A Time to Remember: How 1917 Changed the World

holly-fisher-1BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff  Writer, UAS Whalesong

We are currently in the Centennial Years of World War I. It has been one hundred years since the conflict that came to be known simply as The Great War.

1917 marked huge changes in World War I, as many situations were finally brought to their major turning, or breaking points. European countries and their colonies were slowly being pounded into submission by sheer want of supplies and people as the titanic conflict continued to rage. This created two opposite situations that defined the year, and markedly changed the future of both the war and the world. The introduction of the American army, and the fall of the Russian government shook what remained of the old standards and rewrote the lines of the globe.

In our country, we know 1917 as the year that the United States finally broke their neutrality and joined the war effort on the side of the Allies. Due to it’s size, population, and massive diversity of resources, the U.S. had been courted as an ally by every major power in the war since its outbreak. Despite the many entreaties, the American people were strongly against sending their own boys to fight the European war. President Woodrow Wilson tried to sue for peace in 1914, but when he was unsuccessful, he came to the conclusion that his country had to participate in order to help establish the peace that would follow. However, he had to act according to the will of the people, and thus was required to maintain a neutral position. That started to change when Germany sunk the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915. 128 Americans died. The unprovoked attack on a civilian vessel caused tensions to rise and began a shift in American public opinion. President Wilson demanded an end to unrestricted submarine warfare, which Germany agreed to, though they continued sporadic attacks on civilian vessels. On February 1, 1917, Germany openly resumed an unrestricted submarine tactic, further turning the American people against the Central Powers. The neutrality was finally shattered when British intelligence intercepted the Zimmermann Telegram, in which Germany proposed an alliance with Mexico. In exchange for their aid, Germany would help Mexico retake their lost territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, a direct and personal attack on the United States. President Wilson released the telegram to the public, and they immediately responded with a demand to go to war. War between America and Germany was officially declared on April 6. A similar declaration on the Central Power of Austria-Hungary followed on December 7. After over three years of neutrality, the impressive resources and mobilization strength of the United States was finally brought to bear. The speed with which the North American country produced soldiers and equipment caught the Central Powers by surprise. It had been expected that it would take longer for the paltry U.S. army to expanded to meet the demands of a global war, and that submarine attacks would limit their ability to reach the European battlefields. However, the first American troops had landed in France by June of 1917. Though these initial forces were small in number, by the end of the war more than 4 million U.S. troops had participate in the conflict, tipping the scale irreversibly in favor of the allies.

While the United States grew in power, 1917 also saw the collapse of the Russian monarchy, and the end of the 300-year rule of House Romanov. Revolution, which had been threatening for some long months, finally ignited in Russia as the people grew tired of Tsar Nicholas II’s incompetent leadership, and poor wartime strategies. With so many men drafted as soldiers, there were few to work the fields and starvation gripped the country. Resources and equipment such as trains and railways had fallen into disrepair, breaking up connections and goods distribution across the land. The devastating effects of the harsh northern winter wore the people down to their last nerve. The February Revolution started on February 23 with the outbreak of bread riots, with the starved and angry police forces siding with the population. Due to misinformation about the severity of the situation, the Tsar ordered the demonstrators be punished harshly. This order led to a rapid spreading of rebellion among the troops. Regiment after regiment turned on the Tsar, and over 60,000 troops joined the rebellion within days. Garrisons were captured, vital governing buildings such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Military Government building were burned to the ground, and the remains of the government demanded Tsar Nicholas’ abdication. With no other choice, he acquiesced to the demand on March 15.

The Tsar attempted to establish his brother, Grand Duke Michael, as the next Tsar, but the offer was declined in favor of allowing the people to vote for whether Russia should remain a monarchy or become a republic. A provisional government was set up to replace the former royal ruling class, which proved to be a precarious shift of power that was overbalanced by the continued war effort. Calls were made for peace, and inter-country groups began to fight further mobilization. The Kerensky Offensive of July 1-19 proved to be Russia’s last major battle of the war, and after its failure desertions spread rabidly. By late 1917, over 2 million soldiers had “left” the Russian army. This internal uproar created an ideal opening for the Bolsheviks, who seized power during the October Revolution, which began on November 7. When they had firmly established their position over the government, one of their first official acts was to sue for peace with Germany. The two countries signed a preliminary armistice on December 16, signaling Russia’s withdrawal from the global conflict into an internal civil war that pitted the Socialist Red Army against the White Royal Guard. Though the country was out of The Great War, peace was still far out of reach for the troubled nation.

The United States and Russia all but traded places on the global scene. Before the Great War, Russia was an old world power that had been in place for centuries, with a history and reputation that made it a powerful entity by any standards. The United States was a resource-rich, but politically less powerful country, with very little history or background to give it clout. After the war, the U.S. rose to the position of global superpower, while Russia was torn asunder internally. Though the northern country would recover to become the second great super power of the post-Wars era, at the end of the 1910s, things had been turned completely on their heads. This is one of the clearest examples of how WWI transformed the old world and the new, creating a clear divisional line of history.

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