Many Americans have no idea why we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11. Those who know that the holiday began as Armistice Day typically think of it as a day of victory and peace.
However, for those on the ground in Europe the last twenty-four hours before the cessation of hostilities on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, that day was nothing less than hell on earth.
One hundred years ago this weekend,
Undoubtedly, the rumors of an approaching armistice played a role in their decision. For several days, men had been talking about a possible end to the war. Unbeknownst to the men, the two sides actually signed a peace deal at 5:45 a.m. on the morning of November 11. But General Pershing chose not to provide that information to the men fighting on the banks of the Meuse. He merely passed along the order to cease fire at exactly 11:00 a.m. Many of the Leathernecks and soldiers on the front lines would perish in the intervening hours.
As the Marines approached the river, a gleaming white star shell arced across the inky sky, silhouetting Saunders and his men, along with members of the Janson’s 49th Company and the other Marines. Staccato fire from machine guns obliterated the relative silence. An enemy patrol set up their Maxims on the far bank and sprayed lead like a fire hose.
Men slid and slipped down the embankment next to the river, shrapnel from artillery shells tore through their ranks. One man counted 25 killed or wounded in the space of 100 yards.
“The bridge! The bridge! This way, come on, Marines!” Saunders and the other engineers called to the Marines behind them.
Men dashed across the rickety contraption. Some made it to the other side. Some, struck with machine-gun fire on the way, fell into the water. Many others never even got to the water; their bodies piled up on the eastern side of the river.
However, scores had made it across when the Germans scored a direct hit on the bridge. The men on the Western side of the river were now trapped in enemy territory. They formed a perimeter, dug in, and prepared to hold for as long as they could.
Staring down annihilation, the Marines did not know the war would end within hours. What the Marines did know is that they had leaders they trusted and followed to the end. They had each other — a fellowship forged only in battle. This bond kept many of the men alive.
Many Marines died there on that eastern bank of the Meuse before the guns suddenly went silent at 11:00 hours.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. PatrickkODonnell.com @combathistorian