Mercersburg in WW I: Over There

By Tim Rockwell

April of 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of America's entry into the Great War which had raged in Europe 1914-18. It became more popularly known as WWI or the First World War after 1939. It also had idealistic labels as the "war to make the world safe for democracy" and "the war to end war."

However, in retrospect, leaving many issues unresolved and failing those lofty goals, many historians see it as merely the prelude to the more encompassing and greater global conflict now known as World War II. PRELUDE

During the pre-WWI decades in the world, America and Mercersburg were living in the shadow of the full-blown industrial revolution as capitalism and industry swept the civilized world bringing immense wealth to a few and rising expectations to the many. Ideas of democracy, anarchy, communism, and socialism bubbled up world-wide in competition to become the models for humankind's advancement into the future in a world of rapid social and economic change. Spheres of influence and colonial empires redrew maps around the world.

Despite a growing middle class in many countries, most of Europe and Asia were still ruled by royalty with weak parliaments and great disparity among social classes. Economic and nationalistic jealousies with entangling alliances and secret treaties finally set England, France, and Russia (the Allies) against Germany, the Austria - Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) into a war none had foreseen nor really wanted.

Meanwhile, in America the last of the "Gilded Age" gave way to the progressive movement and marked social, political and industrial reform. Immense wealth in a few families - Morse, Bell, Edison, Firestone, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Eastman, Huntington, Stanford, among others - springing from the industrial revolution still dominated as the upper class but with some seeking ways to help others and to improve the conditions of the working class.

New symbols of the time - such as the Titanic, despite its sinking, along with Panama Canal, the airplane, the automobile and the discovery of x-rays showed the progress of humankind into a new dynamic world of mechanization and science, which was giving rise to new middle class of educated professionals. 7 - March 2017 MHS Newsletter

For three years the nation, led by President Woodrow Wilson's moral tone of being "too proud" to fight, had attempted to stay out of the war but had maintained trade with both sides as a neutral, despite the provocation of the sinking of Lusitania in 1915, a British passenger ship, with the loss of 1100 passengers including 120 Americans. The British government had issued a steady drum beat of false tales of cruelty ands atrocities of the Central Powers, including the rape of nuns and the crucifixion of a Canadian soldier using bayonets.

Devolving into trench warfare coupled with the advent of new industrial killing machines - the machine gun firing 600 rounds per minute, the airplane for strafing and bombing, the gas generators for forming clouds of poisonous gas, and thousands upon thousands of various artillery pieces spewing millions and millions of shells - the battlefront had become an ugly and deadly earthen scar. Stretching across Europe some 400 miles in length and miles wide in places, it was a massive earthen web of angled auxiliary communication and supply trenches, dugouts, and outposts, separated by tangles of rows and rows of barbed wire, churned earth from millions of high explosive shells and the debris of war including the flesh and bones of rotting corpses and dead horses, which numbed the senses and seared the mind.

By 1917 a number of factors began to coalesce: both belligerents were growing weary of the war which was costing enormous amounts of money and material and a generation of their youth had marched off to war never to return. The morale on the home fronts began to falter: Russia had a budding revolution and eventually withdrew from the war and rationing in Germany led to civil unrest with rising calls f()r the Kaiser to abdicate. England and France likewise teemed with uneasiness over the cost in men and material. Some parts of the French army had, in fact, mutinied and refused to fight any longer. Appeals to patriotism changed the minds of some, but others still unwilling to fight were tried for treason and shot.

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