U.S. troops would push forward on several fronts in France until the minute a cease-fire took effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, six hours after it was negotiated. With more time, the Americans might even have entered Germany soon after, establishing themselves as the world's ascendant military power.
When Pvt. Jose De La Luz Saenz was awoken along the front lines of the Meuse-Argonne offensive in northeastern France on Nov. 11, 1918, the pre-dawn instructions were not only about sealing the imminent cease-fire.
"The orders called for continuing the artillery fire with the same intensity until eleven in the morning," Saenz noted in his published diary. And despite the promise of the armistice, "the day seemed like all others because the artillery duel appeared to be continuing with even greater intensity," he wrote.
In addition to military reasons, there was also a political point to be made, said Nicolas Czubak, a French military historian specializing in northeastern France, where U.S. troops fought. "For the Americans, it really is to show that they have played as important a role in victory as the other armies," Czubak said.
After the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, its standing army of 127,500 became an armed force of 2 million within 1½ years. On Nov. 11, 1918, allies like Britain and France were exhausted, Germany was as good as defeated and Pershing had another 2 million troops ready to come over.
"If war had continued into 1919, the No. 1 army in the world fighting at the front would have been the U.S. Army — without a doubt," Czubak said. "It is also why he wanted to continue even after Nov. 11."
Near the place where Saenz heard bombshells explode a century ago now stands the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery at the French town of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. American soldiers who died on that armistice day — 100 of them — are buried there along with 14,146 fellow U.S. troops. The cemetery holds the largest number of U.S. military dead in Europe.
By the time World War I ended, Americans had been in enough battles that they were interred in a half-dozen cemeteries dotted across northern France. In a war where the dead would be counted in millions — 1.4 million for France, 1.1 million for British imperial forces — the United States had 126,000 dead to mourn.
When U.S. President Donald Trump joins other world leaders at World War I armistice events hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron this weekend, he plans to visit some of the burial sites. And standing among the white crosses, Trump will see that the pre-eminent military force he commands had its roots in French soil, where U.S. troops were instrumental in turning the tide after their nation shed its isolationism and stood by its European allies.
If the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery symbolizes America's coming-of-age in the war, the Aisne-Marne cemetery at the Belleau Wood battleground marks its beginning. When the war started in 1914, most Americans considered it "Europe's war." A hit song in 1915 was titled "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier" and President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 with the campaign slogan "He kept us out of war."
German belligerence soon had Americans rethinking the wisdom of isolation, said Bruce Malone, a historian and superintendent of the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. "Unrestricted warfare, sinking ships with Americans on them or American ships" and the infamous Zimmermann telegram in which Germany promised to give Mexico some American territory if it kept the U.S. engaged shifted the momentum, he said.
"Even President Wilson, who did not want to be in the war, had no choice," said Malone. On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war, much to the relief of its European allies. "It wasn't going well in Europe at the time, and the Germans were actually gaining some momentum. The Allies were essentially running out of men to fight the war," Malone said.
There was one problem though, he added. "We join the war. We've made promises, but we don't have an army. Certainly not of the European standard," he said. Speed was of the essence. Russia left the war in March 1918 and Germany had sent its troops to the Western front for a final full onslaught. Just in time, U.S. soldiers started arriving en masse.
Pershing, disregarding British and French pleas to use U.S. troops to beef up depleted lines under British and French command, always wanted his men to fight as an independent American force. A major breakthrough came at Belleau Wood, when U.S. forces stopped a German advance on Paris against heavy odds. It proved their mettle to the enemy and allies alike.
The Americans kept building on their newly acknowledged grit through the end of the war. Saenz was there to record it. "The bloody fighting and our victory was the decisive blow that finished the Teutonic pride and dispelled forever the Germans' false dream of global conquest," he wrote after a Nov. 2 victory.
Instead, the United States could start dreaming of making the next century its own.
Videojournalist Mark Carlson and photojournalist Virginia Mayo contributed reporting.
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