Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: February 27, 1915

The size, speed and ferocity of the Great War was unprecedented. By the time this issue was published on February 27, 1915—only seven months after the war began—the vast and well-armed military forces of Europe had lost in dead and wounded 10 times the 300,000 men that comprised the armed forces of the U.S.—regular Army, National Guard, Navy and Marine Corps.

And there was a creeping fear in the still-neutral U.S.: What could Americans do if one or more of the belligerent nations in Europe decided to focus a fraction of its aggression on them? This worry was strongly reflected in the article, the fourth in the series “The United States—An Undefended Treasure Land.” The title alone sets forth the reason why a European nation might want to invade, and the concern that the puny size of the U.S. military would not be able to provide safety. The fearfulness revealed by the article text is shocking. Perhaps it was meant to be:

U.S. Cavalry in training, 1915. But already obsolete by 1914. Image: Scientific American, February 27, 1915

“To-day war falls like a thunderbolt from heaven, and the first is often the decisive blow.”

“The days of small standing armies, of slow preparation, and of still slower transportation have passed. The possible enemies of to-day are fully prepared. They control almost unlimited transport, and once in possession of sea control can land when and where they wish, certain that no well-organized or thoroughly equipped force will be ready to oppose them. The weakness of our military establishment, our total lack of reserves, or trained men, or of adequate reserves of material, are known to the last detail by all our possible antagonists.”

U.S. Marines at the occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, 1914. Image: Scientific American, February 27, 1915

U.S. forces had been engaged in battle recently: the Spanish-American war of 1898 had been decisively won at the cost of about 350 combat deaths (and left us with the enduring fame of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders). The most recent military action had been the occupation of Veracruz in Mexico in 1914 [see photograph], which had been claimed as a victory at a cost of 22 men, mostly U.S. Marines. But these successes, as stirring and significant as they might be, were a “false estimate of our military prowess” given that “we have never had war with a first-class power prepared for war.” More bluntly, the efforts seemed pale when compared with, say, the French Army losses on a single day, August 22, 1914, in its attacks against the German army in the Alsace-Lorraine region: 27,000 dead and 40,000 wounded.

The article is a passionate plea to increase the size of professional army. But the politics of a standing army had never been popular in the U.S., and it was not until 1917 and the entry of the U.S. into the war that the size and capability of the military increased.

Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on training and equipping the soldiers and sailors of the day. It is available for purchase at www.ScientificAmerican.com/wwi