On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess Sophie, were assassinated by a Bosnian nationalist. A cascade of ensuing events ignited a war between two international alliances. The Allies primarily consisted of the Empires of Britain, France, and Russia, Italy, several smaller European nations, and eventually the United States. The Central Powers included the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and Bulgaria. Most fighting occurred in Western and Eastern Europe, however, other theaters included Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
The United States remained officially neutral until April 6, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson signed a declaration of war. A massive mobilization swelled the ranks of American’s military forces to about 4 million. Hundreds enlisted, or were drafted, from the Tuscaloosa area. Many became part of the million-man American Expeditionary Force, or AEF, that was sent primarily to France.
By the summer of 1918, Americans were arriving in France at a rate of 10,000 per day. These troops were instrumental in thwarting the final German offensive. German morale subsequently collapsed, and an Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
In the First World War, advances in weapons technology far outstripped battlefield tactics. Because of limited troop mobility and massed human wave attacks, there were staggering casualties. Some estimates set military deaths at about 10 million. However, if disease, especially the Spanish Flu, and privation is included, the death toll has been estimated to exceed 100 million—perhaps 5% or more of humanity.
A total of 45 men from Tuscaloosa County died or were killed during the war. Among these were Farley W. Moody of Tuscaloosa and Findley B. Durrett of Northport, both killed in action (KIA). Local posts of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars were subsequently named in their honor. After the war, 45 oak trees with individual markers were planted along University Boulevard in front of the Quadrangle to honor those who had fallen.
Numerous University of Alabama alumni served in WWI. Four of them, John Steiner, Mortimer Jordan (KIA), William March, and the previously mentioned Findley Durrett (KIA), received the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. Army award for valor second only to the Medal of Honor.
African Americans enlisted, or were drafted, in large numbers and made significant contributions to the war effort. Few saw actual combat, but they were instrumental in providing support services. Marvin Gay of Northport was one of those who did not survive the war.
Perhaps the best-known World War I veteran with local connections was William Crawford Gorgas, Surgeon General of the United States Army. His father had been President of the University of Alabama. His mother, Amelia Gayle Gorgas, served for decades as librarian. Gorgas’ efforts were credited with preventing millions of wartime deaths from disease. In 1920, Gorgas suffered a stroke while in London. As he lay dying in a hospital, he was visited by King George V and Queen Mary. The King bestowed an honorary knighthood and later decreed that Gorgas receive a state funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral with honors appropriate for a British general. Gorgas was later buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Mobile native and University of Alabama Alumnus William March wrote the novel Company K based upon his experiences in the Marine Corps in France. It has been called one of the greatest works of literature to come out of the war. Some critics have compared it to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. A film adaptation of Company K was released in 2004. March is buried in Tuscaloosa’s Evergreen Cemetery.
World War I was a cataclysmic event, with social, political, cultural, medical, and technical repercussions still evident over a century later. From the ashes of empires, nations such as the Irish Republic, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, the Soviet Union, Poland, Estonia, and Turkey arose. The movement for an independent India was boosted as well as an increased emphasis on equal rights for African Americans.
Suggested additional reading:
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
Company K by William March
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque