World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day | HistoryNet

World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day

6/12/2006 • MHQ, Politics, World War I

On November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on the Western Front in France suffered more than thirty-five hundred casualties, although it had been known unofficially for two days that the fighting would end that day and known with absolute certainty as of 5 o’clock that morning that it would end at 11 a.m. Nearly a year afterward, on November 5, 1919, General John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, found himself testifying on the efficiency of the war’s prosecution before the House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs.

The encounter was amicable and respectful since members were dealing with the officer who had led America to victory in the Great War. However, a Republican committee member, Alvan T. Fuller of Massachusetts, deferentially posed a provocative query: ‘This question is somewhat irrelevant to the matter under discussion,’ Fuller began, ‘but I would like to ask General Pershing if American troops were ordered over the top on the other side on the morning of the day when under the terms of the Armistice firing was to cease…and that those troops who were not killed or wounded marched peacefully into Germany at 11 o’clock. Is that true?’

Pershing answered with his customary crisp confidence:

When the subject of the armistice was under discussion we did not know what the purpose of it was definitely, whether it was something proposed by the German High Command to gain time or whether they were sincere in their desire to have an armistice; and the mere discussion of an armistice would not be sufficient grounds for any judicious commander to relax his military activities….No one could possibly know when the armistice was to be signed, or what hour be fixed for the cessation of hostilities so that the only thing for us to do, and which I did as commander in chief of the American forces, and which Marshal Foch did as commander in chief of the Allied armies was to continue the military activities….

Just days later, however, the congressman forwarded to Pershing a letter from a constituent with a cover note saying, ‘I have been deluged with questions on this subject.’ The enclosed letter had been written to Fuller by George K. Livermore, former operations officer of the 167th Field Artillery Brigade of the black 92nd Division, stating that that force had been engaged since 5 a.m. on November 11 and had been ordered to launch its final charge at 10:30 a.m. Livermore lamented ‘the little crosses over the graves of the colored lads who died a useless death on that November morning.’ He further described the loss of U.S. Marines killed crossing the Meuse River in the final hours as ‘frightful.’ Congressman Fuller closed his letter to Pershing asking for ‘a real frank, full answer to the question as to whether American lives were needlessly wasted.’

Fuller had Pershing’s answer within the week, and it was categorical. By allowing the fighting to go forward, Pershing reiterated that he was simply following the orders of his superior, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander in chief of Allied forces in France, issued on November 9, to keep up the pressure against the retreating enemy until the cease-fire went into effect. Consequently, he had not ordered his army to stop fighting even after the signing of the armistice, of which, ‘I had no knowledge before 6 a.m. November 11.’

The possibility of an armistice had begun the evening of November 7 when French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie near Haudroy were startled by an unfamiliar bugle call. Fearing they were about to be overrun, they cautiously advanced toward the increasingly loud blaring when out of the mantle of fog three automobiles emerged, their sides gilded with the imperial German eagle. The astonished Frenchmen had encountered a German armistice delegation headed by a rotund forty-three-year-old politician and peace advocate named Matthias Erzberger. The delegation was escorted to the Compigne Forest near Paris where, in a railroad dining car converted into a conference room, they were met by a small, erect figure–Marshal Foch–who fixed them with a withering gaze. Foch opened the proceeding with a question that left the Germans agape. ‘Ask these Gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. When the Germans had recovered, Erzberger answered that they understood they had been sent to discuss armistice terms. Foch stunned them again: ‘Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make.’

No proposals, perhaps, but he did have demands. Foch’s interpreter read aloud the Allied conditions, which struck the Germans like hammer blows: All occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France–plus Alsace-Lorraine, held since 1870 by Germany–were to be evacuated within fourteen days; the Allies were to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and bridgeheads on the river’s east bank thirty kilometers deep; German forces had to be withdrawn from Austria-Hungary, Romania, and Turkey; Germany was to surrender to neutral or Allied ports 10 battleships, 6 battle cruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. Germany was also to be stripped of heavy armaments, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 airplanes. The next demand threw the German delegates into despair. Though the German people already faced starvation, the Allies intended to paralyze the enemy’s transportation by continuing its naval blockade and confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks. The translator droned on through thirty-four conditions, the last of which blamed Germany for the war and demanded it pay reparations for all damage caused. Foch informed Erzberger that he had seventy-two hours to obtain the consent of his government to the Allies’ terms, or the war would go on.

On average, 2,250 troops on all sides were dying on the Western Front every day. ‘For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal,’ Erzberger pleaded, ‘do not wait for those seventy-two hours. Stop the hostilities this very day.’ The appeal fell on deaf ears. Before the meeting, Foch had described to his staff his intention ‘to pursue the Feldgrauen [field grays, or German soldiers] with a sword at their backs’ to the last minute until an armistice went into effect.

Photo of General John J. Pershing.
Photo of General John J. Pershing.
General John J. Pershing
(National Archives)

To Pershing the very idea of an armistice was repugnant. ‘Their request is an acknowledgment of weakness and clearly means that the Allies are winning the war,’ he maintained. ‘Germany’s desire is only to regain time to restore order among her forces, but she must be given no opportunity to recuperate and we must strike harder than ever.’ As for terms, Pershing had one response: ‘There can be no conclusion to this war until Germany is brought to her knees.’ The French and British Allies might be exhausted and long for peace, but Pershing saw his army akin to a fighter ready to deliver the knockout punch who is told to quit with his opponent reeling but still standing. Conciliation now, he claimed, would lead only to future war. He wanted Germany’s unconditional surrender.

The Germans finally yielded and signed the armistice at 5:10 on the morning of the eleventh, backed up officially to 5 a.m. and to take effect within Foch’s deadline: the eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour of 1918. Pershing’s postwar claim that he had had no official knowledge of the impending armistice before being informed by Foch’s headquarters at 6 a.m. was disingenuous. The moment when the fighting would cease had been clear from the time Foch handed Erzberger the deadline, information to which Pershing was privy. On the evening of November 10 and through that night, news of the impending end was repeatedly affirmed from radio transmissions received at Pershing’s AEF headquarters in Chaumont.

