The U.S. in World War I: A Historical Timeline
AN ERA OF SOCIAL CHANGE IN THE UNITED STATES
Changes in the social fabric in the U.S. (women’s rights, civil rights, socialism, expansion of the federal government) result in major changes like prohibition, censorship restrictions on free speech and free press, and increased political pressure toward isolationism and nationalism. Most of these events occur during the two terms of the "peaceful" and "small government" president, Woodrow Wilson, who eventually abandons neutrality and leads the U.S into World War I.
World War I Begins
Assassination of Ferdinand
Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie are shot and killed by bomb-throwing Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo.
July 5–August 1
Receiving assurances of military support from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, Austrian-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph declares war against Serbia. Treaty-bound to defend Serbia, Russian Czar Nicholas II dispatches his troops and Germany declares war on Russia.
France Enters War
Because of a treaty with Russia, France finds itself at war with neighboring Germany and Austria-Hungary. At midnight in Berlin, Germany uses its worldwide chain of wireless stations to send the message "War declared on England. Make as quickly as you can for a neutral port."
Belgium and Luxembourg Invaded and Britain Declares War
To ensure the shortest route to Paris, Germany invades neutral Belgium and Luxembourg as part of their Schleiffen Plan (sweeping plan). Because of a "moral obligation" to France and Belgium, Great Britain declares war against Germany and Austria-Hungary at 7a.m. GMT. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson officially declares that his country will remain neutral in this "European War."
British Empire Responds
The British Expeditionary Force of 100,000 professional soldiers is dispatched to France. Four months later, over half of these men are dead or wounded. Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and all other parts of the "British Empire" pledge military and financial assistance.
German Atrocities in Belgium
Newspaper accounts of babies bayoneted and mothers raped fuel a propaganda war against the "dirty Hun" (a derogatory nickname for all Germans).
Panama Canal Opens
After 10 years of construction, the Panama Railway’s SS Ancon makes the first official transit of the canal. The planned celebrations are cancelled because of the war. Except for Canada, all nations in the Americas have declared themselves neutral. By treaty, ships from warring nations are limited to a 24-hour "supply and refueling" visit in any neutral port.
First Trenches Dug
Eventually the term "trench warfare" becomes synonymous with "stalemate," as each side repeatedly sends waves of soldiers "over the top" against enemy rifles, machine guns, and artillery just to gain a few feet of ground.
American Field Service (AFS) Ambulances
Former Harvard economics professor A. Piatt Andrew founds the AFS in Massachusetts and then sails to Europe with Ford Model Ts to be used as ambulances for the French army. AFS volunteers eventually save thousands of lives.
Canadian Expeditionary Force Arrives in France
Wearing Canadian uniforms, a small number of American volunteers enter the fighting.
U.S. Loans to Triple Entente
In 1907, Great Britain, France, and Russia formed the "Triple Entente." President Wilson approves a direct loan of $500 million to the three powers. By the end of the war, these loans will reach $2.3 billion.
American Red Cross
World War I creates a mission and identity for the American Red Cross. Three months after war is declared, the SS Red Cross ("The Mercy Ship") is headed to Europe with 170 nurses onboard to provide medical treatment for casualties on both sides. At home, adults and schoolchildren pack hundreds of thousands of cigar boxes with "shaving kits" and send them through the Canadian Red Cross to Allied soldiers.
Battle of the Falkland Islands
The war moves closer to the United States when Admiral Graf Spee’s naval squadron engages British warships off the coast of Argentina. Over several days, British battle cruisers sink the German vessels and rescue survivors.
Alarmed by the proximity, the U.S. Navy dispatches ships and submarines to patrol the Canal Zone.
German Aggression Escalates
Germany Bombs England
Filled with hydrogen, a German zeppelin bombs Britons in Kings Lynn and other small towns. Nine civilians are killed.
Germany Begins Submarine Blockade of Britain
The Kaiser’s navy declares any ship approaching Great Britain is a legitimate target (including those from neutral countries like the United States).
Mexican Punitive Expedition
U.S. General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing had earned his nickname commanding the African-American "Buffalo Soldier" units of the 10th Cavalry. Convinced his African-American soldiers are strong fighters, he includes their segregated units among the 10,000 men of his Mexican Punitive Expedition. For weeks, the MPE forays 350 miles (563 km) into Mexican territory chasing and wounding the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
First U.S. Death in WWI
Massachusetts mining engineer Leon Thrasher dies when the British steamship Falabais attacked by the German submarine U-28. In response, Captain George Van Horn Moseley of the U.S. War College drafts a plan for universal military training for the Army Chief of Staff.
Britain Blockades Germany
President Wilson sends Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to formally protest the "starvation of innocent women and children."
