The Desperate Hours
November 11, 1918. The runner, shivering, his breath visible in the morning air, waited for the captain to acknowledge the message. The night had been bitter, the temperature hovering near freezing. The cold had stiffened the mud, caking uniforms and frosting the rim of the trench. Leaden skies threatened snow. A medic moved along the duckboards handing out aspirin to sneezing, hacking men with heavy colds. They gripped tin mugs of coffee, grateful for the warmth, and eyed the runner, wondering what news he bore.
The captain read the message twice. It must be a mistake. True, the night before, the U.S. 26th Division had received Field Order 105 to attack at 9:30 this morning. But at 9:10, just as they had been checking their ammunition and fixing bayonets, word came that the armistice had been signed. Hostilities were to cease at 11 a.m. The attack had been canceled. And here was another message telling the captain that the assault had been reinstated. His watch showed 10:30. A half hour remained in the war.
To Private Connell Albertine, in Company A of the division’s 104th Infantry, the earlier word that the assault had been canceled had produced deep, wordless relief. He would live. Rumors that an armistice was imminent had been rife for days. And at 5:45 that morning, the division’s radiomen had picked up a message transmitted from the Eiffel Tower in Paris from the Allied commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, confirming the signing. That the attack would now go forward, after having been rescinded, struck him as insane, even murderous. Seventeen months had passed since the fresh-faced young New Englander had stood with the crowd reading the bulletin in the window of The Boston Globe. A giant keyboard tapped out on an unfolding paper roll, “A state of War between the Imperial German Government which has been thrust upon the United States is hereby declared.” President Woodrow Wilson’s long agony, his peaceful impulses pitted against the tide of events, had led him to take his nation into Europe’s conflict, just five months after he had been reelected president on the slogan “He kept us out of the War.” The personal import of the Globe’s bulletin was immediately evident to Albertine. He belonged to the Massachusetts National Guard, and its mobilization would be inevitable. “An indescribable feeling swelled within me,” he recalled of that day, “driving out all thoughts of my work and daily routine and filling me with an urgent desire to hasten to my gathering buddies and the comfort of my rifle.”
Since then, intervening realities had cooled his ardor. In the beginning, war had seemed a romp. The 104th had first entered the trenches in a quiet sector of the western front near Toul in northeast France. In the evenings, the doughboys could hear the sounds of a violin rising from the enemy trenches. When the Germans realized that they were facing Americans, they had behaved as if they had found long-lost family. They came out into no-man’s-land offering sausages for American cigarettes, black bread for white. “Hey, Yank!” one called out. “Where’re you from?” When the soldier replied, “Boston,” the German responded, “I was a bartender at Jake Wirth’s.” The camaraderie ended abruptly when regimental headquarters at Toul brought court-martial proceedings against twelve soldiers for fraternizing with the enemy. Soon after, the opposing artillery batteries began exchanging fire.
February 17, 1918, stood out starkly in Albertine’s memory. He had been crouched in a funkhole clawed from the earth watching geysers of dirt heaved up by exploding shells. A blast over a nearby company tossed up what looked like a rag doll. Albertine watched the stretcher bearers drag a lifeless form from a shell hole. The 104th had taken its first fatality, Private George G. Clarke, Company E.
Soon afterward, through the din of artillery fire, Albertine heard the wail of a klaxon. Gas alert. He pulled his mask over his face just as shells of mustard gas fell to earth with a seemingly innocent thump. They did not explode but issued a pinging sound and then a whistle as the fumes escaped. The gas had caught nearby French troops asleep. Albertine watched the victims being carted from the field, coughing up bits of their lungs, the exposed parts of their bodies blistered, their eyelids swollen shut, blinding them.
Through the months that followed, Albertine had worn the psychological armor that kept soldiers fighting: these things happened to others, not me. That was before the incident in the churchyard cemetery. They had been moving among the graves when shells began exploding close by. As Albertine flung himself to the ground, he felt something cold and hard under his hand, a cast-iron marker blown off a cross. He stared in disbelief. The marker bore the name “Albertine.” He flung it aside but, as the months wore on, could never erase its portent from his memory.
The 104th had fought through Château-Thierry and Saint- Mihiel and was now deployed in the Verdun sector. On the morning of the armistice, when it had appeared the assault had been canceled, Albertine could finally believe that he had outlasted the war. He glanced toward Chaplain de Valles, whom he credited with his survival.
