Exclusive–O’Donnell: A Bridge to Hell, The Tragic Last Hours of WWI

“The Last Night of The War” 5th Marines Crossing the Meuse. Public Domain – USMC Art Collection
Public Domain – USMC Art Collection

Many Americans have no idea why we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11. Those who know that the holiday began as Armistice Day typically think of it as a day of victory and peace.

However, for those on the ground in Europe the last twenty-four hours before the cessation of hostilities on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, that day was nothing less than hell on earth.

One hundred and three years ago this week, Allied commanders ordered U.S. Marines and Army personnel to attempt a perilous night crossing of the Meuse River and assault the heavily defended German positions on the far side. Prescient, General Black Jack Pershing foresaw the possible rise of Germany and wanted to make it clear the Allies had won the war by seizing more German-controlled territory. Scores of men would die in an attack that ultimately proved a tragic loss of life. 

I retell the story of that harrowing night in my bestselling book, The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home. It follows eight American heroes who accomplished extraordinary feats in some of the war’s most important battles. As a result of their bravery, these eight men were selected to serve as Body Bearers at the ceremony where the Unknown Soldier was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

Several of those Body Bearers took part in that final barrage on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Body Bearer Corporal Thomas Saunders, a Native American from Wyoming who received the Distinguished Service Cross and other honors for his previous heroism at Jaulny, worked with the other members of the 2nd Engineers to construct the flimsy footbridges that would span the river. German artillery had destroyed all the permanent bridges in the area, so Saunders and his comrades designed some floating bridges that they hoped would last long enough to get their men across. To avoid enemy snipers, they prefabricated the bridges in sections—each roughly the width of a ladder and twelve feet long—well back from the front lines. Teams of mules then hauled the sections near the river.

The Americans knew the Germans had countless fortified machine-gun nests along the bank of the Meuse, as well as heavy artillery zeroed in on the likely crossing points. Stepping out onto the footbridges without cover fire would have meant immediate death.

To soften up the German defenses, American field artillery, including Body Bearer and Color Sergeant James W. Dell’s 75mm artillery battery, began the attack by firing for an hour straight on the narrow strip of land between the riverbank and the woods beyond. When the hour was up, they turned their guns on known German positions, hoping to keep them pinned down long enough for the Marines to make the crossing.

Fortunately for the Americans, the weather was working in their favor. A thick, cold fog settled in, shrouding their movements and deadening sound. In single file, the Marines attached to the 49th Company, including Body Bearer and Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Janson, trudged through the darkness in total silence. The men were intensely uncomfortable. They were tired from weeks of hard fighting, and their uniforms were soaked through. Many suffered the effects of the worldwide influenza plague, but they stifled their coughs and sneezes, knowing that the smallest sound would bring German machine-gun fire down on their heads.

Saunders and the fighting engineers led they way, carrying the heavy footbridge sections above their heads. They struggled to keep their footing on the slippery rocks but somehow managed to float the bridge out onto the freezing water. A brave engineer clung to the front of the contraption, rifle in hand, kneeling on the waterlogged planks as they floated across the river. Miraculously, the current drifted the lone soldier across the Meuse, and he tied the guideline onto a tree on the eastern side.

The Americans had succeeded in creating a path across the river—but it was a path straight into the mouth of hell.

The engineers actually placed two bridges across the river that night in separate locations, but the Germans destroyed one almost immediately. With no way to cross, the 6th Marines turned around and dug shallow fighting holes in a nearby wood.

Undoubtedly, the rumors of an approaching armistice played a role in their decision. For several days, men had been talking about a possible end to the war. Unbeknownst to the men, the two sides actually signed a peace deal at 5:45 a.m. on the morning of November 11. But General Pershing chose not to provide that information to the men fighting on the banks of the Meuse. He merely passed along the order to cease fire at exactly 11:00 a.m. Many of the Leathernecks and soldiers on the front lines would perish in the intervening hours.

As the Marines approached the river, a gleaming white star shell arced across the inky sky, silhouetting Saunders and his men, along with members of the Janson’s 49th Company and the other Marines. Staccato fire from machine guns obliterated the relative silence. An enemy patrol set up their Maxims on the far bank and sprayed lead like a fire hose.

Men slid and slipped down the embankment next to the river, shrapnel from artillery shells tore through their ranks. One man counted 25 killed or wounded in the space of 100 yards. 

“The bridge! The bridge! This way, come on, Marines!” Saunders and the other engineers called to the Marines behind them. 

Men dashed across the rickety contraption. Some made to the other side. Some, struck with machine-gun fire on the way, fell into the water. Many others never even got to the water; their bodies piled up on the eastern side of the river.

However, scores had made it across when the Germans scored a direct hit on the bridge. The men on the Western side of the river were now trapped in enemy territory. They formed a perimeter, dug in, and prepared to hold for as long as they could.

Staring down annihilation, the Marines did not know the war would end within hours. What the Marines did know is that they had leaders they trusted and followed to the end. They had each other—a fellowship forged only in battle. This bond kept many of the men alive. 

Many Marines died there on that eastern bank of the Meuse before the guns suddenly went silent at 11:00. At a congressional hearing after the war, Pershing and his command would claim they were under the direction of Marshal Foch and had no orders to cease fighting until 11 a.m. on November 11. Often recipients of poor equipment, tactics, and in some cases, poor leadership—the Doughboys adapted and defeated the superb Imperial German Army. Unsung, they were a great generation that changed the world. It is their willingness to serve and, if need be, to sacrifice—the same spirit embodied by multiple generations of men and women in the U.S. military—that we honor on Veterans Day.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian


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