By Eileen M. Lavine
April 6, 1917 is the official date for America’s entry into World War I, and over the next 19 months, some 250,000 Jews served in the American armed forces. Through this timeline, explore some of their stories:
June 28, 1914 — Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist.
July 28, 1914 — Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
August 1, 1914 — Germany declares war on Russia.
August 3, 1914 — Germany declares war on France.
August 4, 1914 — Britain declares war on Germany.
August 7, 1914 — The London Jewish Chronicle proclaims: “England has been all she could to Jews; Jews will be all they can be to England.” At the same time, the editor of the leading German Jewish newspaper writes: “The German Jew does not think of himself as a Jew first, but rather as a member of his country.” About 100,000 German Jews fought for Germany, with some 12,000 dying. Nearly half a million Jews served in Austria-Hungary and Russia. On the Western side, numbers of Jews in the British army vary from 40,000 to 60,000.
September 5, 1914 — Great Britain, France and Russia sign the Treaty of London declaring that none would make a separate peace with any of the Central Powers. Henceforward, the group was to be known as the Allies. Jewish participants on both sides declared their support in varied ways. Jews were named to leading posts in Germany to meet military and civilian needs. Walther Rathenau, chairman of AEG, Germany’s largest electricity conglomerate, organized the government’s raw materials department. Albert Ballin, chairman of the Hapag-Lloyd Packetboat Co., was named to set up a central acquisitions agency. Fritz Haber, renowned chemist and Nobel laureate, mobilized some 150 leading scientists. But a year or two later, these and other Jews in public service were denounced for treachery and trying to “take over” German national organizations.
On the other side, British Jews rallied strongly, after initial hesitation from those who did not want to fight alongside the Russians from whom many had fled, and those who still revered their German heritage. Three battalions of the London regiment, the Royal Fusiliers, were made up of Jewish soldiers and known as the Jewish Legion.
November 27, 1914 — Jewish relief groups in the U.S. formed the Joint Distribution Committee of the (American) Funds for Jewish War Sufferers, to centralize allocations of aid to Jews affected by the war.
May 7, 1915 — Germans fire chlorine-filled shells at Allied lines in the first documented use of chemical warfare in modern times. It is also the first recorded instance of the often-repeated and almost certainly apocryphal story of an enemy (of which side is not indicated) crying out “Shema Yisrael” just as a Jewish soldier was about to plunge a bayonet into him. Horrified, the story goes, the attacking soldier supposedly dropped his weapon.
June 1915 — On the Russian front, by this date, about 600,000 Jews had been uprooted from the Pale and fled westward, with some 75,000 Galician Jews moving to Vienna where Austrian Jews provided care for them.
September 15, 1915 — A German submarine sinks the passenger ship Lusitania, with 1,198 people dying, 131 of them Americans, turning U.S. public sentiment against the Germans. In this same month, hundreds of London’s East End shops with Yiddish or German sounding names are attacked—while government recruitment posters in major Jewish neighborhoods declare that Great Britain has treated Jews fairly in every way so all able-bodied unmarried Jews should reciprocate and join the British Army.
December 1915 — Germans ordered a census of all Jewish soldiers in the army to see if where they were serving. The results showed that 80 percent served at the front, and that the proportion of Jewish casualties and medal recipients exceeded the proportion of Jews in the nation at large, but this was never reported publicly until after the war.
February 1, 1917 — Kaiser Wilhelm suspends unrestricted submarine warfare, largely because of international outrage at the sinking of the Lusitania and other neutral passenger ships. This was an attempt to keep the U.S. out of the war, but also hinders German efforts to keep American supplies from reaching Britain and France.
March 1, 1917 — British intelligence intercepts the Zimmermann Telegram, a message from German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann proposing that Mexico side with the Germans if the U. S. enters the war and pledging to return Texas and most of the American Southwest to Mexico after the war. Mexico declines the offer, but when the message becomes known, American public opinion dramatically shifts toward entering the war.
Americans Join In
April 2, 1917 — President Woodrow Wilson makes his case to Congress to enter the war.
April 4, 1917 — The Senate votes to enter World War I on the side of the Allies, with the House of Representatives concurring two days later. Jews volunteer in numbers disproportionate to their overall percentage of the U.S. population. Elkan C. Voorsanger, “The Fighting Rabbi,” was among the first wave of 750 soldiers to land in France in May. A total of some 250,000 Jews were in the American armed forces during World War I.
April 9, 1917 — The Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) is formed to support Jewish soldiers in the U.S. military, to recruit and train rabbis for military service and to maintain oversight of Jewish chapel facilities at military installations.
November 2, 1917 — British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour writes a letter to Walter Rothschild for the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland declaring that Britain would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This document became known as the Balfour Declaration.
April 1, 1918 — Jewish English poet Isaac Rosenberg is killed in France during the Spring Offensive. He came from a working-class family of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, and was a gifted artist who enlisted as a common soldier in 1915 despite weak lungs and small stature. His work, Poems from the Trenches is considered one of the seminal texts of World War I, and Rosenberg is one of 16 Great War poets honored in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. On April 1, 2018, his old neighborhood of London’s Jewish East End will erect a statue of the poet at Torrington Square in Bloomsbury. The Great War’s other Jewish poet, Siegfried Sassoon, from a privileged upper-class family and an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, has been known over the years for his poetry and memoirs.
May 28, 1918 — Germany signs a peace treaty with the new Bolshevik government of Russia, giving Germany huge tracts of land that had been part of Ukraine and Poland. Germany is now able to move many troops to the Western Front.
June 1-16, 1918 — In the Americans’ first major offensive, with the Marines in the lead, U.S. troops attack the Germans at Chateau-Thierry, a relatively small battle that soon becomes the bloody Battle of Belleau Wood, where the Germans suffer enormous casualties and the tide changes as they are driven back in what had been their furthest advance on Paris.
November 9, 1918 — The Battle of St. Mihiel begins, marking the beginning of the end to the war as General Pershing leads 300,000 American troops directly into German lines. On this day, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany abdicates, crossing into the Netherlands where he lived the rest of his life.
November 10, 1918 — Emperor Charles I (Karl) of Austria and King of Hungary issues a proclamation, never using the word “abdicate,” relinquishing his posts.
November 11, 1918 — “On the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns go silent.” The Armistice is signed, and World War I is officially over.
June 18, 1919 — The Treaty of Versailles is signed formally ending the state of war between German and Allied powers. Its controversial “War Guilt Clause” requires Germany to “accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” that occurred during the war, forces Germany to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions and pay reparations assessed at 132 billion marks or $31.4 billion (value as of 2014). In Germany, Jews were blamed for the treaty’s punitive nature, leading to widespread blame for Jews causing Germany’s humiliating defeat. This bred the atmosphere in which Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, laying the seeds for the ultimate Jewish Holocaust.