WWI’s legacy still felt in Philly, 100 years later

It’s been a century since “The Great War” permanently changed the world. When it was over, more than 16 million people were dead, 10 million of those soldiers, the rest civilians.

But today, the legacy of WWI is still debated, questioned and misunderstood, and there are many different opinions as to its historic impact on the Philadelphia area.

“In my opinion, the most lasting impact on Philadelphia and the country was the attitude change toward the role of women,” said Peter Williams, a local historian and author of Philadelphia: The World War I Years.” “I think the role women played on the home front and overseas substantially changed the attitudes of many men and women regarding suffrage, especially in Philadelphia.”

The city sent thousands of its native sons to fight in trench warfare in Europe after the U.S. entered the conflict in April 1917, many of them never to return.

But stateside, everyone was doing their part, and women, barred from military combat, filled in manufacturing jobs, ran charitable organizations to support soldiers overseas, or served overseas in auxiliary capacities.

“Before the war women were not considered capable of performing certain industrial jobs. But the shortage of men allowed them into those positions. Suddenly they were working in munitions factories assembling incendiary bullets and artillery shells and at the shipyards as welders,” Williams said. “Thousands of women joined the military as nurses, Navy yeomen and female marines as well as the Red Cross. They served both here and in Europe with dedication, courage and valor. And quite a few lost their lives both as a result of enemy fire and due to caring for those suffering with the Spanish Influenza.”

Williams argued that these achievements stimulated the women’s suffrage movement, culminating in women gaining the right to vote two years later in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

U.S. Marines during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign

U.S. Marines during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, a seven-week battle during which 27,000 Americans died – the deadliest battle in US history – which officially ended with the Armistice of 1918. (Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. involvement in World War I still an enigma 

Other historians have cited the war economy as stimulating Philly’s burgeoning manufacturing economy. With 60 percent of Philadelphia’s population made up of immigrants during the war, patriotic fervor unified the diverse communities (with the unfortunate exception of German-Americans, some of whom faced ostracism).

Nonetheless, some still question why President Woodrow Wilson chose to enter an overseas war at all. Many supported the U.S. staying neutral in what was seen as a European conflict.

“We really don’t know why Wilson made his decision to go to war,” said Sahr Conway-Lanz, scholar-in-residence at the History Department of Widener University in Chester, where he delivered a lecture on Nov. 9 during the schoo;’s World War I Centennial symposium. “There is still a mystery about Wilson’s decision, even after 100 years of study of this, and despite 300,000 documents from the Wilson papers, we still don’t really know for sure. It seems very clear Wilson was tortured by this decision to go to war.”

Conway-Lanz should know — he curated Wilson’s papers for the U.S. Library of Congress. Most historical sources indicate the clearest impetus to war was the sinking by a German U2 submarines of the U.S. passenger ship Lusitania, a neutral ship transporting non-combatants. 100 Americans civilians — 27 of them Philadelphians — died.  Wilson had previously issued an ultimatum in 1915 that if Germany attacked non-combatant vessels, the U.S. would enter the war.

But in exchange for the deaths of 100 Americans aboard the Lusitania, more than 100,000 American soldiers would die, many of them in just six months of fighting. Historians estimate that 3,000 were from the Philadelphia area, and 1,400 from the city proper. A total of 10,278 Pennsylvanians are believed to have died in the war. Was it really worth it?

“I really think that Wilson did not want to go to war. He laid down his ultimatum in 1915, hoping that the war would end before he had to enforce his pledge,” Conway-Lanz said. “This is one of the things I find so interesting that can speak to us today: If you lay down an ultimatum, and you feel it’s important to follow through on that threat, as Wilson did, then you give up control over the situation. … It really seems like he felt he was being driven toward war.”

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