We no longer have with us eyewitnesses to the signing of the Armistice at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the end of World War I.
But there were some accounts from local servicemen as they returned home after the war. That was before the first official Armistice Day, called Veterans Day since 1954 and which will be observed Nov. 11.
Harold F. Wood, a former Gainesville mail carrier, witnessed the surrender of the German naval fleet at Rosyth in the North Sea. He was aboard the USS Wyoming, which sailed with the British fleet. He described it as a great sight with rundown German ships guided through two rows of allied ships.
J.K. Faulkner, a sailor from Murrayville on the mine layer Canandiagua, was within 20 miles of the coast when the armistice was signed, but he, too, watched as the Germans turned over their fleet.
“Why, when those German officers would come up and turn over their boats, they’d cry like babies,” Faulkner said. One of the German cruisers coming in to surrender sank after hitting a mine his ship had laid earlier in the war.
During the fighting, Faulkner’s ship would carry up to 850 mines to put in the ocean to contain the German ships. The Canandiagua also carried depth charges to fight off German subs. One morning the Canandiagua sank three subs that were following it. Another enemy submarine followed the allied ship through the night, but the next day Faulkner’s ship got it, too, with a depth charge.
Relating his experiences during the war, Faulkner told of places he never dreamed he would see: London, Paris, Norway and Scotland.
“It was all pretty exciting and interesting, but, you know, I believe I’ll enjoy looking between an old mule’s ears for a while now,” he told an interviewer. He would help his mother, Mrs. C.C. Faulkner, look after her large farm near Murrayville after his discharge from the navy.
Unlike many World War II veterans who were reticent about their experiences, World War I veterans seemed eager to tell their stories.
Lt. B.G. Barnwell, whose parents Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Barnwell lived near Antioch campground, took part in air battles, something new in military warfare. He told of dodging fierce anti-aircraft fire from the Germans as well as surviving dogfights with their skilled pilots.
Barnwell considered himself the luckiest aviator in the service, coming home without a scratch. Three of the planes he flew were damaged by German fire so badly they weren’t fit to fly again though he landed safely each time. Once the arm rest of his seat was shot out from under him.
A plane flying beside him piloted by a close friend fell to anti-aircraft fire, killing the friend.
Barnwell was in Calais, France, when the armistice was signed and said the city’s streets filled with celebrants, and highways were gridlocked. American, Belgian, English and French soldiers locked arms with each other and sang and shouted in their native languages as they marched through the town.
Cpl. C.W. Miles, son of Mrs. Roday Miles of Gainesville, wasn’t as fortunate. Of 250 in his Marine company at Chateau-Thierry, only 55 survived the fighting. He, too, was wounded, but returned to battle in two weeks. At Soissons, the marines drove the Germans 32 miles in 48 hours without rest. German bodies were piled 7 feet deep. But his company had 50 percent casualties, and the Germans captured Miles.
Though wounded, Miles said the enemy soldiers dragged and kicked him 50 miles behind the lines to a prison camp, where he was interrogated, threatened with death and almost starved. Miles was able to hide a pick handle under his bed and used it to knock out a German guard who had dozed off. He put on the guard’s uniform and slipped by the officers outside the camp.
Making his way back to allied lines, Miles found food in discarded knapsacks and put on a dead American’s uniform so he wouldn’t be mistaken for the enemy. He returned to fighting, and a gas attack almost blinded him.
Miles was in a Paris hospital when the armistice was signed. He received the French Croix de Guerre and was cited eight times for bravery in action.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.