The Eleventh Hour – Remembering America’s Final Bloody Battle of World War One

U.S. marines fought (and died) right up the final moments of the First World War. Historian and author James Carl Nelson explores these last violent moments of World War One. (Image source: WikiCommons)

U.S. marines fought (and died) right up the final moments of the First World War. Historian and author James Carl Nelson explores these last violent moments of World War One. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The night of this last battle of the war was the most trying night I have ever experienced. The knowledge that in all probability the Armistice was about to be signed caused the mental anguish.”

By James Carl Nelson

FOR THE MEN of the American Marine Fifth Regiment, the Great War began with great promise, excitement, and a quick trip overseas to France.

It ended in disaster.

A 1918 recruiting poster highlights the USMC's contribution to the war effort. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A 1918 recruiting poster highlights the USMC’s contribution to the war effort. (Image source: WikiCommons)

After stopping the Germans in a bloody three-week battle at Belleau Wood in June 1918 and making almost unheard-of advances below Soissons in July and at Blanc Mont in early October, the Fifth and Sixth Marines of the U.S. Second Division on Nov. 1 began chasing their retreating foe north toward the Meuse River in northeastern France.

By Nov. 7, as the marines slogged north, a German delegation was leaving Berlin on its way to France under a flag of truce to negotiate an armistice. Troops up and down the front-lines had been told to watch for it. Peace was in the air and on the minds of every frontline combatant.

But peace was not on the minds at Allied headquarters. The brass intended to press the Germans mercilessly to the last possible moment. And so on Nov. 8, the marines of the Fourth Brigade received orders to cross the river on the night of Nov. 9 to 10, the Sixth Regiment above Mouzon and the Fifth four miles from Letanne.

Because the needed pontoon bridges had been sent to the 89th Division on his right, Second Division commander General John Lejeune asked for a delay to Nov. 10.

John Lejeune in France in 1918. (Image source: WikiCommons)

John Lejeune in France in 1918. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Lejeune was already no fan of the planned crossings, which were to take place in the face of strong machine-gun and artillery fire laid down by one thousand desperate defenders. At a Nov. 9 summit with V Corps commander General Charles Summerall, Lejeune proposed a different plan: He suggested that the 90th Division to the south, which had already crossed the Meuse, drive north and clear the banks that would oppose the 89th Division at its crossing.

The 89th could then move north to cover the Second Division’s crossing, after which Lejeune could clear the crossing point for the 77th Division to its left.  Summerall replied that he would think about it.

By the time Lejeune was back at his headquarters, the hard-charging Summerall had already made his decision:  The Fourth Brigade would cross on the night of Nov. 10 to 11 as planned.

A map from Collier's Magazine showing the progression of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A map from Collier’s Magazine showing the progression of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Two battalions of the Fifth, reinforced with one battalion of the 89th Division, would cross just above Letanne. The Sixth would cross above Mouzon, its third battalion in the lead and the second in tow. Both regiments were to plod across on rickety, swaying bridges thrown together by the divisions’ engineers – and do so in full view of their well-armed, well-sited enemy.

Both attempts were to be made at 9:30 p.m., following a two-hour preparatory barrage. Once across, the marines were to follow a rolling barrage and sweep forward and carry the machine guns and artillery along the Meuse heights.

Like condemned criminals, the marines were served a last, hot meal on the afternoon of Nov. 10. Rolling kitchens brought forward buckets of steaming coffee, steak, potatoes and fresh bread.

“For veterans of months of fighting, the routine was familiar – hot chow, then extra ammunition and hand grenades,” wrote Sergeant Melvin Krulewitch of the 78th Company, Sixth Marines. “This was another attack. No armistice for us.”

Under cover of night, the marines marched to their crossing places. While the men of the Sixth waited behind a railway embankment, Major George Shuler, commanding the third battalion, went to the west bank to confer with the engineers. There, he learned that just one of the two spans was ready to be put across the 70-yard chasm of fast-moving water.

German flares were already lolling above the river, and artillery played near both crossing sites. An engineer suggested to Shuler that one span be quickly thrown across, but he demurred; he knew that trying to push two battalions of marines across on a single span would be suicidal.

And so the men of the Sixth Marines continued to wait while grumbling to each other in the darkness and hoping against hope that the war might somehow end before they were to face the fire.

