The United States had carefully kept out of the conflict in Europe while being helpful to the sufferers. In 1917 the British intercepted and decoded a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Mexico urging that country to enter into war against the United States. The American states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were to be offered to the Mexican government in return for such assistance.
On a wider front unrestricted U-boat warfare was renewed with all allied and neutral ships to be sunk on sight. Over the next month close to a million tons of shipping would be lost and on 3rd February the United States of America severed diplomatic ties with Germany.
As U.S. president, it was Woodrow Wilson who made the key policy decisions over foreign affairs: while the country was at peace, the domestic economy ran on a laissez-faire basis, with American banks making huge loans to Britain and France — funds that were in large part used to buy munitions, raw materials, and food from across the Atlantic. Until 1917, Wilson made minimal preparations for a land war and kept the United States Army on a small peacetime footing, despite increasing demands for enhanced preparedness.
On 24th February the Cunard passenger liner S.S. Laconia sailing from New York to Liverpool was sunk off the Irish coast by a German U-boat and, on 2nd April 1917, the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress and asked the House of Representatives to declare war on Germany and, on 6th April 1917, the United States of America declares war on Germany. On 26th June 1917 the first U.S. troops, men of the 1st Division, begin to arrive in France.
In October, the first American soldiers entered combat, in France. That December, the U.S. declared war against Austria-Hungary with U.S. troops arriving on the Western Front in large numbers in 1918. When the war concluded in November 1918, with a victory for the Allies, more than 2 million U.S. troops had served at the Western Front in Europe, and more than 50,000 of them died.
Looking at the American involvement from a different slant we find that they also brought their music with them! The most significant song was “Over There“, a 1917 hit song written by George Cohan, that was popular with the United States military and public during both this and the 1939/45 war. It was a patriotic song designed to galvanize American young men to enlist in the army and fight the “Hun”. The song is best remembered for a line in its chorus: “The Yanks are coming.”
It was Cohan’s biggest hit recording and was performed by the American Quartet. The American Quartet consisted of Billy Murray, John Young, Steve Porter and Donald Chalmers and recorded the song on June 28, 1917. There were many singers singing ‘Over There’ – Enrico Caruso’s version of Over There, sung partly in French, was a major hit just before the end of the war in November 1918. By the end of the conflict the song had sold over a million records and two million copies of sheet music. George Cohan was awarded a medal of honour by Congress in 1936 for writing You’re a Grand Old Flag and Over There. His sequel to Over There, ‘When You Come Back (and You Will Come Back)’, was a hit for John McCormack and for the Orpheus Quartet in early 1919:
Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun. Take it on the run, on the run, on the run. Hear them calling you and me, Every Son of Liberty. Hurry right away, no delay, go today. Make your Daddy glad to have had such a lad. Tell your sweetheart not to pine, To be proud her boy’s in line.
Johnny, get your gun, get your gun. Johnny, show the “Hun” you’re a son-of-a-gun. Hoist the flag and let her fly; Yankee Doodle do or die. Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit. Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks. Make your Mother proud of you and the old red-white-and-blue.
Over there, over there, send the word, send the word over there that the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming – the drums rum-tumming everywhere. So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to beware – we’ll be over, we’re coming over, and we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.
The conflict was over and the music did begin again. The first – in 1918 – was ‘Tiger Rag’ by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Close behind as the best from 1919 we have ‘After You’ve Gone’ by Marion Harris.