Historians record that World War I began in Europe on July 28, 1914, and ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
Within a couple months of the war’s start, the western front settled down into prolonged trench warfare between the British and French allies on the western side and the German army on the east. The western front began at the Swiss border and then ran north and west about 450 miles to the English Channel near the port of Ostend.
All of Belgium, and a good portion of northeast France, were under German control.
The stalemate at the trenches dragged on and on despite huge battles with enormous loss of life. At Ypres between April and May 1915 there were about 120,000 casualties. At Verdun, between February and December 1916, there were almost a million French and German casualties. At the Somme between July and November 1916, there were 1.2 million total casualties.
There is an enormous literature about World War I. This columnist has been rereading John Keegan’s exceedingly well-reviewed book “The First World War” (New York: Vintage Books, 1998) and watching some of the amazing documentaries about the war that are available on YouTube. By the time of World War I, movie cameras were commonplace, and the war provided great impetus to the movie industry everywhere.
Under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson, the United States at first kept out of World War I. However, the German decision in early 1917 to resume unrestricted submarine attacks on passenger and merchant ships in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, and German attempts to draw Mexico into the war against the United States, changed his mind.
On April 2, 1917, Wilson asked a joint session of Congress to declare war on Germany. On April 4, 1917, the U.S. Senate voted for war, with the House concurring two days later. The United States declared war on Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary on Dec. 7, 1917.
Since the War of 1812, the United States had remained militarily uninvolved in European affairs. Now it became the arsenal of democracy and the supplier of men. In 1917-1918, 24 million young American men were registered to serve in the armed forces, and by the war’s end in 1918 there were four million American troops on the ground in Europe.
Keegan notes that it has been very rare in history that any war was transformed by such sudden enormous troop reinforcement. By the fall of 1918, America’s decision to go to war on Germany and its allies had brought an overwhelming advantage to the Allied side, and won the war for the Allies.
Locally, one can find a few reminders of this great American sacrifice to liberty and democracy.
In downtown Christiansburg, a large marker in Veterans Memorial Park, sponsored by American Legion Post 59 and erected in 1953, lists the names of 14 men who died in 1917-1918. The marker reads, “Dedicated to the memory of these citizens of Montgomery County who made the supreme sacrifice in the service of our country in the world conflicts.”
Two miles west of Blacksburg, on Glade Road in Montgomery County, the Sunnyside-Tom’s Creek Veterans Memorial lists 12 men who died in World War I under the title “May we never forget.”
In Radford, the memorial that stood at the site of the present-day town library on Main Street opposite the New River bridge was moved across the street and is now inside the Harvey-Howe-Carper 30 Post of the American Legion.
This Post gets its name from three Radford men who died in Europe in 1918. First Lieutenant Alfred R. Harvey, was killed in action in Belgium on Aug. 22. Captain Elliott H. Howe, was killed in action north of Verdun, on Oct. 12 (just a month before the war ended). Sergeant Jacob W. Carper was killed in action in the Argonne Forest in Aug. 18.
The building that houses Post 30 is right across the road from the Radford town library, tucked away behind the turnoff where Radford traffic heading westward turns off onto the bridge. This nearly 90-year-old building has fallen into disrepair and the Post can no longer hold its meetings there. The Post Commander and the members are seeking some generous local benefactor to make a donation to refurbish and restore the Post.
— Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.