On day World War I ended, DeKalb soldier wrote home from the front
Note to readers: In honor of Veterans Day and the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, which ended World War I, we reprint this letter from Sgt. Walter R. Cannon of DeKalb. Cannon, who grew up in Shabbona Grove before moving to DeKalb, served with the Army Medical Corps in France.
This letter originally appeared in the Daily Chronicle on Dec. 27, 1918. Cannon, who was 22 when he wrote the letter, would go on to become a public school teacher in Evanston. He died in 1968 at age 72 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Sault-en-Woevre, Nov. 11, 1918
Dear Dad and Mother:
It is the happiest moment in my life. I am almost too happy to even write a letter. It is now six o’clock in the afternoon and I have not heard a gun for seven long hours. Of course, you cannot realize how happy we boys are – you couldn’t possibly, only under the circumstances we have been in for the last four months and even until the hour of 11 today.
It was fighting to the last minute, and we had our gas masks on the last half-hour. As soon as the clock struck 11 (French time), one of the greatest changes took place anyone ever heard of.
I will tell you a few of the conditions we were in before the time came to stop this awful butchery. Twenty-four hours before, we were getting ready and had orders to move against the enemy at a minute’s notice. We are on the St. Michel sector, and headed for Metz. We left billets, marched all day and almost all night over the worst roads that I have ever seen. Mud to our knees and torn up by shell fire. That isn’t all, either. Just try to imagine how we felt, seven hours before the hour that was to decide whether or not there would be an armistice.
Our orders were to hop over and take a certain village. Just think what it meant for us to face such conditions, when in a few hours all would be over. Clarence [Cannon] (Walter’s brother) and I plowed through the mud and darkness, and let me tell you, we didn’t have a word to say, as our minds were too busy thinking of home.
When we halted, we found that the regiment we were to relieve had advanced 5 or 6 kilos, and we were now in what was “no man’s land” five hours before. We set up our aid station, and the boys waited patiently for the zero hour. It was foggy, and we couldn’t see over two rods ahead.
At the time given, our boys hopped over the bags, and the first wave was gone. Just as the second wave went over and had the Germans retreating, something happened, which we will never forget.
A runner came up with word from headquarters company to cease firing. This was received a half-hour before the Germans received their orders to stop firing. The buglers blew “recall” and “cease firing.”
We found out later when we talked to a German officer that they knew we had relieved the other outfit, and when they heard our buglers, they thought it was an order to charge. They opened up a barrage that was equal to any we have ever faced, even on the Meuse River.
The last half-hour was terrible. All we “medics” were busy, even too busy to realize our danger. Just as I stooped over to put a bandage on a patient, a shell landed near, and three pieces came through the side of our first aid post and went over my back. Five minutes later, we put on our gas masks. “Jerry” was so frightened that he opened up with gas and explosives.
At 11 o’clock sharp, all was over, and the Germans jumped up with the white flag, and our boys hopped out to meet them, and both sides cheered until they were hoarse.
Can you picture anything like that? Five minutes before we were each firing at our highest, and now we were shaking hands and exchanging souvenirs.
It is now seven o’clock, and I have been out to see the grandest sight I believe anyone can possible conceive of. Probably you don’t know that the Germans have the most beautiful flares, rockets and lights that they use for signals at night: Tonight they are filling the sky along the line as far as I can see with their colored lights.
Every color you could imagine, and I never expect to see anything more beautiful.
Try to imagine several hundred thousands on the railroad between home and DeKalb. Well, I am going to hit the hay. Just think, not a gun firing, too good to be true. I hope when I wake up in the morning I will find out that it is no dream.
Clarence and a number of other boys in our company have returned from the German lines, where they have been trading souvenirs. I am writing this in an officer’s lavy in a German “pill box.” I have a bunk, stool and table in here, and it is nice and comfy. The pill box is a machine gun post and is 6 and, in some places, 8 feet thick, with stone and concrete reinforcements with walls of steel 2 inches thick. But a board shack would be just as good right now.
Well, the next question is when do we go home? I hope it won’t be long. But I expect it will be at least several months.
All of the boys are singing, or at least making an attempt to. Our friend, mustard gas, has ruined most of our beautiful voices. They have finished singing every song that has been written and published in the last 20 years, and some that were not published, too.
Give my best to all, and the boys are sending their best to you, also.
Your loving son,