WWI Centennial: An Overview

Frank Hurley/Getty Images
Frank Hurley/Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. For the last six years we’ve been covering the causes and major events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. All the entries in the WWI Centennial blog are available in reverse chronological order, along with other stories about the war, here.

With the final climactic year underway, we’re also providing a (relatively) condensed version so new readers can catch up and long-time readers can refresh their memories.

1914: THE CONFLICT BEGINS

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb nationalists in Sarajevo, the leaders of the ailing Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to use the murder of the heir to the throne as a pretext to crush their troublesome neighbor, the Kingdom of Serbia, once and for all. With support from their powerful ally Germany, they delivered an ultimatum to Serbia with demands so outrageous it was guaranteed to be rejected, giving them an excuse to declare war.

But Germany and Austria-Hungary’s clumsy efforts to “localize” the conflict went off the rails in the “July Crisis.” After Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, on July 30 Serbia’s Slavic patron Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary and Germany. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia and its ally France, and on August 4 Britain declared war on Germany after German troops violated Belgian neutrality as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

As war rippled across the planet, fighting defied expectations on both sides. France’s attempt to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine ended in bloody defeat during the Battle of the Frontiers, while the Germans overcame the odds to destroy the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, and Austria-Hungary suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Serbs at Kolubara. In September Germany’s invasion of northern France failed decisively at the “Miracle on the Marne,” and the exhausted Germans retreated north and dug in, marking the emergence of trench warfare.

The opposing armies now tried to outflank each other again and again, without success, in the “Race to the Sea,” leaving parallel lines of trenches behind them, eventually reaching the North Sea in Flanders in western Belgium. Here the Germans made one last push to break through the Allied lines at Ypres (fated to be the scene of two more titanic battles in the years to come). As 1914 drew to a close, the horrific casualties shocked the world, and the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in November just spread the bloody stalemate further.  However there was a brief moment of good cheer with the famous Christmas Eve Truce.


Erik Sass

1915: GALLIPOLI AND THE GREAT RETREAT

The following year was marked by more disappointments and surprises. Frustrated on the Western Front, Britain and France tried, and failed, to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with a long shot attempt to “force” the Turkish straits with warships, followed by amphibious landings, resulting in an even worse defeat at Gallipoli.

Although the Turks held off the Allied attacks, the threat to the Turkish homeland, along with the fact that some Armenian Christians were helping their Russian co-religionists invade the empire, prompted the Ottoman “Young Turk” triumvirate to unleash the Armenian Genocide, killing around 1.5 million by 1917. At the same time, after a year of heated debate Italy—thinking Gallipoli was going to be a big Allied victory—finally joined the Allies with a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, but immediately became bogged down in trench warfare as well.

In spring 1915 Germany outraged public opinion with two brutal new weapons: poison gas and submarine warfare. The German Fourth Army unleashed chlorine gas on Allied forces at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, causing horrific casualties but ultimately failing to achieve a breakthrough, thanks to the bravery of Canadian troops; This set the pattern for the rest of the war, as both sides used poison gas to amplify the effects of artillery bombardments on enemy trenches—with terrible but rarely decisive effects.

Meanwhile Germany’s decision to mount unrestricted U-boat warfare brought her to the brink of war with the United States, the world’s most powerful neutral nation. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 infuriated the American public and pushed the U.S. towards the Allies (although there was also anger at the Allied blockade of the Central Powers, which hurt U.S. business interests). The Germans backed down, but remained determined to cut the Allies off from American industry, the key to sustaining the Allied war effort.

The summer of 1915 brought the first major breakthrough of the war on the Eastern Front, with the Central Powers’ rapid conquest of Russian Poland during the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign. The Russian Great Retreat, as it came to be known, was a huge setback, prompting Tsar Nicholas II to take over personal command of the Russian Army—meaning he would be held responsible for future defeats. And worse was to come for the Allies: in October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and helped crush Serbia. The remnants of the Serbian Army managed to escape through Albania, and were subsequently evacuated by Allied ships to the island of Corfu. Eventually the Serbian Army was redeployed in Salonika in northern Greece, reinforcing Allied troops recently evacuated from Gallipoli in a belated effort to help Serbia from the south.


