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While he was crossing the Atlantic in the first week of August, , German troops continued their invasion of neutral Belgium, rushing to encircle Paris and defeat the French and the British before the huge Russian armies to the east could mobilize. Dan Carlin, Podcast Producer: The German war plans called for them to defeat France first, within a short period of time, and then turn those armies on the Russians.
Jay Winter, Historian: The German army was well aware that its task was to arrive in Paris 42 days…not 43 days…42 days exactly after the invasion of Belgium.
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And the population in Belgium and northern France was not going to stand in the way. Narrator: By August 17th, as hundreds of thousands of Belgian refugees were streaming away from the advancing German army, Davis had commandeered a motorcar and was headed in the opposite direction. He managed to find his way to Brussels to witness German forces entering the Belgian capital. No longer was it regiments of men marching but something uncanny, inhuman, a force of nature.
This was a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steam roller. For three days and three nights the column of gray, with 50, thousand bayonets and 50, lances, with gray transport wagons, … gray cannon, like a river of steel, cut Brussels in two. Dan Carlin, Podcast Producer: He described the columns going on for days marching in perfect step with each other. And I think it was jaw-dropping. But the news from Belgium turned more disturbing with each passing day.
Racing to keep to their invasion timetable, the Germans ruthlessly put down any resistance. Civilians were mowed down with machine guns; 14, buildings were deliberately destroyed. Fifteen days into the invasion, German soldiers arrived at the Belgian city of Louvain, a center of culture for centuries.
Then, they burned it to the ground. Voice: Richard Harding Davis: At Louvain it was war upon the defenceless, war upon churches, colleges, shops of milliners and lace-makers: war brought to the bedside and the fireside; against women harvesting in the fields, against children in wooden shoes playing in the streets. At Louvain that night the Germans were like men after an orgy.
When Your Farm Becomes a War Zone
They also crossed a line for his editors. Jay Winter, Historian: Six thousand Belgian civilians were killed. The Belgians would say murdered, in the course of the war, not one of them was a combatant. That was the price the German high command knew that they had to pay in order to get to Paris in forty-two days. Narrator: In just a few short weeks, Richard Harding Davis had abandoned any pretense to neutrality. Voice: Richard Harding Davis: Were the conflict in Europe a fair fight, the duty of every American would be to keep on the side-lines and preserve an open mind.
But it is not a fair fight. A man who would now be neutral would be a coward.
Narrator: On August 25 th , , a hastily organized group of American volunteers set off through the streets of Paris for the train station. The men had just enlisted in the French army. Still wearing their rumpled street clothes, they hardly looked like soldiers. Christopher Capozzola, Historian: There is a generation of Americans, particularly elite Americans who believed that with this elite status came the obligation to take risks for humanity. Now this was a totally romantic notion, but it inspired thousands of Americans to drop out of college, to quit their jobs.
They felt a personal responsibility to address what was the largest human crisis of their times. Narrator: Most of the well-heeled men were from elite colleges. Many of them had been drifting around Europe when the war broke out. There were painters and professors, medical students and mining engineers, a big-game hunter, a chef and a race-car driver. Keene, Historian: There are those Americans who believe that we should make an impact on the battlefield and with the government reluctant to do so, individuals decide to do so.
We have a river of people crossing the Atlantic to join the allied army, to serve as ambulance drivers as aid workers, as nurses, as doctors. Andrew Carroll, Writer: A lot of them truly loved France and they felt this was a war of civilization. They were after a kind of glory, even immortality. A real sense of wanting to sacrifice yourself for a greater cause. Narrator: The French government was stunned by the wave of volunteers — more than 35,, from 49 different nations. The German army had swept through Belgium and was driving towards Paris.
Every able-bodied man who could handle a rifle had been rushed to the front, including 5, French reservists who arrived in taxi cabs. At its head was a year old Harvard graduate and aspiring poet named Alan Seeger, who had been living in Paris when war was declared. Jay Winter, Historian: The notion of military service as a kind of a test of character, a test of I am happy and full of excitement over the wonderful days that are ahead.
It was such a comfort to receive your letter and know that you approved of my action. Be sure that I shall play the part well for I was never in better health nor felt my manhood more keenly. Narrator: Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion, a brigade famous for its ferocity and for taking in anyone willing to fight, and die, for France.
In its ranks he met men like Victor Chapman, a fellow Harvard graduate who had given up his architectural studies in Paris to volunteer, and Eugene Bullard, who had escaped the brutal racism of Georgia by stowing away for Europe when he was seventeen.
Once on the continent Bullard had worked as a panhandler, an actor in a traveling comedy troupe, and a boxer. The Legion put the Americans through a crash course in basic training, and they joined a war that now numbered millions of combatants on both sides.
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Just as the American volunteers were learning how to be soldiers, the nature of the war shifted. After smashing their way through Belgium, the Germans were approaching the outskirts of Paris when their over-extended army gave out. Allied counter-attacks drove them back beyond the Marne river east of Paris. Both sides dug in for protection, and kept trying to outflank one another.
Within weeks, an improvised network of trenches extended for more than miles from the English Channel to the Swiss border.
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The war that all sides assumed would be over in a matter of weeks, now stretched on with no end in sight. John Horne, Historian: The Germans realized that if they dig trenches and install their machine guns and artillery, the French and the British can't get much further forward. And it's stalemate. The new fortifications provided protection from the murderous carnage of open warfare.
But efforts to break out of the stand-off still sent hundreds of thousands of casualties flooding into hospitals just behind the lines. One of the nurses that struggled to cope with the onslaught was an American heiress from Chicago named Mary Borden. Voice: Mary Borden:. All day and often all night I am at work over dying and mutilated men. Narrator: Despite its horrors, Alan Seeger and his fellow volunteers could not get to the front fast enough.
Voice: Alan Seeger: Dear Mother: we are actually going at last to the firing line. By the time you receive this we shall already perhaps have had our baptism of fire. How thrilling it will be tomorrow and the following days, marching toward the front with the noise of battle growing continually louder before us. The whole regiment is going. You have no idea how beautiful it is to see the troops undulating along the road.
When Your Farm Becomes a War Zone
Song: I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier, I brought him up to be my pride and joy. Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder, To shoot some other mother's darling boy? It was sung in bars and dance-halls, in concerts, schools, and in homes all across the country. Richard Rubin, Writer: This was a time remember when in a city like New York, there were a great many daily newspapers being published.