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Armistice? Or Keep Going?

94th aero squadron armistice eddie rickenbacker ernst udet field kindley fokkers harley motorcycle influenza maxwell kirby pershing rene fonck wwi

Aren't We Finis With La Guerre Yet?

The air war continued fiercely through the end of October; on October 30th, the Germans lost 67 aircraft to 41 British planes. On paper there appears to then be a pause in the action before the Armistice, but although peace was expected soon, the Germans had not given up yet, especially in the air, where the Fokker still ruled, and the top surviving German ace, Ernst Udet, was still fighting to the last. But in the early days of November the weather was very bad and neither side flew much.

Final Victories

Field Kindley of the 148th Aero Squadron had recently scored his 12th victory, becoming America's fourth-ranking ace, but his squadron was ordered to stop "war-flying" on 29 October, and was moved to support the ongoing Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Billy Mitchell planned to use the aircraft to harass, strafe, and bomb as the Americans advanced. But the Armistice came first, and the squadron was done with combat flying.

Rene Fonck, the Allied Ace of Aces, scored his 75th and final victory on 1 November, finishing the war five short of the Red Baron's record. Both had had their first victories in mid-1916.

Airmail for the Front Lines

94th Aero Squadron aviatorsThe Turks had already signed an armistice on October 31st after British aircraft wiped out a Turkish army trapped in the hills, in the first large-scale victory by aircraft over ground troops.

On 3 November, Austria, with whom everything had sort of started, concluded an armistice with the Allies.

Eddie Rickenbacker wrote in Fighting the Flying Circus about yet another use for airplanes in war - morale-boosting airmail, dropping newspapers with the news of armistice with Turkey and Austria down to the advancing doughboys. "As I passed overhead I threw overboard handfuls of morning papers to them and was amused to see how eagerly the doughboys ran out of their holes to pick them up. With utter disdain for the nearby Hun snipers, they exposed themselves gladly for the opportunity of getting the latest news from an aeroplane."

Disintegration of an Empire

Germany had not been one united country until recently, and many parts of it barely considered themselves associated with other parts. With the stress of war on these fragile joints, many "Germans" were disowning the Kaiser. The evaporating allegiances were evident in some navy airmen who preferred to wear the peacetime army badges which did not include the Kaiser's crown

There was a lot of talk about what day Germany was going to surrender. Ludendorff and Hindenburg had talked to the Kaiser about an armistice over a month previously. On October 26th, the Kaiser had removed Ludendorff (who would enter history again in a few years, in the Beer Hall Putsch...), as a signal to the Allies that Germany was serious about armistice (which was not, at least in the German mind, the same thing as surrender).

Why Not Just Quit?

But men were still being shot and killed. In hindsight, it's easy to moan about the senseless deaths of those who died at this point, and those deaths have some tragedy to them. But it takes a while to get a war going (the "guns of August" 1914 were over a month after the assassination of the Archduke) and it's not simple to get everyone to stop at the same time either.

For four years Europeans have been killing each others' families, friends, and heroes, ruining each others' lands and the next generation. Men have died for their country; will surrender mean they died in vain? Both sides are sick and dying from the flu, but don't know how much the flu is also affecting their enemy. Many at this point are tired from four years of war, but some must be all the more bitterly determined to fight because of those four years. Could one actually cross the lines after an armistice, trusting the enemy not to shoot? There is a strong desire in human nature to get the last word in.

But We Just Got Here. Let's Keep Going.

Black Jack PershingPershing, in a 30 October letter recommended against armistice: "Judging by their excellent conduct during the past three months. the British, French, Belgian, and American armies appear capable of continuing the offensive indefinitely. Their morale is high and the prospects of certain victory should keep it so."

Besides, America just got over here and got going. There's a lot of enthusiasm here and many more young draftees in training at home, who may not want to tell their grandchildren they spent the Great War learning to drill at Fort Riley, Kansas. 

Don't waste this fighting spirit, Pershing warned, "An armistice would lead the Allied Armies to believe this the end of fighting and it would be difficult if not impossible to resume hostilities with our present advantage in morale in the event of failure to secure at a peace conference what we have fought for."

Final Days of the War

Around this time, Eddie Rickenbacker was in Paris for three days. "I am told that Paris did not go raving mad until that unforgettable night of the signing of the Armistice; but from the street scenes I saw there during those first days of November while the Huns were in full retreat from the soil of France that had so long been polluted by their feet it is difficult to imagine how any people could express greater happiness."

On 9 November, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, living out his life as an exile in Holland.

On 10 November, Maxwell Kirby of the 1st Pursuit Group but flying with the 94th for the day, scored the last Allied air victory of the war about 10 AM. It was his first and only victory. Showing the attitude of Americans newly arrived "over there", he told Eddie Rickenbacker he needed the opportunity because the war might end overnight and "he would never have had a whack at an enemy plane."

The Last Air Victory

Kirby and his fellow pilots had difficulties on their return and did not make it back till the next day. Despite the excitement of approaching peace around him, Rickenbacker was depressed, afraid that "by my orders four pilots had sacrificed themselves needlessly after hostilities had practically ceased. I believe that hour was the worst one I have ever endured." When he learned of Kirby's survival and victory, Rickenbacker was elated to realize that the 94th Aero Squadron had scored the first American victory (depending on how you count these things), and the last Allied victory of the war. But Kirby had been close to becoming the last German victory of the war.

He had become lost the night before and had landed on the first field he saw. Not realizing the importance of telephoning us of his safety, he took off early next morning to come home. This time he got lost in the fog which surrounded our district. When he again emerged into clear air he found he was over Etain, a small town just north of Verdun. And there flying almost alongside of his Spad was another aeroplane which a second glance informed him was an enemy Fokker! Both pilots were so surprised for a moment that they simply gazed at each other. The Fokker pilot recovered his senses first and began a dive towards earth. Major Kirby immediately piqued on his tail, followed him down to within fifty feet of the ground firing all the way. The Fokker crashed head on, and Kirby zoomed up just in time to avoid the same fate. With his usual modesty Major Kirby insisted he had scared the pilot to his death. Thus ended the War in the Air on the American front.

The afternoon of 10 November the Third Pursuit Group did a last patrol over enemy lines.

Better Declare War Before Peace Breaks Out

Also on 10 November, Romania declared war on Germany.

First Yank and Harley into GermanyCrossing the Lines a Bit Early

Harley Davidson 100 years later is still proud of one of its motorcycles, a 1917 Harley, being the first vehicle over the lines after the Armistice, on November 12th, driven by a Corporal Holtz - Roy Holtz, who as you might guess from the last name could speak German. But Holtz had made an unplanned trip over the lines a few days before.

On November 8th there was a rumor that peace had been declared. That evening was rainy and muddy and Holtz was supposed to be driving a captain somewhere. The captain thought he knew where he was, but Holtz was pretty sure they were crossing the lines, and said so, within the limits of military respect. They finally stopped at a farmhouse, and the captain sent Holtz to ask for directions. The farmhouse was full of Germans; in fact it was the division headquarters. They told Holtz to call in his captain. He was glad to obey that order, and neglected to say "sir". He enjoyed the captain's expression upon entry.

Making it clear that armistice rumors were just rumors, the Germans tried to get troop strength and position information out of Holtz by getting him drunk, then sent him and the captain to the German headquarters in Spa as prisoners, where they stayed till November 11th. At that point they were allowed to go free and on the way back got lost, thus becoming the first Americans into a Belgian village behind the lines, which was very happy to see these first representatives of their approaching rescuers. More amusing details about this story at the Harley Davidson corporate archives.



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