The Last Casualty
By Felix Winternitz
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.
[View a photo gallery of Budde]
[Where is Budde buried?]
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?