After the general was apprised that the signing had taken place, the order going out from him merely informed subordinate commanders of that fact. It said nothing about what they should do until 11 o’clock, when the cease-fire would go into effect. His order left his commanders in a decisional no man’s land as to whether to keep fighting or spare their men in the intervening hours. The generals left in that limbo fell roughly into two categories: ambitious careerists who saw a fast-fading opportunity for glory, victories, even promotions; and those who believed it mad to send men to their deaths to take ground that they could safely walk into within days.

Congressman Fuller’s mention of the loss of marines that final day referred to an action ordered by Maj. Gen. Charles P. Summerall, Pershing’s commander of the V Corps. No doubt had clouded Summerall’s mind as to how all this talk of an armistice on the eleventh should be treated. The day before he had gathered his senior officers and told them, ‘Rumors of enemy capitulation come from our successes.’ Consequently, this was no time to relax but rather to tighten the screws.

 Major General Charles P. Summerall had ordered the 5th to force a crossing of the Meuse River that morning.
Major General Charles P. Summerall had ordered the 5th to force a crossing of the Meuse River that morning.
Major General Charles P. Summerall had ordered the 5th to force a crossing of the Meuse River that morning. (National Archives)

Summerall, a fifty-one-year-old Floridian, had spent three years teaching school before entering West Point. By the time he arrived on the Western Front he wore ribbons from the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Boxer Rebellion. He was a severe, unsmiling, some said brutal man who liked to turn out in prewar dress uniform with copious medals, gilded sashes, and fringed epaulettes–suggesting a viceroy of India rather than a plain American officer. Because he had taught English, Summerall prided himself that he possessed a literary turn of phrase. ‘We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move,’ he told his subordinates as he ordered them to cross the Meuse River on the war’s last day. ‘Only by increasing the pressure can we bring about [the enemy’s] defeat….Get into action and get across.’ His parting shot was: ‘I don’t expect to see any of you again, but that doesn’t matter. You have the honor of a definitive success–give yourself to that.’ Was he referring to ending his present command over them, or foretelling their fate? In either case, Summerall was spurring them on to defeat an already defeated enemy, whatever the cost.

Among replacements rushed to the Meuse was Private Elton Mackin, 5th Marine Regiment. Soon after America entered the war, Mackin had read an article in the Saturday Evening Post about the Marine Corps that lured the baby-faced nineteen-year-old to enlist. He had thus far survived 156 days at the front, beginning with his regiment’s bloody baptism in the battle for Belleau Wood. Whether he would survive the last day depended on General Summerall’s decision, and the human price it would exact.

In the gray hours before dawn on November 11, Mackin’s regiment stumbled out of the Bois de Hospice, a wood on the west bank of the Meuse. The night was frigid, shrouded in fog and drizzle as the marines tried to find their way to the river in the gloom. Army engineers had gone before them, throwing flimsy bridges across the water by lashing pontoons together, then running planks over the top. The first signs that the marines were headed in the right direction were the bodies they stumbled upon, engineers killed attempting to construct the crossings.

 Summerall crosses the Meuse on one of the rickety bridges used by the marines.
Summerall crosses the Meuse on one of the rickety bridges used by the marines.
Summerall crosses the Meuse on one of the rickety bridges used by the marines. (National Archives)

At about 4 a.m., the marines reached the first pontoon bridge, a rickety affair thirty inches wide with a guide rope strung along posts at knee height. They could see only halfway across before the bridge disappeared into the mist. Beyond, nothing was visible but the flash of enemy guns. The marines began piling up at the bridgehead, awaiting orders. A major blew a whistle and stepped onto the bridge. As the men crowded behind him, the pontoons began to sink below the water sloshing about the men’s ankles. The engineers shouted to them to space themselves before the span collapsed.

Enemy shells began spewing up geysers, soaking the attackers with icy water. German Maxim machine guns opened fire, the rounds striking the wood sounding like a drumroll, those hitting flesh making a’sock, sock, sock’ sound. The span swung wildly in the strong current. Mackin saw the man ahead of him stumble between two pontoon sections and vanish into the black water. The German guns’ bullets continued knocking men off the pontoons, like ducks in a shooting gallery. Still, the Americans kept coming. By 4:30 a.m. the marines and infantrymen of the 89th Division had taken Pouilly on the river’s east bank. In the remaining 6 1/2 hours they were to storm the heights above the town and clean out the machine gun nests. As day broke, Mackin watched a runner come sprinting across the bridge. The message from General Summerall’s headquarters read only, ‘Armistice signed and takes effect at 11:00 o’clock this morning.’ Again, nothing was said about halting the fighting in the meantime. Mackin survived to write of his experience. But the Meuse River crossings had cost more than eleven hundred casualties in the hours just before the war’s end.

Numerous members of Congress, including Fuller, had received appeals from families wanting to know why such pointless expenditure of life had been allowed to happen. Congress had already created a Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department to investigate procurement practices, the sufficiency and quality of weaponry, and waste and graft in supplying the AEF. To this body, the House decided to add a ‘Subcommittee 3’ to investigate the Armistice Day losses. Royal Johnson, Republican from South Dakota, was appointed chairman to serve with another majority member, Republican Oscar Bland from Indiana, and a minority member, Daniel Flood, a Virginia Democrat. Johnson’s interest in the task assigned him was intensely personal. He was barely out of uniform himself. At age thirty-six, Johnson had taken leave from the House of Representatives and enlisted as a private in the 313th Regiment, ‘Baltimore’s Own,’ rising through the ranks to first lieutenant and earning the Distinguished Service Cross and Croix de Guerre.

