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Over the Top


World War I, the war to end all wars, was a mixture of 19th Century tactics and the emergence of 20th Century technology. The long columns of men marching in formation against each other had ended and the more defensive positions in the form of trench warfare had evolved. Sam Rigler wrote to his brother in Richardton from the front lines. His unit had been assigned to the trenches as the fall rains were beginning.

Life in the trenches was miserable. Many of the men were without shelter from the rain, having to sleep standing up. Those with dugouts slept on bare wooden floors, with the constant shelling going on around them. Any attempt to gain ground meant crossing the crater-filled, no man's land laced with barbed wire, under heavy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. This was known as "going over the top." A final offensive had been planned and it was Sam's turn to go over the top.

With full packs he struggled through the soupy, mud-filled trenches in the inky darkness to assemble near the front line. Drenched to the skin and caked in mud, he huddled against the side of the trench as the shells began screaming overhead, marking the beginning of the battle. A barrage of shells would soften the German lines and help cut the coiled bands of barbed wire used to slow the advancing troops as the machine gunners did their work. The word came down that they were to "go over the top" at 5:00 AM.

Sam Rigler silently offered some prayers and the signal was given. "Just before daybreak we climbed over, packs thrown away, but rifles loaded and bayonets fixed." The battle was raging all around him with shells hissing and exploding nearby. Five members of his unit were wounded leaving the trench but he made it out. Dawn was just breaking and the explosion of shells lit up the sky. "There we were out on no man's land and only the will of God could save us. ... We crept along, passed over and under barbed wire entanglements and then made a made a dash for cover right ahead of us.

We stayed there for an hour and continued to advance."

The Hindenburg line was breached and the Germans began a full retreat. Sam Rigler fought on for the next few weeks, only to be gassed in the final weeks of the war, but he did survive to return to North Dakota.

On this date in 1918, at 11:00 AM - Armistice Day, all fighting ceased, ending the first World War.


The Dickinson Press October 26, 1913.