Erik Sass

1916: CATASTROPHIC CASUALTIES

Some of the biggest battles in human history occurred in Europe the following year, beginning with the incredible German onslaught at Verdun in February 1916. A cold-blooded German plan to “bleed France dry” through simple attrition, Verdun soon spun out of control, resulting in almost as many casualties for the Germans as the French. The failure led to the firing of chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, replaced in September 1916 by Paul von Hindenburg (aided by his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff).

In June 1916 the Russians launched their most successful offensive of the war by far, orchestrated by General Alexei Brusilov, a pioneer of “combined arms,” in which attacks by artillery, infantry and airplanes were carefully coordinated to punch holes in widely separated portions of the enemy front at once. The Brusilov Offensive, as it became known, resulted in the almost total collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in Galicia by September 1916, forcing Germany to withdraw troops from other parts of the front to prop up its beleaguered ally, at which point the Russian offensive sputtered.

The summer of 1916 was a grim time for the Central Powers, as the British also launched their biggest offensive of the war to date at the Somme. The Allies inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans but also suffered breathtaking losses, with 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day alone (July 1, 1916). In the weeks to come the British scored more victories, pushing the enemy back again and again, but the Germans were always able to dig into new defensive positions; the battlefield debut of tanks in September 1916 spread terror in the German ranks but failed to provide a decisive advantage.

In another case of bad timing, in August 1916 Romania—encouraged by Russian success in the Brusilov Offensive and the British advance at the Somme—joined the Allies in hopes of conquering Austria-Hungary’s ethnic Romanian provinces. However this soon proved a disastrous mistake, as Germany rushed more reinforcements to the Balkans and swiftly crushed the Romanians with help from the Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians and Turks, occupying Bucharest by winter.


Erik Sass

1917: THE U.S. ENTERS THE WAR

The fourth year of the war started and ended with upheaval. Leading the way was the Russian Revolution in March 1917, when workers and soldiers overthrew the Romanov Dynasty and seized power on behalf of the Duma, or parliament. However the new Provisional Government was always weak, forced to share power with the Petrograd Soviet, a socialist assembly representing soldiers and workers, and leftist radicals in the Soviet, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, wanted to overthrow the Provisional Government too.

The radicals got a boost with the failure of the disastrous offensive ordered by War Minister Alexander Kerensky in July, followed by an abortive military coup led by a conservative general, Kornilov, which undermined popular support for the new regime. After their own failed coup attempt in July, the Bolsheviks finally succeeded in overthrowing the Provisional Government in November, supposedly seizing power on behalf of the socialist Soviets—but in reality for themselves. The Bolsheviks would soon take Russia out of the war, a huge setback for the Allies.

This wasn’t their only problem. In March 1917 the Germans made a surprise withdrawal to formidable new defenses on the Western Front, known as the Hindenburg Line, in order to shorten their line and free up forces to fight elsewhere. Following the bloody defeat of the French spring offensive on the Western Front, half the French Army mutinied in May 1917, paralyzing the French war effort. Although General Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun, set about improving conditions and restoring order, it would take months before the French Army was able to mount a major offensive. To take the pressure off their weakened ally, the British launched a gigantic offensive at the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, which achieved some gains, but again ultimately failed to break through the German lines. The stunning Italian defeat at Caporetto then forced the British to halt the offensive to reinforce the Italian front.

Fortunately for Britain and France, an even bigger ally was rumbling into action. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February 1917, followed by the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the Germans secretly encouraged Mexico to declare war on the U.S., outraged American public opinion so much that President Woodrow Wilson got Congress to declare war on Germany on April 4, 1917. But it would take time for the U.S. to build an army big enough to make a difference in Europe.


Erik Sass

After the Bolsheviks agreed to an armistice in December, Russia’s exit from the war and descent into civil war spelled bad news for the Allies. As 1917 drew to a close, the big question was whether the Germans would be able to transfer troops from the Eastern Front and crush the overstretched British and French before American troops started arriving in large numbers? This was the final race that would decide the outcome of the war.

12 Things to Know About Crazy Horse

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Crazy Horse, or Ta-Sunko-Witko, was a legendary warrior and Lakota Oglala leader who defended Oglala land and helped defeat General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. “We preferred our own way of living,” Crazy Horse reportedly said. “We were no expense to the government. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone.” Learn more about the Lakota war chief.