 Doughboys of the 28th Infantry Regiment crowd a trench in France during World War I.
Doughboys of the 28th Infantry Regiment crowd a trench in France during World War I.
Doughboys of the 28th Infantry Regiment crowd a trench in France during World War I. (National Archives)

Among the ranks of the 313th engaged on armistice morning was Henry N. Gunther, a fine-looking soldier in his mid-twenties, erect, with a clear-eyed gaze and a guardsman’s mustache that suggested a British subaltern rather than an American private. Gunther, however, had had difficulty with army life. He came from a heavily German neighborhood in east Baltimore where the culture of his forebears remained strong. When the United States went to war, Gunther and his neighbors began to experience anti-German prejudice. In this poisonous atmosphere, Gunther felt no impulse to enlist. He was doing nicely at the National Bank of Baltimore and had a girlfriend, Olga Gruebl, who he intended to marry.

Nevertheless, Gunther was drafted five months after America entered the war. His closest pal, Ernest Powell, became platoon sergeant in Company A, while Gunther was appointed supply sergeant. ‘Supply sergeants were traditionally unpopular,’ Powell recalled. ‘Army clothing in the war, as they said at the time, came in two sizes–too large and too small.’ Supply sergeants took the brunt of the soldiers’ gripes, and Gunther began keeping to himself, his enthusiasm for army life well controlled.

After arriving in France in July 1918, he wrote a friend back home to stay clear of the war since conditions were miserable. An army censor passed the letter along to Gunther’s commanding officer, who broke the sergeant to private. Gunther then found himself serving under Ernie Powell, once his coequal, a chafing humiliation. Thereafter, Powell observed Gunther becoming increasingly brooding and withdrawn.

By Armistice Day, the 313th had been engaged in nearly two months of uninterrupted combat. At 9:30 that morning, the regiment jumped off, bayonets fixed, rifles at port, heads bent, slogging through a marshland in an impenetrable fog toward their objective, a speck on the map called Ville-Devant-Chaumont. Its advance was to be covered by the 311th Machine Gun Battalion. But in the fog, the gunners had no idea where to direct their fire, and Company A thus moved along in an eerie silence. Suddenly, German artillery opened up, and men began to fall.

At sixteen minutes before 11, a runner caught up with the 313th’s parent 157th Brigade to report that the armistice had been signed. Again, the message made no mention of what to do in the interim. Brigadier General William Nicholson, commanding the brigade, made his decision: ‘There will be absolutely no let-up until 11:00 a.m.’ More runners were dispatched to spread the word to the farthest advanced regiments, including Gunther’s. The 313th now gathered below a ridge called the Côte Romagne. Two German machine gun squads manning a roadblock watched, disbelieving, as shapes began emerging from the fog. Gunther and Sergeant Powell dropped to the ground as bullets sang above their heads. The Germans then ceased firing, assuming that the Americans would have the good sense to stop with the end so near. Suddenly, Powell saw Gunther rise and begin loping toward the machine guns. He shouted for Gunther to stop. The machine gunners waved him back, but Gunther kept advancing. The enemy reluctantly fired a five-round burst. Gunther was struck in the left temple and died instantly. The time was 10:59 a.m. General Pershing’s order of the day would later record Henry Gunther as the last American killed in the war.

To question officers as to why men like Gunther had been exposed to death at literally the eleventh hour, the Republicans on Subcommittee 3 hired as counsel a recently retired army lawyer, Samuel T. Ansell. A forty-five-year-old West Pointer, Ansell had served as acting judge advocate general during the war and left the army specifically to take the congressional job for the then-substantial salary of twenty thousand dollars per year. His first move was to have all senior American commanders who had led troops on the Western Front answer these questions: ‘What time on the morning of November 11, 1918, were you notified of the signing of the armistice? What orders were you and your command under with respect to operations against the enemy immediately before and up to the moment of such notification and after notification and up to 11 o’clock? After receipt of such notification did your command or any part of it continue to fight? If so, why and with what casualties? Did your command or any part of it continue the fight after 11 o’clock? If so, why and with what casualties?’Ansell proved a fire-breathing pros-ecutor, ill concealing his premise that lives had indeed been thrown away on the war’s last day. Among the first witnesses he called was Pershing’s chief of operations, Brig. Gen. Fox Conner. Proud, ruggedly handsome, and a wily witness, Conner admitted that, pursuant to Foch’s order to keep the pressure on, one American army, the 2nd under Lt. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, had actually moved an assault originally planned for November 11 up to November 10 ‘to counteract the idea among the troops that the Armistice had already been signed’ and ‘to influence the German delegates to sign.’

Not all commanders shared the view that Germany had to be pressured to sign. For days the Germans had shown no stomach to engage the Allies and carried out only rear-guard actions as they fell back. On armistice morning, the commander of the 32nd Division, Maj. Gen. William Haan, received a field telephone call from his subordinate commanding the 63rd Brigade asking permission to attack in order to straighten out a dent on his front. Haan retorted that he did not intend to throw away men’s lives on the war’s last morning to tidy up a map. The 32nd initiated no attacks while Haan’s men waited and took losses only from artillery fire.

Hotshot commanders nevertheless managed to find reasons to advance. Stenay was a town held by the Germans on the east bank of the Meuse. The 89th Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. William M. Wright, determined to take Stenay because ‘the division had been in the line a considerable period without proper bathing facilities, and since it was realized that if the enemy were permitted to stay in Stenay, our troops would be deprived of the probable bathing facilities there.’ Thus, placing cleanliness above survival, Wright sent a brigade to take the town. As the doughboys passed through Pouilly, a 10.5cm howitzer shell landed in their midst, killing twenty Americans outright. All told, Wright’s division suffered 365 casualties, including sixty-one dead in the final hours. Stenay would be the last town taken by the Americans in the war. Within days, it too could have been marched into peacefully rather than paid for in blood.

