July 4, 1918, was a monumental day in U.S. history. Americans celebrated the anniversary of the nation’s founding and also on this day, the United States became defined as a new world power by setting conditions for peace.
It would also be the first day of combat for American Soldiers fighting a revolutionary style of combined arms warfare near Hamel, France. The American Soldiers came from the 131st and 132nd Infantry Regiments, 33rd Infantry Division, which comprised primarily Illinois Army National Guard Soldiers. The American companies were broken down by platoon and then attached to Australian infantry companies. This imparted much-needed experience to the new American Soldiers in an offensive operation.
While relatively small, the battle proved incredibly complex and involved deception operations, infantry assault, artillery bombardment, and aerial bombardment. It also employed a heavy screen of tanks in the attack. About 7,000 Allied Soldiers faced off against 5,600 Germans but the relatively small battle had far-reaching consequences for trench warfare. The battle provided a practical demonstration of evolving tactics for approaching and attacking an entrenched enemy using combined arms tactics. The methods employed at Hamel succeeded on a much larger scale in the Battle of Amiens and was a major factor in Allied successes later in the war.
On the same day the 33rd Infantry Division Soldiers were seeing their first combat, across the Atlantic Ocean, President Woodrow Wilson delivered a speech to a large crowd at George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon, Virginia. In this speech he would forever change American policy and purpose. He laid out his vision for peace in what he referred to as the “great ends” of the war. It was in this speech, historians argue, that for the first time United States policy was pledged to fight until the world is free from oppression. The following is a short excerpt from that speech:
“We here in America believe our participation in this present war to be only the fruitage of what (the founders) planted. Our case differs from theirs only in this, that it is our inestimable privilege to concert with men out of every nation what shall make not only the liberties of America secure but the liberties of every other people as well.”
The significance of Independence Day was not lost on President Wilson in making this declaration at Washington’s tomb. He was establishing policy that, at least in part, has remained at the forefront of United States foreign policy for more than 100 years.