The Americans Are Coming!

When war was declared in Europe, the United States of America had no interest in joining what they labelled as the European War.  American doctrine of the time was insular with regards to the old world and instead concentrated on shaping the Americas as to its own liking.  Indeed a significant portion of the American public had sympathies with the Axis Powers rather than the Allies, primarily amongst Irish, German and Scandinavian settlers although generally there was an underlying sympathy in most Americans for their Anglophile cousins.

Despite the best efforts of President Woodrow Wilson to keep a policy of neutrality, a number of factors gradually led the American people to become outright hostile to the Axis forces.  The rape of Belgium by the German army was well publicised with the countless deaths of civilians and ill-treatment of women and children.

The published notice by the Imperial German Embassy.

The published notice by the Imperial German Embassy.

On 7th May 1915, as part of its policy of submarine warfare specifically targeting Great Britain but in reality against all ships, Germany sank the Cunard liner the RMS Lusitania.  Its U-boat U20 torpedoed the liner just 11 miles off the Irish coast causing the deaths of 1,198 people.  It caused a worldwide controversy, not lessened by the fact that the German embassy in the United States had printed an advert warning passengers that any vessels flying the British flag or entering British waters was a possible military target.

Any neutral vessel entering the shaded waters was deemed by Germany to be a military target.

Any neutral vessel entering the shaded waters was deemed by Germany to be a military target.

The Royal Navy had some success tracking U-20 though couldn’t stop the submarine from sinking vessels in the mid-Atlantic.  The German Navy had recently cracked a British code which the Royal Navy used to telegraph civilian vessels.  As such no transmissions were sent to vessels in this period in case the U-Boats would be able to use them to track down Allied shipping.

Captain Turner of the Lusitania did everything possible to avoid a sinking but technology and anti-submarine techniques were in their infancy and when the Lusitania reached the southern Irish Sea, they were almost a sitting duck in a an area heavily infested with German U-Boats..

According to Maritime Law, any civilian ships targeted had to be given time to evacuate and indeed the U-20 had already followed this policy when it sank other vessels but with the Lusitania this was not the case. Germany tried to justify the sinking by claiming the Lusitania was carrying large amounts of arms and ammunitions, that it was a valid target and that as it had warned passengers of the possibility of attack, it should be absolved of any blame.  However 128 Americans lost their lives and it caused outrage in America, quite aside from the hundreds of British killed in the sinking.

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania.

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania.

President Wilson came under ever increasing pressure to declare war on Germany but he was determined not to rush into armed conflict and instead urged Germany to apologise for the attack and compensate the victims of the attack as well as promising not to attack civilian ships of any flag in the future.

Germany portrayed itself to America as a victim of a British policy of an illegal blockade that was starving its people and that it had the right to try and do the same to Great Britain even if it was only able to do so through submarine warfare.  President Wilson didn’t buy into this point of view but refused to go to war.


President Woodrow Wilson in 1919.

Opinion amongst the British public, media and politicians was almost one of disgust at the policy chosen by the American president, seemingly unaware that he was simply following American public opinion.  It is said that when shells failed to explode on the Western Front that they were labelled “Wilsons”.  There was a feeling in Britain that America was either too prideful or too scared to go to war and this wasn’t disputed by members of the American Preparedness Movement.

By 1916, more Americans began to support entering the war, if only for reasons of nationalism and trade. A German undercover agent left his briefcase on a train in the United States and it revealed all sorts of policies and secrets that were soon published in the American papers.  The British of course had their own propaganda campaign but weren’t involved in illegal subterfuge or at least if they were, weren’t stupid enough to get caught like Germany.  An example of British propaganda was the successful British ploy of telling America that German school children were given a day off each year to celebrate the sinking of the Lusitania.  Of course it was untrue but the Americans believed it and it was always in the interest of Britain to get America to enter the war as quickly as possible.

Despite the promise from Germany, further ships were sank with the loss of further American lives and the feeling grew in America that they should become allies of Great Britain.  After their defeat at Jutland in 1916, Germany in 1917 announced a totally unrestricted policy of targeting vessels.  The outrage this caused finally saw President Wilson change his policy and on April 6th 1917 the United States declared war on Germany.


Wake up, America!

Wake up, America!


For its first year, the American build-up and participation was low-key but all sides knew that if Germany didn’t win before full-scale American involvement then they never would.  In March 1918, Germany launched an all-out assault on the Western Front and came close to succeeding at overwhelming the Allies but it was not enough and by April 1918 1 million American soldiers had arrived and the result of the war was then unavoidable.

Even after the war, the majority of the American public believed their wartime intervention has been a mistake and an estimated 300,000 men had illegally avoided conscription all together.  The U.S. Senate rejected both the Versailles Treaty and membership of the League of Nations.  Laws were put in place to try and preserve neutrality in any further conflicts and it took not just the fall of France or the sight of Great Britain standing alone against Fascism but the attack on Pearl Harbour before public sympathy decided to fight again.

If you enjoyed this post then you might want to check out my WW1 history book Lest We Forget, published by Endeavour Press of London.

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.

Lest We Forget is available in Kindle and Paperback formats in all good on-line outlets and literary stores too.  The Kindle version is published by Endeavour Press of London, one of the world’s leading digital publishers.  The paperback version is available too for those folk like me who prefer an excellent book and the paperback includes a number of maps and archive photos as well as some personal photos of my family members who like millions of others, fought for our freedom only never to return home.

You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from in Kindle for $4.58and paperback for $9.99 and in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world.





About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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7 Responses to The Americans Are Coming!

  1. lobotero says:

    Excellent post….I wish more Americans were interested in WW! chuq


  2. Marilyn Liddell Hall (maiden name) Allan says:

    I didn’t know you were such an accomplished writer! I never cared too much about history til lately! History does repeat itself!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That “Wake Up, America” poster very easily could apply to America under President Twitler.

    Liked by 1 person

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