1. “CRAZY HORSE” WAS NOT HIS FIRST GIVEN NAME.

Born around 1840 to Lakota parents, Crazy Horse was originally named Cha-O-Ha, or Among the Trees. (His mother, however, insisted on calling him “Curly.”) When Cha-O-Ha reached maturity, he was given the name held by his father and grandfather—Ta-Sunko-Witko, or Crazy Horse.

2. HE RAN AWAY WITH A MAN’S WIFE AND WAS SHOT IN THE FACE ...

In the 1860s, Crazy Horse fell in love with a married woman named Black Buffalo Woman and convinced her to run away with him. When her husband found out, he chased down the lovers and attempted to shoot Crazy Horse. Thankfully, just before the man pulled the trigger, Crazy Horse’s close friend, Touch the Clouds, knocked the gun upward. Instead of hitting Crazy Horse in the chest, the errant bullet hit him in the jaw.

3. ... AND THEN PROMPTLY FELL IN LOVE WITH ANOTHER WOMAN.

After Crazy Horse was shot, a woman named Black Shawl was sent to help him heal. Once again, Crazy Horse fell in love. They married and had a daughter, who died when she was a toddler.

4. HE GOT HIS FIRST TASTE OF BATTLE THANKS TO A WANDERING COW.

In 1854, a loose cow wandered into a Lakota camp in present-day Wyoming. The cow did not last there long: Somebody killed it, butchered it, and shared the meat among the community. Shortly after, Lieutenant John Lawrence Grattan and 29 U.S. troops arrived at the camp with the intention of arresting whoever “stole” the cow. Eventually, they shot and killed the Lakota chief, Conquering Bear. In response, the Lakota killed all 30 soldiers. A young Crazy Horse saw it all, and the event stoked his distrust of white people.

5. AFTER THE MASSACRE, CRAZY HORSE WENT ON A VISION QUEST.

It was common for young men of the plains tribes to seek visions, which were something like instructions to fulfilling one’s destiny. After refusing to eat or drink for four days, Crazy Horse began to see visions from another world: He learned that if he lived simply and refused war trophies, and adopted an ethos of simplicity, he would never be harmed in battle. With only one exception, it’s said that Crazy Horse was never injured in ensuing wars.

6. CRAZY HORSE'S GREATEST BATTLES WERE PROMPTED BY AMERICA'S LUST FOR GOLD.

The U.S. government broke many of the treaties it signed with Native Americans because it was hungry for gold. In 1863, explorer John Bozeman blazed a trail to Montana's gold fields through Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe territory that an 1851 treaty made off-limits to whites. Tensions rose. In 1864, Colorado militiamen murdered more than 200 peaceful Cheyenne, the majority of whom were women and children. In the years following, Native American tribes began seeking revenge against white soldiers who failed to respect treaties.

On December 21, 1866, Captain William Fetterman led about 80 men from Wyoming's Fort Phil Kearny, a large garrison built to protect white emigrants and gold seekers. Crazy Horse planted decoys along their route. Fetterman’s men followed—and rushed into the grips of 1000 hiding warriors. All of the U.S. soldiers were killed. (The Americans called it the Fetterman Massacre, but the Lakota called it the Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands.)

7. A BROKEN TREATY BROUGHT CRAZY HORSE AND CUSTER INTO CONFLICT.

The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie declared that the Black Hills of South Dakota belonged to the Sioux, but the agreement was broken just six years after it was signed—all because prospectors had discovered gold in the region. In 1874, the government sent General George Armstrong Custer to lead a surveying party there. When the Sioux wouldn't sell these lands, the government ordered them onto smaller reservations, which the Native Americans refused. These events would lead to Crazy Horse’s greatest battles.

8. HIS LEADERSHIP AT THE BATTLE OF ROSEBUD SPELLED CUSTER'S DOOM.

In 1876, the U.S. Department of War ordered all Lakota onto reservations. Crazy Horse refused. Instead, he led 1500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in a battle against Brigadier General George Crook, whose men were attempting to approach Hunkpapa Lakota chief Sitting Bull’s encampment at Little Bighorn. The battle was a strategic victory for Crazy Horse: It sent Crook's army packing and deprived George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry of much-needed reinforcements. Had Crazy Horse failed, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which followed shortly after, may have turned out differently.

