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Curated by Kate Matheny, Digitization Outreach Coordinator
In August 1914, when the major European powers mobilized for fighting, the United States attempted to remain neutral. However, as this Great War was truly a world war, it felt the impact anyway.
Historian David M. Kennedy argues that Americans experienced WWI from a unique position. In Europe, the war came on so fast and people were so occupied with the everyday reality of fighting that they didn't have time to contemplate the war's significance. However, according to Kennedy, "during more than two and a half years of neutrality, America felt no such restraints on their thinking, and they elaborated vigorous and quite curious ideas about the war and its meaning for America."1
The central question they asked themselves: Should we intervene in something that isn't our fight? When the Germans resumed submarine warfare against American vessels in February 1917, President Woodrow Wilson felt the country had little choice, as the fight had come to them.2
Like their European counterparts, Americans had an "irrepressibly positive and romantic view of war," their minds "filled with memories of a kind of warfare that would never again be waged."1 Once Americans were at the front, their war experience began to look and sound much like that of the English, French, or Russians. For that matter, it looked like the experience of the Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and Ottomans. Importantly, though, it didn't look like the Civil War, or any other 19th century war.
The Great War wasn't exactly like WWII, either, a pretty clear-cut battle between might and right. The tale of WWI has an aggressor and a victim, but in most ways that count, everyone lost. Soldiers and civilians alike on both sides found their old ideas of conflict and their faith in progress destroyed by 20th century technologies like machine guns, tanks, and poison gas.
The Americans involved in this tragedy were no bit players in the drama. While their involvement may have been short-lived, four million Americans were mobilized. Among them, around 116,000 were killed and more than 200,000 were wounded.3 Below are the stories of four of the four million: two Army officers, an Army doctor, and a civilian aid worker.
Valentine Oldshue did what many Americans did before the U.S. officially joined the war: he went to France and volunteered to work at a Paris hospital. Since he traveled to France by choice, his journey there was less straightforward than that of the American soldiers who came later, and he got to see a lot more of the country.
Major Herbert Taylor, Jr., of Columbus, Ohio, served in the 136th Field Artillery, 37th Infantry Division. His unit, a National Guard division, fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and at Ypres-Lys. However, one of the major topics in his early letters has nothing to do with the war -- or does it?
Imagine getting news of your family's activities only by letter -- days or weeks after the events happened. While some soldiers wrote to their families as a single unit, Dr. Alston Fitts often addressed his wife, son, and daughter separately. In those letters, the need to talk about his own experiences met head-on with his responsibilities as a husband and father.
Among the 116,000 Americans killed in the war was George Waring Huston, a 22-year-old University of Alabama student. A commissioned officer in the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, he was killed in action during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the final push of the war, around the time the Americans broke through the Hindenburg Line.
To find more items and collection relating to World War I in our digital repository, click here to launch a search.
Limiting the search to a particular kind of resource might also be helpful. For example, our large collection of Sheet Music contains many pieces relating to World War I, from the humorous to the sentimental to the patriotic.
Here are a few more collections relating to World War I:
1. Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1982.
2. "American Entry into World War I, 1917." Milestones. U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. Accessed July 14, 2014. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1914-1920/wwi
3. "WWI Casualty and Death Tables." 1914-1918: The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. PBS.org. Accessed July 14, 2014. http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html