Attacks push US to the limit

President Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson

In March 1917 the new Prime Minister David Lloyd George convened a meeting of an Imperial War Cabinet.

Representatives of all the Dominions and the Indian government would consider the prospects for the coming year and the likelihood of peace initiatives receiving a favourable response from Germany and her allies. The outlook was not good.

Although Germany had withdrawn on the Somme front, this was only to better positions for resisting attack by British and French forces.

In a paper circulated at the meeting, Lloyd George summarised that the British would have to bear the brunt of the fighting.

The French would suffer mutinies in the coming months, and the British and Dominion forces at Arras would conduct the main fighting on the Western front that summer, followed by the disastrous offensive launched on July 31 as the Third Battle of Ypres, which came to be known as the Passchendael campaign.

It was conducted with the aim of a left hook from Ypres towards the sea and the submarine bases at Zeebrugge, the threat to the continuance of war being evident from mounting losses of shipping.

That the campaign only reached its first objective on the Passchendael Ridge, a few miles from Ypres, when the campaign ended in November was an all too familiar outcome for a frontal slogging match in the Great War.

America had not yet issued a declaration of war, despite mounting losses of US lives as her shipping was attacked and many of her merchant ships confined to port, restricting her ability to trade.

Interestingly, Lloyd George did not even mention a possible US entry to the war in his appraisal of the outlook for 1917. US military strength and lack of preparedness ruled out any immediate benefit from an American entry, even if it happened.

Meanwhile, in America President Woodrow Wilson was holding back, hoping for some overwhelming shift in public opinion that would support a US declaration of war. There is evidence of a desire to avoid war if possible. His population was far from an enthusiastic supporter of the Allied cause and many would have inclined to Germany in preference.

His response to attacks on US shipping was to call for the defensive arming of her merchant ships in a policy of ‘armed neutrality’ that Congress refused to support and which was doubtful in international law.

Wilson convened a meeting of Congress for April 2, 1917, by which time he was able to persuade the Senate and House of Representatives that sustained German attacks on US shipping interests, and the overt veracity of the terms of the Zimmerman telegram exhorting Mexico to attack the US on a promise of retaking territories in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, had finally tipped the balance.

The United States declared war on Germany, but not Austria-Hungary.

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