WWI Centennial: An Overview

Frank Hurley/Getty Images
Frank Hurley/Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. For the last six years we’ve been covering the causes and major events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. All the entries in the WWI Centennial blog are available in reverse chronological order, along with other stories about the war, here.

With the final climactic year underway, we’re also providing a (relatively) condensed version so new readers can catch up and long-time readers can refresh their memories.

1914: THE CONFLICT BEGINS

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb nationalists in Sarajevo, the leaders of the ailing Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to use the murder of the heir to the throne as a pretext to crush their troublesome neighbor, the Kingdom of Serbia, once and for all. With support from their powerful ally Germany, they delivered an ultimatum to Serbia with demands so outrageous it was guaranteed to be rejected, giving them an excuse to declare war.

But Germany and Austria-Hungary’s clumsy efforts to “localize” the conflict went off the rails in the “July Crisis.” After Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, on July 30 Serbia’s Slavic patron Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary and Germany. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia and its ally France, and on August 4 Britain declared war on Germany after German troops violated Belgian neutrality as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

As war rippled across the planet, fighting defied expectations on both sides. France’s attempt to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine ended in bloody defeat during the Battle of the Frontiers, while the Germans overcame the odds to destroy the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, and Austria-Hungary suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Serbs at Kolubara. In September Germany’s invasion of northern France failed decisively at the “Miracle on the Marne,” and the exhausted Germans retreated north and dug in, marking the emergence of trench warfare.

The opposing armies now tried to outflank each other again and again, without success, in the “Race to the Sea,” leaving parallel lines of trenches behind them, eventually reaching the North Sea in Flanders in western Belgium. Here the Germans made one last push to break through the Allied lines at Ypres (fated to be the scene of two more titanic battles in the years to come). As 1914 drew to a close, the horrific casualties shocked the world, and the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in November just spread the bloody stalemate further.  However there was a brief moment of good cheer with the famous Christmas Eve Truce.


Erik Sass

1915: GALLIPOLI AND THE GREAT RETREAT

The following year was marked by more disappointments and surprises. Frustrated on the Western Front, Britain and France tried, and failed, to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with a long shot attempt to “force” the Turkish straits with warships, followed by amphibious landings, resulting in an even worse defeat at Gallipoli.

Although the Turks held off the Allied attacks, the threat to the Turkish homeland, along with the fact that some Armenian Christians were helping their Russian co-religionists invade the empire, prompted the Ottoman “Young Turk” triumvirate to unleash the Armenian Genocide, killing around 1.5 million by 1917. At the same time, after a year of heated debate Italy—thinking Gallipoli was going to be a big Allied victory—finally joined the Allies with a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, but immediately became bogged down in trench warfare as well.

In spring 1915 Germany outraged public opinion with two brutal new weapons: poison gas and submarine warfare. The German Fourth Army unleashed chlorine gas on Allied forces at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, causing horrific casualties but ultimately failing to achieve a breakthrough, thanks to the bravery of Canadian troops; This set the pattern for the rest of the war, as both sides used poison gas to amplify the effects of artillery bombardments on enemy trenches—with terrible but rarely decisive effects.

Meanwhile Germany’s decision to mount unrestricted U-boat warfare brought her to the brink of war with the United States, the world’s most powerful neutral nation. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 infuriated the American public and pushed the U.S. towards the Allies (although there was also anger at the Allied blockade of the Central Powers, which hurt U.S. business interests). The Germans backed down, but remained determined to cut the Allies off from American industry, the key to sustaining the Allied war effort.

The summer of 1915 brought the first major breakthrough of the war on the Eastern Front, with the Central Powers’ rapid conquest of Russian Poland during the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign. The Russian Great Retreat, as it came to be known, was a huge setback, prompting Tsar Nicholas II to take over personal command of the Russian Army—meaning he would be held responsible for future defeats. And worse was to come for the Allies: in October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and helped crush Serbia. The remnants of the Serbian Army managed to escape through Albania, and were subsequently evacuated by Allied ships to the island of Corfu. Eventually the Serbian Army was redeployed in Salonika in northern Greece, reinforcing Allied troops recently evacuated from Gallipoli in a belated effort to help Serbia from the south.


Erik Sass

1916: CATASTROPHIC CASUALTIES

Some of the biggest battles in human history occurred in Europe the following year, beginning with the incredible German onslaught at Verdun in February 1916. A cold-blooded German plan to “bleed France dry” through simple attrition, Verdun soon spun out of control, resulting in almost as many casualties for the Germans as the French. The failure led to the firing of chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, replaced in September 1916 by Paul von Hindenburg (aided by his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff).

