One hundred years ago Thursday — April 6, 1917 — the United States joined the fight that had been going on in Europe since 1914. And few events in history have shaped our country like the First World War.
Though America’s involvement was fairly brief, the war touched every American and every aspect of American life. It changed manufacturing, technology, and innovation; it changed our place on the world stage; it shaped the struggle for racial equality and women’s rights; and ultimately redefined what it means to be American.
After decades of international rivalry, war broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914. Two competing alliances – the “Allies” (France, Britain, Russia, Belgium, Italy, and others) and the “Central Powers” (Imperial Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and others) – went to war with the largest armies ever seen. At first, the combatants expected the war to be short and glorious. Instead, what people called “the Great War” quickly proved to be the biggest, bloodiest, and costliest in Europe’s history.
President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to remain neutral in thought and in deed, and in 1916 he was reelected on the assurance that “he kept us out of war.” But the United States was slowly being drawn into the conflict. Provocations by Germany – like unrestricted submarine warfare and the infamous sinking of the liner Lusitania in 1915 – turned American sentiment against Germany and its allies. In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.
Cashing in on the war
Even before then, Dayton and the other industrial cities of southwest Ohio — Hamilton, Middletown, Springfield — were busy and buzzing. In Dayton, factories were making military goods for European armies. Companies like Brownell Boiler Works, Platt Iron Works, and the Davis Sewing Machine Company signed large contracts with the Allied powers. In 1915-16, Platt Iron Works alone turned out one million artillery shells for the government of Czarist Russia. But when the U.S. mobilized for war in 1917, American industries would rally to support the most massive military buildup in the nation’s history.
More than two dozen of Dayton’s largest manufacturers devoted most or all of their capacity to government military contracts. They produced a dizzying variety of munitions and equipment. The demand for skilled workers soared. High wages drew a flood of men and women to Dayton, looking for factory jobs. The result was a serious housing shortage. Families rented out spare rooms to the newly arrived workers.
Dayton may have been the birthplace of aviation and the home of the Wright brothers, but when America went to war the city was not a major center of aircraft production. That would soon change. Charles Kettering and Edward A. Deeds, the co-founders of Dayton Engineering Laboratories (Delco), formed the Dayton-Wright Company shortly after the declaration of war. The surviving Wright brother, Orville, served as a consultant.
Under government contract, Dayton-Wright manufactured the Airco DH-4 light bomber, a two-seater biplane. A copy of the British-designed and –built de Havilland DH.4, it was used primarily as a day bomber and reconnaissance aircraft on the Western Front in the summer and fall of 1918. The DH-4 was powered by the American-designed Liberty engine, a powerful 400-hp V-12 engine made by Lincoln, Ford, Packard, Cadillac, and Buick. Some of the Liberty’s parts were produced in Dayton. Dayton-Wright would become the leading manufacture of warplanes in the United States during World War I. Its factories in Miamisburg, Moraine, and on West Third Street in Dayton, completed and shipped 4,587 DH-4s by the war’s end.
The War Department chose three American firms to manufacture the M1917 tank; two of those firms were in Dayton. Workers at Maxwell Motor Car Co.’s Plant Number 2 on Leo Street, and at Platt Iron Works along the Mad River, assembled the tanks, and many of the smaller components were also made by Dayton Firms. The finished tanks were then put through their paces on a special testing track in Deeds Park. Very few of the 325 tanks finished in Dayton made it to France before the war’s end, but in the meantime Dayton had established itself as the center of the American tank industry.
The Army’s Aircraft Production Board commissioned Charles Kettering, Colonel Deeds’ old partner, to design and build an unmanned aircraft, a “flying bomb,” capable of hitting and destroying an enemy target as far as 40 miles away. Working with Orville Wright and Elmer Ambrose Sperry, one of the inventors of the gyroscope, Kettering created a small, lightweight biplane, driven by a four-cylinder engine and guided by gyroscope, capable of delivering a 180-pound high-explosive warhead. The first prototypes were tested in Dayton in October 1918, right before the end of the war. Built by the Dayton-Wright Company, “the Bug” showed some promise in its initial testing, but would never be used in combat.
The war effort at home
Months would pass before American troops were combat-ready, but the war effort at home began on day one. United, for the most part, by patriotic fervor, Daytonians lined up to support their boys in uniform as soon as war was declared. But unity came at a price. A war effort of this magnitude demanded sacrifice and hardship at home as well as in the trenches. And though most Americans believed that they were fighting for “liberty” overseas, they were often intolerant of dissenting voices and suspicious of anyone who did not seem like a “true American.” At the same time, the war swelled the power of the federal government at the expense of individual freedom.
Americans everywhere were eager to volunteer their time and resources for the husbands, sons, and brothers they would be sending into battle overseas. Charitable organizations – like the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross – found a ready place in the war effort.
Red Cross nurses accompanied the very first American troops to go overseas, and the YMCA set up recreation facilities in every American army camp, both in the States and in Europe. But Americans from all walks of life got involved, too. Churches, social clubs, and civic organizations held fundraisers and encouraged women to knit sweaters and scarves for the soldiers.
Grueling war in the trenches
The First World War was the first large-scale conflict of the industrial age, and it witnessed the first significant use of many new and terrifying weapons: the machine-gun, the warplane, the tank, rapid-fire artillery using high-explosive shells, and poison gas. Despite – or maybe because of – the new technology, the conflict became a grueling war of attrition. On the Western Front, where the British and French armies faced off against the forces of Imperial Germany, the war settled down to a tactical stalemate in its first year, as both sides dug in and established almost permanent systems of parallel trenches, separated only by a few hundred yards of “no-man’s land” and festooned with tangles of barbed wire.
