By Sherri Goudy
100 years ago, a young corporal from Springfield, Ohio, started out on a journey that would change history forever. 21-year-old Leon Roth, a dispatcher for the 319th Signal Battalion and serving in France, had carried and delivered thousands of messages over the course of his Army career. But this one was different. Life altering. Historic.
In the early morning hours of November 11, 1918, Corporal Roth was instructed to ride through the Compiègne forest to a discreet site where two trains had met. His orders: to pick up an important message there. The location to which he was to report was actually an old railway dining car on the first train, serving as Headquarters for Ferdinand Foch. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies and other French and British officers were in the middle of a critical meeting with Matthias Erzberger, head of the German peace delegation. Erzberger and other delegates had arrived 3 days prior on the second train to discuss ending the war. It was shortly after 5:00 am, on November 11th that an agreement was finally reached between French and British Allies and German delegates.
Upon his initial arrival at the train at 4:00 am, Corporal Roth waited outside, not knowing what was happening inside. Over an hour later, an orderly came out and shoved some papers into his red dispatch carrier tube, telling him to “hurry this up to headquarters and ride like hell. This is one message that you must get through.”
Roth’s journey to General Pershing’s headquarters near Souilly, France was treacherous. Traveling by motorcycle, he first was nearly killed after a shell exploded nearby and knocked him from his vehicle. Later, a German sniper bullet grazed his helmet. Though Roth had escaped death twice, he pressed on. 30 minutes later, Roth arrived and handed the message to an American orderly, who disappeared inside the building. Roth lingered outside, this time waiting to see if there would be a reply. Soon after, the man returned, declaring “You’ve just brought us the best news we’ve heard. The war is over!”
However, the terms of the Armistice dictated that ceasefire was to occur at the 11th hour of that 11th month of that 11th day but because it was not yet 11:00, the fighting continued. Finally, when the firing did cease, Roth said it was “so still I could hear the ticking of my wrist watch.”
Corporal Roth had unknowingly delivered the Armistice, an agreement which changed the course of history. For his brave actions, the French awarded him their highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. He returned to the United States and Springfield to a hero’s welcome. Though the memory of his ride began to fade after the war, Hitler reenacted the armistice scene in the very railcar where it had originally happened, to establish German occupation in France at the start of WWII. Newspapers that carried the story recounted Roth’s morning ride as well and the memory of a Springfield doughboy was recalled worldwide.
Today, as we honor the centennial of the Armistice, the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, and Veterans Day let us be aware of the lessons of history. Though the Armistice was a celebration for the Allies, it was an angry ember for Germany and the roots of WWII. How a war ends can be just as important as how a war begins, and though the Great War was supposed to be “the War to End All Wars,” it was anything but. Up to that point in history, an armistice was originally meant to be a peace treaty and a cease fire in fighting. In this case, it was a total surrender–the Allies forcing Germany to completely give up all elements essential to waging war. The Armistice that ended WWI was merely a temporary ceasefire in a long battle for domination of Europe.
This is my final post for the Centennial Anniversary of WWI, and my last blog for the Clark County Heritage Center. I hope you have enjoyed what I’ve written over the past 2 years. If you would like to know more about Corporal Leon G. Roth, you can find his collection at the Heritage Center, along with the newspaper articles from all of my previous posts. I encourage you to visit the archive to learn more about any of the topics I’ve written about. Sometimes the stories you uncover, are not the stories that the history books tell. More than this, the narratives found in small collections in your town tell the history of the everyday people who lived where you do, and they can reveal the most amazing things. We are all connected to the people and histories around us. By learning about the past, we can understand the present and be better prepared for the future.
Until we meet again, farewell!