Bland, the other Republican on Subcommittee 3, knifed quickly to the heart of the matter when his turn came to question General Conner. ‘Do you know of any good reason,’ Bland asked, ‘why the order to commanders…should not have been that the Armistice had been signed to take effect at 11 o’clock and that actual hostilities or fighting should cease as soon as possible in order to save human life?’ Conner conceded that American forces ‘would not have been jeopardized by such an order, if that is what you mean.’

Bland then asked, regarding Pershing’s notification to his armies merely that hostilities were to cease at 11 a.m., ‘Did the order leave it up to the individual commanders to quit firing before or to go ahead firing until 11 o’clock?’ ‘Yes,’ Conner answered. Bland then asked, ‘In view of the fact that we had ambitious generals in this Army, who were earnestly fighting our enemies and who hated to desist from doing so…would it have been best under the circumstances to have included in that order that hostilities should cease as soon as practicable before 11 o’clock?’ Conner answered firmly, ‘No sir, I do not.’

‘How many generals did you lose on that day?’ Bland went on. ‘None,’ Conner replied. ‘How many colonels did you lose on that day?’ Conner: ‘I do not know how many were lost.’ ‘How many lieutenant colonels did you lose on that day?’ Conner: ‘I do not know the details of any of that.’ ‘I am convinced,’ Bland continued, ‘that on November 11 there was not any officer of very high rank taking any chance of losing his own life….’

Conner, visibly seething, retorted, ‘The statement made by you, I think, Mr. Bland, is exceedingly unjust, and, as an officer who was over there, I resent it to the highest possible degree.’

Bland shot back, ‘I resent the fact that these lives were lost and the American people resent the fact that these lives were lost; and we have a right to question the motive, if necessary, of the men who have occasioned this loss of life.’ With that, Conner was dismissed.

Also called to testify was the second highest ranking officer in the AEF, Lt. Gen. Hunter Liggett, who had commanded the First Army. Under questioning by the subcommittee’s counsel, Liggett admitted to Ansell that the only word passed along to the troops was that ‘the Armistice had been signed and hostilities would cease at 11 o’clock, Paris time.’ Ansell forced Liggett to agree that orders from AEF headquarters had left subordinate commanders in the dark as to their next course of action. The corpulent old general shifted responsibility to the commander on the scene ‘to judge very quickly from whatever was going on in his immediate neighborhood.’ Coupling Foch’s ‘keep fighting’ order and Pershing’s relaying of it, Ansell said, ‘I have difficulty to discover authority in any division commander under the terms of those two orders to cease advancing or cease firing on his front before 11 o’clock no matter what time he got the notice announcing the Armistice.’ Ansell added, suppose such a commander concluded: ‘I am in a situation where I can desist from the attack, and I am going to do so and save the lives of the men. Would you consider he had used bad judgment?’ Liggett did not hesitate: ‘If I had been a division commander, I would not have done that.’

At that point subcommittee Chairman Johnson interjected a personal experience in France occurring soon after the armistice while he was visiting a hospital: ‘I met several subordinate officers who were wounded on November 11, some seriously. Without exception, they construed the orders which forced them to make an attack after the armistice as murder and not war.’ Asked if he had ever heard such accusations, Liggett answered, ‘No!’ With that, he too was dismissed.

Brigadier General John Sherburne, former artillery commander of the black 92nd Division who had returned to civilian life, provided the Republican members of the subcommittee with what they most wanted: the views of a decorated noncareer officer who felt no obligation to absolve the army. A white officer with the division, Sherburne described the joy his black troops expressed near midnight on November 10 when the sky ‘was lighted up with rockets, roman candles, and flares that the Germans were sending up.’

This persuasive evidence of the approaching end was further confirmed, he said, when soon after midnight a wireless message intercepted from the Eiffel Tower reported: ‘The Armistice terms had been accepted and…hostilities were going to cease. My recollection is that in that wireless message the hour of 11 o’clock was stated as the time.’ Sherburne’s testimony made clear that the men in the trenches had persuasive information nearly twelve hours in advance that the war’s end was at hand, though Pershing had told Congress that he had had no knowledge that the armistice was about to be signed until he was notified at 6 a.m.

At Ansell’s urging, Sherburne went on to describe how he and his operations officer, Captain George Livermore, author of the letter to Congressman Fuller, had then telephoned divisional, corps, and army headquarters to find out, since the armistice had been signed, if an attack by the 92nd from the Bois de Voivrotte set for that morning could be called off. All up and down the chain of command, Sherburne testified, he was informed that the order stood. Ansell asked the effect of this order on the troops. ‘I cannot express the horror that we all felt,’ Sherburne said. ‘The effect of what we all considered an absolutely needless waste of life was such that I do not think any unit that I commanded took any part in any cel-ebration of the armistice, and even failed to rejoice that the war was over.’

‘Who in your judgment was responsible for this fighting?’ Ansell asked. Sherburne hesitated. ‘It is pretty poor testimony to have gossip,’ he answered. Ansell pressed him to go on. Sherburne then said:

I cannot feel that Gen. Pershing personally ordered or was directly responsible for this attack. If there is any obligation or liability upon him it is from not stopping what had already been planned….Our Army was so run that division and brigade and even corps commanders were piteous in their terror and fear of this all-pervading command by the General Staff which sat in Chaumont….They did not look upon human life as the important thing. In this, to a certain extent, they were right; you cannot stop to weigh in warfare what a thing is going to cost if the thing is worthwhile, if it is essential. But I think on the 9th and the 10th and the 11th they had come pretty near to the end of the War and knew they were pretty near the end. But they were anxious to gain as much ground as possible. They had set up what, in my opinion, is a false standard of excellence of divisions according to the amount of ground gained by each division….It was much like a child who had been given a toy that he is very much interested in and that he knows within a day or two is going to be taken away from him and he wants to use that toy up to the handle while he has it….A great many of the Army officers were very fine in the way that they took care of their men. But there were certain very glaring instances of the opposite condition, and especially among these theorists, these men who were looking upon this whole thing as, perhaps one looks upon a game of chess, or a game of football, and who were removed from actual contact with the troops.

