In early November 1918, it was clear to Allied commanders that the Great War was nearing its end, but the generals were not slowing their efforts to capture as much enemy-held ground as possible before the final curtain fell. The U.S. 2nd Division, composed of an Army brigade (3rd Infantry) and a Marine brigade (4th Marine), had advanced to the Meuse River during the Meuse-Argonne offensive when its commander, U.S. Marine Major General John A. Lejeune, received orders for one final push.
Lejeune instructed his 4th Brigade (the 5th and 6th Marines and 6th Machine Gun Battalion) to cross the river on footbridges and seize high ground on the east bank despite “the knowledge that in all probability the Armistice ending the war was about to be signed. [It] was the most trying night I have experienced,” the general noted.
Plan of Attack
Lejeune’s orders directed Major George K. Shuler, leading the 6th Marines and the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), to make the main crossing a mile northwest of Mouzon, France, on the Meuse’s east bank. Major George W. Hamilton, leading 2/5, two machine-gun companies, and an Army battalion from the 89th Division’s 356th Infantry Regiment, was to make a secondary crossing near Letanne. The 2nd Field Artillery Brigade was to provide support starting one hour prior to the assaults. In preparation for the nighttime crossings, the Marine units assembled in the Bois du Fond du Limon, between the two sites, with 1/5 ready to support either crossing.
Companies A and B of the 2nd Division’s 2nd Engineer Regiment, U.S. Army, had been tasked with constructing four temporary floating footbridges, two for each crossing point. The river at each site was 60 yards wide and between 5 and 25 feet deep. A 40-man Marine reconnaissance patrol determined that the enemy machine guns and snipers in the clumps of brush and heavy woods along the east bank could easily sweep the two sites. A thousand German soldiers with 36 machine guns were dug in along the high ground above the river. Several enemy artillery batteries positioned on the heights enfiladed the entire river valley.
The engineers constructed the bridges out of scrap lumber salvaged from a old German barracks and partially destroyed buildings. The flimsy footbridges would consist of a series of sections, or rafts, held together by rope lashings and sitting on empty metal drums. The rafts, each weighing 600 pounds, were loaded on mule-drawn wagons and transported to within several hundred yards of the crossing sites.
Preparation and Disappointment
The two depleted Marine regiments (one battalion of the 5th Marines was down to 300 men from a complement of 1,200) spent all day on 10 November—the 143rd birthday of the Corps—preparing for the attack. Rolling kitchens were brought up to serve a hot meal—coffee, French canned meat, and black bread. Private First Class Elton E. Mackin, a runner in the 67th Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, wrote: “There was also talk of Armistice on the morrow. The fellows didn’t really want to fight again.” Private Thomas McQuain, 80th Company, 2/6, groused: “We could not see the advantage of trying to cross the Meuse tonight. Why not wait and see what happened to the Armistice the next day, and then attack, if necessary.”
It was dark when the 6th Marines and 3/5 marched from the sodden Bois du Fond du Limon toward the crossing near Mouzon. By 2215, they had reached the railroad tracks northwest of Mouzon. Nearby, teams of engineers were manhandling the bridge sections over an eight-foot-high railroad embankment and through underbrush to the river. German observers detected the movement and opened with artillery and machine-gun fire. The engineers struggled to launch the ungainly rafts in the fast-flowing water amid the bombardment. The 2nd Engineer’s report noted that one of the footbridges was thrown across the river in record time. An enemy direct hit destroyed it, however, and after hours of effort, the engineers were unable to get the second bridge into position.
Marine Corporal Havelock D. Nelson, 97th Company, 3/6, recalled, “It was 4:00 a.m., by which time we were so miserable from the cold and uncertainty that we would have welcomed even the order to commence the crossing, then an order was passed along the commingled columns. It was ‘To the rear march!’” Major George Schuler, the senior battalion commander, had conferred with the other two commanders and made the decision to pull back into the Bois du Fond du Limon. There would be no crossing near Mouzon.
The Southern Crossing
“All day long we lay in the woods then, as expected—in the evening we packed up—ready to make a night attack and cross the river Meuse,” Private J. Harold Strickler, 43d Company, 2/5, recalled. Major Hamilton, who set out for the Letanne crossing site with 2/5 and the two Marine machine-gun companies as well as 1/5, planned for 2/5 and the battalion from the 356th Infantry to cross the Meuse on two footbridges simultaneously. The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, would follow in support. The Leathernecks, laden with packs, cartridge belts, helmets, and rifles, groped blindly along the pockmarked roadway toward the river, where German flares cast a dim yellow glow against the pitch-black sky. U.S. artillery batteries thundered and belched flashes of light, sending high-explosive shells toward enemy positions.
Despite enemy fire and resulting casualties, Hamilton pushed the men slowly through the drizzle and fog. The Marines halted in a ravine near the river at about 2030 and waited out the U.S. artillery bombardment. Meanwhile, the 356th Infantry battalion had not arrived, and German fire knocked out one of the two footbridges. Hamilton decided that 1/5, followed by 2/5, would cross the remaining bridge.
Urged on by their officers and noncommissioned officers, the Marines left the ravine and “scrambled down its rocky, twisting bed below the shelter of its steep-cut walls,” Mackin wrote. “Lower toward the river, we walked into a bank of fog. It was like stepping into another world, a much quieter one.” The thick fog was disorienting. “Where is the bridge?” Figures emerged out of the mist. The 2nd Engineers had placed guides along the road from the ravine to the bridge. One of them shouted: “The bridge! The bridge! This way, come on, Marines!”
