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The War to End All Wars

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World War One….The Great War, the War to End All Wars…a bloody terrible war. Soldiers fought knee-deep in muddy trenches, lived with mice and lice for months on end, and endured the relentless volley of artillery and machine gun fire.

More Americans died during the five months of combat in World War One than were lost in ten years of fighting in the Vietnam War. Many died from wounds in battle; many more from a new foe, influenza, which killed indiscriminately soldiers and civilians alike. Today few people remember a war that started a century ago. Fewer still know how it started or what motivated our country to get involved.

WWI Trenches

The seeds were planted in August 1914 following the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, next in line to the Austrian-Hungarian empire. In Sarajevo, a chauffeur. transporting the archduke and his wife, took a wrong turn in the narrow streets of the Old Town and inadvertently delivered the royal couple to a waiting team of Serbian assassins.

International relationships had long been simmering when the Allies (the British Empire, France, Italy, Russia, and Romania) went to war with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria). Battles were fought in France, Belgium, Russia, Italy, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa. The opposing armies came to a standstill on a battlefield in France, the Western Front. Both armies dug trenches opposite each other and continued fighting. Thousands and thousands of soldiers were killed on both sides in the next three years, but neither army was winning.

The United Stated was half a world away. The American people believed that a European war was none of our business, and Woodrow Wilson, new in his second presidential term, agreed. This changed when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania, and 1,198 perished, including 120 Americans. With public opinion turned strongly against Germany, America declared war in April 1917.

The United States was ill prepared to fight a war in Europe. America’s entrance gave a huge psychological and financial boost to the exhausted Allies, although our army was small and short of men, weapons, and equipment. Training camps were set up throughout the country, but there were not enough rifles, uniforms, or artillery for proper training. Soldiers had to practice with sticks for rifles and pine logs for cannon. It took almost a year before America had any troops ready to fight. In the meantime, Germany defeated Russia and was about to defeat British and French armies on the Western Front until the United States joined the fight.

North Carolina sent 86,457 soldiers overseas to fight. In only five months of combat, 624 North Carolinians were killed in battle and 3,655 were wounded, 204 later dying of wounds. In addition to the battle casualties, another 1,542 North Carolinians died of disease, mostly from influenza, while serving in the army. Even more died of influenza back home.

The North Carolina Museum of History has mounted an interactive multimedia exhibit commemorating the centennial of the US entry into World War One.