Mobilizing for War

AEF marching
AEF marching

The USA enter the Great War. A hard time for German-Americans.

[USA, 1917] President Wilson had declared war on Germany, the USA entered the Great War as an “Associated Power” to the Allies. As the USA had only a little army, a system of conscription was introduced by the Selective Service Act on May 18, 1917, 2,8 million men were drafted. On May 26, Major General John J. Pershing was appointed as commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.)

American Expeditionary Forces

The USA was almost totally unprepared: it would take many months to raise, train and bring the expeditionary force across the Atlantic to Europe, and there was almost no heavy artillery pieces, a small air service only, less than 500 machine guns, no tanks, no steel helmets, no equipment to protect the soldiers againt gas attacks, only a handful of camps that could be used for training.

Eight hundred British and French combat veterans came to the U.S. to prepare the American troops for the grueling war at the Western Front. The new recruits struggled to keep their heads down while crawling under barbed wire. They learned they had seven seconds to put on a gas mask. The army also needed thousands of officers. Regular Army and National Guard officers were quickly promoted.

A hard time for German-Americans

Chiara’s heart was heavy. During the last few years, the public opinion had turned against Germany, and German-Americans had to prove that they lived, thought and felt as US citizens, not as subjects of the Kaiser in faraway Germany. Now that the USA were at war against Germany, German Americans were harassed in many ways. Twenty-six states issued laws against the use of the German language, in some areas even the teaching of German was forbidden and German-language schoolbooks were burned. Under the Alien Enemies Act, Germans who lived in the USA were occasionally arrested and interned.

Moreover, the discussion about a nationwide ban on alcohol became increasingly political. Most breweries in the USA were run by German or Austrian emigrants, and although the wine industry was mainly in Italian-American hands, there were wine-makers of German descent too, like her family’s Mountain Men vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley, her mother Amber’s home. Prohibition, a nationwide ban on alcohol, would endanger her family’s existence too.

Chiara and John

Within a year of declaring war, the U.S. had assembled a military force of nearly 4 million men and women. The American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) combined units from the regular Army, Marines, various state National Guards nationalized by the federal government, and the new National Army created from volunteers and draftees.

From July 1917 the USA sent troops to Europe. Many families feared for their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, and waited for news from the front in distant Europe. “Safer for Democracy” the world should be after the war, the USA fought for a just cause and for peace. So President Wilson had spoken on January 8, 1918, to the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Chiara had not been ready to let her beloved husband John go. “Many of my young men are already on their way to Europe,” he had said, “I cannot let them down.” All her thoughts were with him. And yet, they often wandered to her German relatives too. Sophie, Andras, Lottie, Matthias, and their children, the Bergmanns – what had happened to them? Were they still alive? She had got to know them as kind and open-minded people who had endured hardships for living their ideals of tolerance and liberty. She could not imagine that they were as brutal as “the Hun” and as megalomaniac as “The Kaiser”.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points

But why had Germany not responded to the “Fourteen Points” set out by President Wilson on January 8, 1918? Wilson wanted peace based on the “self-determination of peoples” without victors or conquered.

Chiara could not know that “the Kaiser” had long time since been marginalized. Since Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s forced resignation in summer 1917, the High Command, precisely General Ludendorff, determined German politics. De facto it was a military dictatorship. The High Command outright rejected the “Fourteen Points”.

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