By Susan L. Speaker ~
The newspaper headlines on November 11, 1918 were exultant: after more than four long years, the Great War was over!
For those close to the front lines, however, the cease-fire at 11:00 AM that day was almost surreal. Stanhope Bayne-Jones, an American medical officer who had been working at the front since mid-1917, wrote to his sister Marian that evening and noted:
Later in the day, he said, the men on both sides cheered up, and began shooting off flares and rockets to celebrate.
The last few months of the war were marked by fierce battles, as Allied forces moved to reverse Germany’s successful March offensive. The eastward push took the armies back over territory littered with remains from the early years of the conflict. Bayne-Jones’ letters from that autumn describe camping in the remaining dugouts and seeing bones, equipment, shells, and boots left from the battle of Verdun (February–December 1916); the weary medical officer was confident that the Allies would soon conquer the Germans. But though there were rumors of peace overtures from the Germans, and talk of an armistice, Bayne-Jones felt that such news was “bad for the troops, as it may make them relax their efforts. We must whip the Boche—and then our diplomats may talk. The best principle I know is – “leave it to [Marshal Ferdinand] Foch.”
Marshal Foch, commander of the French forces, and other Allied leaders felt the same way. German representatives met with the Allies from November 8 to November 11 to discuss an armistice. They requested a cease-fire while the negotiations were in process, but Marshal Foch, who headed the Allied delegation and dictated the peace terms, refused. Allied officers were told to step up attacks for those last days. The peace agreement was signed by 5:00 AM on 11/11, with a cease-fire ordered for 11:00 AM. Officers got the news hours before that, as it traveled quickly through the lines via radio and telephone; many of them were incredulous when they received orders to continue attacking until the last minute. The decision to go on fighting after peace talks started meant that 6750 more were killed and 15,000 wounded on both sides, many of them on the morning of the armistice.
Bayne-Jones was nearly one of those, as he told his sister:
“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.”
Like most of the soldiers, Bayne-Jones was eager to finish the war and go home. Alas, the army kept him for another six months and sent him to Germany as a sanitation officer. But that’s a story for another post!
Through 2018, Circulating Now will periodically publish posts featuring NLM collections that illuminate the medical history of The Great War, which lasted from August 1914 to November 1918.
Susan Speaker, PhD, is Historian for the Digital Manuscripts Program of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.