Motorcyclist rode through France with terms of World War I armistice

Ridgefielder Carleton Stevens was a motorcycle rider for the U.S. Army in World War I, and carried terms of the armistice to General John J. Pershing.
Ridgefielder Carleton Stevens was a motorcycle rider for the U.S. Army in World War I, and carried terms of the armistice to General John J. Pershing.

“The war to end all wars” — as World War I was, tragically, miscalled — ended 100 years ago this Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2018. The armistice agreed that the killing and trench warfare would cease on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, known as Armistice Day for much of the 20th Century until renamed Veterans Day by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954.

A Ridgefielder, Carleton Ross Stevens, was the U.S. Army motorcycle courier who rode through the war-torn French countryside to deliver terms of the armistice to General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

“Though only 18 years of age, Carleton R. Stevens had the high honor of being selected to deliver the first sectional terms of the armistice to General Pershing,” said George L. Rockwell in his 1927 History of Ridgefield. “He rode a motorcycle 827 miles from Chaumont to Touraine, and return. He covered the distance in 19 hours and 10 minutes.

“He was thrown from his machine once, going into a mud-hole beyond which was a rock. He alighted from the machine only twice during the entire trip, but stopped three times. While on the trip, he ate chocolate for refreshment. From Touraine, he returned at once to Chaumont and delivered the terms to General Pershing himself.”

Historian and former Press editor Jack F. Sanders offers background on the wartime motorcycle courier in his “Notable Ridgefielders” and the “Who’s Who” on his website.

“Sgt. Stevens, who had entered the service in June 1918, was often under fire while on duty as a motorcycle dispatch rider,” Sanders writes. “In one case, while on a motorcycle trip in France, enemy fire was so heavy he had to hide in a swamp for five days, with only raw bacon to eat.

“Never formally schooled beyond the eighth grade, Mr. Stevens went on to invent numerous machines and electronic devices, lecture at Yale, and build a highly successful manufacturing business in Waterbury,” Sanders wrote.

“Born in 1898 of a longtime Ridgefield family, he joined American Brass in Waterbury after the war and began inventing automated machines and later, electronic devices…

“Stevens founded his own firm, the Stevens Company in Waterbury, and during World War II, created devices for the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb; he lectured at Yale on the Manhattan Project,” Sanders writes. “... He died in 1970 in Thomaston at the age of 72.”

Townspeople’s reaction

Rockwell’s History of Ridgefield describes Ridgefielders’ attitude to the conclusion of the First World War.

“In October 1918, rumors were current that the war might be brought to a close if certain terms could be met. In many cities and villages the people turned out in great numbers, attending meetings with but one thought and purpose: to demand unconditional surrender…,” Rockwell wrote.

“A mass meeting was held in Ridgefield on Oct. 14th, at which many of the citizens expressed their sentiments … A resolution was passed asking for unconditional surrender and telegraphed to President Wilson.”

News that the war was finally over was greeted with joy.

A description of the celebrations in the Ridgefield Historical Society’s “World War I: Ridgefield Answers the Call” — a display on the war shown over the last year at the library, Founders Hall, the Peter Parley Schoolhouse, and at the Playhouse on Election Day — echoes a passage from Rockwell and quotes the Nov. 12, 1918 Ridgefield Press:

“Upon hearing about the armistice, Ridgefielders dropped everything that they were doing and rejoiced in the streets.” According to The Press, “the church bells, fire alarm and Governor Lounsbury’s Civil War bell sounded forth in joyous peels.” The school bells rang throughout the countryside and the Methodist Church bell was run so vigorously, it was thrown off its socket.”

They served

Rockwell’s 1927 History of Ridgefield and Silvio Bedini’s 1958 Ridgefield in Review both list 171 Ridgefielders who served in World War I. That’s approaching 6% of what was then a town population of about 3,000 — the census of 1910 counted 3,118 Ridgefielders, and the census of 1920 counted 2,707.

“The examples given by many of our soldiers in this great war are a rich gift to posterity,” Rockwell wrote. “Many of them, called thousands of miles across the sea, fought and suffered, enduring hardships of firing line and trench, subject to constant and intensive strain that heretofore had never been experienced to such a degree in any war.”

Four Ridgefielders died as part of the nation’s effort in World War I: William J. Cumming died in the hospital in Vittel, France, with word received in town Jan. 5, 1918; Robert Dunlop died at Camp Wadsworth, Spartanburg, S.C., the news arriving in town April 27, 1918; Everett Ray Seymour was killed in action near Fere-en-Tardenois, France, July 29, 1918, and Ridgefield’s American Legion Post 38 bears his name; Carlo Scaglia, who immigrated to Ridgefield from Italy, was killed in action defending his adopted nation on Sept, 5, 1918.

A monument to Ridgefielders who fought in World War I, and previous American wars, stands on Main Street in front of Jesse Lee Methodist Church, across from the top of Branchville Road. It was dedicated in 1925.

Writing on what he described in 1927 as simply “the world war,” Rockwell quotes General Pershing, casting Ridgefielders’ service as repayment of the nation’s Revolutionary War debt to France:

“One of Ridgefield’s most historic spots, the old French camping ground of 1781, recalls how freely and bravely the soldiers of France came to our aid when our liberty was about to be throttled and our national life aborted. Therefore, from no one’s lips could Pershing’s words have fallen with better grace than from those of Ridgefield boys: ‘Lafayette, we are here!’”