The Last Casualty
A frigid, gloomy drizzle permeates the air as dawn begins to break through the trees of the Argonne Forest in northeastern France. Pvt. George Budde and his fellow Marines of 17th Company slop their way through the mud along the western bank of the Meuse River.
The diminutive 23-year-old Budde is fresh from skirmishes at Soissons and an uphill charge at St. Mihiel. He is a survivor of the slaughter at Belleau Wood and still bears the scar on his shoulder from an exploding missile at Chateau-Thierry. For the past nine months he has endured squalid shelter and rancid rations, relentless chlorine and mustard gas attacks, and incessant pounding from artillery shelling. As a result, the movement along the Meuse is all too familiar. George Budde knows war.
As the Marines creep along, the first sign of trouble begins to appear—the bullet-ridden bodies of Army engineers killed while attempting to construct a flimsy pontoon bridge lashed with planks across the Meuse.
As they reach the bridge, visible only by a guide rope strung along posts, the Marines can see just halfway across before everything disappears into the mist.
Their orders are to cross the bridge and carry the fringe of hills and woods on the opposite bank, thereby securing the right flank of a larger frontal assault. Under cover of the dense fog, the Marines traverse the rickety footbridge one by one. Then, some 500 yards on the other side of the river, just outside the desolate village of Villemontry, everything changes. A German machine-gun nest opens fire and their world turns to utter chaos.
As the fighting grows thick, Budde strikes out on patrol.
As he approaches the enemy location, a sudden burst of gunfire is heard.
Then…nothing. Just an appalling silence.
As Budde lies prostrate in the clay muck, wounded in the heart and soaking in his own blood, Big Ben begins ringing in London for the first time in four years. Celebrating crowds flock the cobblestone Parisian streets. Joyful New Yorkers spill onto Broadway with impromptu revelry and a ticker-tape parade. The entire globe rejoices.
It is Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. At dawn, inside a railroad carriage near Paris, officials sign a declaration of peace, which goes into effect at 11:00 a.m. and ends the confrontation so naively labeled as the “War to End All Wars.” By official service records, Budde, a 1917 Xavier graduate, is gunned down just minutes before the deadline, earning him the melancholy distinction as the final American foot soldier to perish under enemy fire in World War I. The last casualty.
For his “extraordinary heroism and gallantry,” Budde is posthumously awarded the triumvirate of American valor medals: the Purple Heart, the Navy Cross and Distinguished Service Cross (along with a Silver Star Victory Medal and French Croix de Guerre). Only a handful of leathernecks ever achieve such high accolade.
Almost a full century after Budde’s demise, however, doubts and questions persist about what really happened on that dreary November morning. The Marine rifleman died a combat hero where there should no longer have been combat. Some records indicate Budde and his fellow infantrymen were trying to rescue an injured comrade. Others point to the hubris of at least one callous American field commander looking for glory. Another baffling account says Budde decided “upon his own initiative after the general fighting had ceased” to scramble ahead and fool-hardily storm the machine-gun nest, a full-frontal attack by himself.
Today, family members take issue with the reports. Buck privates don’t have the luxury of taking their own initiative, they argue. The soldiers crossed “No Man’s Land” to get there, they say, so this was no accidental foray, no “oops” moment. And they question whether Budde—cut down at the very hour the peace agreement took effect—should have ever been ordered into a corridor of live fire.
The combined forces knew for days about an imminent armistice. Both sides were hammering out final details of the treaty. At night, American troops could hear the Germans singing and playing band music across the Meuse River in anticipated celebration. Harmless fireworks replaced incoming mortar fire.
Only now are declassified military documents, secret Congressional papers and battlefront diaries coming to the forefront. But none of them offer a clear picture as to the final minutes of World War I, and, thus, the question persists: Why did George Budde die?
As flowers that bloom in thorny lair,
with added beauty gleam
Kind words shine in this world of care,
and all the brighter seem.
