The Tragic Final Hours on the American Fighting Front in WWI were Needlessly Brutal

By Khalid Elhassan

By late September of 1918, it had become clear to German military commanders that they had lost World War I. Germany had suffered nearly two million soldiers killed – the final figure would top 2,037,000 – and millions more wounded. The country was financially ruined, with defeat staring at its soldiers on the battlefront, and starvation stalking its civilian population at home. Accordingly, the Germans approached American president Woodrow Wilson in early October to negotiate terms, which eventually led to the Armistice of November 11th, 1918.

However, you know how there is always that one guy at the office who does not get that memo about important developments? American front line soldiers seem to have not gotten the memo in the closing hours of WWI that the conflict was about to end. As a result, thousands of Americans ended up killed and wounded during the last few hours of the war, launching needless assaults against German trenches and heavily fortified positions. Trenches and positions that the Germans, who by then had already thrown in the towel, would have abandoned within a few hours.

American soldiers, celebrating news of the Armistice. Wikimedia

By War’s End, the Americans Were the Only Forces Still Eager For Combat

Germany’s decision to call it a day was a good thing for all involved, because by then Britain and France, who had been engaged with the Kaiser’s troops in a four year uninterrupted death grapple on the Western Front, were themselves nearing the end of their tether. British and Dominion troops had suffered about a million deaths and millions more injured, while Britain herself was on the verge of financial ruin, having mortgaged itself to the hilt to pay for the war. France was even worse off, having suffered more casualties from a smaller population base, and a dispirited French Army had engaged in widespread mutinies a year earlier, after one too many harebrained assaults produced nothing but staggering casualties.

Indeed, had it not been for the arrival of fresh American troops, it could well have been the Entente Powers chucking it in and throwing the towel in 1918. Luckily for the Entente, and unfortunately for the Germans, America’s entry into the conflict decisively tilted the balance of power in favor of the former and against the latter. In line with just how exhausting and close run a thing the war had been, those engaged in it since the beginning in 1914 were ready to wait for the clock to run once it became clear that the Germans were about to give up. Except for the Americans, that is.

America had declared war against Germany on April 6th, 1917, but it took over a year before American forces arrived in France in significant numbers. Between the need to create a mass army from scratch – the US Army had numbered only 100,000 men as late as 1916 – then organize, train, equip, and ship it overseas, it was not until the spring of 1918 that American forces began landing in France in large numbers. The American buildup steadily gathered pace, and by the summer of 1918, US forces were landing in France at a rate of 10,000 soldiers a day, at a time when the Germans were unable to replace their losses.

The railway carriage in which the Armistice was signed. Pintrest

The British and French welcomed the new arrivals, who got there just in time to help beat back the Germans’ Spring Offensive of March to July, 1918 – a last gasp effort by the Kaiser’s men to win the war before America made her weight felt and made the war unwinnable for Germany. The newly arrived troops, brimming with typical American optimism, were fresh and full of fight, eager to come to grips with the Germans and show them what’s what.

Inexperienced American commanders were even more eager than their men, whom they repeatedly launched against the Germans in full frontal attacks, utilizing flawed tactics that had been abandoned by the French and British years earlier. The results were often high American casualties, not commensurate with the gains achieved. However, the American soldiers’ elan often made up for what their commanders lacked in tactical savvy. It was against that backdrop of American eagerness to take the fight to the enemy, coupled with a barely concealed element of “we just got here” line of thinking, that the final Armistice was negotiated.