…from this blog on Veteran’s Day 2008: George Smiley’s post on the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the “war to end all wars.” As we noted on that occasion, popular history suggests the conflict ended with a whimper rather than a bang, as shell-shocked survivors emerged from the trenches as the guns fell silent on the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month.
But history is often wrong, and that long has been the case in regard to how World War I came to a close. Fact is, many Allied generals were opposed to the cease fire and ordered more attacks in the closing hours of the conflicts, hoping to regain more territory from the fading central powers. From Joseph Perisco’s Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day 1918, which was published in 2005:
With the enemy in retreat, French, U.S. and British generals were anxious to press their advantage, even if an armistice was in the offing. That possibility first surfaced on the evening of 7 November, when a German delegation requested terms from Marshal Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander. “I have no proposals to make,” Foch told the Germans, informing them that the war would continue while he obtained the consent of allied governments.
“…the senior American commander, General John J. Pershing, considered an armistice “equally repugnant.” There can be “no conclusion until Germany is brought to her knees,” he said. Conciliation, he claimed, would only lead to future war. Pershing wanted Germany’s unconditional surrender.
So, the fighting dragged on, even when it became clear that the armistice would go into effect. The Germans didn’t sign the agreement until the morning of the 11th, but radio traffic between various allied headquarters anticipated the war’s end. However, few commanders issued orders aimed at limiting combat during the conflict’s final hours.
So, the advance continued, with little regard for the cost. The British, still stung by their retreat from Mons, Belgium in the first year of the year, moved to recapture the city as the armistice approached. The commander of a French regiment issued two orders, for an attack to begin at 9 a.m., and to cease-fire at 11 a.m. Canadian troops also launched new assaults as the cease-fire loomed.
But it was the AEF, still a relative newcomer to the war, that launched some of the heaviest attacks in the final hours of the war. One of Pershing’s Corps Commanders, Major General Charles Sumerall, ordered his Marines to cross the Meuse River under heavy fire. Hundreds were killed or wounded.
In another sector, an American division commander pressed his attack because the “unit lacked proper bathing facilities,” putting (in Perisco’s words) “cleanliness above survival.” An artillery battery commander named Harry Truman put down one last barrage in the war’s closing hours, giving his men a chance to test the “extended range” shells they had just received. In a letter to his wife, Truman expressed a desire to “scalp” a few Germans.
By various estimates, at least 300 American troops died between midnight and 11 a.m. on 11 November. But those numbers are suspect; they do not include casualties among U.S. units attached to British and French units. The actual total is believed to be much higher. Pershing’s own, official report indicates that the last American died in battle at 10:59 a.m., only one minute before the armistice went into effect.
All told, as many as 10,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on the western front during the final, desperate hours before the cease-fire took hold. It was a microcosm of the entire conflict; thousands of lives squandered for no real purpose. In some cases, the gains on that last morning of the war were measuured in a few yards, as they had been for the previous four years. Troops in other sectors advanced several kilometers, but to no avail. The final boundaries would be set at Versailles by the assembled diplomats and politicians, with little regard for territory gained or lost on the morning of November 11, 1918.
To their credit, a few commanders on the western front knew the armistice was coming and ignored orders to advance. But they were a distinct minority on that final morning of the Great War. Too many officers were willing to send their troops–and themselves–into no-man’s land for one last time, with no regard for what might be gained (or lost) in a final, futile charge.