A hundred years ago this month, the First World War shuddered to a close. The end came when the armistice took effect on the Western Front at 11 am on November 11, 1918—the famous eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a phrase that seems like an obscenity now, a romantic gesture to cap a war that long before should have buried any possible remaining romance of war. The armistice had been coming since at least August 8, 1918, the “black day of the German Army,” when some 15,000 German men surrendered on the first day of a French and British offensive. Germany’s allies had been dropping away since September, with Bulgaria, then the Turks, then Austria-Hungary suing for peace.
The Germans had initiated peace negotiations on November 8, and their delegates pleaded that fighting be suspended at once. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the supreme Allied commander, refused. The signing of the armistice agreement was announced at 5:45 on the morning of November 11, but Foch decreed that the official ending time would be eleven o’clock.
In the ensuing five hours and fifteen minutes, the two sides suffered a combined 10,944 casualties, including 2,738 dead, according to the historian Joseph E. Persico in his book Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour. The fighting went on, to get revenge, to use up “leftover” ammunition, to teach the enemy a lesson. It continued because, even after four years of what British prime minister David Lloyd George would call “the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind,” men were still willing to go dutifully forward to kill when they were ordered to do so.
Most of the killing that last morning seems to have been initiated by the Allies, but the Germans shelled the town of Mézières, flattening the hospital there, and ambushed British troops at a little village near Valenciennes. British cavalry raced into the Belgian town of Lessines at ten to eleven, where they chased down German defenders as if they were on a fox hunt.
“I fired 164 rounds at [the enemy] before he quit this morning,” Captain Harry S. Truman, the only future American president to see action in World War I, wrote. Truman, the commander of an artillery battery, maintained, “I’m for peace, but that gang should be given a bayonet peace and made to pay for what they’ve done to France.” He kept his guns flaring until precisely eleven. Some American artillery batteries kept banging away even past that deadline.
Colonel Thomas Gowenlock, an intelligence officer with the US 1st Division, was surprised to find the shelling from both sides unusually heavy and growing worse as he approached the front near Le Gros Faux. “It seemed to me that every battery in the world was trying to burn up its guns. At last eleven o’clock came—but the firing continued,” Gowenlock would write in his memoir of the war.
Numerous American units—the 32nd and 33rd Army divisions, the 5th Marine Regiment—were ordered into combat that morning and suffered serious losses. The all-black 366th Regiment of the Army’s 92nd Division, in America’s segregated armed forces, was ordered to make three separate assaults on German positions heavily fortified with machine guns; the last one commenced at ten-thirty, and the troops absorbed 319 casualties that day, including seventeen dead.More at the link, none of it uplifting.