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Morris Togstad last Madisonian to die in waning hours of World War I

November 12, 2018

Rumors of peace had run rampant when 21-year-old Madisonian Morris Togstad and members of his Army unit were ordered into the woods to escape German shelling along a muddy road in northern France on the afternoon of Nov. 10, 1918.

Wisconsin doughboys in the 127th Infantry hadn’t slept much in weeks, so Togstad and his colleagues lay down to rest under the trees while waiting for the barrage to stop. Moments later, a lone plane flew overhead and dropped a bomb near the group of Americans.

The next morning, a cease-fire was indeed announced, but it came 18 hours too late for Togstad. He was mortally wounded in the blast and was buried on Armistice Day in a burned-out French churchyard as the living finally enjoyed a silencing of the guns.

He would be the last Madisonian killed in action in World War I, and one of thousands on both sides killed in the final hours of the war.

The young man’s death was big news back home, as Togstad had been sending regular dispatches from the front for the Madison Democrat newspaper. Togstad had earlier made news himself when he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for extreme gallantry in commanding a trench mortar unit, and later enjoyed a well-publicized battlefield promotion from corporal to second lieutenant.

Three years later, when Togstad’s remains were finally shipped stateside, more than 3,000 mourners marched the three miles from a funeral service at Bethel Lutheran Church to burial at Forest Hill Cemetery. The Capital Times called it “the greatest crowd of Madison people who ever gathered to pay tribute to one of its soldier dead.” The entire 300 block of West Mifflin Street on which his parents lived was decorated with flags.

Today, on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Togstad’s death takes on renewed importance. He arguably qualifies as Madison’s first modern “war hero” at a time when film photography and telegraph communications brought the war into American living rooms with new immediacy.

Togstad is also a central figure in “The Greatest War: World War I, Wisconsin, and Why It Still Matters,” a live “rock-and-roll history show” playing Sunday night at the Barrymore Theatre.

“The incredible outpouring of public sentiment for Togstad, three years after the fact, illustrates just how strongly people felt about the tragedy surrounding his death,” said local historian John Wedge, the show’s co-producer. “But on the broader scale, it also shows how so many ordinary people were sucked into this global conflict.”

Indeed, the scale of the war was like nothing before. Some 70 million people were mobilized between 1914 and 1918, with an estimated 20 million killed, including both military personnel and civilians.

More than 122,000 Wisconsinites — 90,000 of whom were drafted — ended up serving in World War I, with 2,459 dying either in action or from illness. Nearly 5,000 men and women from Dane County went overseas, according to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, with 170 dying far from their homes, while many others were wounded.

Yet while few in Madison today may recall the tale of Lt. Morris Togstad, many know the leafy green street in the Midvale Heights neighborhood called “Togstad Glenn.” Developers named the road in honor of Togstad, the last Madisonian killed in World War I, and Victor Glenn, the first local soldier killed in World War II.

Others may be familiar with “Cranefield’s” VFW Post 1318 on Lakeside Street, named for Marion Cranefield, a UW junior who left school to join the Army and was killed at the battle of Bois des Grimpettes on July 30, 1918. Altogether, 10 Madison-area soldiers would be killed in that battle, including William Cairns, son of a UW professor, who was the first Madisonian killed in the war, according to a history of Forest Hill Cemetery.

But Togstad’s name stands out, in part because of the circumstances surrounding his death. The morning of the day he was killed, Togstad had even written his parents that “although rumors of approaching peace are frequent, the activities were such that peace seemed as far away as ever.”

In fact, on Nov. 8, 1918, the Wisconsin State Journal published a report from United Press International that Germany had surrendered. Unfortunately for Togstad and thousands of others, the slaughter didn’t end until the peace deal finally took effect three days later at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.

“Of all the letters from soldiers at the front I’ve gone through, that one from Morris Togstad is perhaps the most prophetic — and tragic,” said Kevin Hampton, curator at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, which has an exhibit on the Great War running through the end of this year.

