Freelance writer from Cornwall
You’re a General, a Divisional commander no less. You have 10-12,000 soldiers under your personal command. You know the war is hours away from ending, that a peace deal has been agreed. It’s just a matter of ordering your men to hold their positions, keep their heads down and wait until the war officially ends. So you would, wouldn’t you? After all, there’s no sense in ordering your division to attack and cause heavy casualties, on both sides, when if you wait a few more hours they can march through former enemy territory without a shot fired.
This is exactly what US Army General William Wright, commanding the 89th infantry Division, DIDN’T do.
The commander of the American ExpeditionaryForce, General Pershing, had told his divisional commanders that the Armistice would begin at 11am on November 11, 1918. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. What Pershing DIDN’T do was give those commanders clear orders for what to do in the meantime. Of his sixteen divisional commanders, seven ordered their troops to hold their positions and wait for the official Armistice at 11am. Nine chose to continue attacking, still pushing forward, fighting even when there was no military need to do so. General Wright was one of them.
Even more bizarre than committing his division regardless of there being no military need was his stated reason for ordering his men to take the French town of Stenay. Stenay was the last French town captured by American troops. It was (and still is) just a pleasant-looking town of no real military value and didn’t have much worth fighting over. It did have public bathing facilities, though, and it was so his men could have a wash and shave that Wright sent them to take the town.
Yes, with only hours left in the war, Wright sent an entire division risking their lives so the ones who didn’t die taking Stenay could have a bath there. Orders being orders, they didn’t get to choose whether or not to risk dying so they could have a soak in the tub. They were simply handed their orders and sent into battle even after they’d been told the Armistice was only hours away. Pershing knew about the Armistice. Wright knew about the Armistice. Everybody down to the newest Private in the Division knew about the Armistice, but they were sent anyway. Assuming the attack wasn’t repulsed, assuming the Americans captured Stenay without being wiped out, assuming that the public baths hadn’t been destroyed and that they actually had enough water to cater for a division of tired, cold, wet, filthy soldiers who’d been in the line for nearly two weeks, any American who wasn’t killed capturing the baths could get to sit in one. The 89th Infantry Division would have the distinction of taking the last objective to fall to American troops during the First World War. Their commander would have the distinction of ordering one of the most pointless attacks in military history.
Despite the fact that the war was within hours of ending, Stenay wasn’t what you’d call a soft target. Although the German Army was a shadow of its previous size and effectiveness the troops holding Stenay had artillery, machine guns, large numbers of infantry and the infantryman’s most feared and hated adversary, snipers, who were operating in numbers around Stenay. Plus, Stenay was on a hill overlooking the Meuse River. American troops would have to cross the Meuse in single file, on improvised walkways, under heavy artillery, rifle, machine gun and sniper fire because the bridges had all been blown before they arrived. Stenay wasn’t in the league of the Hindenburg Line, but it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park either.
So, regardless of it being totally unnecessary, likely to cause heavy casualties on both sides and the actual objective being entirely absurd, the 89th went forward and captured Stenay. From starting their advance towards Stenay at around 8am on November 11, 1918 until the official start of the Armistice at 11am the 89th Infantry Division suffered 365 casualties. 61 men killed, 304 wounded, just because the Divisional commander thought those who survived might want to have a bath and a shave. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, while the attack on Stenay was the last action fought by the 89th, it was also the last day in command for General Wright. On 12 November Major General Frank Winn (one of the 89th’s previous commanders) arrived at Divisional HQ and immediately replaced Wright as the 89th’s commander.
When Wright’s decision to attack and his reason became public knowledge there was an outcry back home. Americans, not least the friends and relatives of the soldiers killed attacking Stenay, demanded to know exactly why Wright had made so dreadful a decision. Despite a public inquiry into events of November 11 and the pointless attacks ordered by Wright and some other American commanders, Wright himself was never disciplined. Following the war, General Wright became the Executive Assistant to the Chief of Staff of the United States Army and acting Army Chief of Staff, and then commanded IX Corps. Before his retirement in 1923 he commanded the Department of the Philippines. In retirement he resided in Washington, D.C. It isn’t just that he wasn’t disciplined over Stenay, he was rewarded with plum Washington postings.
With Remembrance in mind, it would be unfair and ignorant not to acknowledge the full scope of Wright’s culpability. The 365 Americans killed or wounded were attacking on Wright’s orders. Wright’s stated objective had no military value, the Americans could simply have waited a few hours and then walked into Stenay without so much as a shot fired. And let’s not forget the German casualties. The Germans also suffered significant casualties during the fighting around Stenay. Those Germans died within hours of the Armistice, and they died in totally unnecessary battle that only General William Wright seemed to think was a good idea.
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