—George Budde, “Kind Words,” a poem published at Xavier circa 1915
Budde, the studious Xavier upperclassman, seemed to be regarded best on campus as an emerging poet. In the classroom, the thoughtful English major busied himself with lofty literary ambitions, submerging himself in the foremost prosaic writers of the time. On stage, he performed Moliere and Shakespeare in a dramatic circle known as The Buskin Club. In The Xavierian News fortnightly bulletin, he scribbled out essays on esoteric topics. In the student Athenaeum literary magazine, he authored various installments of bright and fanciful prose. At one instance or another, Budde served as treasurer of the Junior Literary Society, president of the Social League and two terms leading the Acolythical Society. He won commencement merits in Greek, history, English precepts and English composition.
Budde would, nonetheless, be a surprise choice for anyone’s fledgling poet. Born at the close of the rough and rowdy 1800s, the scrappy kid grew up first in gritty downtown Cincinnati and then on the streets of the city’s blue-collar west side. His father, John, was born in Germany, his mother, Elizabeth, in Ohio. George weighed in as third youngest of his siblings: Josie, Mary, Loretto, Norbert and Louis.
The boy lived most of his life in the insular world of the family’s two Price Hill homes. The last Budde home—a buff, brick Colonial with ornate fireplaces and crystal chandeliers—still stands and is often included in the neighborhood’s architectural history tours.
The youth joined the newly formed Cincinnati Automobile Club, devoted to promoting the future of a “horseless carriage.” He reveled in the game of croquet with his fiancée. And he played doting big brother and uncle to his extended family.
As he was preparing to graduate from Xavier, though, a dustup began in the Balkans, half a world away. Before it could be settled, a chain of alliances would force more than 30 nations into global conflagration—and change the direction of George Budde’s life.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye,
who cheer when soldier lads march by
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know,
the hell where youth and laughter go.
—Royal Welsh Capt. S. Sassoon, “Suicide in the Trenches,” 1918
A blurry Marine registration card is all that’s left of the day George signed away his life. The young man, who apprenticed a short time with his father’s cleaning products company while attending Xavier, spotted the Marine Corps recruiting posters urging young men to be “First to Fight in France!” Reaching his own personal epiphany on Dec. 22, 1917, he opted to enlist.
Not your prototypical “war hero,” Budde was barely tall enough to make the Marines’ height cutoff. “George volunteered because most of his friends were going,” his brother, Norbert, told the Cincinnati Times-Star a half-century later. Their father likely expected a different outcome, assuming his eldest son would one day run the family firm. Older sisters Josie and Loretto, who attended Xavier’s commerce school, already worked at the company as stenographers. “I think George kind of planned to run the business when he got back,” said Norbert, who was only 12 years old when his brother shipped overseas.
From basic training at Parris Island, the elated tenderfoot wrote back to pals: “We are at work drilling almost every day. I am enjoying every minute of my life here and learning quite a few new and novel things.”
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle …
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells.
Just shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells.
—British 2nd Lt. Wilfred Owen,“Anthem for Doomed Youth,” 1918
Interwoven in the mix of George Budde’s life of blood and war is a love story. A cheerful item in a New York City newspaper reported this interlude under the headline: Arrives in Time to Bid Sweetheart Goodbye: “A romantic, cross-country chase to see her Marine sweetheart before he sailed for ‘somewhere in France’ and which, after many disappointments, had a happy conclusion when she found him on an Army transport in an Atlantic port, was the recent experience of Miss Regina M. Brown, a Cincinnati girl. Miss Brown’s fiancé is George W. Budde, a Cincinnatian in the Marine Corps. Budde was stationed in Washington and wired Miss Brown and his parents that he had been ordered to leave.”
Brown—“an attractive brunette who had grown up a few blocks from George on Crestline Avenue”—immediately hustled to the nation’s capital with George’s mother and father in tow, then traveled down to Quantico, Va. Ultimately, authorities directed the trio to the nearest Atlantic naval port. Budde, already aboard his troop ship, was granted two hours to spend with his fiancée and parents. “As the vessel steamed slowly out to sea, the girl waved her farewell. He was gone—but she had been able to say goodbye and she was happy.”
Her happiness would not last, however. Brown, a Red Cross nurse, died a month before Budde at age 21 in Ohio’s influenza epidemic.
