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[Detail] A French officer and his British ally at the front read the New York Times.

War in Europe

In 1914 the United States seemed preoccupied with affairs in the Americas, and isolationists urged the government to keep a hands-off policy in the brewing turmoil in Europe. Although the press covered the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and the ensuing mobilizations, the first war-related rotogravures in the collection are in the August 30, 1914, edition of the New York Times. Examine the photographs on the front page of this edition. What appeared to be the mood in Paris as French troops prepared to go to the front?

By September, rotogravures revealed to the American public the devastation of the war in Belgium. Less than three weeks after the outbreak of war, the Belgium fortress of Liege had fallen and Brussels was occupied by the Germans. Louvain, a university town between Liege and Brussels, was occupied and remained relatively at peace until a sniper shot a German soldier. Suspects were executed and by August 25 the city was set ablaze and sacked. Louvain was pillaged for six days. The city’s famous Gothic town hall and the church of St. Pierre were demolished during the mayhem. Over the next few months, readers were bombarded by pictures of destruction and dislocation of citizens.

Examine the photos listed below, considering how Americans of the time would have reacted to these photographs. Write a letter to the editor of the New York Times from the perspective of an interventionist or isolationist, describing the sentiments invoked by these photographs of the destruction of war.

The Allies, to help break the stalemate on the Western Front, sought to open new fronts; in April 1915, they landed a force along the Dardanelles on the Gallipoli peninsula, with the intent to force Turkey out of the war. Allied troops were unable to break through, and the campaign ended in failure after months of fighting and the slaughter of Allied troops. Examine the photo, captions, and map of the Dardanelles from the War of the Nations. Conduct a keyword search using the search term Gallipoli for additional photographs of the campaign.

  • What was the strategic value of the Gallipoli Peninsula?
  • Why did the Allies commit large numbers of troops to the campaign?
  • What were the geographic obstacles to success of the Allied invasion?
  • What factors account for the failure of the offensive?

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In the early days of the war, when the United States was officially neutral, U.S. newspapers printed pictures of German U-boat crews awarded medals by the Kaiser for sinking British cruisers. Such flattering photographs of German U-boat activities were, however, soon replaced with shocking images of the sinking of the British liner Lusitania. Use the search word Lusitania to locate rotogravures printed in May 1915, shortly after the sinking of the liner on May 7. In August, a U-boat sank the Arabic, a British passenger vessel. Two Americans onboard were killed, and President Wilson threatened to break diplomatic relations with Germany. International outrage over the sinking of passenger liners led Germany to order an end to the “sink on sight” policy, resulting in a lessening of tensions.

  • How did the torpedoing of the British ocean liner arouse American public opinion regarding the war?
  • What factors may have accounted for the Wilson administration’s decision not to enter the war following the attack on the Lusitania?

In a bold attempt to break through German lines, the French set off a mine of 22,000 pounds of explosives on the Somme front in early 1917. The explosive created a vast mine crater but failed to break the stalemate. Later that year, British forces dug 19 tunnels under German lines and set off nearly 1 million pounds of explosives, killing some 20,000 German soldiers but still failing to break the stalemate.

In January 1917, the Kaiser abandoned pledges to refrain from attacking passenger liners and committed Germany to unrestricted submarine warfare beginning on February 1. In mid-January the British turned over to the United States a decoded message, the Zimmerman Telegram, urging Mexico to join with Germany if the United States entered the war and promising the return of lands taken during the Mexican-American War. The United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3. On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress. War was declared on April 6, 1917.

U.S. entry into the war offered the Allies hope that fresh military forces could finally break through German lines in France and Belgium. On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed, allowing the president to draft men between the ages of 21 and 31 into the military. By September 1918, more men were needed, and the draft age was expanded to 18 to 45. Approximately 400,000 African Americans, both draftees and volunteers, served in the military during World War I.

Search the collection for information about campaigns and battles in which U.S. forces played a significant role; the following will be useful search terms—Chateau Thierry, St. Mihiel, Belleau Wood, and Aisne.

  • What evidence can you find in the collection to confirm or refute the argument that President Wilson refrained from going to war until after the presidential election of 1916?
  • How did German policies in early 1917 shift American public opinion away from neutrality? Why would Germany risk U.S. entry into the war by resorting to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917?
  • How did American forces help turn the tide of battle, breaking the stalemate on the Western Front?

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