Private James W. Keys, a soldier from Prince William County, served in the famous “Wildcat Division” in World War I. He used scraps of paper and a tiny blue notebook to vividly detail his experiences. The following is the last chapter in his diary describing the final hours of the “Great War” as seen through his eyes.
We were to go over the top next morning. Very thrilling perhaps, but the thought did not seem to perturb either the men or our officers. The boys were absolutely exhausted, and they slept as only exhausted men can sleep. A chap named Fields of Alexandria and myself rolled up in our blankets “Dog-fashion” wrapped arms around each other to keep warm, and in five minutes were dead to the world. At 4:30 next morning (Monday) November 11th, they aroused us. We leaped up, rolled packs: put them on hastily and lined up on the road in the darkness for instructions and a few words of cheer and encouragement from our officers. Then we marched off silently in the pit of a dense fog, and heavy darkness. We halted for a moment in the smoldering ruins of Hamleto to smoke a cigarette, then resumed the march and passed through Manhuellers which was a mess of ruins. At the outskirts of the town we left the road, got into skirmish formation quickly: despite the thick clinging fog and started across the swampy, soggy, shell-ridden field. Immediately, the German heavy artillery poured a veritable hail of shot and shell upon us, and the Hun machine gunners swept the field with a withering fire. Monster shells came screaming and screeching over, bursting with terrific detonations and flying shrapnel sang through the air with an ominous, snapping, metallic whir. Machine gun bullets wizzed and spattered around us like the minions of a hailstorm, and in the midst of it all came the dreaded cry of ‘gas, gas!!’ on we went, advancing steadily foot by foot, without a break or a waver in the lines. At last we flung ourselves down upon the cold, wet ground; quickly obeyed the commands to fix bayonets and eagerly awaited the orders to prepare to charge and rush. But, that order never came. After what seemed an interminable space, during which we lay tense, eager, and ready to leap forward. Hold our ground and wait. Further orders came unexpectedly to us. Soon the deafening racket subsided, all firing suddenly ceased and a pregnant and absolutely irrelevant silence fell upon the scene. Then, before we could actually grasp the situation and while we still lay there stunned and utterly perplexed, a party of unarmed Germans rushed over to our lines laughing happily as school children, and shook hands with us, chatting incoherently all the while.
The armistice had been signed by the German emissaries: it was the fatal eleventh hour, and the greatest and most spectacular conflict the world had ever seen was virtually over, and with its end come the finish of all the bitterness, all the bloodshed and all the suffering.