It was, Sherburne went on, difficult for conscientious officers to resist direction from Chaumont, no matter how questionable. He admitted that even in a situation where his own life was at stake, he would have yielded to pressure from the general staff. ‘I would far rather have been killed,’ he told the subcommittee, ‘than to be demoted.’

The 33rd was another division engaged to the last minute. As the unit’s historian later described the final day:

Our regimental wireless had picked up sufficient intercepted messages during the early hours of the morning to make it certain that the Armistice had been signed at 5 o’clock that morning; and the fact that the prearranged attack was launched after the Armistice was signed…caused sharp criticism of the high command on the part of the troops engaged, who considered the loss of American lives that morning as useless and little short of murder.

According to Brig. Gen. John Sherburne, many commanders were anxious to gain as much ground as possible before the armistice took effect.
According to Brig. Gen. John Sherburne, many commanders were anxious to gain as much ground as possible before the armistice took effect.
According to Brig. Gen. John Sherburne, many commanders ‘were anxious to gain as much ground as possible’ before the armistice took effect. (National Archives)

The 81st Division took the severest blow that morning. One of its regimental commanders had told his men to take cover during the last hours, only to have his order countermanded. With forty minutes left in the war, the troops were ordered to ‘Advance at once.’ The division reported 461 casualties that morning, including sixty-six killed.

The army claimed to have put a hundred clerks to work on the subcommittee’s request for the number of AEF casualties that occurred from midnight November 10 to 11 o’clock the next morning. The figures provided by the adjutant general’s office were 268 killed in action and 2,769 seriously wounded. These figures, however, failed to include divisions fighting with the British and French north of Paris and do not square with reports from individual units on the ground that day. The official tally for the 28th Division, for example, showed zero men killed in action on November 11, but in individual reports from field officers requested by the subcommittee, the commander of one brigade alone of the 28th reported for that date, ‘My casualties were 191 killed and wounded.’ Taking into account the unreported divisions and other underreported information, a conservative total of 320 Americans killed and more than 3,240 seriously wounded in the last hours of the war is closer to the fact.

By the end of January 1920, Subcommittee 3 concluded its hearings. Chairman Johnson drafted the final report, arriving at a verdict that ‘needless slaughter’ had occurred on November 11, 1918. The full Select Committee on Expenditures in the War chaired by Congressman W.J. Graham initially adopted this draft.

Subcommittee 3’s Democratic member, Flood, however, filed a minority report charging that Johnson’s version defamed America’s victorious leadership, particularly Pershing, Liggett, and Bullard. Flood saw politics at work. The country had gone to war under a Democratic president. By 1918 the Republicans had won control of Congress, and it was they who had initiated the Armistice Day investigation. By the time the inquiry ended, Wilson’s hopes for the United States’ entering into the League of Nations were fast sinking and critics were questioning why America had gone to war in the first place.Flood suspected that the Republicans on the subcommittee were inflating the significance of the events of the last day, ‘trying to find something to criticize in our Army and the conduct of the war by our government.’ The committee, he claimed, had ‘reached out for those witnesses who had grievances….’ As for Ansell, whom he repeatedly referred to as the ‘$20,000 counsel,’ he had ‘been permitted to browbeat the officers of the Army.’ Flood also hinted that the lawyer had left the War Department, ‘with whom he is known to have quarreled,’ under a cloud. Finally, Flood argued that the select committee had been created to investigate wartime expenditures and not to second-guess generals on ‘matters beyond the jurisdiction of the committee.’

Flood’s dissent, with its patriotic ring, found enough sympathy that Chairman Graham took a rare step. He recalled the already approved Johnson report. Three hours of acrimonious debate followed.

In the end, Johnson bowed to pressure not to hold up the select committee’s report any further, and on March 3 he struck from his draft any imputation that American lives had been needlessly sacrificed on Armistice Day. The New York Times took the Dan Flood view, editorializing that the charge of wasted life ‘has impressed a great many civilians as being well founded….[But,] the civilian view [that] there should have been no shot fired if the commander of a unit had been notified of the signing is, of course, untenable….Orders are orders.’

American forces weren’t alone in launching assaults on the last day. The British high command, still stinging from its retreat at Mons during the first days of the war in August 1914, judged that nothing could be more appropriate than to retake the city on the war’s final day. British Empire losses on November 11 totaled some twenty-four hundred. The French commander of the 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two simultaneous orders that morning: one to launch an attack at 9 a.m., the other to cease fire at 11. Total French losses on the final day amounted to an estimated 1,170.

The Germans, in the always-perilous posture of retreat, suffered some 4,120 casualties. Losses on all sides that day approached eleven thousand dead, wounded, and missing.

Indeed, Armistice Day exceeded the ten thousand casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day, with this difference: The men storming the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, were risking their lives to win a war. The men who fell on November 11, 1918, lost their lives in a war that the Allies had already won. Had Marshal Foch heeded the appeal of Matthias Erzberger on November 8 to stop hostilities while the talks went on, some sixty-six hundred lives would likely have been saved.In the end, Congress found no one culpable for the deaths that had occurred during the last day, even the last hours of World War I. The issue turned out much as General Sherburne predicted in his testimony. Soon, except among their families, the men who died for nothing when they might have known long life ‘would all be forgotten.’

Joseph E. Persico is the author of numerous books, including Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage (Random House Trade, 2001). This article is based on his recently published book, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax (Random House, November 2004).

This article was originally published in the Winter 2005 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!

