100 years ago, war declaration started The American Century
ROMAGNE-SOUS-MONTFAUCON, France — Carpenter Guy Ford liked to watch fish play in the currents around his ship as it sailed for Europe to offload untested troops for a war as horrendous as it was defining for the century to come.
Ford would soon lose his innocence. But unlike many young Americans who fought in World War I, he lived to see his country go from a fledging, inward-looking nation to a world power.
Before April 6, 1917, the United States still was, in the words of American writer Walter Lippmann, a country where "money spent on battleships would be better spent on schoolhouses."
Then, 100 years ago Thursday, the United States declared war on Germany and, following victory in 1918, started what would eventually become known as "The American Century."
Guy Ford, an only child from Ronceverte, West Virginia, was closing in on 30 when the so-called Great War started in August 1914. It was nearly three years before the United States joined in.
President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He has kept us out of war." Another of his campaign catchphrases had a more contemporary ring: "America first."
In Europe, both sides had dug in for trench warfare, relentless shelling and gas attacks in northern France and Belgium. Some days there were tens of thousands of casualties in unprecedented carnage.
Ford's granddaughter, Mary Thompson, who also lives in West Virginia, retraced his steps through the war and saw all too many graves and battle sites scarring fresh green pastures with hedges in precocious bloom.
"I can't imagine a boy from Summers County in West Virginia coming to this country and marching ahead of death bombs," she said.
Nor, for most of the war, could most Americans.
THEY WERE ESSENTIAL
Despite outrage over German destruction and atrocities, it took until April 2, 1917 for Wilson to call for war in an address to Congress. "American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of," he said. He asked for war. Four days later, Congress obliged.
By then, millions had already died. The U.S. entry changed everything.
"Why? There was a real deadlock," said Professor Luc De Vos, a military historian from Leuven University. It took more than a year for Guy Ford and hundreds of thousands of other young Americans to be ready for the front lines. When war was declared, "the U.S. army was smaller than the Danish army and much smaller than the Belgian," De Vos said.
So it was May 26, 1918, when Ford left. He kept a small diary noting in short form how seas were rough, target practice was held and with "wind blowing schools of fish at play."
On July 4, when others at home were celebrating Independence Day, his diary recorded traveling through the French countryside toward battle. "Was issued overcoat before leaving. Air raid that night."
As he was making the 850-kilometer (530-mile) trip across France to the Verdun region with the 305th Engineering Battalion of the 80th Division, the war was entering its end game, though the outcome appeared much more uncertain than it seems now in hindsight.
The arrival of up to 2.1 million U.S. troops became an ever-bigger factor.
"At that decisive moment in the balance of powers, the 2 million Americans — young, enthusiastic troops, they attacked and they were everywhere," De Vos said.
THE DEAD MAN
A century later, the landscape of the Meuse-Argonne where Ford fought, is still a patchwork of rich pasture and forests that once provided hiding for the American and German soldiers.
At a vital stage of World War I in the fall of 1918, the Meuse-Argonne offensive was the biggest and bloodiest operation of the American Expeditionary Force. It involved more than 1.2 million U.S. soldiers and lasted 47 days, with a loss of over 26,000 American lives. Ford survived.
Today, only birdsong and the distant hum of lawnmowers break the solemn silence at the vast Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Days before the centennial, gardeners neatly clipped every edge of greenery and raked leaves left from winter. It is the largest American cemetery in Europe and memorializes 15,200 war dead.
At such huge cost, the Americans drove the Germans back ever farther when, on Nov. 11, the armistice ended the fighting.
IT COULD HAVE BEEN SOMETHING FROM THE WAR
In May 1919, Guy Ford left a Europe in ruins and went home to West Virginia.
He married, had a boy and then a set of twin sons. He died In 1934, his 46th year. Countless people had returned from the war with physical and mental scars never fully examined.
"We'll never know what caused his death," Mary Thompson said. "We understood from relatives that it was his heart, but who knows — it could have been something from the war."
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