Germans Use Poison Gas
Although both the French and German armies had previously used tear gas in battle, the first use of lethal gas was the chlorine gas barrage at the Second Battle of Ypres. In World War I, gas attacks kill over 1,400 Americans and severely wound over 72,000. Gas-induced respiratory diseases challenged veterans' hospital doctors for decades.
U.S. Occupies Haiti
When anti-American Rosalvo Bobo becomes the president of Haiti, Woodrow Wilson sends in the U.S. Marines to "protect American interests." The U.S. doesn’t withdraw until 1934 under orders from President Franklin Roosevelt.
HMS Lusitania Sunk
Almost 130 Americans are among the nearly 1,200 drowned when the British LinerLusitania is sunk by one torpedo from a German U-boat.
American Industry Profits from War
Two Canadian-built submarines, made with armored hulls fabricated at Bethlehem Steel’s U.S. plant, sail to Britain. U.S. exports of war-related materials (coal, steel, food, fuel, munitions, etc.) soar from $800 million a year to nearly $3 billion annually. Much of this is sold "on credit," encouraging U.S. business to support America entering the war to ensure an Allied victory.
U.S. President Orders Plans for War
President Wilson requests Secretary of War Lindley Garrison and Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels to draft a "defense plan." In protest, lifetime pacifist William Jennings Bryan resigns as Secretary of State.
Germans Execute Edith Cavell
Despite threats of diplomatic sanctions by the U.S. and other nations, Germany executes English nurse Edith Cavell for "treason" by firing squad. Cavell had helped over 200 Allied troops escape from Belgium to neutral Holland.
U.S. Maintains Neutrality as War Rages
The French cross-channel ferryboat Sussex is torpedoed and sunk. Eighty die, including 25 Americans. President Wilson sends an ultimatum to Kaiser Wilhelm that unless German U-boats change tactics, the U.S. will sever diplomatic ties.
Lafayette Escadrille Founded
Dr. Edmund L. Gros recruits fellow American Field Service ambulance drivers to volunteer as pilots for the French in the Lafayette Escadrille. Larger numbers of Americans join Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service, and Royal Air Force (RAF).
The Kaiser issues a pledge that Germany’s submarines will not sink merchant ships without enough warning to safely offload passengers and crews.
The same captain who sunk the Lusitania torpedoes the passenger ship Cymric. U-boat Captain Schwieger receives a wireless message a day later informing him of the SussexPledge, and recalling all U-boats to base.
Italy Declares War on Germany
Originally intended to end the war quickly, the "Italian Campaign" quickly devolves into trench warfare.
Britain Unveils Secret Tanks
Britain unveils 36 of its "super-secret," 30-ton armored tank in the Battle of the Somme. The Germans scrambled to construct similar vehicles, and tanks eventually make trench warfare obsolete.
U-Boat Docks in Nantucket
The new German Submarine U-53 travels over 7,500 miles (12,070 km) before refueling in Newport, Rhode Island. Docking in Nantucket, Americans are invited onboard for a guided tour. The next day, the U-boat sinks seven ships in international waters while American destroyers standby and even move out of the way when signaled, so the Germans can torpedo a Dutch steamer.
(November 7) Wilson Re-elected
Using the slogan "He kept us out of war," President Wilson loses the popular vote to New York Republican Charles Evans Hughes. But Wilson takes California, and the Golden State’s electoral college votes keep him in the White House.
U.S. Occupies Dominican Republic
Already occupying Haiti, U.S. marines quickly establish a military government on the other half of the island under U.S. Admiral Harry S. Knapp. Despite international pressure and sporadic attack by guerilla partisans, the U.S occupies until 1924.
Wilson Sends Peace Note
Wilson sends a "peace note" asking all of the adversaries in the war to put their energies into a "peace process." Germany declines, and newly elected British Prime Minister David Lloyd George vows, "We will win this war—there will be no compromise."
The United States Enters World War I
Using "turnip winter" (where shortages of food and coal caused thousands of civilian deaths) as the rationale, Kaiser Wilhelm approves a memo that "unconditional sub warfare" will begin on January 31.
"Fourteen Points" Speech
President Wilson gives an impassioned speech to the U.S. Senate outlining an "equality of nations," and 13 other principals later used to charter the League of Nations and the United Nations.
Wilson on the War Path
The Germans notify the new U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing that unconditional sub warfare has resumed. President Wilson reacts by saying, "This means war."
The Zimmermann Telegram
U.S. Ambassador Walter Hines Page receives a decoded telegram message from Britain, in which German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann offers the Mexican government an alliance if the U.S. should go to war. In payment, Mexico is promised the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Wilson Asks to Arm Ships
President Wilson makes a speech to Congress requesting they arm merchant ships. During the speech, news arrives that the Laconia had been torpedoed and a mother and daughter from Chicago were among the 12 dead.