“We had begun to believe the Armistice rumors by now,” wrote the 80th Company’s Private Thomas McQuain. “We could not see the advantage of trying to cross the Meuse tonight. Why not wait and see what happened to the Armistice the next day, and then attack, if necessary?”

Lejeune, overruled by Summerall, also waited fretfully.

“The night of this last battle of the war was the most trying night I have ever experienced,” he would remember. “The knowledge that in all probability the Armistice was about to be signed caused the mental anguish.”

As the engineers above Mouzon struggled to string the bridge sections together, working against the river’s strong current and machine-gun fire coming from the far bank, the marines of the Fifth Regiment further south approached their intended crossing at about 9:30 p.m.

“They lied to us that night,” Elton Mackin of the first battalion’s 67th Company would write. Told they were to carry ammunition for the 89th Division, the Fifth Marines instead soon learned they were “going over… a patent, flimsy lie.”

U.S. troops press the attack in the war's final hours. (Image source: WikiCommons)

U.S. troops press the attack in the war’s final hours. (Image source: WikiCommons)

German shells greeted them as they got their first look at the barely floating death traps over which they were soon to cross. Their stomachs sinking, some turned and ran. One, a guide who had led them to the crossing, fled but was captured by the regimental adjutant and pistol-whipped back into line.

When the adjutant stumbled in the darkness, the guide took off again, as the young officer emptied his pistol at his fleeing form.

Soon enough, knees knocking, the men of the first battalion, Fifth Marines, stepped gingerly onto the bridge’s planking. Bullets from the far bank soon “ripped a seam along the water, then swung back,” Mackin would recall.

“They changed their tone abruptly to the sock, sock, sock sound bullets make when they hit flesh… The night belonged to bitter men who didn’t seem to care, who long before had known there was no hope.  Because of that, they thought they had conquered fear.”

About one hundred men of the first battalion made it across and were followed by the lucky survivors of the second battalion and then those from the 89th Division who, like their marine counterparts, weren’t killed, wounded, or drowned.

“So many died that night, short hours away from the Armistice,” Mackin wrote. “They had held on to hope in spite of everything.”

Those who made it across reorganized then began clearing the slopes. Shortly before 11 a.m., a breathless runner approached with news of the armistice. “Just wait for orders here,” he told them.

The Sixth Regiment never did attempt the crossing. Its battalion commanders waited until 4 a.m. With the second span still unfinished and dawn approaching, they decided to give up for the night.

As the marines of the Sixth fairly floated back to their camp, the third battalion’s George Shuler went to Colonel Harry Lee, commander of the Sixth Regiment, handed over his major’s insignia, and offered to resign or “face whatever charges the Colonel might prefer against him” for not being able to attempt the crossing, according to the 97th Company’s Private Havelock Nelson.

Smiling, Lee handed Shuler’s major’s leaves back to him.

“Forget it,” Lee told him. “The war is almost over!”

U.S. troops cheer the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. For thousands of Marines, the final hours of the war would be as deadly as any. (Image source: WikiCommons)

 Soldiers cheer the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. For thousands of Marines, the last hours of the war would be as deadly as any. (Image source: WikiCommons)

At 11 a.m. on the dot, the shelling and put-put-put of the machine guns suddenly stopped. “It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month that the last Boche shell came whistling into our lines and exploded with a terrific crash,” Lieutenant Clifton Cates of the 96th Company, Sixth Marines, would write. “Luckily, it did not get anyone.”

Cates recalled the scene as word came down that the armistice had been signed and the war was at least temporarily over. “Not a cheer did I hear,” he wrote, “but there was not a man in the regiment that did not thank God that rainy, muddy morning that it was all over and he was safe.”

South of Cates, scores of brave marines and regulars of the 89th Division could not share his wonder. Thirty-one marines were killed in action or drowned and 148 were wounded on November 10 -November 11 – “just to gain a few more yards of ground,” as the author George B. Clark would write.

On the last night of the war. And with peace in the air.

1020865214James Carl Nelson is the author of The Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War; Five Lieutenants: The Heartbreaking Story of Five Harvard Men Who Led America to Victory in World War 1; and I Will Hold:  The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War, released Sept. 6, 2016.

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