43 Responses to World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day

  1. CC says:

    I remember my dad telling me that he drove the landing bardge (in WW11) that dropped Ernie Powell off. How can i find out info on this. thanks in advance. please email me at

  2. BWM says:

    I remember my dad telling me that he drove the landing bardge
    (in WW11) that dropped Ernie Powell off. How can i find out info
    on this. thanks in advance. please email me at

    By CC on Sep 14, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    Do you mean Ernie Pyle?

  3. […] of our leaders see the front line troops as just pawns on a chess board… ::November 11th 1918:: World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day ? HistoryNet __________________ The Age of Reason doesn’t have to be a thing of the past. Being judgemental is […]

  4. […] of our leaders see the front line troops as just pawns on a chess board… ::November 11th 1918:: World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day ? HistoryNet __________________ The Age of Reason doesn’t have to be a thing of the past. Being judgemental is […]

  5. R.E. Wood says:

    Interesting article; so was anyone prosecuted for wasting all of these american lives on armistice day?

  6. R.E. Wood says:

    From what I understand; Congress just dropped the charges against Pershing………….

  7. […] not know is that because the generals wanted the 11-11-11 slot, there was another 11 on 11-11-1918: thousands of men, including my great uncle, Ralph Cowell, fell that day. Ralph was one of 320 Americans to lose his […]

  8. bill kennedy says:

    does not surprise me in any way the ordinary soldiers life means nothing to most Generals

  9. […] story is told on and in Joseph E. Persico’s “Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh […]

  10. […] Tomorrow is Veterans’ Day. November 10, 2009, 2:52 pm Filed under: AP World History Some places it’s known as Remembrance Day, but the day that it happened was Armistice Day – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  It was the day that ended World War I.  Sadly, though, the fighting did not end on that last day until exactly 11am.  I had mentioned during class that troops were ordered to fight until the very end – here’s an account of Congress’ questioning regarding this loss of life on the final day …. […]

  11. […] E. Persico told the story in the Winter 2005 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. "Armistice Day exceeded […]

  12. […] be wanted the symbolism of ending the war at 11:00 on 11/11 (hell, why not 11:11 on 11/11?); see World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day. (CHT Jesse […]

  13. George McRae says:

    My grandfather of the same name as mine, was a a seaman second class attached as a gunners mate to a rail mounted gun in France. His battery fired their final 15, 1200 Lb shells spaced out over the final hours with the final shell fired at 10:59 and 22 seconds. The trajectory and flight of the projectile being just over 23 seconds or so. ( I have the exact details filed away) The shell would have landed and exploded just seconds before the close of hostilities. As my grand father described it to me, it was perhaps the most cynical display of murderous arrogance on the part of the AEF. He spend the last part of his life advocating for peace and in my last conversation with him just shortly before his passing, he told me that his greatest regret was the fact that the war to end all wars didnt, and he was about to die knowing in his heart he had failed miserably in this effort. It is unclear how many Germans were killed by his battery’s final effort.

  14. […] sides pretty much knew that their negotiations would end in an official armistice. According to this website, the German delegate wanted to declare an immediate end to the fighting, knowing that within a few […]

  15. […] World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day » HistoryNet On November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) on the Western Front in France suffered more than thirty-five hundred casualties, although it had been known unofficially for two days that the fighting would end that day and known with absolute certainty as of 5 o’clock that morning that it would end at 11 a.m. (tags: ersterweltkrieg) Comments Off […]

  16. pasqual D says:

    This general charles summerall having also served in the Phillipines, after the Spanish – American War colonial takeover of the Phillipines, must have also taken part in the mass execution of Phillipino men of military age. This mass execution involved the shooting of young men in the back of the head over a mass grave by US Marines similar to the Nazi’s actions 50 years later, to quench rebellion. Pictures still available in the Library Of Congress and aired once on the History Channel.

  17. Paul Kay Jr says:

    If anyone can put me touch with the House hearings about the last day of WWI I would be very thankful. I need the transcript of the hearings. I believe the hearings took place in late 1919.
    Please send what you can to my Email address. If there are any costs involved I will gladly reimburse!

    Paul Kay, Jr.
    Lakewood, WA

    Today is October 10, 2010

  18. […] great summary of those last few hours is posted in this article written by Joseph E. Persico, the author of Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice […]

  19. Mark K. says:

    Re: Paul Kay Jr

    Your e-mail wasn’t posted with your comment.

    The committee reports referenced in this article have been scanned/digitised through Google Books. The different editions are sourced from various law libraries.
    Here are links to each of the four volumes:
    Vol 1
    Vol 2
    Vol 3
    Vol 4

    I found explanation of the terms ‘serial’, ‘volume’, ‘parts’ as used on the title pages. Here:

    I hope that you get this.

    “It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”
    – Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

  20. […] across Europe.  Sadly, hostilities had continued needlessly in the West all that morning, and estimates indicate that over 300 Americans lost their lives on the last day of that needless […]

  21. […] across Europe.  Sadly, hostilities had continued needlessly in the West all that morning, and estimates indicate that over 300 Americans lost their lives on the last day of that needless […]

  22. Donald E. Garcia says:

    I just found the article: World War I: Wasted Lives on Armistice Day, by J. Persico, and I would like to adda small footnote to this article.
    My father, Joseph E. Garcia, entered the WWI as a guardsman with the 42 Inf. Division from New Mexico. He was wounded and gasses, and returned to service as a driver for the officer corp and especially for his Divisional officer Col. Douglas MacArthur.He later became a pool diver for the 1st Army officer corp, based out of Chaumony, France. It was here where be related his story or the 11 November 1918 and the “end of the fighting”.
    I was fortunate to have been able to have done an extensive oral tape history with my father, with relation to his early life and his WWI experiences. He related to me how when they had heard that an armistice was to become effective, a number of officers were taken to an overlooking site above Stenay, France (along the Muese River), to observe the “end of the fighting”.
    My father was talking with several other officer pool drivers and were observeing the artillery barrage that both sides were performing. He said, “it seemed that both side were trying to use up every last piece of ammunitions on each other, before the armictice came into effect.”
    In the minuets before the armistice was to come into effect, a German shell hit just below where they were standing and a piece of sharpnel hit the man next to where my father was standing and “killed him instantly”.
    Each 11 November, when I was growing-up, my father and I would go to mass and we would remember the story and the soul of that soldier who passed away that morning. Mr father would relate “how utterly useless those deaths were in those final hours”.