Merchant Ships Armed
Unable to break a pacifist filibuster in the Senate, President Wilson uses an executive order to arm merchant ships.
Czar Nicholas Abdicates
Russian Czar Nicholas II abdicates after the "February Revolution," and the royal family is imprisoned.
March 26–April 6
Secret U.S. Overseas Mission
U.S. Admiral William H. Sims arrives in Britain on a secret mission to assess deployment needs. President Wilson uses an executive order to seize 109 German ships in U.S. ports (most are rechristened and refitted as troop or supply ships). The U.S. Naval Academy class of 1917 graduates three months early and is immediately assigned to duty.
American Flying Boats
Carrying enough fuel for six-hour flights, American-made Curtiss flying boats begin "spider patrols" for U-boats in the southern part of the North Sea.
U.S. Declares War
A war bill easily passes in Congress and is signed into law by President Wilson.
Congress Authorizes War Bonds
Congress overwhelmingly approves issuing $7 billion in war bonds. The first $2 billion bond offer sells out almost immediately.
U.S. Destroyers Head For Europe
Six destroyers leave Boston bound for the first U.S. military actions against Germany.
Selective Service Act
Congress authorizes funding for a new Selective Service prohibiting draftees from hiring another to take their place (as they had since the Civil War). On this date, there are fewer than 121,000 men in the U.S. military. By the end of World War I, nearly 4.8 million Americans have served in the armed forces, more than half draftees.
General "Black Jack" Pershing Arrives in Britain
Pershing is appointed to command the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe. General Pershing is greeted warmly by King George V. Black Jack’s command style (including his belief that African-American troops should be on the front lines) soon grates on British and French commanders.
Espionage Act of 1917
Urged to do so by President Wilson and Attorney General Thomas Gregory, Congress passes laws that prohibit attempts to interfere with military actions, support for any of America’s enemies during wartime, promoting insubordination in the military, or interference with military recruitment.
Troop Transport Ships
Protected by convoys, the first three U.S. troop transports reach France. Over two million American soldiers will eventually be brought to Europe in this way.
Peasant followers of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Alexander Bogdanov seize power in Russia, attacking the wealthy and pillaging their homes and shops. Both the army and navy are "bolshevized," as many units mutiny and replace officers with men from the revolutionaries' ranks. In addition, all factories, banks, bank accounts, and church properties and assets are nationalized, and foreign debts (including over $100 million owed to the U.S.) are repudiated.
U.S. Orders 22,000 Airplanes
Congress authorizes $640,000 for the manufacture of 22,000 airplanes for the army and navy.
The Beginning of the End
American Nurses Die
Pioneering U.S. Army nurses Amabel Scharff Roberts and Helen Fairchild die from war-related diseases just a day apart. They represent the over 31,000 American women who wore Army, Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, or Signal Corps uniforms during the war.
Stars and Stripes
The U.S. Army begins printing the weekly Stars and Stripes newspaper in France. Featuring news, poetry, cartoons, and sports coverage, it continues until June 13, 1919.
Russia Signs Peace Treaty
Vladimir Lenin’s Russian government signs a peace treaty with Central Powers, including Germany.
Food Administration (USFA) Established
President Wilson appoints Herbert Hoover head of the U.S. Food Administration. The new agency is responsible for convincing civilians that "Food Will Win the War" through non-rationed price-controls aided by "Wheatless Wednesdays" and "Meatless Mondays."
Committee On Public Information (CPI) Formed
Under executive order, President Wilson appoints journalist George Creel chair of the CPI and assigns him the formidable task of establishing a "propagation of faith in the war effort" through advertising. Enlisting the aid of churches, youth organizations like the YWCA and Boy Scouts, newspapers, radio, and Hollywood, a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign quickly spreads nationwide.
Battle of Cantigny
U.S. Expeditionary Forces launch an offensive under the command of French General Foch.
June 1–June 26
Battle of Balleau Wood
U.S. General Omar Bundy’s Second and Third Infantry Divisions fight against a half dozen German units.
July 15–August 6
Second Battle of the Marne
In the last large German offensive in the war, Germany loses when a French-led Allied counterattack inflicts total casualties of 168,000. The battle marks an end of a string of German victories and signals a coming trend of Allied successes.
Nicholas II Murdered
Ousted Czar Nicholas II and his family are murdered by the Bolsheviks.
USS San Diego Sunk
Six sailors die after the old cruiser USS San Diego hits a German mine off Fire Island, New York. This remains the only large American warship lost in the war.
War Industries Board (WIB) Created
Financier and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch is appointed chair of the WIB, the agency deciding which goods private industry should create, establishing their "fair" price and negotiating labor-management disputes.