9. HIS PERFORMANCE AT THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN WAS LEGENDARY.

And we mean legendary—nobody is sure what, exactly, Crazy Horse did. But there are rumors. An Arapaho warrior named Water Man said Crazy Horse “was the bravest man I ever saw. He rode closest to the soldiers, yelling to his warriors. All the soldiers were shooting at him, but he was never hit.” Another Native American soldier said, “The greatest fighter in the whole battle was Crazy Horse.”

10. HE WAS STARVED INTO SURRENDERING.

After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, two of the battle’s primary leaders—Sitting Bull and Gall—left for Canada. Crazy Horse remained in America. It was a life-changing decision. At the time, Colonel Nelson A. Miles was hellbent on forcing all Native Americans onto reservations, and through the winter of 1876 and 1877, Miles hit the Lakota where it hurt: Buffalo herds were decimated, and the winter became especially hard for Crazy Horse’s people. After a long period of cold and hunger, Crazy Horse surrendered. He was sent to a reservation at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.

11. HE WAS STABBED TO DEATH.

In September 1877, Crazy Horse left the reservation without permission. (His wife had become ill and he had attempted to take her to her parents.) Fearing that the warrior might return to battle, General Crook ordered him arrested. During his arrest, Crazy Horse struggled, and a soldier thrust a bayonet into his body. It was a fatal blow. As Crazy Horse bled, he was offered a cot, but he turned it down. He died on the floor.

12. IF COMPLETED, THE CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL COULD BE THE WORLD'S LARGEST SCULPTURE.

Under construction since 1948, the Crazy Horse Memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, the Oglala Lakota chief in the late 1930s, as a response to Mount Rushmore. Today, the memorial—built by a non-profit that refuses government funding—is still incomplete. When it is finished, the monument carved into the side of South Dakota’s Thunderhead Mountain will stand 563 feet high.

10 Things You Might Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images
Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images

On October 11, 1943, Dwight Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery made a bet about the future of World War II. The war, Ike wagered, would be over by Christmas Day 1944—and he put £5 on it (which would be just under $100 in today's dollars). A year later, he must have felt pretty good about his chances: The Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 had paved the way for a series of other Nazi defeats in France and neighboring countries; meanwhile, the Soviet Army was hammering away on the eastern front. Hitler's army was caught in a vice, and the screws were tightening.

Ultimately, however, Ike lost. On December 16, 1944, Hitler’s last major offensive campaign against the Western Allies began with a vengeance. Exploiting the weakly-defended Ardennes forest, the Nazis carved out a triangular slice of former Allied territory in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. Hitler’s men wouldn’t be pushed back to their start point until January 25, 1945. By then, the Americans and Germans had respectively suffered around 81,000 and 100,000 casualties. Hitler had thought this attack might force the western Allies out of mainland Europe, allowing him to concentrate on beating the Soviets. Instead, it strengthened Allied resolve. Read on to find out more about what we in the States call “the Battle of the Bulge.”

1. REPORTER LARRY NEWMAN COINED THE NAME “BATTLE OF THE BULGE.”

Larry Newman was a war correspondent working on behalf of United Press International and the International News Service. On December 30, 1944, he met with American General George Patton to talk about the German counterattack. Newman wanted to give the fight a catchy name that wasn’t too formal. While looking at some war maps, he was struck by the bulging swell of German troops and coined the phrase Battle of the Bulge. Other journalists (particularly those working in the U.S.) were quick to adopt the new name. Germany’s military referred to their campaign as “The Ardennes Offensive”; the Allies officially called their response “The Ardennes Counteroffensive.”

2. HITLER’S ADVISORS THOUGHT IT WAS MISGUIDED.

The Führer’s ambitious goal was to sweep through the Ardennes and then take the port city of Antwerp, Belgium—and along the way, his advancing men would cut the Allied forces in half while decimating their ranks. Hitler believed he could negotiate favorable terms for an armistice with Britain, France, and the U.S. once Antwerp fell.

It wasn’t a foolproof strategy. Field Marshall Walther Model didn’t think the Germans had enough troops for the assault. Privately, he said the plan “doesn’t have a damned leg to stand on.” Others warned that Antwerp would be almost impossible to defend even if it was somehow captured. Hoping to change Hitler’s mind, Model and his fellow Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt suggested that he try to take back Aachen—a German city under Allied occupation—instead of going after Antwerp. Hitler ignored them.