Glimpse of war

Prior to the war, Togstad had done some sports reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal and was a staff member of the Madison Democrat when he left for training camp in Texas. Once in France, Togstad offered readers back home a glimpse of life in the trenches and the fight against “Fritz.”

“I used to hear this is a stationary war — a war of position,” Togstad wrote after arriving in France in the spring of 1918. “But believe me, a fellow has to hike and a lot of it when he’s in the infantry.” He was also happy to report the lice were “not more numerous than bed bugs in some of Madison’s hotels.”

A collection of Togstad’s press clippings has managed to survive for a century and now rest in the hands of Tim Togstad, 57, a Madison native and local artist who lives with his wife, Sara, on the city’s Far East Side.

Tim Togstad wasn’t even aware of the family’s war story or his great uncle’s grave site until he stumbled across the stone marker with an embedded bronze star while playing at Forest Hill as a middle schooler. The parents of Morris Togstad, Mina and Ole, are also buried there.

“We lived right by the cemetery and brother Tom and I would goof off over there all the time,” he said. “One day we found these graves with our own name on it. When we got home, our parents told us the story.”

Since then, Tim Togstad has made a point of trying to visit the site each Memorial Day — often with his father, Bob, the nephew of Morris Togstad. Bob Togstad, a World War II veteran himself, died in September at age 95 and received a full military funeral at Resurrection Cemetery across the street from Forest Hill.

“I think the biggest sadness for me in all of this is that my dad couldn’t be around for it,” Tim Togstad said. “He would have been so happy to see that people still remembered.”

‘So much bloodshed’

And in a war marked by incredible devastation — it was the first conflict to feature tanks, airplanes, machine guns and poison gas — the final weeks are perhaps the most senseless in that so many soldiers were sent to their death even as peace negotiations took place.

The Meuse-Argonne campaign, which featured Wisconsin’s famed 32nd Division, later named the “Red Arrow,” remains the costliest battle in American history. More than 26,000 U.S. servicemen were killed and nearly 100,000 more wounded in a fight over a few miles of open ground along the French-German border.

The offensive was launched along the entire Western Front in September 1918, sent the German army into full retreat and continued right up until the peace deal was announced. The German government had indicated it wanted to negotiate a peace agreement as early as October, but talks did not start in earnest until Nov. 8 when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, and the German chancellor finally instructed negotiators to sign the cease fire.

“So much bloodshed that took place came with the full knowledge that Germany was ready to surrender,” said Hampton of the Veterans Museum. “Those last attacks were simply about jockeying for stronger surrender terms.”

Hampton notes that nearly 2,800 men on both sides died in the final 12 hours of fighting, including the chaplain of the 32nd Division, a Michigan man who was killed 15 minutes before the Armistice took effect.

“You have to imagine the mixed emotions from those soldiers when the rumble of guns stopped,” Hampton said. “They had to be wondering what those last hours had been all about.”

Change in meaning

Even the meaning of “Armistice” has been lost over the past 100 years, said Barrymore show producer Wedge, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois and is also active on the local music scene.

A native of England, Wedge notes that in some European countries today, Nov. 11 is celebrated as “Remembrance Day,” with traffic halted and a minute of silence held at 11 a.m. In other countries, Armistice Day is a public holiday that focuses on the importance of achieving peace.

But in the U.S., Nov. 11 has morphed into “Veterans Day” to honor American service men and women rather than the noble pursuit of an end to all warfare.

“People at the time really believed World War I was ‘the war to end all wars,’ and many young men and women from here who enlisted really thought they were going to ‘make the world safe for democracy,’” Wedge said. “That was their hope and part of their legacy to us.”

It’s why Morris Togstad gave his life and why his memory still holds a place in Madison history.

Editor’s note: The story has been corrected to reflect Togstad’s correct age.

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