The 1st Battalion, commanded by Captain Leroy Hunt, reached the bridgehead and began bunching up, waiting for the order to cross the span. Major Hamilton blew a whistle and stepped onto the unsteady span. He was quickly followed by a dozen or so Marines. “The [bridge] sections sank knee deep beneath the load while the engineers in quick alarm yelled to take wider intervals and tried to stem the tide of men,” Mackin recalled. The Marines quickly learned to keep a 15- to 20-foot space between them. Yet they still were in ankle-deep water and could only see halfway across the bridge before it disappeared into the mist.
German artillery and machine-gun fire zeroed in on the footbridge. Explosions threw columns of water high into the air, while Maxim bullets churned the river into froth. Wounded men streamed to the rear. They “accumulated until there were more than 200 waiting evacuation,” Mackin recalled. “You watched men die ahead of you. The second man ahead met the bullets as he stepped across a length of raft, sank to his knee, twisting, and slid face first into the river, vanishing quietly.” Men later recalled hearing a “sock” noise, the sound of a bullet hitting flesh. “I lost friends that night that I’d been with all the way from Belleau [Wood],” Mackin agonized. “I lost guys that I loved.”
The Marines’ 23d Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, sent one gun across. The rest of the company (four machine guns) was held up, and a heavy concentration of artillery fire decimated their crews. The guns had to be abandoned until the next day. The 1st Battalion took an hour to work its way across the river. It was badly scattered, and fewer than 100 Marines could be assembled before daylight. Major Hamilton formed the survivors into a single company.
The 2d Battalion’s Marines watched in horror as they awaited their turn in the barrel. Their commander, Captain Charley Dunbeck, knew the men were reluctant to enter the hurricane of fire. “I am going across that river, and I expect you to go with me,” he shouted to those closest to him and stepped onto the walkway, followed by his headquarters and the 55th Company. An explosion threw one of Dunbeck’s officers into the water not far from one of the riverbanks. “Save me, captain, I can’t swim!” the officer shouted. Dunbeck collared the panicked flounderer and told him to wade—the water was only waist deep.
Dunbeck led his men across the river and through the Bois des Flaviers but had to halt until daybreak because of heavy enemy resistance. Captain Samuel C. Cumming’s 51st Company was held up when German shells cut the bridge; it was nearly 2300 before his company was able to cross the river. Cumming, with two of his Marines, took out a German machine-gun nest. He shot the gunner in the head, while his men bayoneted the rest of the crew. The company set up defensive positions along a towpath and waited for dawn and reinforcements.
Private Clarence Richmond, 43d Company, 2/5, recalled: “Near the small bridge, the bank was strewn with our dead. I counted twenty-five within a distance of one hundred yards. Several shells had hit directly where we had laid along the bank of the river. Nearly all of one platoon of one of the other companies had been either killed or wounded.”
Armistice, 11 November
Just before dawn, part of two 2d Battalion companies, the 55th and 43d, formed into skirmish lines and attacked northward. They captured Belle Fontaine Farm, located near the river and just more than two miles north of the crossing site, along with several machine guns and trench mortars. The position was consolidated. The companies, still concealed by the dense fog, formed a curved line with the Marines’ backs to the river.
Meanwhile, at the crossing site, a runner sprinted across the footbridge with a message from brigade headquarters: “Cease hostilities at 1100.”
Private First Class Eugene Lee of Cumming’s 51st Company recalled:
Just a minute or two after 11 a German soldier came out waving a white Flag. He started walking [toward us], and our officer went out to meet him. When they met, all of a sudden, all the German soldiers came running. Our fellows got up and they mixed together. Some of them could speak English, and a lot of our fellows could speak German. We had a great time talking and swapping souvenirs . . . gosh, they wanted it to get over just as well as we did.
Mackin said he was so “goddamn tired, weary, sick, and hungry” that he just laid down on his rifle and “went sound asleep.”
Private James Scarbrough of 3/6’s 83d Company remembered: “The word got around that an armistice had been signed. Well, a holler went up among all of the men. You never saw such a celebration. I shot all my ammunition up firing through a train rail just to put holes in it.”
Private Levi Hemrick of 2/6’s 80th Company got a pass to go into the heart of Paris to see the crowd. “Yes, it was a kissing crowd, a dancing crowd, a singing crowd, a war shackled people suddenly free from their bonds. A sad people made happy and whose deadened spirit had suddenly blossomed back to life by the magic word PEACE. It was a wonderful crowd, a wonderful celebration and it was great to be in ‘Gay Paree’ on the night of November eleventh of the year 1918.”
Later, General Lejeune officially commended the 5th Marines and the 2nd Engineers:
On the night of November 10th, heroic deeds were done by heroic men. In the face of a heavy artillery and withering machine gun fire, the Second Engineers threw two footbridges across the Meuse and the First and Second Battalions of the Fifth Marines crossed resolutely and unflinchingly to the east bank and carried out their mission.
The Meuse River crossing cost the 5th Marines 32 men killed in action and 148 wounded.
American Battle Monuments Commission, 2d Division Summary of Operations in the World War (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944).
George B. Clark, Devil Dogs: Fighting Marines in World War I (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 2001).
Warren R. Jackson, His Time in Hell, A Texas Marine in France (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 2001).
Elton E. Mackin, Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die: Memoirs of a World War I Marine (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993).
James Carl Nelson, I Will Hold: The Story of USMC Legend Clifton B. Cates, from Belleau Wood to Victory in the Great War (New York: Caliber, 2016);
Second Division Association, The Second Division American Expeditionary Force in France, 1917–1919 (New York: The Hillman Press, 1937).
General Lemuel C. Shepherd, interview with the author.
BGEN Edwin Howard Simmons, USMC (Ret.), and COL Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret.), Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008).
George E. Strott, Navy Medics with the Marines, 1917–1919 (Nashville, TN: Battery Press, 2005).