Military historian Peter Caddick-Adams says the dictator’s choice was politically motivated. On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg almost did the Führer in by hiding a bomb at one of Hitler’s strategy meetings. Though Hitler survived, he worried that the assassination attempt had raised questions about his competence as a leader—and believed that a decisive win over the Allies would heal his reputation. “The genesis of Hitler’s plans to launch the Bulge is his grappling to retain control of the direction of military affairs and prove to the Third Reich that he’s still the man at the top,” Caddick-Adams said in an interview with National Geographic.

3. GENERAL PATTON’S INTELLIGENCE OFFICER SAW IT COMING.

The narrative spun in most history books is that Germany’s Ardennes Offensive caught the Allies completely by surprise—but that’s not quite accurate.

While it's true that Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley later admitted they hadn’t foreseen the scale of Hitler’s massive attack, there was one U.S. intelligence officer who did anticipate the blow: Colonel Oscar W. Koch. A member of General Patton’s staff, Koch had been keeping track of German tank divisions throughout the winter of 1944. The colonel knew there were 15 such divisions in total, but only five of these were accounted for in early December. Where were the others? At a December 9 briefing, Koch told Patton that the Germans might be planning a huge counteroffensive through the Ardennes, just to the north of Patton’s Third Army. When the Ardennes Offensive started, Patton was ready for it and had his men pivot northwards, hammering Germany’s southern flank.

Other American generals in the region were totally unprepared. Koch’s fellow intelligence specialists had access to the same facts, but they interpreted them differently. Since Hitler had been losing ground in France and Belgium for so long, it was assumed that his western forces were basically spent. Other than Koch, almost no one thought Germany was able or willing to mount a large-scale offensive campaign. Years later, Koch wrote, “The Allied failure leading to the tragedy of the Bulge, was in evaluation and application of the intelligence information at hand.”

4. BASEBALL TRIVIA WAS SERIOUS BUSINESS AT AMERICAN CHECKPOINTS.

Both prior to and during the battle, English-speaking German troops disguised themselves in pilfered Allied uniforms and snuck behind enemy lines—and when the scheme was discovered, panic rippled through the American ranks. So at checkpoints, U.S. army units would quiz each other with pop culture questions like “Who plays center field for the Yankees?” and “What’s Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend’s name?” General Bradley once had to prove his identity by “naming the then-current spouse of a [movie star] named Betty Grable,” and another time nearly got in trouble when he correctly identified Springfield as the capital of Illinois—because the questioner was holding out for Chicago. On another occasion, Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke was detained after he misidentified the Chicago Cubs as an American League baseball team.

5. WHEN ASKED TO SURRENDER, BRIGADIER GENERAL ANTHONY MCAULIFFE REPLIED WITH A FOUR-LETTER WORD.

By December 22, German forces had surrounded the town of Bastogne, Belgium, trapping 14,000 American soldiers and about 3000 civilians. At roughly 11:30 a.m., Nazi General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz sent four men to deliver a message to Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, head of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division. Explaining that the town was encircled by “strong German armored units,” Lüttwitz gave McAuliffe two hours to surrender peacefully. When he learned that the Germans wanted him to raise the white flag, McAuliffe grumbled “Nuts!” This amused some of his staffers, who persuaded him to put that little interjection in his formal reply. Here’s McAuliffe’s actual written response to General Lüttwitz:

“December 22, 1944

To the German Commander,

N U T S!

Signed,

The American Commander.”

Lüttwitz’s messengers didn’t understand the slang and were told McAuliffe was basically saying “Go to hell.” The isolated Americans in Bastogne held off the German siege until General Patton forced his way into the city with reinforcements on December 26.

6. COLD-RELATED INJURIES HIT EPIDEMIC LEVELS.

Members of the American 82nd Airborne Division trudging through the snow behind a tank during the Battle of the Bulge
Keystone/Getty Images

“I was from Buffalo, I thought I knew cold,” Warren Spahn, a baseball Hall of Famer who served in WWII, later said. “But I didn’t really know cold until the Battle of the Bulge.”

