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Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Great War: A Centennial Milestone

One hundred years ago today, the U.S. entered World War I, which impacted my family (I'll get to that in a minute).

The Great War, as it was known then, began in Europe on July 28, 1914. Headlines in American newspapers roared with daily news of the fighting that began with an international diplomatic crisis: the murder in Sarajevo one month before of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb assassin against a backdrop of escalating tensions in the Balkans. Franz Ferdinand was the much reviled nephew of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and heir to the throne. 


Following the assassination, the resulting attempts at diplomacy were bungled to such an extent that the impacts of the incident escalated all over Europe. Battle lines were drawn between the central powers of Austro-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire and the allied powers of France, England and Russia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia on July 28, Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1, Germany declared war on France on Aug. 3 and Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4. The world would never be the same.

Americans paid attention to the conflicts through newspapers, magazines and the relatively new medium of silent newsreels, but this was not our war.

On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania in the Atlantic Ocean off the southern Irish coast. Among the 1,100 passengers who perished, 128 were Americans.


But that was not the impetus for the U.S. inserting itself in a foreign war. More than two years would pass before that happened.

In January 1917, British intelligence intercepted a telegram, written in coded numbers, sent from Germany’s foreign secretary to the German ambassador in Mexico City. It conveyed specific instructions: Germany would finance a major attack on the U.S. by Mexican troops, and Mexican diplomats would serve as intermediaries to persuade Japan to join the German cause. In exchange, Germany would help Mexico reclaim Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Britain provided a decoded transcription of the telegram to U.S. intelligence officials who shared it with President Woodrow Wilson
America had a progressive policy of neutrality, and Wilson was not ready to reverse that approach.

On Feb. 3, 1917, German U-boats sank the American steamer Housatonic in the Atlantic Ocean near the south coast of England. By late March, U-boats had sunk four U.S. merchant vessels in the Atlantic Ocean near the British Isles, the North Sea and the coast of France. 

President Wilson could wait no longer. On April 2, 1917, he addressed a special session of Congress with his "The world must be made safe for democracy" speech. Three days later, Congress voted its approval for a declaration of war against Germany, and on April 6 President Wilson signed the joint resolution. Newspaper headlines across the nation that evening and the following morning were too large to ignore:

Young American men from sea to shining sea enlisted in the war effort at the rate of 10,000 troops a day. Many of them were deployed to France on the Western Front, where allied soldiers fought ferociously in the trenches. The allied troops needed all the help they could get against Germany at Cantigny, Belleau Wood, Château-Thierry and other battlefields. 

To instill patriotism in every red-blooded American and encourage men to register for the draft, the federal Committee on Public Information was established by presidential executive order to produce press releases, songs, newsreels, posters, pamphlets, you name it. It was a big propaganda machine of sorts, and it worked. The most famous song to come out of this effort was the iconic "Over There" written by George M. Cohan. It was on the lips of every person in the U.S. from 1917 to the end of the war. 

My beloved paternal grandfather, Jess Harper Easley, registered on June 5, 1917. He was 26 years old.


Once he was called to duty, he served in France on the Western Front for just over a year at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry. He came home in one piece, thankfully. 

This photo of American troops at Hill 24 at Belleau Wood is in the National World War I Museum

When my grandfather returned to the U.S., Camp Mills on Long Island in New York was his temporary base for about a month. He communicated with his mother, my great-grandmother, via telegram.

I have added punctuation here.

Camp Mills NY 10:27 a.m. Dec. 4, 1918
Mrs. May Easley
Lebanon, Mo.

Got your wire this morning. Also money from Peter. The best I can find out is will be going home in one or two weeks. Make Beulah* stay. Am wiring Joe** and will bring him if I can expect to see some of New York.

J H Easley

World War I was one of the bloodiest wars in history. By the time it was over, there were 36.5 million military and civilian casualties: 16.5 million deaths and 20 million people injured. And it all started with the assassination of a second-rate, greatly rebuked despot in waiting. 

When will they ever learn?

Boundaries in Europe and names of countries changed dramatically after the war ended.


Do you know there is a World War I memorial right here in Pasadena? If you live here, you no doubt have passed it many times at the northeast corner of Colorado Boulevard and Orange Grove. I wrote a blog post about it when I was the Pasadena PIO and included a lot of photos.

I am grateful to my late father, David Edward Easley, for instilling in me a love of history. I have no doubt he developed his love of history thanks to his father, Jess Harper Easley. Like father, like son:


There are dozens of additional layers to the story of America's involvement in World War I. But hey, I'm writing a blog post here, not a textbook. 

You can get a crash course in all those layers in this nifty, informative video.


* My grandaunt Beulah Easley was visiting their hometown of Lebanon, Mo., from Redondo Beach, Calif., where she and her husband lived and owned a bakery. I blogged about the remarkable adventures of Beulah in her younger days in this post. (Rail rider! Harvey Girl! Independent spirit!)

** My granduncle Joseph (Joe) Easley had recently moved to New York City to make his way as a professional illustrator and cartoonist. It would not be long before his career would take off. He freelanced for Collier'sSaturday Evening Post and Railroad Magazine, as well as for some corporate clients, from 1918 to 1971. Most of that time he lived on Staten Island. There's a nice little piece about him here, one in a series of profiles about Staten Island artists.



Photo credits: Austrian National Library, New York Times, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, University of Missouri, Easley Family Archives, National World War I Museum, BBC.

1 comment:

  1. I love your history posts. This one is so thoughtful, taking the world-wide perspective and distilling it into a personal one. When will they ever learn, indeed.

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