World War I armistice signed, but there were 10,000 wounded or killed


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Nearly 100 years after his death, they still come to see Thomas Enright's tombstone at St. Mary's Cemetery in Lawrenceville.

"Every summer we have three or four people who ask about his grave," foreman Sam Palmer said. "He's not been forgotten."

Enright, a private from Bloomfield, was among the first three American soldiers killed in World War I in November 1917.

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He became a symbol of American resolve, his death galvanizing the nation as its young men entered combat in the War to End All Wars. In 1921, his body was returned to Pittsburgh and lay in state at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall.

The funeral procession to St. Mary's was one of the largest the city has ever seen, led by 500 ex-soldiers from the city's police and fire departments.

But not far away in that same cemetery is the grave of another World War I soldier from Bloomfield, Frank Mager, a private who received no spectacular funeral and is all but unknown to history.

According to his grave, Mager died on Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice Day, which in 1954 became Veterans Day. He was 28.

The Jene-Mager Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 278 in Bloomfield was chartered in 1919 in his honor and in tribute to John P. Jene, another local private from the same regiment killed in the Great War.

For years, members of the post would tend to Mager's grave at St. Mary's and say a prayer for him. But they have since died, and the once-thriving post, for decades a focal point in Bloomfield, closed in the early 2000s.

The vacant building, painted with colorful scenes of ships and tanks, was bought by a local supermarket owner. The whereabouts of many of its artifacts, original charter and pictures are unknown, and the story of its namesakes now largely lost to time.

"It's a sad thing that nobody knows much about him," said Mager's niece, Irene Mager of Allison Park.

She knew only that he had four siblings -- Phillip, Charles, Andy and Carrie.

Jene's family is long gone, and distant relatives have no information about him.

Mager and Jene both served in the 320th Infantry Regiment, a unit made up of Pittsburgh-area men that was part of the 80th Division and saw heavy action in France.

The few records that do exist are confusing. The old VFW post had featured pictures of the men, now in possession of the Bloomfield Preservation & Heritage Society, but the handwritten captions don't match the information on their tombstones.

Mager's image indicates he was killed in action on Nov. 8, 1918, but his tombstone at St. Mary's says he was born in 1890 and died Nov. 11, 1918. The information on Jene's photo says he was killed on Nov. 11, but his white cross at the famous Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France indicates he died Oct. 11, 1918.

What's more, online war records indicate that Jene was killed in action and Mager died of wounds, but there's no indication of when he was wounded.

Regardless, the death of either one of these men on Armistice Day is part of a larger but little-known story.

World War I ended with a final spasm of violence befitting a war that had already claimed some 9 million soldiers.

In the last few hours, more than 10,000 casualties were recorded on all sides, more than on D-Day in 1944.

That carnage has intrigued historians in recent years. It was the subject of a 2008 BBC "Timewatch" documentary and a 2004 book by Joseph Persico, "11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour."

In his book, Mr. Persico writes that the last day was a microcosm of the entire war in that it was a waste of young lives for no purpose. At least D-Day, he said, had a clear objective. The fighting on Nov. 11, 1918, was utterly futile.

The armistice was signed just after 5 a.m. on Nov. 11 and the fighting was to end at 11 a.m. The Germans wanted an immediate cease-fire, but the Allies insisted on a six-hour deadline so that their commanders could get the word.

Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American forces, told his subordinates to cease fire at 11 a.m. but didn't tell them what to do in the meantime.

Some stayed fast and waited for 11 a.m. What was the point of fighting over land, they figured, that they could walk across in a few hours?

But others -- particularly American combat leaders, but also some French and British -- took an aggressive stance. Some hoped for last-minute glory or promotion before the war ended. Others wanted to punish the Germans.

The result was that many commanders sent their troops into the breach once more, only to see them mowed down just as they had been in the previous four years of wretched trench warfare.

In one instance, recounted in Mr. Persico's book, German troops waved for the Americans to go back, saying the war was over. But the attackers continued, forcing the Germans to defend themselves or be overrun. Some 300 died in that battle.

Sgt. Fred Wertenbach of the North Side, a veteran of the 28th Division who later became a writer for The Pittsburgh Press, kept a war diary now in possession of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. His Nov. 11 entry reads:

"We slept last night on the bare damp ground. There was ice on the water in shell holes. At 11 a.m. our barrage and the enemy's ceased. From Purgatory to Paradise in sixty seconds. We were half doubtful of an armistice for a while. Gruber and I went over to the enemy but got cold feet when we could hear them talking. We heard them shouting and singing when 11 came and also a German bugler blowing taps. Thank God it is over. We had nine killed in our [battalion]. Pvt. Paul was killed in our company two minutes before 11 a.m."

War records list two Pennsylvania privates named Paul killed in action, both from Philadelphia. Whichever one died at 10:58 a.m., he joined some 10,900 casualties that day.

In a televised talk when his book came out, Mr. Persico said that during his research, he had visited the huge World War I cemeteries in France and noticed the same date chiseled on so many crosses: Nov. 11, 1918.

"I couldn't help but despair of human conduct," he said.

Much had changed for America in one year of fighting. After Enright was killed in hand-to-hand combat on Nov. 3, 1917, he was buried two days later with two others killed in the same incident.

"Here lie the first soldiers of the illustrious Republic of the United States who fell on French soil for justice and liberty," an inscription read.

The Post-Gazette announced in a banner headline: "Huns Kill Local Youth." The mood was one of noble sacrifice for a greater cause.

But a year later, more than 116,000 Americans had joined Enright and there was little talk of ideals. The Pittsburgh papers recorded the names of the dead, wounded and missing in long, numbing lists, day after day, well into 1919.

And the seeds of the next great war were already planted. Pershing had warned that Germany would never accept that it was beaten "and we will have to do it all over."

In the German trenches, a young corporal who had won the Iron Cross for valor under fire seethed at the surrender and swore revenge.

A little more than two decades later, in 1939, Pershing was proved right when Adolf Hitler plunged Europe into World War II.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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