Now all roads lead to France.
And heavy is the tread of the living,
But the dead returning lightly dance…
—Royal Lance Corp. Edward Thomas, “Roads,” 1917
The liturgy of war has a cadence all its own. The march toward the front was at once halting and hurried—as Budde chronicled in his pocket diary—both funereally paced and, in a sudden heartbeat, impetuously and furiously launched. Troop movements swept his pale battalion through offensive campaigns at Aisne, Champagne-Marne, the Second Battle of Aisne-Marne, St. Miheil and Meuse-Argonne, with particularly ferocious encounters at Belleau Wood and Soissons. Shell-shocked soldiers wandered the bleak landscape. In one clash alone, Meuse-Argonne, more artillery shells were fired (4 million in sum) than in the entirety of the American Civil War.
“I was always glad,” Budde wrote to his parents, “when the various positions we held in the woods had a few holes strewn around into which we could crawl when necessary. The shells were really going over us, and besides, there often was a perfectly splendid ditch alongside the road. … There were hours at a time we would lie while a steady stream of missiles would be going sweetly over our heads, just a continuing humming whir-r-r that can’t be described. Most of the big ones do give notice of their approach most politely, and one generally has time to duck or take cover.”
He described the Western Front, essentially a double line of trenches, as a scene percolated in the hellish imagination of painter Hieronymous Bosch: flies buzzing obscenely over damp earth and purple-black bodies, the air choking with the oppressive odor from pungent explosives. Mustard gas scarred his comrades’ lungs and burned through the foot soles of his field boots. He softened the wording for his mother, speaking of his “elegant blisters.”
Artillery makes the same old noise; valor is an
attribute of boys
All soldiers hear the same old lies; dead bodies have
always drawn flies.
—1st Lt. Ernest Hemingway, “All Armies Are the Same,” 1919
Not all of the missiles sailed by safely, though. On June 6, Budde was wounded by shrapnel—a detail he gently described in a letter home.
“Friday night I was assigned to a listening post in front of our lines. My job was to keep a sharp watch for ‘Heine’ and to give the alarm in case of attack. … Soon, the whole line was blazing away [with artillery shells]. It seems I did a funny thing. I chose a position right where one of these big boys was going to hit. It hit alright, I hit, too, and also got hit. Nightfall found me laying out on a listening post, about 50 yards in front of the lines. About midnight the Huns began sending over their high explosives. One came too close. It must have borne my number, because when I got out of there, I was carrying a piece of Heine’s iron with me. … Yes, I am wounded, but it is merely the slightest thing, hardly more than a scratch. We’ve got Heine on the run for good now.”
Truthfully, the jagged metal pieces so deeply imbedded in Budde’s shoulder that doctors feared they would kill him trying to remove them all. He also neglected to clarify to his mother that flying debris mangled part of his face. Taken first to a dressing station, Budde found himself relegated to the Red Cross and the American Military Base Hospital to convalesce. Despite having an excuse to nurse his wounds in a Paris infirmary, he hounded his doctors. He desperately wanted back to the front action and his mates.
“The thing is up with Fritz. He’s on the run now, and we’ll keep right on his heels,” he wrote home. “I will write again as soon as possible, and in the meantime, do not worry. The beginning of the end is at hand.”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between
the crosses row on row …
We are the Dead. Short days ago, we lived,
felt dawn, saw sunset glow.
—Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields,” 1918
While news of mutually assured peace spread like wildfire among the ranks, some senior officers chose to conversely intensify their actions. On the eve of Nov. 10, 1918, and repeatedly through the night, word of the impending end to the entanglement was affirmed by radio transmissions to Gen. John Pershing and his command. Pershing dutifully relayed the wonderful confirmation to subordinates, but left his commanders in the field with the decision whether to march on and advance their columns, or to spare their own men further agony and fatalities.
Some ambitious officers may have seen their chances fading fast for field promotions and medals. Lipstick lieutenants and shavetail hotshots, who were anxious to tidy up annoying dents in the map of the Western Front as history would record it on this last full day of action, weren’t averse to losing a few expendable privates.
