Those Who Made the Great Sacrifice

by May 22, 2023History, Online Exclusives, South Brunswick

The grandson of U.S. Army Private First-Class John Beckley re-creates a moment from World War I.

The men of the 104th U.S. Field Artillery sat staring at their watches hoping their eight-month World War I nightmare on the French western front was coming to an end. All Allied units received word very early that morning, November 11, 1918, that the Germans had asked for a cessation of firing — a truce. The message said all shooting on both sides should cease by 11 am. The men just kept staring at their watches —waiting. My grandfather was one of them.

France had been occupied by Kaiser Wilhelm II’s German forces since 1914 and held a battle line across the nation. But over the past several months, since the United States entered the combat, the Germans had their hands full. At this point in the war, their troops were withdrawing from cities in a number of occupied nations. The Americans crashed through the line here, in France, as well.

President Woodrow Wilson's address to Congress

The Battle of Saint-Mihiel, just a few miles down the road, was a massive, Allied victory and the first U.S.-led offensive of the war, September 12 to 16. Thousands of men, nearly 1,500 aircraft and a vicious tank corps commanded by George Patton pounded the Germans that day. Private Beckley and his artillery unit opened the doors for the infantry “doughboys” to send the enemy scurrying.

As a ruse to confuse the Germans into thinking that the Allies were going to storm the front to the north of Saint-Mihiel, my grandfather’s unit fired 10,000 rounds in a few hours on September 9.

The diversion worked, attracting enemy guns and soldiers to that area and away from Saint-Mihiel. That victory was on the heels of the battle of nearby Verdun, one of the bloodiest and ferocious fights in history. This region was known by the French soldiers as requiring the most desperate fighting and yielding the most terrible suffering. It was fraught with the delivery by enemy artillery shells of poisonous gases. The gases ate the skin alive with chemical burns and caused lifelong breathing struggles for those who survived.

Private First Class John Beckley

Grandpa (PopPop) Beckley’s war diary was soon listing the names of his fellow warriors — deceased. Less than a week before, Thomas Tracy, Joseph Morgese, Thomas Delaney and James Brandino were killed by a direct hit from a high explosive. I envision PopPop staring at his watch at 10:50 am, hoping, and thinking about his colleagues. Not just these four, but the many more who died just a few hours before.

Private Beckley’s regiment fired its last shot at 10 am but a large number of soldiers continued their advances at the front around 6 am to rid the area of the last German stronghold.

They did, but it came at a great cost of lives. Those men, too, would have heard about the armistice, because the announcement came just after 5 am. Their entry into the hornet’s nest one more time would be their last time, and they would not be going home.

PopPop Beckley and Great Grandmother Pauline Beckley

A man who wrote about this some time afterward said, “Yes, the men had heard that there was to be an armistice. But they had heard that before. This time the news looked authentic. But it might be only a rumor. They did not dare risk the disappointment which might follow premature rejoicing.” So, they went off to do their job.

From reports I read it seems that when PopPop peered at his watch at 11 am there was a deep, sweet silence, which kept on. The firing had truly stopped.

Private Beckley War Diary

“Gradually, haltingly, they felt their way to the great, bright belief that the war was over.” But scattered around that final hornet’s nest lay the mangled bodies that littered the ground. “It was a scene that will live in the mind of every man in that long column.”

Let this and all Memorial Days recall the ones who made the great sacrifice — even unto the final minutes before peace comes into the world.