Armistice Day

The war is almost over. Allied infantry in France, August 1918

On the night of 7 November, the wild cry arose that the war was over! We were used to all manner of reports, though none quite as stunning as this, and in a few minutes excitement was at its height. An optimistic MP was heard shouting, “It’s over, so help me, God!” and a little later the same spirit was evidenced by the doughboys along the roads, who were joyfully proclaiming the end by shooting up flares and yelling, “Fini la guerre.”

By this time it was a settled fact that the war really was over, that nothing remained to be done but the shouting, and that this was the proper time to shout. What happened during the next few hours, gentle reader, will be left to your imagination. It was a grand and glorious feeling, and not long afterwards we found out that just about the entire American Expeditionary Force and practically all the folks at home were also celebrating.

The next morning we awoke to the real situation and found that the cause of the whole thing originated from a certain German white flag party which was on its way to meet Marshal Foch. The German high command had ordered the cessation of hostilities along a certain part of the line in order that these peace plenipotentiaries might reach the great French Marshal and learn from him, personally, how peace terms could be had.

Things began to move pretty fast now, and there was a great deal of speculation as to what the Boche would do. The next day the official communique reported that Foch had very generously allowed them seventy-two hours in which to accept or reject the iron-clad terms of an armistice. Meanwhile, the entire western front was the scene of one of the greatest Allied offensives of the war.

In the midst of all these things, orders were suddenly issued to move at once toward the front, and Sunday morning, November 10th, found us packed up and moving. All along, the roads were lined with American troops. Mile after mile of supply wagons, artillery, machine gun battalions and infantry were slowly but surely wending their way to Berlin.

This looked very different from peace. We learned afterwards that the 35th Division was to make a direct frontal assault upon Metz, while other troops were to engage in a flanking movement. As Metz was the most strongly fortified position the Germans held, it can readily be seen that the 35th would have had a pretty stiff job. It seemed certain that in a day or two we would enter the offensive against this powerful fort, and we were well aware of what this movement would call for.

At about 2:30 Sunday afternoon we halted at a small village named Cousances, expecting to move on at any time. Here it was reported that the Kaiser had abdicated and that all Germany was in a state of revolution, but we had heard this same thing at least a dozen times before, and so thought nothing of it. The entire front from the Channel to the Vosges was ablaze, with the Yanks near Sedan, the capture of which village by the Germans in 1871 marked the triumph of Bismarck. History was about to repeat itself. The British in Flanders were rapidly driving the Hun from Belgium, while in the Champagne the French were making such advances as they had never made before. Apparently, Foch had chosen Berlin for the Allied objective.

While these events were in progress, a German courier, labouring under great difficulty, was carrying messages from the Allied Headquarters to the German General Headquarters, at Spa, in Belgium. Only a few hours remained for the Hun to arrange his answer. German propaganda was at an end, and that of the Allies consisted of cold steel from the heavies.

One by one Germany’s allies had deserted her until now she stood alone facing the ever increasing strength of the strongest and noblest armies of the world. Her armies were almost demoralized. At home, her people were terrorized at the thought of having their Fatherland invaded, and were demanding that the war be ended. For over four years they had waited behind a curtain of lies and outrages, only to see it lifted and defeat staring at them. Such were a few of the conditions which confronted the German High Command at Spa, while Foch, with his gallant armies smashing on, calmly waited for one of two short words—Yes or No.

At Cousances, stowed away in an old dismantled factory, we were waiting for this important answer. As was mentioned before, we had expected to continue our march, but orders had evidently been changed to wait for the German answer. On Monday morning, November 11th, the famous “drum fire” was plainly audible, and again things didn’t sound at all peaceful. Having had a little previous experience around Cheppy and Charpentry, we realized what the acceptance or rejection of the terms would mean. There was no noticeable let-up in the firing.

The suspense was becoming acute. Either they would sign it or reject it. In case the former should happen, it would only be a matter of waiting our turn at the gang-plank; should the latter occur, the Lord only knew what would happen. Visions of a gang-plank and tug-boats changed into visions of litters loaded with wounded, and the loud cheers of Yanks bidding farewell to gallant France changed into the shriek of gas and high explosive shells.

But the old saying, that it is always the darkest just before dawn, held. Almost before any of us realized it the guns were quiet. We listened again, but not a sound could be heard. We realized that they were advancing rapidly, but that it was hardly possible for them to be out of sound this soon. At this time the British troops were at Mons, the French armies were across the Belgian line from the Meuse to the Oise, and American armies were advancing from Sedan to the eastern forts of Metz. France was almost clear of the invader. The liberation of Belgium had begun. The whole German army was in disorderly retreat, and there needed only a little more time to transform that retreat into the greatest rout of all military history.

Adapted from History of Ambulance Company Number 139 (1919). Photograph courtesy of Alistair Paterson. Published under a Creative Commons license.