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

Scottish Daily Mail - - News - by Jonathan Mayo

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.



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

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