An Army Engineer on Armistice Day 1918

Fighting in Europe related to the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, when Germany, the last remaining belligerent of the Central Powers, signed an armistice with the western allies—Britain and France. Although war had been raging there since 1914, the United States entered the conflict only in April 1917 following Germany’s renewed attack on American shipping and its anti-American overtures to Mexico.

Subsequently the U.S. sent two million troops to Europe to bolster its allies along the western front in Belgium and France and to turn the tide against the enemy. Among them were more than 240,000 engineer officers and soldiers who were given the monumental task of supporting the American Expeditionary Forces at, behind, and sometimes across the front lines. Army engineers carried out traditional military engineering duties of constructing fortifications and making maps. They also built roads, ports, and railways. But in their first modern war, far from home and involving millions of troops, they also performed duties most had never envisioned. In addition to building camps and hospitals, they installed power and water systems; operated lumber mills, cement plants, and quarries; manned searchlights; developed and deployed camouflage; fought alongside the infantry; and did whatever was needed to support the war effort.

The Veterans Day of today was, from 1919 to 1954, instead known as Armistice Day—the anniversary of the end of hostilities and a day to honor those who served in the First World War. Capt. John Ellzey Hayden was an army engineer in France on the day of the armistice. He was a company commander in the 311th Engineers, a regiment attached to the 86th Division, which sailed to France in September 1918. Although the division arrived too late to see combat, its engineers built barracks, hospitals, and roads in the area around Bordeaux.

Letter Excerpts

On November 11, 1918, Hayden wrote a letter to Anna, his wife in Michigan, about the momentous day. He described the sounds of celebration—“such a din you never heard in all your life”; “the guns… fired round and round….the bells of the old cathedrals heralded peace”; “a distant boom of a cannon.” He also mentioned the light—“I can see from my window the rockets & glare of the city, once more turned into the gay white way, after 4 years of dingy street lamps & darkened signs.”

Moreover, he talked about the people—“The city [Bordeaux] is gone clean crazy, old women & young girls hugging & kissing the soldier boys, everybody full of wine.” “The French people are clean crazy, they laugh, cry, wring their hands….It’s a big occasion for them….Nobody will ever realize their suffering.” And although Hayden lamented missing the action at the front, he was eagerly awaiting that “wonderful day…when I cross the gang plank once again bound for the good old U.S.A. – and my sweetheart Annski.” That day for Hayden would come in June 1919 when the 311th sailed home from France.

Hayden and colleagues in France

Lt. Tom Cullen and Capt. John E. Hayden of the 311th Engineers
with Lt. Frank Astig, U.S. Marines,
in the yard of the Hotel Petrograd in Nice, France, 1919.


The Office of History, HQUSACE, holds a small collection of material related to Hayden during the war, including letters from him (1917-1919),
notes written on French postcards from the era, and a few postwar snapshots taken in France.

Download Hayden's Complete Letter of Nov. 11, 1918

November 2018. No. 131.