America's First Year In The War

By Arthur H. Warner

[The Nation; April 11, 1918]

Upon declaring war against Germany a year ago the United States had two courses open. One was to concentrate her forces solely against the submarine which would have meant warring directly on these vessels by employing her navy, and indirectly by using her full industrial resources to build and operate ships in spite of them. The other possibility—which necessarily involved some weakening of the campaign against the submarine—was to join in the land warfare of Europe.

The United States took the second course, and a discussion of the relative merits of the two possibilities would now have only an academic interest. The point is recalled here because, in estimating the success of America's first year in the war, it is well to recall, as a point of departure, that one cannot have his cake and eat it, too.

American effort, instead of concentrating against the U-boat, has divided into two- parts: (1) war on the submarine; (2) preparations to enter the land fighting in Europe.

If it be true that the campaign against the submarine has fallen short of popular expectations—and this seems to be the prevailing verdict—it ought to be realized that such is the inevitable price of turning the nation's energies chiefly into preparing for a land war in Europe. It ought further to be conceded, even by those not in sympathy with the latter programme—among whom may be numbered the writer of this sketch—that the achievements of the national Government in this direction have surpassed anything that the most virulent of the Administration's present critics dared to hope for a year ago, when, in the picturesque phraseology of Colonel Roosevelt, the nation "drifted stern foremost into the war."

In regard to the destruction of submarines during the past year, little information is available to the public. America knows that she has had a destroyer flotilla in European waters since the early days of her entrance into the war, but what it has accomplished is an official secret. At the same time, it is not unfair to assume that results have either been meagre or largely counteracted by new building by Germany. Figures show that there has been a considerable reduction in the merchant tonnage destroyed by U-boats since the period of greatest loss last summer, but this does not necessarily imply a diminution in the number of German undersea craft. On the other hand, there is every reason to believe that the lessened submarine danger is due in considerable part to the general arming of merchant ships and the adoption of the convoy system. According to Representative Oliver's statement in March, 1,100 merchant vessels have been furnished by the Navy Department with guns and crews to handle them. A system of convoying has also been organized, under which most transatlantic ships of America and her allies—except the mail steamships, which rely upon their speed to elude danger—are protected by a naval escort.

The danger of the submarine and what has been done to offset it is best revealed in the figures of tonnage destroyed by the Germans compared with that constructed by America and her allies. The facts indicate some headway made against the U-boat menace, but prove at the same time that it is far from eliminated—that, on the contrary, it is the most elusive and possibly the most formidable power that Germany is able to direct against her opponents.

Definite figures, published last month by the British Admiralty, show a total loss of 11,827,572 gross tons in British and foreign shipping from the beginning of the war up to the end of 1917. Construction of merchant vessels during the same period totalled 6,606,275 gross tons, a little more than half the loss. No figures are available for the full year that America has been in the war, but those for the calendar year 1917 may be taken as an approximate equivalent. In 1917 the loss to British and foreign shipping in gross tons was as follows: First quarter, 1,619,373; second quarter, 2,236,934; third quarter, 1,494,473; fourth quarter, 1,272,843; total, 6,623,623. Building in the same period was: First quarter, 528,439; second quarter, 626,440; third quarter, 616,453; fourth quarter, 932,023; total, 2,703,355.

It-was confidently hoped a year ago that the United States would take a large part in offsetting submarine losses by the speediest possible construction of a great number of ships. The hope has been only partially realized. Differences among those responsible for the ship programme, shortage of labor, strikes, and lack of materials have delayed progress, but on March 26 the chairman of the United States Shipping Board, Mr. Hurley, stated that of a building programme calling for more than 8,000,000 deadweight tons, 28 per cent had been completed, while 8 per cent, was represented by finished vessels already in service. These latter alone, he said, amounted to 50 per cent, more than the nation's output in 1916. Mr. Hurley's figures give rather too rosy an impression, as he neglected to explain that the completed ships were almost entirely vessels that had been ordered on private contracts and would have been built regardless of Government intervention or America's entry into war. The most satisfying figures given by Mr. Hurley are those showing that a sound basis has been laid for future construction. Thus when the country entered the war, it had 61 shipbuilding yards, with 235 ways, against 148 yards, at present, with 730 ways almost completed. It is estimated that at the rate of two standard ships per year per yard this means a possible production of 2,300,000 deadweight tons a year.

If the campaign against the submarine for the year is not altogether satisfying, one has but to turn to the record of army preparation for achievement that even the most optimistic hardly dared to hope for twelve months ago. The two most striking accomplishments are the vast expansion of the army and the transportation of a substantial part of it to France inside of twelve months.

When America entered the war, the regular army comprised about 128,000 men, besides which there were some 80,000 of the National Guard in the Federal service. Now the Federal forces number more than 1,600,000 men. The regular army has been quadrupled by voluntary enlistments, the National Guard in the Federal service has been increased from 80,000 to 450,000, while added to these forces is a conscripted army which makes up the total.

The raising of this conscript army is in itself a remarkable feat. Six weeks after the United States entered the war a law went on the statute books making military service compulsory for men between twenty-one and thirty-one years of age. On the 5th of June 9,586,508 such men were registered, and a few weeks later the War Department issued a call for 687,000 of them—determined by a lottery—to prepare to go into training. Meanwhile sixteen instruction camps were under way in different parts of the country, and on September 5 a first quota of men went into training. The rest of the 687,000 followed at intervals, and within the last few days a preliminary lot of men have been sent into training from a second call, this time for 800,000.

The transportation of American forces to France has been as rapid and as successful as their organization in this country. The Secretary of War, when before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs last January, recalled to it and to the country how far original hopes of getting troops to Europe had been exceeded. He quoted from a magazine article of last August in which the sending of 50,000 to 100,000 soldiers to Europe in 1917 was held up as something the country ought, but would not be able, to compass.

"We will have more than one-half million men in France early in 1918," said Mr. Baker, "and one and one-half million who in 1918 can be shipped to France." This latter estimate has since been raised to 1,800,0.00 men.

The moving of American soldiers to France has been accomplished with secrecy and safety. Only two transports have been hit by U-boat torpedoes. The Antilles was sunk in October when homeward bound. In February submarines sank the Tuscania while carrying troops to Europe.

On June 26 last a contingent of regular army engineers arrived in France, and a few days later a first detachment of infantry disembarked. Other shipments have been following since in a steady stream. American soldiers went into the trenches in October on the Lorraine front, and subsequently occupied sectors of the battle line at fur other points. More recently they have been called upon to help in the fighting in the Somme region.

The equipment of the Federal forces is the chief aspect of their mobilization that has raised criticism, and most of that was dissipated by Mr. Baker's statements before the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. The Secretary of War justified many makeshifts and shortages during the early months as foreseen but accepted in view of the wish for all possible haste in getting men to France. Of the lack in clothing, for instance, he said:

If I were to have delayed the calling out of these troops until the last button was on the last coat, and the call had come in November or December or January, "Send them, and send them fast," and they were still at home waiting for tailors, I would have felt a crashing load of guilt and responsibility which, at least in comparison with what I do feel about having called them out, would have been incomparably greater.

There was delay in placing modern rifles in the hands of all soldiers owing to various changes in American ammunition works made in order to secure manufacture in standardized parts in all plants, but it was announced in February that 700,000 army rifles had been made in this country since America entered the war.

The need for immediate production of cannon or shells has been obviated by the fact that France and Great Britain have agreed to furnish these for all American troops arriving in 1917 and 1918, but plans have been laid for future production at home. Contracts call for the delivery of some 60,000,000 shells by the end of the present year.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury