‘The War to End all Wars’, President Woodrow Wilson, 1917

April 6, 2017 - Cathryn Spence

One hundred years ago today America declared war on Germany, and on the Austro-Hungarian Empire the following day. Staff members at the American Museum are working with colleagues at Bath Spa University to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of America’s first military engagement on 28 May 1918, but what led to the United States abandoning their policy of neutrality?

Tensions in Europe did escalate quickly, but nevertheless tens of thousands of American citizens, who were travelling in Europe in August 1914, were caught completely unaware. President Woodrow Wilson immediately called on his fellow countrymen to take no sides and to be ‘impartial in thought as well as action’. The populations of America, however, comprised then – as it does now – many nations. Large numbers of Americans were sympathetic to their historic homelands, pitching German-Americans against Russian-Americans, for example. The United States government continued to trade and do business with Europe as a whole, but did make significant financial loans to Britain and France to aid their war efforts.

Three generations of the Pratts, showing Alexander in uniform

President Wilson attempted to negotiate with both sides, acting as the neutral go-between in a number of secret talks. As a result the League of Nations announced that:

Peace had to be a peace of reconciliation, a peace without victory, for a victor’s peace would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which terms of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.

A number of factors started to turn American opinion against Germany; including news of German atrocities in Belgium in 1914 and the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 by a German U-boat. By 1917 tensions were at an all-time high, there was stalemate in the trenches of Europe, and trouble brewing in Russia.

It was however, a combination of German strategies that forced America into the war. On 9 January 1917, the Germans agreed to adopt a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, this came into force on 1 February. The German Ambassador to the United States, Count Johann von Bernstorff, officially notified the U.S. Secretary of State, Robert Lansing on 31 January. The German policy was to sink all commercial ships to Britain, including those from America. Knowing that this was an offensive strategy against America, Germany had approached Mexico, on 19 January, to offer a military alliance, should America enter the war.

The offer to Mexico came via a telegram sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Ambassador in Mexico City. The ‘Zimmermann Telegram’ promised the Mexican Government that Germany would help Mexico recover the territory it had ceded to the United States following the Mexican-American War. In return for this assistance, Germany asked for Mexican support in the war. British naval intelligence intercepted and decrypted the telegram, but did not forward that information to President Wilson until 24 February.

In the meantime, on 3 February, President Wilson went before Congress and announced that he had severed diplomatic relations with Germany over their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Two days after he learnt about the substance of the Zimmermann Telegram, Wilson returned to Congress and asked for the authority to arm U.S. merchant ships with U.S. naval personnel and equipment.

In March the contents of the Zimmermann Telegram were released to the public, the same month that had seen three American ships attacked and sunk without warning. On 2 April President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Two days later the US Senate voted in support of the measure to declare war on Germany.

Preston Gibson

On 6 April the United States declared war on the German Empire, joining the Allies. And, on the following day, declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 5 June 1917 more than 9,000,000 men, aged between 21 and 30, were registered for service. Although troops were not mobilised until October 1917, by the end of the year there were c.250, 000 American servicemen in France, most of them still in advanced training. They did not engage in any major military action until the spring of 1918. The war ended on 11 November 1918.
One of our founders, Dallas Pratt, was related to a number of people who saw active service, including his uncle, Henry Rogers Benjamin, who was based in Italy as part of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps (NRFC). His father, Alexander Dallas Bache Pratt, was amongst the first draft of soldiers to sail for Europe. Whilst the man who would become Dallas’ first step-father, Preston Gibson, joined the French Ambulance Corps immediately after Germany invaded Belgium in 1914. He received the Croix de Guerre for bravery at the Chemin des Dames, and was cited for heroism during the attack at St. Quentin in August 1917.In 1918 he came home, enlisted in the Marine Corps and broke records as a recruiting sergeant, persuading 3,200 men to ‘sign up’ in thirteen days. He would also embark on an affair with Beatrice Pratt, our founder’s mother, whilst her husband was away fighting on the Western Front.

Captain Alexander Dallas Bache Pratt’s honuorable discharge