This post was created by intern Alison Dundy.
Imagine hearing the war is over, but a time lag in communications means men are still laying on their bellies in trenches while shells whizz overhead and explode around them. Elsewhere in the world, champagne corks are popping and glasses are raised in toasts to peace. Will you make it out alive or will you and the men you lead die senselessly in the seemingly interminable last minutes of this nightmare?
Captain Raymond J. Walsh gave a gripping account of the last hours of World War I in a WEAN radio broadcast on February 25, 1939. The transcript of this broadcast is in the New-York Historical Society World War I Collection. Walsh fought with the 15th Field Artillery Regiment of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, alongside the French Fourth Army in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918 (also known as the Battle of the Argonne Forest).
Walsh recounts what happened on the morning of November 11, 1918:
“Around 8:00 a.m. I got a call from our Battalion Commander, Major E.H. Brainard of the Marines. He told me that an Armistice had been signed with the Germans and that no firing was to take place after 11:00 A.M. He then gave me the correct time. It was a very dramatic moment, I thought. Three hours to live or die. I went to the gun crews and gave them the news. As I recall it, they received it stolidly—there was no demonstration, but I could see their eyes brighten. I made them all lie down and told them to stay there until I gave the word to get up. Those three hours were the longest I think I’ll ever live. I don’t know how many times I looked at my watch. I certainly smoked my head off. We got little or no shelling the last hour or so. Maybe the Germans were sick of the whole business too. As for Battery C, we never fired a shot after 11:00 P.M. the night before. The war was slowly ticking away from us and most of us were too sodden with fatigue to realize that the horrible nightmare was about to end. As the last few minutes crept by we all got very restless; one of the officers walked up and down in back of our small camp, taking off and putting on his steel helmet; the rest of us fidgeted around and stared ahead like stunned people—unbelieving.
“At 11:00 A.M. the whole affair closed down like the lights being put out at the theatre, like the machinery stopping suddenly in a great factory. The rumble of guns in the distance, the sharp crack of the neighborhing 75s—all ceased. Silence prevailed everywhere—then a French ammunition wagon rattled along the road nearby, the driver trying to whip up his tired horse; there were a few shouts, but only a few—too many of us remembered the men killed the night before. Someone built a fire, then everyone seemed to think that was a good idea—impromptu fires broke out all along the front. From a distance you could hear singing. Our men said it was the Germans across the river. Some of us looked at one another and grasped hands.
“The War was over.”
* * *
What about that horse?
Captain Walsh must have cherished the memory of his magnificent horse because he kept the photograph featured above. Horses were beloved companions and heroes in World War I, as related in the novel War Horse, which went on to become a smash hit on stage as well as a Steven Spielberg-directed Hollywood movie.
Between 1914-1918, the U.S. sent nearly one million horses to the European allies. When the U.S. entered the war, another 182,000 horses were sent overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces. Twenty days was the average life expectancy for a horse at the front. Their plight led to the establishment of the American Red Star Relief, a welfare service for horses and mules in the U.S. Army, which still exists today as part of the American Humane Association’s emergency services.