  23. JUStin Leich says:

    Can anybody summarize this for me in a couple paragraphs?

  24. Turcja says:

    Hi, was just browsing through the internet looking for some information and came across your blog. I am impressed by the information that you have on this blog. It shows how well you understand this subject. Bookmarked this page, will come back for more. You, my friend, ROCK!!!

  25. RWWhitney says:

    Won’t we ever learn

  26. silence dogood says:

    Are you sure the reason Congress demanded that the report be changed wasn’t realism? First, these military commander didn’t know if the armistice was signed that or if the hundreds of thousands of armed, belligerent enemy soldiers in trenches just across the way, would or would not surrender in a time of poor communication and possible failure in leadership in the Enemy command. This kind of Allied show of force would have made it clear who was in charge. It also appears that this was a decision made by the unified command because the British were similarly engaged. These men did not die in vain. In my opinion this article borders on armchair, liberal revisionist history. Let’s try to keep it real: Hitler was back at it a mere twenty yrs later. Maybe these Allied leaders in the unified command knew something we didn’t? I wonder if the same revisionists like Congressman Johnson and their kind weren’t appeasing Hitler, too– just twenty years later. The U.S. Military’s most faithful ally is vigilance. Semper Fi.

    • Michael Glenn says:

      Seems to me like more West Pointer crimes covered up. Yes, we need some sort of leadership for the Army, and our present system works better than the other things we’ve tried– but I think it’s clear that there are problems, and many many many crimes of unnecessarily wasting lives committed by commissioned officers throughout the history of our military. It shows in the exchange between Congressman Bland and General Conner:

      ‘I am convinced,’ Bland continued, ‘that on November 11 there was not any officer of very high rank taking any chance of losing his own life….’

      Conner, visibly seething, retorted, ‘The statement made by you, I think, Mr. Bland, is exceedingly unjust, and, as an officer who was over there, I resent it to the highest possible degree.’

      Bland shot back, ‘I resent the fact that these lives were lost and the American people resent the fact that these lives were lost; and we have a right to question the motive, if necessary, of the men who have occasioned this loss of life.’

      Seems like Conner resented Bland’s comment so much because it was in fact true and entirely justified by General Conner’s (and other officer’s) own conduct. No senior officers put their lives on the line on the last day– that was something only the enlisted and junior officers were made to do. The waste of lives after the Armistice was signed on 11 Nov 1918 was nothing short of overt murder by our military leadership, and it’s a further crime that as usual, the officers who perpetrated this crime got away with it. And we STILL have the same kind of piss-poor criminally inept and/or criminally wasteful leadership in the officer ranks today!

  27. Frank Perkin says:

    It should also be noted that Maj. General Haan of the 32nd “Red arrow” Div resisted Pershing’s pressure to attack in the final days of the war. A real hero in my opinion. I like to think that may of saved the life of my Great Grandfather. He was Captain Orra L Norris who the the regimental surgeon of the 26th Inf.

  28. Andrew Chambers says:

    WW I was awful – brave people that fought there.

  29. louis m brunyansky says:

    I came to this site after watching a documentary about Hitlers rise to power. Having served in combat in Viet Nam, I find the ordering of attacks at the last minute repugnant. War is a bad and dangerous business at best (When you are on the winning side), mixing in a personal quest for “Glory” at the cost of additional friendly and enemy lives only makes it worse. NO ONE will win my acclaim with out being in the front lines.

