and concluded emphatically “No way!” First, they had experienced previous unfulfilled promises of aid from Germany in regards to their numerous internal conflicts in the first decades of the 20th century.  And secondly, they concluded that were they to invade our Southern border, they would encounter an American rifleman behind every sage bush.

In any case, when the American Ambassador in London was given Zimmerman’s message to Mexico, he was outraged.  He sent it on to Washington D.C., where it was released to American newspapers.  Though there were yet those who did not desire a war with Germany, the overwhelming opinion of the American citizenry was transformed, and on April 6, Wilson stood before the Congress requesting that war be declared.  In the interim, Zimmerman was asked by reporters if the published message sent in his name was authentic; he admitted that it was.  In sending the cable, he demonstrated incredibly bad judgment, and a complete misunderstanding of how the cable system worked.  That in itself is a lesson worthy of being forever remembered.

Besides the casualties delineated in the first paragraphs of this remembrance, when the soldiers and sailors returned to the U.S., many brought home with them a highly infectious disease.  There it was called the Spanish Influenza; here it was known as the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918.  In America, nearly 28% of the population became infected, resulting in half a million to 675,000 deaths.  Though they never faced a German enemy, count them among those who died in WWI.  It was a horrible cost for a message that never should have been sent.

Harry G. Orcutt, Adjutant Post 68

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