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Defenders enjoyed a clear advantage over attackers. Rarely did open assaults against enemy trenches result in anything more than minor and temporary gains, but at a huge cost in lives. Prolonged, bloody, and indecisive battles – like Verdun and the Somme, both in 1916 – were the result.
For ordinary soldiers, the stresses of trench warfare were greater than anything previously known in the history of human combat, and the experience of life in the trenches was simultaneously tedious, terrifying, and miserable. There were few things that the soldiers feared more than poison gas attacks, but in the Great War the foremost killer was artillery fire.
American troops would not have to endure trench warfare for quite so long as their British and French allies. Just before the AEF went into action in the spring of 1918, the German army launched a tremendous offensive, hoping to defeat the Allies before American troops could join the fight in large numbers. The offensive failed, and that summer and fall the U.S. Doughboys would take the lead in a major push to “make the Kaiser dance” and knock Germany out of the war for good.
African-American troops make an impact
African-American men could volunteer for military service, and they were subject to the draft, but the U.S. military was strictly segregated by race. Most African-American volunteers and draftees would be organized into labor battalions, not intended for combat. But two combat divisions – the 92nd and the 93rd – were made up entirely of African-American men. Company commanders and non-commissioned officers were black – at least at first – and the senior commanders were white.
Many white soldiers did not want to serve alongside their black comrades; the units of the 92nd and 93rd distinguished themselves anyway – by fighting under French command. General Pershing detailed several black regiments to reinforce French combat divisions on the Western Front. The French army contained large numbers of troops recruited from France’s colonies, including those in Africa, and hence French commanders welcomed the African-American soldiers with kindness and respect.
Nearing the end
Though the Bolshevik revolution had knocked Russia out of the war for good, the tide of the war was definitely turning against the Central Powers by the fall of 1918. The German people, war-weary and starving, were already on the verge of revolt. The arrival of the Allied Expeditionary Force from the U.S. sealed Germany’s fate on the Western Front. Early in the morning of Monday, Nov. 11, 1918, British, French, and German military leaders negotiated an armistice – a cease-fire, not a permanent peace settlement – to take effect at 11 o’clock that morning.
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The costs of the war were high. Nearly 117,000 Americans had died in the war, and another 200,000 were wounded or maimed. Many more would suffer the debilitating effects of exposure to poison gas for the rest of their lives. Montgomery County claimed a death toll of just under 200 men and women, most likely a conservative figure. Those losses were small when compared to those suffered by the European combatants, but then American forces had only been in battle for a matter of weeks.
Only the Civil War and the Second World War would claim more American lives.
The legacy of the Great War
The First World War shaped the modern world, but it was hardly the “war to end all wars” that President Wilson hoped it would be. It destroyed the last vestiges of the Old Regime in Europe, ushered in an age of totalitarian dictatorships, and made possible a second, greater, world war. American participation in the Great War was brief, it changed everything about American life.
For the first time in its history, the United States had flexed its muscles as a great world power. American men and women had died in the thousands not to protect their country but – as they saw it – to defend freedom and save the world. The war changed what it meant to be a patriot, a citizen, and an American. In profound and sometimes unsettling ways, the First World War helped make the United States what it is today.
Like the movement for women’s suffrage, the temperance movement had been growing in America for some time before the First World War. In fact, prominent suffragettes were among those calling for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. And the war helped the temperance movement just as it helped the suffragettes. German-Americans were the most vocal opponents of Prohibition, but anti-German sentiment during the war silenced them.
In 1918, Congress passed the Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of most alcoholic beverages, in order to conserve grain for the war effort. The 18th Amendment, which put Prohibition into law, was ratified early in 1919 and went into effect in 1920. Though the 18th Amendment would be repealed only 13 years later, in the meantime Prohibition had a tremendous impact on the Dayton economy, effectively gutting the city’s considerable brewing industry after the war.
Changes for women, black Americans
Some African-American leaders, like W.E.B. Dubois, saw in the war an opportunity to show the world that men of color – even if they were denied their most basic rights, even in a country where they were routinely lynched – were just as patriotic and just as American as their white comrades.
Sadly, these hopes were dashed. African-American troops proved their worth on the battlefield, but in the end it did little to change the social or legal standing of people of color. If anything, overt racism surged in the 1920s, as seen in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in Ohio and Indiana right after the war.
One result of the Great War was the “great migration,” as African-Americans moved from the rural South to the industrial towns of the North, like Dayton, in search of employment and a better life. Dayton’s African-American population surged in the years following the First World War.
The struggle for women’s rights in America was not new in 1917. Nor did women attain the right to vote because of the war. In towns like Dayton, Women’s Suffrage Associations were gaining support in the 1910s. But the war, by highlighting the vital role that women played in the war effort, gave the women’s movement a crucial push. After several false starts, the proposed constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote was finally approved in 1920, becoming the law of the land as the 19th Amendment.
After 1918, nothing in the United States was ever the same again.
Paul Lockhart is professor of history at Wright State University, an expert on World War I and the author of numerous history books.
This text by Wright State University history professor Paul Lockhart is excerpted from the upcoming catalog for the exhibition “Over There: Dayton in the Great War,” currently on display at Dayton History’s Carillon Historical Park. To learn more about the exhibition and other things to see and do at the park, visit www.daytonhistory.org.