“To the world he was a soldier, to me he was the world”
American mother of a soldier killed in 1918
How is it that more men died on the last day of World War I when they knew that a ceasefire would go into effect in 6 hours, then died on D-Day? The American, British and French generals knew the fighting would end precisely at 11:00 A.M, yet in the final hours they flung men against an already beaten Germany. The result? Eleven thousand casualties suffered– more than during the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy. Why? Allied commanders wanted to punish the enemy to the very last moment and career officers saw a fast-fading chance for glory and promotion.
On March 21, 1918 Germany launched the Ludendorff Offensive in a final attempt to gain military victory in the West (now that Russia was out of the war) and before the Americans arrived in great numbers to turn the tide, which almost succeeded but the allies rallied and held and then, in July at the 2nd Battle of the River Marne pushed back the Germans. On August 8, 1918 – The Black Day of the German Army, the British launched their counter-attack at Amiens. The Germans were forced back and would never recover the initiative. They had suffered extremely high casualties in their offensives; the allied naval blockade was threatening starvation; revolution at home meant troops were fighting both the enemy and their own countrymen; the Kaiser’s navy was in revolt; and now American troops were arriving at the front in France at a rate of 250 – 300,000 each month and it was obvious that Germany was on the verge of collapse. The Allies not wanting to deal with a dictator said they would not negotiate with the odious German generals (a huge mistake in my opinion because it allowed the generals to claim that the army was stabbed in the back) and insisted on a civilian government signing the armistice. That new civilian government went to Marshal Ferdinand Foch the Supreme Allied commander seeking an armistice on November 8, 1918. Foch, embittered by the massive losses of French manhood and on a personal note the death of his own son told them he was not interested (this extended the war by three days and at least 20,00 casualties) in what they had to say. The Germans came back on November 11 and they signed an armistice in a railway car at Compiegne at 5:00 AM to go into effect at 11:00 AM which meant that the war had 6 hours to run. Instead of spreading the word to the commanders in the field and ordering them to stand down and wait until 11:00 AM when they could walk and take over the German positions, the allied commanders (John J. Pershing for the Americans, Phillipe Petain for the French, and Douglas Haig for the British and British Commonwealth forces) kept sending their men across fields to attack the Germans. Pershing felt that the Germans needed to be militarily beaten for all to see so they could not claim that they withdrew on their own. Pershing wanted to go all the way to Berlin otherwise he felt we would have to fight the Germans all over again in another generation. He was prescient about that but his stubbornness cost 3,200 needless American casualties. One American commander Major General William M. Wright of the United States 89th Division, sacrificed lives storming the town of Stenay simply so that he and his troops could have a bath; … that lunatic decision cost something like 300 casualties according to American historian and author Joseph E. Persico. Eight Hundred and Sixty-three British and Commonwealth soldiers died on the last day of the war although some had died of wounds sustained earlier. The last American killed in World War I was Henry Gunther who was shot in the head at 10:58 AM – two minutes before the end of the war. All the casualties on November 11, 1918 – were ultimately unnecessary.
Ironically on June 22, 1940, Adolf Hitler made the French sign an armistice in the same railway car at Compiegne.
The Last Day of World War One is an episode in the 2008 season of the British Television series Timewatch.
This photograph was taken after reaching an agreement for the armistice that ended World War I. This is Ferdinand Foch‘s own railway carriage and the location is in the forest of Compiègne. Foch is second from the right.
Tags: World War I