The weather for most of the battle was, in a word, brutal. Hitler saw it as a strategic opportunity: He timed his Ardennes offensive for mid-December, to coincide with an outbreak of freezing rain, subzero temperatures, and dense fogs—conditions that would make it difficult for the Allies to use their aircraft to attack German ground divisions.

Many U.S. troops found themselves ill-equipped for the frozen hellscape. Standard-issue American combat boots were not waterproof and keeping one’s socks dry could be a challenge. (Frozen soil was another problem for Allied troops who had been ordered to dig out trenches.)

Altogether, the U.S. ranks saw more than 64,000 cases of “cold injuries” like trench foot and pneumonia during the brutal European winter of 1944-1945. Thousands of these occurred in the Bulge.

7. KURT VONNEGUT WAS CAPTURED IN IT.

Like the protagonist of his most famous book, Vonnegut—then a 22-year-old private with the U.S. 101st infantry division—was captured at the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944, then taken to Dresden, where he was imprisoned at a facility called Slaughterhouse Five. “Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of [General Courtney Hodges’s] First Army,” he recalled in a letter to his family. “The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight—so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it.” While at Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut—again, like Billy Pilgrim—survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

8. PATTON SENT OUT THE MOST FAMOUS CHRISTMAS CARDS IN MILITARY HISTORY.

On December 14, 1944, just two days before the battle started, General Patton summoned Reverend James H. O’Neill, Chaplain of the Third Army, to his office in Nancy. By then, murky skies and heavy precipitation had reached the Ardennes and Patton recognized them as a military disadvantage. So the general asked O’Neill to come up with “a prayer for good weather.” According to Patton's memoirs, O’Neill resisted at first. “It usually isn’t a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men,” O’Neill allegedly said. To this, Patton replied “Chaplain, are you trying to teach me theology, or are you Chaplain of the Third Army? I want a prayer.”

O’Neill retold the story differently. He claimed that a week earlier Patton had called and asked for a prayer, and O’Neill accepted the challenge at once. When O’Neill couldn’t find an existing prayer that fit the circumstances, he penned a new one. “Almighty and most merciful father,” it began, “we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle.” Patton had this printed on around 250,000 Christmas cards for his men. Each one also bore the following note from the General: “To each officer and soldier in the Third United States Army, I wish a Merry Christmas. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We march in our might to complete victory. May God’s blessing rest upon each of you on this Christmas Day.”

The cards went out on December 22. Within 24 hours, the skies had cleared well enough for the Third Army to proceed toward Bastogne (though there was still plenty of snow). A grateful Patton proclaimed, “That O’Neill sure did some potent praying. Get him up here. I want to pin a medal on him.” The next day, Patton presented O’Neill with a Bronze Star Medal.

9. DURING THE BATTLE, THE SOVIETS LAUNCHED A MAJOR ATTACK ON HITLER’S EASTERN FRONT.

At its zenith, the German “bulge” into Allied terrain was around 50 miles deep and 70 miles long. Hitler’s men—despite their impressive start—would lose every inch of ground they’d gained by the battle’s end date: January 25, 1945. A costly aircraft raid on New Year’s Day contributed to their defeat, as did fuel shortages and shifts in the weather. While the Bulge was shriveling away, the Red Army began its Vistula-Oder Offensive in Eastern Europe. The campaign kicked off on January 12, 1945 and would last through February 2. In it, over 2 million Soviets moved westward, taking cities like Warsaw and Krakow out of the Third Reich’s hands. The Red Army came within 50 miles of Berlin itself—and on January 27, it liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. Unable to endure sustained pressure from the Soviets and Western Allies, Germany surrendered without condition on May 7, seven days after Hitler took his own life.

10. THE U.S. MILITARY EXPERIMENTED WITH INTEGRATION.

Some 1.2 million African-Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. They performed a wide range of duties, but in most circumstances, black combat troops weren’t permitted to fight “shoulder to shoulder” with their white counterparts. However, in response to personnel shortages in the Ardennes, General Eisenhower invited black soldiers to volunteer for service on the front lines. More than 2200 soldiers who took him up on the offer were chosen to fight. During the battle, the army set up companies consisting of both white and African-American platoons. Segregation would be reinstated once the Bulge came to a close, and Truman wouldn’t commit the armed services to integration until 1948.

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