  30. Travis says:

    I won’t pretend I’m an expert in this, but to me this article seems to be too one sided. Its conclusions are also too simplistic. If you are convinced that the ranks of the US Army are filled with West Pointers trying to cover up war crimes, then I guess your sympathetic view is understandable, because this article would neatly fit into your world view. I am not condoning what some of these commander’s did. I’d like to think I would have held back my troops, but then I realize that this opinion may be colored by rose colored glasses, as well.
    The biggest fault I find with the article is that it seems to take the complete ‘hindsight is 20/20 view’ that the 11th hour did in fact become the end of the war.
    Here is the rub; the Germans were asking for an armistice. That is not the same as surrender or even a permanent cease fire. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines armistice as a “temporary suspension of hostilities”. Today, most people think of 11NOV as the day the war ended because the Armistice led to a signed peace agreement (which, by the way, required the Armistice to be extended three times before a treaty was signed in January 1920). Commanders in the field did not have the luxury of knowing this was a certain conclusion. Just because the Allies were winning is not proof positive that the end of the war was inevitable, or even imminent. It’s a long, long way between the Meuse and Berlin (or Prussia for that matter). The idea that the enemy was looking for a chance to regroup and counterattack was not unreasonable, considering the information that was available at the time. Even the article mentions that the 32nd Division received casualties from German artillery on the 11th, despite the fact that the 32nd “initiated no attacks”. History is full of examples of how rational this thought actually is; the German counter-attack which led to the Battle of the Bulge, the American led attack at Inchon, the Battle of Franklin, both the Egyptian and Israeli counterattacks of the Yom Kippur war, etc.
    Let me build on this idea; has an Armistice or peace negotiation always led to the end of a war? Not hardly; remember what the Japanese Ambassador to the US was doing the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, the signing of The Paris Peace Accords did not end the war in Vietnam, the cease fire ending the Yom Kippur War did not end the Israeli-Syria conflicts. Ukrainian Nationalists did not see the end of WWII with the surrender of Germany in 1945. They continued to fight the Communist forces from Poland until 1947 and the USSR until 1949. This leads me to my final point; the exact moment these commanders were aware that the armistice was imminent is not as germane as the fact that since this was an armistice and NOT a complete surrender, these commanders did not have a clear expectation that this meant the fighting would be over in the long term. Additionally, they did not know that the final lines of peace or capitulation would not be where they stood. The last minute troop movements during the Korean War did make a difference in where the armistice line was drawn in 1953. That armistice, by the way, still has not lead to a peace treaty.
    I can completely understand the desire of the Troops in the trenches to jump at the possibility that the armistice might be there ticket out of that hell and an end to the war. When my unit flew out of Baghdad, not so many years ago, I would welcomed almost anything that could have gotten me home to family that much quicker. However, a general officer does not have that luxury. These officers of our Army were charged with winning the war by defeating the enemy, thus ending the war, not the other way around. When the Germans brought up this temporary cease fire, they still occupied “lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France” (not to mention Alsace-Lorraine). How would WWII be remembered if Hitler had offered an Armistice after the Allies seized Normandy, and the Allies accepted? Would we have said, “well, thank goodness that’s all over”, and walked away? What would the world be like today if a DMZ stood between eastern and western France, with the Third Reich firmly in charge of the Low Countries, northern Italy, Poland, Austria, etc.?
    I am reminded of something a friend of mine told me years after he came home from his IFOR tour in Bosnia. He said that the reason so many civilians in his sector were stockpiling munitions in the homes was because they all “knew” that the Dayton Peace Accords were only be a temporary respite before the war would continue. This was also a widely held believe among the US forces in IFOR. Yet, the history books all tell us that the war ended in December 1995, with the Dayton Peace Accords. The same books tell us that the Korean war ended with the armistice of 1953, however that did not prevent the death of 299 South Korean, 397 North Korean, and 43 American soldiers killed between October 1966 and October 1969 alone.
    Again, my comments are not a defense of the decisions these commands (or commanders) made. My point is that implying that the Army had generated a large number of senior level glory hounds that were willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of the soldiers they had spent their lives (not just the War) leading is naïve and unfair. Were these decisions to advance a mistake? I agree that they were mistakes, but only in the light of perfect hindsight.
    I thank the good Lord that many commanders did not waste the lives of their Soldiers by pressing the attack after the armistice was made known. However, I also thank the good Lord that these same commanders were not wrong in their estimation of the German intent, like the allied generals were wrong twenty-six years later, when they believed that the Germans were unwilling and unable to mount a counter offensive through the Ardennes Forrest. That single battle, by the way, caused 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed. Numbers that far outstrip the authors 11,000 combined casualty estimation for 11 November.

  31. […] of the stories about war that has always haunted me is that of World War I soldiers fighting and dying as the clock ticked down to the war’s end. The armistice agreement, signed six hours earlier, […]

  32. […] some sites about Armistice Day (now called Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in the UK), Wasted Lives on Armistice Day, a chilling World War I poem by one of my favorite poets, the British Wilfred Owen who was killed […]

  33. Michael Feldberg says:

    My great-uncle was killed by enemy fire after the armistice was declared. I don’t know how many days after, as family lore did not retell that detail. His name is published on the WW I war memorial in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Tellingly, my family seemed not to be bitter about this irony because they understood communications at that time were what they were.

  34. jroy says:

    general Pershing is a piece of s*** for his orders to continue to advance American solders after the signed armistice. he should be declared a war criminal and the history books should say such.

  35. […] the closing hours of World War I, Marshall Foch, the French Commander of Allied forces, ordered troops under his command to continue their attacks despite the Armistice that had been signe… 11,000 additinal casualties resulted. Despite the terrible unnecessary loss of life that resulted […]

  36. Dennis says:


    While commenting on your reply nearly 2 years after you made it is kind of funny, I just wanted to thank you; both for your service to our country, and your level-headed response to this article. I wanted to add one piece of evidence to undergird your position. We ended the 1991 Gulf War effectively with an armistice, because, as General Powell is purported to have said, continuing to destroy our defenseless enemy would be \unchivalrous\, and continued fighting would \waste\ American lives. What would the world look like today had the war fighters been allowed to do what they always want to do-completely destroy their enemy? Were lives and national treasure actually saved by this \compassionate\ decision, or did we create an even worse, more costly probelm to be finally solved later at even greater cost in lives and national trasure?

  37. […] the Americans were to take heavy casualties on the last day of the war. This was because their commander, General John Pershing, believed that the Germans had to be […]

  38. smg45acp says:

    Similar things happened in WWII.
    The Japanese had been offering conditions of surrender of months before the war ended. The Americans always answered that the conditions were “unconditional surrender”. Well, what does “unconditional surrender” mean? We refused to say.

    Finally the Japanese accepted “unconditional surrender”.
    Surprise, surprise, the terms or surrender given to the Japanese looked almost identical to the terms they had been offering for months!
    Many of the bloodiest battles of WWII could have easily been avoided if we would have just accepted or at least talked terms of surrender with the Japanese.

  39. […] the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. That’s where the phrase “the eleventh hour” comes from. It’s also why the holiday has remained on whatever day Nov. 11 falls — not the […]

  40. Steve Gilbert says:

    The entire war was one big screw-up, but sending men to die when the war was essentially over is unforgivable.
    Most American military commanders love their men and go to great lengths to see that they don’t get killed, but there are those few that see war as a big game.
    They don’t care if a thousand men die for nothing as long as they get another ribbon on their chest, another stripe on their arm or another star on their helmet.

  41. sskyking says:

    Such an event, if it were happen today, would result in a courts martial of the officers involved.

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