U.S. faced ‘months of fiery trial and sacrifice’ in Great War

On this day 100 years ago the United States entered World War I. The declaration of war by the U.S. Congress followed by four days an address President Woodrow Wilson gave at a special joint session of Congress, urging lawmakers to make that declaration.

“There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us. It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” Wilson said. “But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

U.S. soldiers with the 1st Division of the 6th Field Artillery Regiment are seen in an undated photo in World War I. (CNS photo/U.S. Signal Corps, courtesy National World War I Museum and Memorial)

The war had already been officially underway since July 28, 1914. That the American Doughboys found horror of an unprecedented scale in the Great War, aka World War I, is well-documented.

A Tuesday story in The Washington Post gives a glimpse: “At night when things were quiet in the ‘jaw ward,'” wounded soldiers “would take out their small trench mirrors and survey the damage to their faces. Noses had been shot off. … Chins were destroyed. … Mouths had been torn apart.”

Chemical warfare also was a major component of this first global war of the 20th century from disabling chemicals, such as tear gas, to lethal agents like phosgene, chlorine and mustard gas. A distant relative of mine was one of the young men Nebraska gave up to the war. He was blinded by mustard gas, his life changed forever.

As CNS notes in this story, the Great War also brought Catholics, including the hierarchy, into the mainstream of U.S. society. CNS also has produced two videos about the war, found here and here. By entering the war, the U.S. played a decisive role in its outcome. It ended Nov. 11, 1918, when Germany formally surrendered.

The Catholic University of America in Washington has just created an extensive website that chronicles the U.S. Catholic experience in the war. It features material curated by the university’s American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives. Hundreds of pages of photographs, letters, scrapbooks, and other documents available online to the public free of charge on the site.

The University Archives has digitized a series of articles published in the late 1920s by what is today Catholic News Service called “Catholic Heroes of the World War” — a chronicle of men, and some women, who won the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, and/or the Distinguished Service Medal.

The archives staff has compiled other resources highlighting Catholic participation in the war: The “For God and Country” blog post recounts the university’s role in the war, as does “Catholic University Declares War”  in the “The Archivist’s Nook. “Catholic Women in World War One” focuses on the role of Catholic women’s organizations in the war.

Elsewhere, the Knights of Columbus just today opened an exhibit on the war at the organization’s museum in New Haven, Connecticut, where the organization has its headquarters.  More than 116,000 Americans died as a result of the war, and at least 1,600 were Knights of Columbus, according to a news release.


Replica of a battlefield trench is on display at Knights of Columbus Museum. (Courtesy of Knights of Columbus)

Titled “World War I: Beyond the Front Lines,” the exhibit runs through Dec. 30, 2018. It shows a retrospective of the war, includes interactives, visuals and artifacts from the Knights of Columbus Museum collection and its Supreme Council Archives. Other objects are on loan from private lenders and organizations.

The fraternal organization was involved in war relief efforts, spearheaded fundraising drives and sponsored recreation centers, known as “huts,” to offer hospitality to members of the military in the U.S. and abroad. “Everybody Welcome; Everything Free” was the centers’ motto.

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