Last Days Of The War
( Originally Published 1918 )
FROM November 1st until November 11th, the day when the armistice granting terms to Germany was signed, the collapse of the German defensive was complete. The army that under von Hindenburg and Ludendorff had smashed its way over Poland, Roumania, Serbia, Belgium, and into the heart of France, was now a military machine in full retreat. It is only justice to that machine to say that the great retreat at no place degenerated into a rout. Von Hindenburg and the German General Staff had planned a series of rear-guard actions that were effective in protecting the main bodies of infantry and artillery. Machine-gun nests and airplane attacks were the main reliance of the Germans in these maneuvers of delay, but the German field artillery also did its share.
Immense quantities of material and many thousands of prisoners were captured by the British, Canadians and Australians in the north, and by the French and Americans in the south. Simultaneously with this wide and savage drive upon the Germans along the Belgian and French fronts, came the heaviest Italian attack of the war. Before it the Austrians were swept in a torrent that was irresistible. French, English and American troops co-operated in this thrust that extended from the plains of the Piave into Trentino. The immediate effect of the Italian offensive was to force Austria to her knees in abject surrender. An armistice, humiliating in its terms, was signed by the Austrian representatives, and the back door to Germany was opened to the Allies.
Germany's frantic plea for an armistice followed. There were those in the Allied countries who maintained that nothing short of unconditional surrender should be permitted. Cooler counsel prevailed, and an armistice was offered to the German High Command through General Foch, the terms of which far exceeded in severity those granted to Turkey and Austria. These were read for the first time by Germany's representatives on Friday, November 8th. General Foch, when he gave the document to the German delegation, declared that Germany's decision must be made within seventy-two hours. Eleven o'clock on Monday, November 11th, was the time limit permitted to Germany. The armistice was signed by General Foch and the German representatives on the morning of November 11th, but fighting did not actually cease until eleven o'clock, several hours after the terms had been agreed to. This was in accordance with arrangement made between the signers.
Sedan, where Marshals McMahon and Bazaine, commanding the armies of Napoleon III, surrendered to the King of Prussia in 1870, marked the last notable victory of the American forces in France. The Sedan of 1870 marked the birth of German militarism. The Sedan of 1918 marked its death.
Preceding the advance of the Americans The staff and field officers of the American army were disposed early in the day to approach the hour of eleven with lessened activity. The day began with less firing and doubtless the fighting would have ended according to plan, had there not been a sharp resumption on the part of German batteries. The Americans looked upon this as wantonly useless. It was then that orders were sent to the battery commanders for increased fire.
Although there was no reason for it, German ruthlessness was still rampant Sunday, stirring the American artillery in the region of Dunsur-Meuse and Mouzay to greater activity. Six hundred aged men and women and children were in Mouzay when the Germans attacked it with gas. There was only a small detachment of American troops there and the town no longer was of strategical value. However, it was made the direct target of shells filled with phosgene. The enemy hurled them into the town until every street reeked with gas.
Poorly clad and showing plainly evidences of malnutrition, the inhabitants crowded about the Americans, kissing their hands and hailing them as deliverers. They declared they had had no meat for six weeks. They virtually had been prisoners of war for four years and were overwhelmed with joy when they learned that an armistice was probable.
The last French town to fall into American hands before the armistice went into effect was Stenay. Patrols reported they had found it empty not more than a quarter of an hour be-fore eleven o'clock. American troops rushed through the town and in a few minutes Allied flags were beginning to appear from the windows. As the church bell solemnly tolled the hour of eleven, troops from the Ninetieth division were pouring into the town.
The inhabitants told the usual stories of German treatment. They were forced to work at all sorts of tasks from seven in the morning until six at night. In return they received paper bills with which they were unable to purchase milk and similar necessities. The majority, however, were so overjoyed at their deliverance that they were almost incoherent in discussing the enemy occupation.
The inhabitants of Stenay remained hiding in their cellars even after the Americans had entered the town. They came out hesitatingly and in small groups.
Hostilities along the American front ended with a crash of cannon.
The early forenoon had been marked by a falling off in fire all along the line, but an increasing bombardment from the retreating Germans at certain points stimulated the Americans to a quick retort. From their positions north of Stenay to southeast of the town the Americans began to bombard fixed targets. The firing reached a volume at times almost equivalent to a barrage.
Two minutes before eleven o'clock the firing dwindled, the last shells shrieking over No Man's Land precisely on time.
There was little celebration on the front line, where American routine was scarcely disturbed over the cessation of fighting. In the areas behind the battle zone there were celebrations on all sides. Here and there there were little out-bursts of cheering, but even those instances were not on the immediate front.
Many of the French soldiers went about singing.
"Well, I don't know," drawled a lieutenant from Texas while the artillery was sending its last challenge to the Germans, "but somehow I can't help wondering if we have licked them enough."
The Germans were manifestly so glad over the cessation of hostilities that they could not conceal their pleasure. Prisoners taken at Stenay grinned with satisfaction. Their demeanor was in sharp contrast to that of the American doughboys who took the matter philosophically and went about their appointed tasks.
In the front line it was the same. The Americans were happy, but quiet. They made no demonstrations. The Germans on the other hand were in a regular hysteria of joy. They waited only until nightfall to set off every rocket in their possession. In the evening the sky was ablaze with red, green, blue and yellow flares all along the line.
Flags appeared like magic over the shell-torn buildings of Verdun, French and American colors flying side by side.
In every village, even those from which the Germans had been driven there were flags and decorations which were brought up to the front by the soldiers. In the villages back of the line there were impromptu celebrations and the civilians in holiday spirit saluted the Americans, shouting "The war is finished."
Northeast of Verdun, just before 11 o'clock, American artillerymen in loading a six-inch howitzer, wrote "good luck" on a ninety-pound shell and "let 'er go." The shot was aimed at the cross-road at Ornas, just ahead of the American lines.
While the bells of the ancient Verdun Cathedral were ringing the news of -peace the fortress city was illuminated and a military procession headed by the drum corps of the Twenty-sixth American division swung along the crowded streets accompanied by a French detachment of buglers representing the famed defenders of Verdun.
Only a half hour before the Germans had thrown large shells within the city walls, apparently as a reminder that Verdun was still within the range of their guns on the hills to the northeast.
Monday afternoon and night virtually was the first time that Verdun had not been shelled in many hours almost since the war began.