Today is Veterans Day.
Nov. 11 used to be called Armistice Day because it was on this date in 1918 that an armistice to end World War I was signed in a railroad car in Compiegne, just outside of Paris. But the armistice that was signed that day would prove to make the numbers 11-11-11 unintentionally infamous for all time.
News of the ceasefire spread quickly by telegraph to all parts of the world. Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso got up early in New York City to celebrate and sang the American national anthem in English from his hotel balcony. Citizens in Windsor Locks ran along Main Street shouting, clanging pots and pans, and then burned Kaiser Wilhelm in effigy. Similar acts of celebration occurred throughout the country.
But the celebration was premature. The war had not really ended; it had about six hours to go, as the ceasefire was to begin at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month — 11-11-11. The Allied signers of the armistice thought it would be more memorable if the peace began at 11. Little did they realize the horrible consequences their desire for numerical symmetry would have upon the lives of thousands of people.
Historian Joseph Persico has done extensive research about the final six hours of the Great War. Persico has found that more than 10,000 were killed, wounded, or missing on both sides during those last six hours. That’s more than the total casualties for both sides during the D-Day invasion during World War II!
American AEF Cmdr. Gen. John J. Pershing, who opposed the armistice, sent out an order to observe the ceasefire at 11 a.m. Pershing’s orders did not specify what to do between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. Nine of the sixteen American divisional commanders, therefore, pressed on with their attacks against the Germans that morning. Seven commanders saw no point in putting their men’s lives at risk to take land that would be theirs to control in just a couple of hours and refused to engage the enemy.
In one of the more peculiar attacks on the last morning of the war, Gen. William M. Wright, commander of the 89th Division, ordered his troops to take the French village of Stenay from the Germans. Wright had heard that Stenay had bathing facilities, and he wanted to capture them for his unit to enjoy. It cost his division 300 casualties. Stenay was the very last village captured by the Americans in World War I. Wright was replaced as commander the next day.
One of the divisions that continued to fight was the 26th, or "Yankee Division." The 26th consisted almost entirely of soldiers from the six New England states including, of course, Connecticut, and had been engaged in battle more days than any other American division except for the 1st Army Division.
More than 60,000 men from Connecticut fought in the 26th. Nearly 1,700 were killed and more than 7,300 were wounded. At 9 a.m. on the 11th of November, the Yankee Division was ordered into battle; at 9:10 a.m. that order was rescinded. However, at 9:30, the 26th was once again ordered into battle. They fought from 9:30 a.m. until the ceasefire at 11 a.m. and suffered 120 casualties.
Probably the very last Connecticut man to die in World War I was Cpl. Harry W. Houghtaling of Chester, CT. Houghtaling was part of the 307th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Division — mostly a New York unit. He was killed in action that morning while attacking the Germans. Houghtaling was the only man from Chester killed in the Great War, and he died needlessly with just an hour or so to go before the ceasefire.
The fate of Pvt. Henry Gunther of the 79th Division is even more poignant. Gunther, from Maryland and of German descent, had endured a great deal of anti-German prejudice in the service. While advancing toward Metz on the morning of the 11th, Gunther charged a German machine-gun emplacement and was shot through the head and killed at 10:59 a.m. — just one minute before the armistice took effect. He was the last American killed in action during the Great War.
The German peace delegation had arrived in Compiegne on Nov. 8. Their lead negotiator, Matthias Erzberger, suggested that a ceasefire be immediately imposed while the two sides worked out the details of the armistice. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, head negotiator for the Allies, adamantly refused, so the war continued for the next three days resulting in more than 21,600 casualties— dead, wounded, and missing. Three days later, the Allies insisted on establishing an 11 a.m. end to the hostilities on the 11th day of the 11th month so as to associate three 11s with the war’s end; that insistence has made 11-11-11 an infamous combination for all time.