Nebraska And The Great War
The Great War, as World War I was called when it was happening, had been raging for four years when the nearly all-Nebraskan 355th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division, arrived in the frontline trenches in France on Aug. 4, 1918. The Germans in the opposing trenches gave them a big welcome three days later.
The first gas shell exploded near the Nebraskans’ trenches at 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 7. The American soldiers scrambled to don their gas masks and jumped into their protective dugouts as lethal phosgene and mustard gas spewed into the night air. Between 9,000 and 10,000 shells exploded around the division’s lines that night, letting up for an hour around midnight before resuming until almost 3 a.m.
Many of the inexperienced Nebraskans didn’t know the gas was still deadly even hours or days after the initial shell bursts, and no one told them that standard practice was to abandon the forward trenches and retreat to back-up positions in case of a gas attack. The Nebraskans and the rest of their division held their ground; 42 men died from gas poisoning in the area of the Bois de la Hazelle that came to be known as “Gas Hollow.” It was a fitting introduction to a war that had been characterized both by incredible bravery and senseless death.
The 4,000 men of the 355th Infantry Regiment were among the nearly 48,000 Nebraskans who served in the military during World War I; 751 Nebraskans died, including 349 killed in action. All told, more than 4 million Americans served during the war, and 116,000 died.
Nebraskans on the homefront might have made an even more important impact on the war effort, producing a significant amount of the food that fueled the Allied armies. Families adopted Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays to conserve food, and everyday citizens bought Liberty Bonds to fund the war.
Even though most Nebraskans never saw a battlefield, they felt like they had been part of the war effort, said Eli Paul, former historian with the Nebraska State Historical Society and retired museum director of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Many communities erected statues and memorials honoring their hometown heroes after the war, he said, but as we reach the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, the significance of these memorials has faded.
“Ask your typical Nebraskan what Memorial Stadium in Lincoln is a memorial to,” Paul said. “I think most people don’t realize it’s a memorial to Nebraskans who died in World War I.”
What Was World War I?
World War I tore apart Europe from 1914 to 1918, claiming the lives of 11 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. It began when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, on June 28, 1914.
This set off a chain reaction of alliances: Austria-Hungary threatened war with Serbia, an ally of Russia; Russia threatened war with Austria-Hungary, an ally of Germany; Germany threatened war with Russia, an ally of the United Kingdom and France. It took just one month for the threats to turn into actual declarations of war, and by August 1914 the international conflagration had ignited.
America stayed out of the fight as German advances bogged down in France and locked into a stalemate with French and British troops on what became known as the Western Front, parallel lines of trenches that ran 440 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea. The war saw the first widespread use of airplanes, tanks, submarines and poison gas in combat. Modern artillery and machine guns proved devastating against armies using outdated 19th century tactics.
German submarine attacks on British ships killed a number of American passengers, helping spur the United States’ decision to enter the war in 1917 on the side of the Allies – the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Italy – against the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Although the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, with the first troops arriving in France a few months later, American units didn’t begin serious fighting until May 1918. The influx of American men and materiel began to push the Germans back. Seeing the futility of continued fighting, Germany sued for peace. Fighting ended on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918.
Even though World War I doesn’t get nearly as much attention as World War II, many historians consider it the most consequential event of the 20th century. Among other things, World War I directly led to the emergence of the United States as a leading world power; the Russian Revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union; the rise of Fascism in Italy and the Nazi Party in Germany; and World War II, which can be viewed as a continuation of World War I after a 20-year intermission.
For the rest of the story see the November/December 2017 issue of Nebraska Life.