John B. de Valles had been born in the Azores to Portuguese parents who had taken him to Massachusetts as a child. He had been ordained in 1906 and became a popular parish priest, first in Fall River and then in New Bedford. When America went to war, Father de Valles immediately joined the Chaplains’ Corps. His popularity transferred easily to the 104th. When a soldier found himself short before payday, the priest could be touched for a loan of a few francs—on one condition: he must promise not to use the money for what de Valles called “cohabitation.” His orderly kept a ledger in which the loans were recorded. But when payday came around, Father de Valles would tell him to tear out the page. The orderly was Connell Albertine, who looked upon the day the chaplain had chosen him as the luckiest of his young life.
Albertine felt secure in the priest’s presence. The previous April, near Saint-Agnant, when Private Burns had been hung up on the wire in no-man’s-land, screaming in agony, Chaplain de Valles heaved himself out of the trench and began crawling toward the wounded man. The priest disentangled Burns from the wire, lifted him onto his back, and staggered to the trench as enemy machine-gun bullets tore into the ground around them.
After bloody fighting at Commercy, de Valles had stood mutely watching a procession of carts haul the 104th’s dead from the field. Albertine heard Father de Valles curse through clenched teeth, “Kill them! Kill the bastards!” The priest later apologized to his orderly, but the words, he said, had tumbled out and felt right. The incident had bound Albertine more closely to the chaplain, making de Valles as humanly imperfect as his flock.
Now, on this last day, the nightmare of raglike bodies, gas-seared lungs, and unholy shrieks from the wire, he believed, had to end.
Colonel Cassius M. Dowell commanded another regiment of the 26th Division, the 103rd. That November 11, Dowell was in his dugout bent over a map, marking the point where his regiment could expect to end the war. At 9:45 a.m., his field phone rang. Colonel Duncan K. Major, the division’s chief of staff, was on the line informing him that the attack had been reinstated. Dowell was to send his men against German machine guns in a war that would end in a little over an hour. “Why?” Dowell asked. “The French compelled us to do it,” Major answered. The 26th was in fact under command of the French II Colonial Corps. Major had experienced his own disbelief when told that the canceled assault was now to go forward. He had checked with the operations chief of the French corps for confirmation. Major, his French imperfect, feared he had misunderstood. An American liaison officer serving with the French came on the line and informed Major that he had heard correctly. The assault was back on. This was the news that Major was now relaying to disbelieving regimental commanders of the 26th.
Cassius Dowell, now in his sixteenth year in the army, was gruff, plainspoken, an officer who had risen from private to his present rank. He was not without compassion for his men, but was a soldier first. He too had learned unofficially from a friend on division staff that the armistice had been signed just after 5 a.m. He had not shared this information with his men “lest it might interfere with their advance during the attack that had been ordered for that day.” He had then received word that the assault, except for the artillery bombardment, had been called off. He could not, however, resist one last blow at the Hun. He warned that if any shells were left unfired at 11 a.m., he would court-martial the responsible battery commander.
On learning that the attack had been fully reinstated, “I stood there a few seconds debating as to whether I should send my men forward, having told them that they would not have to go,” Dowell later recalled. “I expected my casualties to be very heavy.”
Lieutenant Harry G. Rennagel, released from the hospital just the day before, rejoined his unit of the 26th Division to find his men laughing, joking, talking more loudly than they ever dared in the trenches. They were “waiting for the bell to ring,” they told him, signaling the end of the war. “When the orders came to go over the top,” he remembered, “we thought it was a joke.”
Albertine watched Chaplain de Valles move through the trench, deathly pale, comforting the men. An Italian private from Boston’s North End asked the chaplain to bless him and kissed the cross hanging from the priest’s neck. Other Catholics followed, even non-Catholics. At 10:35, they began climbing the ladders out of the trenches onto open ground, where nests of German machine guns in defenses called the Trenche de Bosphore eyed them in astonishment.
November 11, 1918, marked the 1,559th day of the war for the British Army. The farthest-advanced forces were pressing the Belgian city of Mons, some one hundred miles northwest of the American 26th Division advancing toward the Trenche de Bosphore. The war, dragging on so interminably, prompted bleak jests in the British ranks. “Ole Bill,” the war-weary Tommy created by cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, is asked by a pal how long he is in for. “Seven years,” Bill answers. “You’re lucky,” his trenchmate responds. “I’m duration.” Even the Americans, in combat for only 167 days, had been infected with the fatalism that the war would go on forever. The doughboys sang a parody to the tune of “Silver Threads Among the Gold” that went:
Darling, I am coming back Silver threads among the black. Now that peace in Europe nears, I’ll be home in seven years. I’ll drop in on you some night With my whiskers long and white. Home again with you once more, Say in Nineteen fifty-four.
As welcome as the Americans were, to the British and French they remained Johnny-come-latelies. Tommies referred to dud shells as “Wilsons” for their failure to explode, just as President Woodrow Wilson had stalled in bringing America into the conflict.