November 11, 1918, dawned as any other day for the exhausted men of the U.S Army’s 26th Division, nicknamed the “Yankee Division” because it was a National Guard division from New England. The Yankees had been on the front since February, with only one brief rest for two weeks in August. They had taken so many casualties that it was scarcely recognizable as a New England organization since there were replacements from all across the country.
The Yankees were fighting it out in Verdun, trying to break the German lines and punch through to Germany, but the Boche were still holding strong, with endless artillery shelling and gassing. However, there were signs everywhere that an end was coming. On November 7, the division radio operators intercepted a wireless message from the Eiffel Tower, from Marshall Ferdinand Foch’s headquarters, that hinted at a coming termination of hostilities. The following day, reports came in from every unit in the division that the enemy was seen abandoning their positions with no attempt at concealment. Units pressed forward on November 8 only to come up against new German lines, laced with murderous machine guns.
While the Germans might be retiring, they did so tactically. And the Yankees were not in much condition to break them. The average company strength was down to well less than 100, from an assigned 250. Nevertheless, on November 9 and 10, the Yankees attacked. As the hands of the clock ticked down to 11:00 AM on November 11, casualties continued to pile up. On November 10, Maine’s 103rd Infantry Regiment managed to break through the German lines and take Bois de Ville while Massachusetts’ 104th Infantry outflanked the enemy in Ville-devant-Chamont. Connecticut’s 102d Infantry Regiment and Massachusetts’ 101st Infantry made no headway. The lines were hair-thin. In some cases, sergeants were commanding companies and lieutenants were commanding battalions. Staff officers, runners, radio operators, and supply teams with draft horses were all in similar short supply, due to the incredibly heavy artillery fire that characterized the Verdun sector.
But at Allied headquarters, the mood was different. Through days of negotiations, the French, British, and Americans were able to convince Germany that their continued attempts to stop the Allies were futile. All through the fall of 1918, Central Powers governments dropped out of the fight. First came Bulgaria, in September. The Ottoman Empire followed in October. On November 3, the Austro-Hungarian Empire signed an armistice. That left Germany fighting alone as Allied armies surrounded it. The proverbial writing was on the wall and on November 10, Germany agreed to sign an armistice to end the bloodshed, before the Allies could break into Germany proper.
During the same hours that the Germans were signing the Armistice, Field Order Number 105 reached the 26th Division, outlining the requirements for a renewed attack on the following morning. Throughout the night, the infantry readied themselves for another day of combat. In the 103rd Infantry, the numbers were so low that rather than go into battle with one battalion attacking, one in support, and one in reserve, as was doctrine, all three battalions were on the front lines to advance together. Artillery batteries stockpiled rounds and plotted out their fires to support the advance. But at around 7:00 AM, a message came from Corps Headquarters to the effect that the Armistice would go into effect at 11:00 AM and only the artillery need fire up until that hour; the infantry would be saved. Staff officers and commanders breathed a sigh of relief that common sense was being used to save lives.
However, the division staff were shocked to find out an hour later that the orders were countermanded: the 26th Division would attack at 9:30 AM and continue the advance until 11:00, at which time the infantry would halt and hold the ground they occupied. In confusion, the orders were passed down to the four infantry regiments, whose battalions then stumbled forward into the shell-torn landscape to pay the butcher’s bill yet again. The white crosses in the American cemeteries in France marked with the date November 11, 1918 bear witness to the division’s losses on Armistice Day.
What had happened? To answer that, one must look at the mentality of the American commander, General John Pershing. Pershing believed that the Germans were being treated too kindly, that the Allied armies should smash through the enemy front and enter Germany itself, to teach them a lesson. Casualties were not an issue to him, compared with his desire to see the enemy punished and American troops entering Germany as victors pursuing a defeated enemy. This was in line with his thinking that his most successful divisions were those that took the most losses. Thus, on November 11, Pershing ordered the American divisions to attack up until the last moment, claiming that he was operating under Foch’s orders to “Pursue the field grays up until the last minute.” American forces across the Western Front took over 3,000 casualties on November 11.
For the men of the 26th Division, the hour of 11:00 AM came as a shock. The quiet of the battlefield was more surprising than any attack had been. They were too exhausted to celebrate. Many fell where they were standing and went to sleep, physically, mentally, and emotionally spent. One year prior they had been citizens who knew little of war. Now they had seen the worst that humanity could do to itself. They had been gassed with poison, blown up, shot, clubbed, and bayoneted, and had done the same to the Germans they faced. They would never be the same people again. They would be Veterans.
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