In June 1916 the Russians launched their most successful offensive of the war by far, orchestrated by General Alexei Brusilov, a pioneer of “combined arms,” in which attacks by artillery, infantry and airplanes were carefully coordinated to punch holes in widely separated portions of the enemy front at once. The Brusilov Offensive, as it became known, resulted in the almost total collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in Galicia by September 1916, forcing Germany to withdraw troops from other parts of the front to prop up its beleaguered ally, at which point the Russian offensive sputtered.

The summer of 1916 was a grim time for the Central Powers, as the British also launched their biggest offensive of the war to date at the Somme. The Allies inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans but also suffered breathtaking losses, with 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day alone (July 1, 1916). In the weeks to come the British scored more victories, pushing the enemy back again and again, but the Germans were always able to dig into new defensive positions; the battlefield debut of tanks in September 1916 spread terror in the German ranks but failed to provide a decisive advantage.

In another case of bad timing, in August 1916 Romania—encouraged by Russian success in the Brusilov Offensive and the British advance at the Somme—joined the Allies in hopes of conquering Austria-Hungary’s ethnic Romanian provinces. However this soon proved a disastrous mistake, as Germany rushed more reinforcements to the Balkans and swiftly crushed the Romanians with help from the Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians and Turks, occupying Bucharest by winter.


Erik Sass

1917: THE U.S. ENTERS THE WAR

The fourth year of the war started and ended with upheaval. Leading the way was the Russian Revolution in March 1917, when workers and soldiers overthrew the Romanov Dynasty and seized power on behalf of the Duma, or parliament. However the new Provisional Government was always weak, forced to share power with the Petrograd Soviet, a socialist assembly representing soldiers and workers, and leftist radicals in the Soviet, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, wanted to overthrow the Provisional Government too.

The radicals got a boost with the failure of the disastrous offensive ordered by War Minister Alexander Kerensky in July, followed by an abortive military coup led by a conservative general, Kornilov, which undermined popular support for the new regime. After their own failed coup attempt in July, the Bolsheviks finally succeeded in overthrowing the Provisional Government in November, supposedly seizing power on behalf of the socialist Soviets—but in reality for themselves. The Bolsheviks would soon take Russia out of the war, a huge setback for the Allies.

This wasn’t their only problem. In March 1917 the Germans made a surprise withdrawal to formidable new defenses on the Western Front, known as the Hindenburg Line, in order to shorten their line and free up forces to fight elsewhere. Following the bloody defeat of the French spring offensive on the Western Front, half the French Army mutinied in May 1917, paralyzing the French war effort. Although General Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun, set about improving conditions and restoring order, it would take months before the French Army was able to mount a major offensive. To take the pressure off their weakened ally, the British launched a gigantic offensive at the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, which achieved some gains, but again ultimately failed to break through the German lines. The stunning Italian defeat at Caporetto then forced the British to halt the offensive to reinforce the Italian front.

Fortunately for Britain and France, an even bigger ally was rumbling into action. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February 1917, followed by the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the Germans secretly encouraged Mexico to declare war on the U.S., outraged American public opinion so much that President Woodrow Wilson got Congress to declare war on Germany on April 4, 1917. But it would take time for the U.S. to build an army big enough to make a difference in Europe.


Erik Sass

After the Bolsheviks agreed to an armistice in December, Russia’s exit from the war and descent into civil war spelled bad news for the Allies. As 1917 drew to a close, the big question was whether the Germans would be able to transfer troops from the Eastern Front and crush the overstretched British and French before American troops started arriving in large numbers? This was the final race that would decide the outcome of the war.

Civil War Cannonballs Found on South Carolina Beach in Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images
ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian skimmed the United States' East Coast last week, creating a trail of damage residents are still dealing with. But it wasn't just trash and debris the storm surges left behind: As WCSC reports, two cannonballs dating back to the Civil War were discovered on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the aftermath of the storm.

Aaron Lattin and his girlfriend Alba were walking on the beach on September 6 when they saw what looked like rocks nestled in the sand. As they examined them more closely, they realized they had found something much more special. The weathered objects were actually cannonballs that have likely been buried in the area for more than 150 years.

Incredibly, this isn't the first time Civil War cannonballs have been discovered on Folly Beach following a hurricane: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew unearthed 16 of them. Folly Island was used as a Union base a century and a half ago, and items leftover from the artillery battery built there are still scattered around the shoreline. The couple behind this latest discovery believes there are more waiting to be found.

Old cannonballs may look like cool artifacts to treasure hunters, but they should still be treated with caution. Police and bombs disposal technicians were called to the scene at Folly Beach to confirm the cannonballs were no longer functional.

[h/t WCSC]

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER