This reminiscence of the Armistice as experienced by soldiers and marines of the 2d Division AEF is excerpted from the book Trifling with War, by Ray DeWitt Herring (Boston: Meador Publishing Company, 1934). Herring was a member of the 5th Machine Gun Company, 3rd Brigade, 2d Division, AEF.
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“When it became assured the war was to end, the dread uncertainty of the last few hours held anew the terrors of the unknown. To be bumped off on the last day, what devilish luck! And yet such was the fate of many of our own boys, pawns in the hands of ambitious military chiefs.
Note the order:
- On the night of November 10th (actually the early morning of Nov 11th), “heroic deeds were done by heroic men. In the face of a heavy artillery and withering machine gun fire, the 2nd Engineers threw two foot bridges across the Meuse, and the first and second battalions of the 5th Marines crossed resolutely and unflinchingly to the east bank and carried out their mission.
- In the last battle of the war, as in all others in which this Division has participated, it enforced its will on the enemy.
‘It enforced its will on the enemy’. It is a heart-shaking question whether this one time gallant boys, hardly daring to breathe the hope of a promised armistice, wanted to force their will on the enemy. Perhaps that will had fashioned another concept in which “enemy” was now a meaningless abstraction, ‘war’ an ugly, fitful dream. Perhaps their will was only to live and let live.
It may have been a military necessity for one American Division to gain the right bank of the Meuse, and it may have been splendid strategy for another to race out of bounds into historic Sedan before 11.00 A.M. November 11, 1918 to stage a fitting finale to the melodrama that showed arrogant democracy the hero in the closing role; but it was not necessary to kill those boys at 4.00 A.M. on the day which was bringing life anew before the blessed sun should have reached his zenith. So it appears, and so our Major said, who cried bitterly over the uncalled-for slaughter. His consolation was that the death of the boys, who had been twice crucified, could not be laid upon him who would not have had it so.
The morning of that day passed by with leaden feet the living who almost forgot the sin of death done at daybreak. Intermittent shelling was noted with feelings that must e pardoned if there was shame in them. When about 11 o’clock the last hostile shell in this sector crashed harmlessly near the brook bordering foret de Dieulet, then we knew enchained humanity had broken the latest shackles fastened on the race by its nemesis, war.
. . . . . ‘A peace that passeth understanding’ came within partial comprehension in the evening of that soldiers’ day of promise. A great heaviness was borne away. New men, strangely moved with new visions unbelievably true, gathered in wondering groups. There was no hilarity, no singing of paeans of victory. Too rapid had been the change from the threshold of death on this broken battlefield now promising life to the fortunate buddies of the unrequited slain. An aloofness was upon all, and a silence as of the great unaccustomed shadows thrown by the first campfires known to this generation of soldiers. The pageantry of the storied camping ground was lacking. The camaraderie about the beacons flaring fitfully along the horizon was of the fellowship of the disconsolate and lonely. Nothing could be so empty as victory. Many days must pass before life could be cherished. Never again could it be embraced with rapture. For the mark of the beast trails thru dreams of Christians who prevailed mightily over their brethren.
On the next day with the help of Sergeant Long, a roster of our original company was drawn up. Killed, wounded, missing, shell-shocked, sick, accounted for many missing names. Minor changes in the company itself took on dramatic significance to we who knew the men intimately and realized the relentless shuffling of their fortunes and hopes. This roll calling was not the glorious recital official records would make of numbers slain and percentage of valor registered by volume of casualties.
How does the damned human idiot figure another man’s death as his glory? — or a regiment decimated as his coronet? Our record showed us how truly unfortunate so many in one small company had been. When we multiplied the misery centered in our own group by thousands of like units in a dozen armies, we began to realize the world of woe encompassed in that tragic quadrennium beginning in 1914.”
—Ray DeWitt Herring