The six-hour delay between the armistice signing and World War I's official end cost the lives of nearly 3,000 soldiers, including one American in the war's final minute.
Shortly after 5 a.m. on November 11, 1918, German, British and French officials gathered inside a railroad dining car in a dark forest north of Paris and signed an armistice to end World War I. Rejecting German calls to immediately halt hostilities, Allied commander Ferdinand Foch dictated that the guns would fall silent at 11 a.m. in part to allow news of the cease-fire to be transmitted to the front lines.
"There was also the symbolic reason of ending at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month," says Jonathan Casey, director of the archives and Edward Jones Research Center at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. The quest to bring poetic symmetry to the conclusion of a war that was anything but poetic came at a terrible cost—the lives of nearly 3,000 soldiers, including one American private who sought to restore his reputation in the war's final minute.
Although the freshly signed armistice mandated that Germany evacuate France in two weeks, some American commanders refused to call off their attacks to liberate French territory that the Germans already agreed to relinquish. "Commanders were told to keep fighting all the way to 11 a.m. Some did and some didn't based on their personal appraisals of whether it was really worth it," Casey says. "From an American point of view there was a mixed reaction, and the Germans were surprised that the Americans were still fighting so vigorously. They thought things would be quiet. The Allies, though, wanted to show the Germans that they were going to press until the final hour so they knew they were serious about the armistice terms."
Among the American forces told to continue the fight after the armistice signing was the 313th Infantry Regiment of the 79th "Liberty" Division. "There will be absolutely no let-up in the carrying out of the original plans until 11 o'clock," subordinate brigadier general William Nicholson ordered the regiment known as "Baltimore's Own" since most of its men came from that city.
On the morning of November 11, the men of the 313th found themselves on the far-right flank of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After experiencing nearly two months of uninterrupted combat, the regiment found no abatement in the hours following the armistice signing, seizing the town of Ville-devant-Chaumont, 10 miles north of Verdun. Enveloped by a thick fog, the Germans might have been obscured from sight but the boys from Baltimore could clearly hear the staccato of enemy machine guns and the howls of shells streaking overhead.