By Kenneth M. Koyle ~
When the United States entered the “Great War” in April of 1917, doctors and nurses were among the first volunteers to be deployed to Europe. There was a desperate need for medical support overseas, and American medical professionals were eager to answer the call.
Stanhope Bayne-Jones, a young doctor from Johns Hopkins Hospital, was one of the many who volunteered for service. Stan, as he was known to his friends, was a meticulous correspondent, sending frequent letters home and keeping copies for his own records. He generously donated his papers—13 boxes in all—to the National Library of Medicine shortly before his death in 1970. We can follow his experiences in both World Wars, along with his illustrious career in public health and preventive medicine, through the letters and photos in this archival collection.
Stan was a soldier on the battlefield when the Armistice took effect on November 11, 1918, an event that would later be memorialized as Veterans Day. He recounted his experience in a letter to his sister that afternoon:
“The Armistice began at 11 o’clock this morning. We knew the time of the day by the sudden silence. Suddenly all the guns behind us stopped barking and rolling, the last “Freight car” rattled over our heads, and all of the machine guns suddenly stopped, though they had been rioting away up to the very last minute.”
In the minutes before the Armistice, Stan and a litter team had been moving through a ravine to get a wounded man. A German machine gun ahead of them opened fire, forcing the group to dive for cover as the bullets tore through the ground and the trees around them. This is where they lay until the guns fell silent at 11:00.
After the fighting stopped, Stan continued, “There was a cold dense mist, in which I suddenly noticed that I could hear water dripping off a bush next to me. Our guns stopped—and no shells were coming on us. It seemed mysterious, queer, unbelievable. All the men knew what the silence meant, but nobody shouted or threw his hat in the air. We asked ourselves a few questions, wondered if it were really all over—and then someone said ‘I guess I’ll go look for some grub.’”
As the hours passed and it became clear that the fighting was really over, the mood of the soldiers on both sides lightened, and by evening both Germans and Allies were shooting off fireworks, singing songs, and reveling in the knowledge that they had survived the war.
Every year on November 11, Americans take time to honor the veterans of our armed forces. For many Americans, Veterans Day is marked by parades, patriotic ceremonies, or perhaps laying wreaths at a military cemetery. For those who have served, it might be a time of contemplation, remembering the difficulties of war or thinking of friends lost in battle. For those with a historical perspective, Veterans Day hearkens back to “The Great War,” the first war fought with tanks and machine guns and airplanes, which all fell silent when the armistice took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
Read Stanhope Bayne-Jones’s Armistice Day Letter:
Nov. 11, 1918.
The Armistice began at 11 o’clock this morning. We knew the time of the day by the sudden silence. Suddenly all the guns behind us stopped barking and rolling, the last “Freight car” rattled over our heads, and all the machine guns suddenly stopped, though they had been rioting away up to the very last minute. There was a cold dense mist, in which I suddenly noticed that I could hear water dripping off a buch next to me. Our guns stopped – and no shells were coming on us. It seemed mysterious, queer, unbelievable. All the men knew what the silence meant, but nobody shouted or threw his hat in the air. We asked ourselves a few questions, wondered if it were really all over – and then someone said “I guess I’ll go look for some grub.” Everybody up here has had so much work lately and seen so many things worse than peace, that even the cessation of hostilities was at first not exciting.
As the day wore on, and the silence become [sic] more permanent, the men began to cheer up. Tonight the front looks like a Fourth of July celebration. Our men and the Boches are shooting up all the flares and rockets in the dumps. You can see thousands of lights along the lines for miles – green stars, six red stars, “golden rain”, white flares, every sort of signal. I’ve seen the Boche call for a barrage and our rocket for a barrage go up in hundreds of places. Last night that would have meant a hail of shells and drumfire explosions for hours. It seems too good to be true.
From one corner of this hill I saw the strangest sight of the war, – a line of little fires indicating our front line, and, not far off, a line of fires in the Boche line – where the men were warming themselves, because it is quite cold. That would never have happened if the war were not over.
The next thing is – when will we get home? Soon I hope.
This morning I nearly got picked off 15 minutes before the shooting stopped. I was going down a ravine with some litter bearers to get a wounded man, when all of a sudden a machine gun ahead opened up and the bullets came clipping by, hit the ground and trees around us, and made us throw ourselves on our bellies in any old hole. You could see the bullets kick up the ground on the edge of the road. So we lay there until the armistice let us get up. It would have been tuck [sic] luck to get such a souvenir at that time.
We have been fighting in a sector east of the Meuse – north of Verdun – over the old Verdun battle field. I guess the censor won’t mind my telling you that I am near a ruin of a town called Flabas which we took two days ago.
Grub has been a serious matter. Because of the shelling and bad roads, we didn’t get much to eat for two days. Rations came up this afternoon and with it your letter of October 14. So I am set up tonight, enjoying you letter, having a good time writing to you, and going to bed and to sleep, knowing that I won’t be pulled out to see a wounded man, or have a gas alarm.
This silence, however, is getting on my nerves.
Love to all,
This is written on Boche paper that I found in this dugout, but what’s theirs is ours now, so what’s the difference?
You might enjoy this poem about families and absence, “While He’s Away: A Poem About Being Gone.” http://wp.me/p3BzWN-lB
Thank you, Jason. We appreciate you sharing your thoughtful and poignant poem.
Following the negotiated armistice and the actual day and time of its implementation— 11 th hour 11 th day, 11 th month a hiatus in which the war continued unabated, thousands were killed—what a waste!
You’re right, Robert. It was a very peculiar circumstance – the armistice was signed just after 5:00 AM that morning, and it was transmitted by telegraph to almost every unit in the fight within a few hours. The soldiers on both sides knew that the fighting would end at 11:00, and that the denouement of the war had already been decided, but they continued to fight until the last minute.