In 1964, LIFE magazine undertook a project of epic proportions: for the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it published a multi-week series telling the story of what had happened, using only photographs and paintings from the time. The editor and correspondent leading the project covered 30,000 miles and 40 museums and galleries in the course of selecting the images to tell the stories.
By the time the magazine got to the fifth part of the series, which appeared in the May 22, 1964, issue and is seen here, it had recounted the death of millions of men. But, in that fifth part, the final ingredient was added to the mix: the Americans, who joined in 100 years ago this week, on April 6, 1917.
“The U.S. entered World War I with an army of about 200,000 men, more than one third of them National Guardsmen; some 400 heavy guns and enough ammunition for a nine-hour bombardment; 50-odd obsolete airplanes; no tanks at all, and a song on everybody’s lips,” the magazine noted.
The war started out, for the U.S., as “patriotic speeches, meatless Tuesdays and recruiting posters—an inspiring adventure entered with a blend of patriotism and innocence which the country would never know in quite the same way again.”
The reality of war would hit home soon enough. President Woodrow Wilson’s concern that bringing the nation into the war would permanently change the national character proved true, though not necessarily in the way he might have guessed. These images — whether seen 50 years or 100 years after the fact — show why such a change was inevitable.