Minute by minute, war’s final day
... just one of the heart-rending human details laid bare in this peerless minute-by-minute account of November 11, 1918
AS THEY awaken on the morning of November 11 1918, along the 400-mile Western Front from Switzerland in the south to the Belgian coast in the north, nearly 10million men on both sides know from developments over recent days that an armistice is imminent.
They are praying for a swift end to the war. What they are not aware of yet is that at 5.20am in the Compiegne Forest just north of Paris, on the private train of Marshal Foch, commander-in-chief of the Allied armies, the Armistice agreement was signed after three days of negotiation. The war is entering its final hours.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 11, 1918
In the Belgian village of La Bascule on the outskirts of Mons, schoolboy Georges Licope and his family can’t sleep. Yesterday the Germans left after a fierce Allied bombardment. Suddenly the Licopes hear a far-off noise and run outside into the courtyard. The family realise that it is the cheers of the people in the next village — the British have arrived!
The American 89th Division is continuing an assault on the River Meuse that began yesterday evening. The U.S. Marines in particular have suffered many casualties. MajorGeneral John Lejeune asked a marine sergeant why he crossed a bridge in the face of machinegun fire when he knew the war would finish in a few hours. He explained that their commanding officer had told them: ‘Men, I am going to cross that river, and I expect you to go with me.’
‘Surely we couldn’t let him go by himself,’ said the marine. ‘We love him too much for that.’
The phone rings at 10 Downing Street. It is Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, from the Allied delegation in the Compiegne Forest, with news of the Armistice for the Prime Minister Lloyd George. Wemyss then calls King George V at Buckingham Palace.
A message is sent out to the British Army by telegraph, and by messengers on horseback, motorbike and bicycle: ‘Hostilities will cease at 1100 hours today, November 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour, which will be reported by wire to Advanced GHQ. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy until receipt of instructions.’
Marshal Ferdinand Foch leaves the Compiegne Forest for Paris with the Armistice document in his pocket.
In Mons, Canadian soldiers are being hugged by delirious locals. Corporal George Tizard is dragged into a house: ‘I was enjoying myself smoking a good cigar and had two very nice-looking girls as companions.’ Outside, Belgians are kicking the corpses of dead Germans.
In a hut close to the front, Captain Robert Casey of the U.S. 33rd Division is writing in his diary: ‘In three hours the war will be over...I suppose I should be thrilled and cheering. Instead I am merely apathetic and incredulous.’ Casey’s adjutant says: ‘Now all we have to do is keep alive until eleven o’clock.’
The commander of the 88th Infantry Brigade, 29-year-old Brigadier General Bernard Freyberg, who won the VC at the Somme in 1916 and has been wounded nine times, receives orders that his cavalry should seize the Belgian town of Lessines ten miles away and capture its river bridges before they are blown up by the Germans. Freyberg tells a squadron to ‘saddle up and rush on at once’. Now that trench warfare is over, fast-moving cavalry units have come into their own again.
The early edition of The New York Times hits the streets. Its headline says: ‘ARMISTICE SIGNED, END OF THE WAR!’ Many American soldiers on the Western Front have yet to hear the news.
Since the early hours, much of the front in Belgium has been covered in mist and fog. Captain Ernsberger of the U.S. 89th Division is walking cautiously towards the German lines. He has yet to hear about the Armistice.
Suddenly Ernsberger comes across two German gunners standing up with their hands in the air, waiting to be captured. Ernsberger asks a sergeant who can speak a smattering of German to find out why they didn’t fire at him. The men say, ‘Don’t the Americans know that the war will soon be over? We see no reason to sacrifice our lives, or yours.’
The War Cabinet is meeting at Downing Street. They decide that full military celebrations should be allowed. Prime Minister Lloyd George warns his colleagues they should ‘behave as a great nation and do nothing which might harbour a spirit of revenge later’.
On the outskirts of Mons, Private George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers is on horseback as part of a reconnaissance patrol.
Forty-year-old Ellison is one of the most experienced soldiers in the Lancers. A former miner from Leeds, married with a young son, he has fought on the Western Front for the past four years and is one of the few survivors of the original British Expeditionary Force.
Ellison knows that peace is just an hour and a half away and he’ll soon be able to return home. A shot rings out and he falls from his horse. He is the last British soldier to die in World War I. Ellison will be buried just a few feet from Private John Parr, the first British soldier to be killed.
American gun batteries have attached ropes to the lanyards that fire the guns, long enough for hundreds of men to pull and therefore claim that they fired the last shot of the war.
At the Golden Hill Fort on the Isle of Wight, Private Harry Patch, destined to be the last survivor of World War I, is eagerly awaiting news of the Armistice. Harry was injured at the Battle of Passchendaele in September 1917 and is now considered fit to return to his regiment — but he knows that to go back could be a death sentence. Harry and a unit of other soldiers have been told that when news of the ceasefire comes through, a rocket will be fired from the fort.
In the U.S. 33rd Division, Captain Robert Casey writes more in his diary. A German shell has just exploded close by and soldiers have been hit. ‘Twenty men killed,’ he writes. ‘Thirty-five wounded. The war has 23 minutes still to go.’
Then comes more bad news — a