After the summer offensives in 1918, Maine’s 103rd U.S. Infantry regiment went on to fight in two more major campaigns, St. Mihiel in September and the Meuse-Argonne in October. Those are just names to us now, but to the men who advanced through steel and blood to push the German war machine back in those waning months of the war, they meant far more. November found the dwindling members of the regiment clawing away at the German lines northeast of the French city of Verdun. Battle, disease and transfers had brought the unit down to well below one-third of its authorized strength of 3,800 men.
On Nov. 8, members of the regiment reported “seeing 200 of the enemy with full equipment moving towards the East. At about the same time the 104th Infantry on our left reported by telephone that eighty-three of the enemy fully equipped, were moving in the direction of Flabas.” Patrols immediately followed, beginning three days of fighting in the shattered trenches and gas-filled gullies outside Verdun. The Mainers slowly pressed the stubborn German defenders back until Nov. 10, when the Germans made a stand on a hill called the Bois de Ville.
Under the cover of protective fire from their own artillery, four small companies from the 103rd Infantry assaulted the hill. Three went straight up the wooded hill while Company K from Farmington swung around to the right. German machine gun fire was vicious. Pvt. George Stevens, a Passamaquoddy in Company I, was shot through the legs while carrying a wounded comrade from the field. Pvt. Moses Neptune, the Passamaquoddy governor’s son, was killed in action nearby. By nightfall, Company K managed to break through the German lines and the exhausted Americans advanced their lines once more.
By morning, the news was running rampant that an Armistice had been signed. Orders arrived to the regimental headquarters that there would be no advance. However, another order soon arrived that countermanded the first: the infantry would advance from 9:45 to 11 a.m., holding all ground seized. All three battalions of the 103rd Infantry attacked, advancing about 300 meters, and then halted. Cpl. Leon Labonville of Houlton was the last Maine National Guardsman to give his life in World War I. He was killed in action in this final advance.
At 11 a.m., the guns went silent. Lt. Reginald Foss was on the front lines at the end and wrote back to his parents, “At just 11 everything stopped short and the silence was almost uncanny – couldn’t get used to it for a couple days. The Boche stood up in his trenches, sang, and waved his hands but there was no response from our side.”
Regimental surgeon Stanhope Bayne-Jones recalled that “Suddenly, all the guns behind us stopped barking and rolling, the last ‘freight car’ rattled over our heads, and all the machine guns suddenly stopped, though they had been rioting away up to the very last minute. Eleven o’clock came and then that awful silence!”
Capt. Guy Swett of South Paris simply recorded, “Slept in Boshland.” Men collapsed where they were, too exhausted to celebrate. Some smoked. Some ate.
Men took the news in different ways.
“When I heard of the Armistice I was dumbfounded,” recalled Hazen O. Hager of Company F from Dover, Maine. Hager was barely 19 years old, but was in terrible health because he had been twice gassed and had hurt his leg when an artillery shell landed near him. He was worried about what would happen when he returned home. “I didn’t know what to do. At first I was elated and then I said, no. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt so rotten and I was in such bad shape. ‘If I go home I can’t do anything’ I thought. To tell you the truth, I really felt bad when it was over.”
At Officer Candidate School off the front lines, Algernon Holden of Houlton also felt heartsick, thinking that Germans had not been defeated and had got off easily. He wrote that he spent the day in a cafe with a disgruntled French soldier, drinking wine: “He swore in French and I in English until the wine was finished.”
For the men in the trenches, their war was over. Now the waiting began. The soldiers of the 103rd Infantry would have to wait until April 1919 to return to Maine. Maine’s 56th Pioneer Infantry would soon march into Germany to serve as part of the Army of Occupation. The war may have been over, but the military remained.
The Mainers had accomplished what they set out to do: make the world safe for democracy. The rest would be in the hands of the treaty negotiators and politicians. It had come at an immense cost. Out of the 2,002 Mainers who had left their homes the year prior, around half had been killed, wounded, gassed, or went missing.
Capt. Jonathan Bratten is the Maine National Guard historian.