U.S. Wages "Secret War" in Siberia
Despite urging from other allies, President Wilson remains opposed to sending U.S. troops into the Russian Civil War, but the summer arrival of Japanese occupation forces in Siberia changes his mind. Within six weeks, a 3,000-man American Expeditionary Force lands in Vladivostok to fight Bolshevik partisans and win the release of the "imprisoned" Czech Legion.
Influenza Epidemic Attacks Troopships
Despite taking sanitary precautions, soldiers and sailors on troopships are decimated by influenza on the 14-day cross-Atlantic voyages. So many die from pneumonia that they are buried at sea. Censorship is imposed, and families are told their sons died from "war-related injuries." Labeled the "Spanish Flu" (because neutral Spain had no censorship and international papers printed daily updates of King Alfonso’s fight against the virus), the pandemic spread quickly. All told, one-third of the world's population became ill, and over four percent, or 100 million, died.
Battle of San Mihiel
U.S. General Pershing finally gets to lead his AEF as an independent army. This was also the first major battle for the U.S Army Air Service, which proves invaluable as the Germans retreat.
Hollywood Sells War Bonds
In addition to joining movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in cross-country war bond rallies, Charlie Chaplin produces the propaganda film The Bond at his own expense. Effectively highlighting the positive effects of buying Liberty Bonds (and the negative effects of failing to do so), the short film reinvigorates flagging bond sales.
Meuse Argonne Offensive
Called the Battle of the Argonne Forest by American soldiers stationed in that area, this major Allied offensive stretches along the entire Western Front. With the objective of capturing the railroad hub at Sedan, which would break the rail net supporting the German Army in France and Flanders, the Allies emerge victorious on November 6.
German and Austrian "Peace Notes"
Germany and Austria forward "peace notes" to President Wilson requesting a mutual agreement to end the fighting instead of conceding defeat.
German Subs Docked
Unrestricted submarine warfare is halted and all U-boats are called back to their homeports.
Kaiser Wilhelm Abdicates
German Kaiser Wilhelm flees his country and travels to the Netherlands for sanctuary.
At 11a.m., "The War to End All Wars" ends.
Paris Peace Conference
A series of meetings determine the "terms of peace" for Germany and the other defeated nations.
Wilson Gets Sick in Paris President Wilson returns to peace talks in Paris but contracts influenza and is confined to a hospital bed.
Germany signs a treaty drafted by the "Big Four" (U.S. President Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Premier Vittorio Orlando of Italy, and Premier George Clenenceau of France), which includes huge reparation demands.
Wilson and the Italians
President Wilson appeals directly to Italian Premier Orlando, who then walks out of the peace talks because the treaty leaves the Fiume region (Rijeka, today Croatia) as part of Yugoslavia instead of transferring it to Italy.
The Treaty of Versailles
The remaining "Big Three" nations draft the Treaty of Versailles, which is submitted to the German delegation. It cedes Alsace-Lorraine to France, gives Germany full responsibility for the war, and demilitarizes the Rhineland. It also stipulates that Kaiser Wilhelm and several other leaders are to be tried as war criminals for "supreme offense against international morality," and that Germany must pay $37 billion in reparations. It is officially signed on July 28, when Italian Premier Orlando returns for the ceremony.
Women in the Workforce
Due to the war and the influenza pandemic, women occupy jobs formerly held by 16 percent of the U.S. male workforce. When the soldiers return, most working women (war widows included) are fired and men are hired to take their places.
In the midst of a cross-country tour promoting the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, President Wilson suffers a stroke. Described as a "nervous breakdown" to government officials and the public, Wilson’s paralyzed condition is a closely guarded secret. Despite the president of the United States being comatose and needing a mechanical breathing machine to stay alive, Vice President Thomas Marshall is not told the truth. For over a year, the country is "stewarded" by Wilson’s wife, Edith, who "manages" all communication with her invalid husband.
Senate Rejects Treaty of Versailles
Isolationists against the League of Nations provision in the Treaty of Versailles use filibusters to delay a vote and eventually garner enough support to block ratification.
Wilson Wins Nobel Peace Prize
The Nobel Committee awards U.S. President Wilson the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. The ceremony is placed on reserve, and a year later, the medal is accepted in the ailing president’s absence by U.S. Minister to Norway, Albert G. Schmedeman.
(March 19) Treaty of Versailles Remains Unsigned
After months of rancorous debate and repeated invocation of special Senate rules, the final vote in Congress defeats the U.S. ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.
(October 19) Senate OKs Treaty of Berlin
Newly elected President Warren G. Harding uses his influence in the Senate to gain passage of the alternative "Treaty of Berlin " (which includes no mention of the League of Nations) with a 66 to 20 vote. Treaties with other World War I opponents soon follow, but an increasingly isolationist United States never joins the League of Nations.