The War to End All Wars

Commemorating the 100th anniversary of America’s involvement in World War I

The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The war ended in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The year also marked the beginning of America’s first combat action in the war. In the Battle of Cantigny in late May 1918, soldiers of the soon-to-be-famous 1st Infantry Division (the “Big Red One”) met and defeated a far more experienced Imperial German Army force.

In terms of America’s direct involvement, the war was short-lived. The Europeans had been suffering since 1914, but for American families whose sons were engaged during that bloody six months of fighting in the spring, summer, and fall of 1918, the cost was approximately 112,000 men and boys who lost their lives — many to combat action, most to disease — including nearly 400 South Carolinians.

Beyond the losses, the war would forever change the military makeup and even the economy of the Palmetto State, which at that time was still trying to recover from the economic devastation of the Civil War that ended 49 years earlier. New bases sprang up as a result of World War I, and the textile industry, among other South Carolina industries, began to thrive.

Still, World War I will forever be regarded as one of the greatest calamities unleashed on humankind. Not that all wars aren’t, but World War I was a particularly grisly slugfest with some 10 million combatants from approximately 40 involved nations killed in just under four years. The numbers of wounded, maimed, and emotionally wrecked were far greater.

A century later, most perceptions and images of the war are of a vast Western European front marred by an extensive interconnected system of disease-ridden trenchworks. The two massive armies in the trenches faced one another across a deadly shell-torn, body-rotting space known as “no man’s land.” Shelling was constant, broken up only by the occasional attacks across the terrible space in an attempt to gain the other army’s lines and kill or drive the defenders back. The airplane was a new addition to the battlefield, and so the madness and monotony experienced by the infantry soldier either waiting to attack or be attacked was broken up by the occasional aerial dogfight overhead between two or more wooden biplanes or triplanes.

The fighting on the ground was ghastly, aptly described by the late military historian Sir John Keegan as a struggle with “large numbers of soldiers unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms, however they were trained, however equipped [were ordered to advance] against large masses of other soldiers, protected by earthworks and barbed wire and provided with rapid-fire weapons.” This “was bound to result in very heavy casualties among the attackers,” Keegan would write, adding, “The basic and stark fact was that the conditions of warfare between 1914 and 1918 predisposed toward slaughter.”

The war was initially a European conflict stemming from age-old rivalries and ongoing struggles with issues of empire and boundaries. When the problems leading up to the conflict began surfacing in the late 19th century, America, licking its wounds from the Civil War and simultaneously expanding its westward territories, wanted no part of any of it. The relatively new nation had no real interest in the affairs of the “Old World.”

President Woodrow Wilson, who spent most of his teenage years in Columbia where he became a lifelong member of Columbia’s historic First Presbyterian Church, wanted to keep America as far from the war as possible. He referred to the conflict as “a natural raking out of the [European] continent’s pent-up jealousies.”

But events transpired that forced Wilson’s hand: Germany’s 1915 torpedo sinking of the British ocean-liner RMS Lusitania that killed nearly 1,200 passengers, including 123 American civilians, was followed in early 1917 by an intercepted coded message from the German foreign minister to the Mexican president, proposing a wartime alliance between the two countries. Germany resumed “unrestricted submarine warfare” on the high seas that same year.

Congress granted the President’s request for a declaration of war April 6, 1917. Wilson now wanted, as he famously said, “a war to end all wars; in order to make the world safe for democracy.”

The first U.S. troops, under the command of Gen. John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing, began landing in France June 17, 1917. Meeting with French officers in Paris, Pershing proclaimed, “Lafayette, we are here,” referring to the Marquis de Lafayette who, as the French liaison to Gen. George Washington, served the Patriot cause during the American Revolution.

For the next several months, tens of thousands of American soldiers organized into the American Expeditionary Force began pouring onto the European continent. They were a welcome site to the weary British and French troops, who had been bled white by nearly three years of bitter combat at places that now have ominous sounding names like Ypres, Verdun, and the Somme.

Many of us living today grew up knowing one or more of the old veterans of World War I. They are all gone now as we commemorate the centennial of what they experienced.

Lt. Col. Howard T. Rowell, an 89-year-old retired U.S. Air Force Reserve officer and World War II-era U.S. Marine now living in Columbia, recalls the experiences his late father, Tobias Rowell, of Nichols in Marion County shared with him.

“My dad served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I,” Howard says. “He experienced heavy fighting and the terrible aftermath on the Western Front in 1918. He even survived being strafed by an old German biplane. The plane flew over and began shooting, and my dad had to jump in a ditch to keep from being hit.”

Howard adds, “My dad was there when they broke the Hindenburg Line. He was never wounded, but the things he saw, the casualties, losses, and what those boys all around him suffered was horrific.” 

Approximately 4 million Americans swelled the ranks of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War I, though only 2 million would serve in France as part of the AEF. Many of that number trained at Columbia’s Camp Jackson (today Fort Jackson), destined to become the nation’s largest U.S. Army basic training facility.

Camp Jackson was established as a preparatory response to the events in Europe. In the late spring of 1917, as the war raged in Europe, the U.S. Department of War (predecessor to the U.S. Department of Defense) announced that Columbia would be the site of one of 16 training camps nationwide. With America having just declared war on Germany, military planners were now rushing to get American troops ready for overseas service.

The decision to locate the new fort in the Midlands was based largely on fact that the Army needed vast tracts of land for training huge numbers of men, preferably in a temperate climate such as South Carolina offered, where the training for large-scale land campaigns would not adversely affect the surrounding civilian population.

The piney woods of the state’s interior, specifically large tracts of the vast estate of the late Gov. Wade Hampton, were deemed perfect. Those lands have proven to be ideal for more than a century.

The new base was initially christened the 6th National Army Cantonment in the summer of 1917, but it was quickly renamed Camp Jackson in honor of Gen. Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and the seventh president of the United States. And why not? Jackson was, after all, born in the upstate of South Carolina.

Two years earlier in 1915, after hostilities had commenced in Europe, the U.S. Marine Corps had established a permanent East Coast recruit depot on Parris Island, near Beaufort, less than 150 miles south of Columbia. There at what would become known as the famous Marine Corps Recruit Depot (Marine boot camp), drill instructors had begun turning out freshly minted U.S. Marines, many of whom would distinguish themselves at places like Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Mihiel, and elsewhere.

The war wasn’t without great heroics, which is why the Allies, in spite of the terrible cost in lives, achieved the victory.

In a piece for The State newspaper, military writer Jeff Wilkinson wrote, “Eight South Carolinians — including the six from the National Guard’s 118th Regiment — received the Medal of Honor, a remarkable achievement considering only 78 of the decorations were awarded nationally for service in World War I.”

The “war to end all wars” certainly did not end all wars. In fact, it is widely held that the end of World War I — its largely unresolved nature and the economically ruinous post-war policies imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles — set the stage for the next great global conflagration, World War II, two decades later. But World War I did compel President Wilson to push for a peace-seeking League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations) and an acknowledgement by all of humankind that all war in the modern industrial age was a terrible state that had been stripped of its perceived glory and replaced with a horror in terms of numbers of lives lost that justified any armed conflict as an effort of absolute last resort.