A few of George’s immediate superiors in the Second Division/Fifth Regiment would take flak for their judgment calls on this day, including Capt. Charley Dunbeck, who favored walking in front of his assembled guard in a jaunty manner, brandishing a swagger stick in one hand and an automatic pistol in the other.
“The story is told that the men of the 2/5 were sensibly reluctant to cross the bridge [at Villemontry],” reads the account in Battle History of the United States Marine Corps. “In fact, they soon had a situation in which Marines were beginning to take off. Charley Dunbeck said something to his men as he stood by the bridge. ‘Men, I am going across and I expect you to go with me.’ … What seems to be a bit unusual (or even stupid?) was to waste so many brave men in an unnecessary crossing of the Meuse River the night before the war ended. Maj. Gen. John Lejeune could have stalled it, if he had chosen to, much like Maj. George Shuler did to save the 6th Marines.”
Lejeune himself recalled the fading hours of the war and his visit to a wounded sergeant in a field hospital during that fateful day: “I asked him if he had heard before the battle that the armistice would probably be signed within a few hours. He replied it was common knowledge among the men. What induced you to cross the [Meuse] bridge in the face of that terrible machine-gun fire? In answer, he said, ‘Just before we began to cross the bridge, our battalion commander, Capt. Dunbeck, assembled the companies around him in the ravine where we were waiting orders, and told us ‘Men, I am going across that river and I expect you to go with me.’ What could we do but go across, too?”
After the war, a secret Congressional panel (referred to obliquely only as Subcommittee 3) convened to investigate the frontline commanders’ decisions during this 12-hour period. They would suggest that, in select incidences, squad leaders crossed the line from “sacrifice” of enlisted men to “murder.”
Slumber well where the shells screamed and fell;
Let your rifles rest on the muddy floor;
You will not need them anymore.
—U.S. Army Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, “Rouge Bouquet,” 1918
The intervening years have obliterated evidence, obscured truths, blurred memories—but family members have continued to dig for answers. William Budde, a cousin and a Xavier grad, has made a hobby of tracking family histories. “He certainly was brave,” William says. “But what he did might sound, at first, a little like he was playing Russian roulette.”
Maj. Mark Budde, a relative and himself a retired Marine who served a half century later in the same regiment as George, agrees: “It does sound a little crazy to be poking around the front lines in front of the German machine. I do not understand. Why didn’t they simply sit in their trenches, on both sides, and wait until 11:00 a.m. on the 11th?” Maj. Budde went so far as to launch informal inquiries from the Corps, including as recently as March 2012. “I’d like to hear the rationale for what the command was attempting to accomplish,” he says. No answer has been forthcoming.
Dr. Louis Meiners, a 1967 Xavier grad and great grand-nephew of Budde, has a collection of Budde’s wartime letters that offer a hint of clarity. “He was wounded at the front, sent to the hospital, returned to his position, and then his wound re-opened,” says Dr. Meiners. “He was sent back to the hospital, and he begged this time to return to the front, to give the Germans ‘one more go.’ ”
So does this portray Budde as a glory hound? Can his excursion be written off as youthful misadventure or misplaced bravado? Or was it something else, something infinitely more sad—the final action of a despondent man who just lost his fiancée? “They bought a house together that they’d never live in,” says Dr. Meiners. “I’ve always wondered in the back of my mind, if he knew Regina had just died, if he wasn’t being just reckless.”
Another scenario is proffered: Perhaps these particular Marines hadn’t gotten the message of the impending peace. This was, after all, still an era of carrier pigeons and horseback messengers. “That was always my thought, that communications weren’t that great back then,” says niece Jean Meiners, a 1960 Xavier grad.
If there’s any lesson of significance to absorb from Budde’s sacrifice, perhaps it’s in the often fruitless injustice and arbitrary fraudulence that accompanies war. There’s a famous quote by Joseph Persico that William Budde likes to reference today, if by way of meager comfort: “The pointless fighting on the last day of the war is the perfect metaphor for the four years that preceded it, years of senseless slaughter for hollow purposes.”