On April 6 We’ll Commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Declaration of War Against GermanyHistorians/History
Robert Huddleston practiced the craft of aerial combat in World War II. He is the author of An American Pilot with the Luftwaffe a novella and other stories of fiction and nonfiction.
On April 4, 1917, while the Great War raged in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson called for war to a joint session of Congress. Both the House and Senate responded and on April 6 the President signed a declaration of war on Imperial Germany and its allies. The United States was now in a conflict that began in 1914 with no end in sight. Having invested so much in blood and treasure each side was determined to achieve victory. But the battle was deadlocked on the western front, thus requiring more military force to break the stalemate. And this would come from drawing the U.S. into the conflict. Americans, despite strong opposition, responded to the declaration with patriotic pride and joined the Music Hall performers in singing We’ll be over, we're coming over, and we won't come back till it's over, over there.
The new world was coming to the aid of the old, beleaguered and weary in a conflict deadlocked in bloody trench warfare. But when would the Americans arrive? There were no well-trained and well-armed troops available to march aboard ships and head to Europe. It takes time for the military-industrial complex to get in gear and produce. It would require weeks, even months, to field a combat ready force.
“Can you at least offer a boost in morale with a token force?” was the plea from Europe. In the fall of 1917 that “morale boost” came when two hundred American volunteers departed for England, France, and Italy. (Some Americans had violated America's neutrality by volunteering for the French Foreign Legion to serve in the trenches or the Lafayette Espadrille for aerial combat.)
Responding to the introduction of aircraft to warfare, the U.S. army had created the Army Air Service (AAS). An eight-weeks of ground training in the theory of flight, aircraft mechanics, navigation, and meteorology was established at several universities mainly for college students eager to become aviators. At the end of eight weeks, the men – classified as army enlisted personnel – would advance to flight training. It was from among the ground school graduates that two hundred volunteers would embark for Europe to received flight training and subsequently being assigned to established combat squadrons.
The two hundred young Americans boarded ship for Europe on September 3, 1917. They did not know if they would disembark in England, France, or Italy. Most, however, believed it would be Italy as one of their commanders was Captain Fiorello LaGuardia, a newly commissioned pilot (and the postwar Mayor of New York).
The ocean voyage ended on October 3 when the ship docked in England. A group of some twenty disembarked and the ship proceeded on to France and Italy. These volunteers were destined for the 85th Squadron of the Royal Flying Service (later, the Royal Air Force). The first stage of the overseas training for the Americans was at Oxford University and would consist of ground training. “Someone has made a mistake,” insisted the unhappy yanks. “We've completed ground training.”
“Mistake” it may have been but the Americans soon fell in love with England, Oxford, and especially, the officers of the Royal Air Service. Billeted in rooms at Christ Church College, one reported: “We have champagne with our meals at $2.10 a bottle.” Another report described “a bicycle ride over to the Duke of Marlborough's palace . . . . It's a ten mile ride from Oxford and about every two miles there is the most delightful wayside inn where you get this English ale and scotch whiskey and cheese and bread. . . . Everything over here is dirt cheap.”
While at Oxford, on October 19, the Americans were visited by a British major with the D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) and the M.C. (Military Cross). He said, as one remembered: ''You men are starting on a long trip. It's a hard trip and will require a lot of courage.” The Americans called this “tommy rot.” Their view was that devotion to duty and concerted effort and disciplined team work would win the war. “War is cruel, war is senseless, and war is a plague,” one declared. “But we've got to win it . . . to help stop this eternal slaughter.”
While the American volunteers were U.S. Army Air Service enlisted personnel—and paid accordingly – the Royal Flying Corps ranked them as officers entitling them to a “regular servant who cleans our room and shines our boots,” as one American reported. American officers ordered the Americans to dress like officers, even demanding they purchase new uniforms at their own expense. This infuriated the Americans, who responded by expressing a desire to leave the U.S. Army Air service and join the Royal Flying Corps. “We have gotten a rotten deal from the U.S.A. And the British couldn't have treated their own Field Marshals any better. We owe the British a lot and have a lot to get even with our own army for.”
It wasn't until May 27, 1918 that the Americans were assigned to the 85th Squadron of what was now the Royal Air Force (RAF). This was indeed a fortunate assignment for the pilots. The 85th was commanded, in turn, by the legendary Canadian Major W.A. “Billy” Bishop (72 aerial victories) and the Irishman, Major Edward Corringhame “Mick” Mannock (shot down and killed 26 July 1918). Both were awarded the Victoria Cross among other decorations.
Flight training was primitive and dangerous. “I had no idea there was so much to learn about this game,” wrote one trainee. “When you get to the front, you are just starting. There's something to learn about your game every flight and there're the idiosyncrasies of the enemy to be studies with your ear to the ground as well as the geographical (location) and the meteorological (weather) conditions.”
More pilots were lost in training accidents than in combat. There were no parachutes and there was always the gut-wrenching threat of fire. Why, it seems reasonable to wonder, become a pilot?
“It's better than being in the trenches,” was the typical response. True. But young men were, and always have been, drawn to war like a moth to flame. The American volunteers in 1917 never bought into President Wilson's declaration that they must fight and win a war to end wars. These so-called “Knights of the air,” who preferred a personal duel to mass slaughter, were drawn to aerial combat for excitement, camaraderie, and glory. They had no animosity against the enemy. They volunteered though they understood what war was all about.
The enemy they fought was called the “Hun.” (“Beware the Hun from out of the sun.”) But the persons most disliked were the officers of the American Army Air Service. And the AAS officers reflected a strong dislike of the volunteers which suggests that sending airmen into the Great War ahead of U.S. Army ground forces may have been a political, not a military, decision At war's end, the American pilots were discharged as enlisted U.S. soldiers with no recognition of their combat duty with the British Royal Air Force
The Great War Centennial
We are now in a state of perpetual war with leaders little more responsible than those who led Europe into war in 1914, and the United States on April 6, 1917. As we acknowledge this historic event, perhaps there will be a new assessment of that foolhardy conflict where inept statesmen and artless military commanders squandered so many young lives and national treasure. Hopefully, there are farsighted leaders today, rare as they may be, who understand that “those who ignore the past . . . .” Well, you know the rest.
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