Column: Remembering 1918 and the march for democracy

Published April 9 2018
Updated May 29 2018

here is no doubt that this is a challenging and, in many ways, unsettling time for our country. From Russian interference in our elections, mass shootings in our schools, a federal government unable or unwilling to govern, the news appears universally bad. But we cannot let this special year — the centenary of the end of the Great War — pass without remembering and celebrating what even a deeply flawed country can accomplish when it comes together.

A hundred years ago western, representative democracy was literally on the brink and being challenged on a battlefield. The First World War had raged for 3˝ years, and the previous year 1917 had been a bad one. Russia was out of the war, facing turmoil and collapse within its own borders. The French Army had mutinied and could be counted on simply to hold ground, if that. The Italians were spent.

Britain and its vast Commonwealth was at the full limits of its exertions. The Germans, the kaiser’s army, the best trained, best equipped and one of the best led, stood poised for the final push. The forces of militarism were ready to defeat those of democracy. And then there were the Americans.

Wholly unprepared for a savage war on this scale, the United States had entered the war reluctantly. In November 1916, President Woodrow Wilson had won re-election at least partly because he had kept us out of war; but by April 1917 American deaths and threats to the nation had overtaken the president and Congress declared war. Wilson led us into war essentially in defense of an idea: a world safe for democracy. We sought no territory, no gains. We threw our might behind the idea of peace and autonomy against forces of militarism poised to snuff out the light.

Fighting for liberty

This all seems quite naive to our 21st century ears. But to millions of American men and women, defense of democracy was not trite, not naive. They were moved to action.

The United States was entering a war that few understood, thousands of miles away that had started for reasons even policy makers at the highest levels had not yet figured out. Historians still debate the war’s origins. Regardless, move we did. Hundreds of thousands of Americans joined an army without guns to train them, uniforms to clothe them or tents to cover their heads. They proudly planted victory gardens, dutifully purchased war bonds, mutually created meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays, and created more time in the day with Daylight Saving Time. And, again, all for a cause that on its face was of no material benefit or gain to the nation. We moved for an idea: democracy. We fought for an inalienable right: freedom.

America took just over a year to equip, train and transport, through submarine-invested waters, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Once there we fought with our Allies, who were starved for men, to even remain a cohesive fighting force.

The spring of 1918, however, saw the Allies far from victory. After the onslaught of Operation Michael in March, the Germans were once again knocking at the gates of Paris, even shelling it with their massive rail gun. The British had barely held, the Fifth Army was destroyed, and the French were once again holding at the Marne. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk concluded the war in the east. The Germans had momentum and rushed troops and material west where they were to face the Americans.

The German High Command was skeptical at best of the Americans’ ability to make an impact on the war in time. It was believed that the United States could not train, deploy or fight a modern mechanized war. The last large-scale military conflict for America was 53 years in the past, and that one was against ourselves. The Germans were convinced that our soldiers would fail when faced with the horrors of modern warfare against an enemy who had made a science of it.

On May 28, 1918, the kaiser — the world — realized the hubris of underestimating the American spirit. At Cantigny, the U.S. First Division went into battle. This was the first independent action planned and executed by the Americans in the war. Designed by a young lieutenant colonel named George Marshall, the Americans took the town and pushed the German lines back over three days of fighting. They would not stop moving forward and the Germans found they had only one way to go: back. The Germans may have had one of the best armies in the world, but as the Duke of Wellington said at Waterloo about the French Cavalry, "they went down very well too."

The German Army was far from beat, however, and Gen. Eric Ludendorff would go on the offensive once more. In June 1918 America faced our first large scale engagements of the Great War. The U.S. Marines would add to their legend in Belleau Wood; falling, rising, fighting in hand-to-hand combat, and clearing the Germans from the forest. The Third Division earned the nickname it still carries to this day: "The Rock of the Marne."

The American contribution

By the fall of 1918, there was no doubt that the U.S. Army was providing the impetus to victory. In September came the Battle of Saint Mihiel, which caught the Germans already shortening their lines. Then finally came the hell that was the Meuse-Argonne, still one of the largest-scale battles in our nation’s history. The last 100 days of World War I was a triumph for the United States Army, but victory came at a terrible cost; 117,465 lives were lost to combat and disease.

Facing a massive effort by the British to the north and the French, under the unflappable leadership of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the German Army figuratively and literally broke as a fighting force and the German Empire finally brought to heel.

In the decades that followed the end of the Great War, there has been much debate over the size and scale of the American contribution to victory. The losses of our Allies, particularly France and Britain, were so great in number compared to our own. But a hundred years on, and with the perspective of time, there is little doubt. The United States made the difference; we provided the men and material, in the air, on the seas and, yes, on land, that won the war. With America in the fight, the Allies had a chance and they took it. Without America, it is hard to see such an outcome.

It is now 2018, a time when we can look back, remember, and be proud. It is an opportunity to remember the Lafayette Escadrille, Americans who marched for liberty even before their country, and Eddie Rickenbacker, a race car driver with no college degree, who took to the air and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism. Then there were the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, African-American soldiers who were not even allowed to serve with their countrymen and assigned to the French instead. These men fought and died for a country who considered them second-class citizens. But they proved time and again that heroism — not the color of their skin — was more than a match for the enemy. The French simply wished they could have more African-American troops. The Germans, they called them "Hell Fighters," and hence the name. Sgt. Alvin York, the Lost Battalion, there are so many to remember.

My great-grandfather

Most of all, there are the doughboys who are no longer with us; the last veterans of the Great War who died years ago and will soon slip even from living memory. My great-grandfather Curtis Boozman Sr., was a doughboy. A teenager in the 42nd Division, called the Rainbow Division, meant to represent the uniting of our country. He joined the army to escape poverty, was sent to France — the only time he would ever leave the county — and he witnessed, heard, and smelled things which no teenage boy should see or endure. It stayed with him the rest of his life.

Not just this Memorial Day weekend, but through all of 2018 let us most of all this year remember the doughboys. The men, boys really, who fought to make the world safe for democracy. President Woodrow Wilson tried to sum up the contribution of this generation of Americans with these words when dedicating an American cemetery in France on Memorial Day 1919:

Never before have men crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own, but knew was the cause of humanity and of mankind.

We are a deeply flawed country, in 2018 no less than 1918. In 1918, we were segregated by race, divided by gender and class. In some degree, those same problems plague us today. But we have come far, and we will go farther still.

Let us not see the challenges today in a vacuum but pause and remember the country that we were. The doughboy went "over there," the pilot flew before parachutes were common, the Marine and sailor sailed when the convoy was a brand-new tactic.

On Monday, take a moment to look to the east and listen for the sound of the guns; and on Nov. 11, fly the flag higher with pride and with hope because even with great fault and in troubled times, Americans will always fight to protect democracy and march for freedom.

Scott Arceneaux is the president of Arceneaux Strategies, LLC, a political consulting firm based in Jacksonville. From 2009 to 2017, he was the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and previous served as executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. He can be reached at [email protected] and on twitter at @Scott_Arceneaux.

Also In This Section