Henry Gunther of Baltimore died at one minute before the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - the last soldier killed in the four-year insanity of World War I. This Veterans Day 2008 marks 90 years since the armistice of 1918 and the deaths of Henry Gunther and nearly 3,000 other men - American, British, French, German - whose senseless loss in the final hours form the ultimate metaphor for the bloody lunacy of "the war to end all wars."
While the story of Henry Gunther was once legend in Baltimore, the generation that grew up with it is long gone. That generation would have regarded Gunther as the last brave American to die in the nation's noble effort to end a long, horrible conflict of dubious purpose in Europe.
Today, looking back through the lens of history, we might see Gunther's death differently - as foolish, unnecessary, ironic, like "the Great War" itself - and it would be logical to conclude, based on the archives, that Henry Gunther died trying to prove something. There was a lot of that going around in the final hours of World War I, but principally among Allied officers, not the unfortunate troops they commanded.
The historian Joseph Persico, who tells the Henry Gunther story in his excellent 2004 book on the war's climax, estimates conservatively that all sides on the infamous Western Front suffered 10,944 casualties in the nearly six hours between the time the armistice was signed (5:10 a.m.) and 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the agreed-upon hour of cease-fire.
Of that number, 2,738 were deaths - more than the average daily rate throughout the war.
This didn't happen because of poor communications. As Persico points out, it happened because Allied commanders, fully aware of the looming peace, demanded more war. They sent orders through the trenches for troops to advance, to take towns, to root out German machine gun nests. In some cases, orders for attack were rescinded and reinstated within an hour of the war's appointed end. Some troops thought their commanders were playing cruel jokes on them as the clocked ticked toward 11.
Persico writes in 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour that Germany wanted a cease-fire as early as Nov. 8. Had that proposal been accepted, Persico estimates, nearly 7,000 more men might have survived the war.
Among them might have been 23-year-old Henry Gunther, the son of German-American parents in the Highlandtown section of Baltimore.
Instead, he died in the war's last minute.
This was not known immediately in Baltimore, of course. People here celebrated Armistice Day in the streets. "VICTORY!" cried the Evening Sun in its extra edition of Nov. 11. The next morning, The Sun's lead article on the celebrations began: "It was the greatest day in the history of the world."
Four months went by before most Baltimoreans learned of Henry Gunther and his tragic distinction.
In early March 1919, the Roman Catholic chaplain of Gunther's regiment stepped off a streetcar and visited the family at 3001 Eastern Ave., and related these details:
Gunther and the rest of his company learned at 10:30 a.m. that the war would end at 11. They were near a village called Ville-devant-Chaumont, north of Verdun, pinned down by a German machine gun. As 11 a.m. approached, Gunther suddenly rose with his rifle and ran through thick fog. His men shouted for him to stop. So did the Germans. But Gunther kept running and firing.
One machine gun blast later, he was dead. His death was recorded at 10:59 a.m. The Germans who had just killed Gunther placed him on a stretcher and carried him to his American company, and his comrades buried him there.
Another account of Gunther's death provided more insight. It was written by James M. Cain, the Sun reporter who would later become a novelist famous for hard-boiled fiction. Cain interviewed members of Gunther's company in France and learned, for one thing, that Gunther had been busted from the rank of sergeant. He had written a letter critical of Army life and mailed it to a friend. Censors considered it a violation of Army regulations, and Gunther was reduced to private.
"According to his comrades," Cain reported, "Gunther brooded a great deal over his reduction in rank, and became obsessed with a determination to make good before his officers and fellow soldiers. Particularly he was worried because he thought himself suspected of being a German sympathizer. The regiment went into action a few days after he was reduced and from the start he displayed the most unusual willingness to expose himself to all sorts of risks."
As the hour of the armistice approached, he made his fatal run at the Germans.
"Gunther still must have been fired by a desire to demonstrate, even at the last minute, that he was courageous and all-American," Cain wrote. "When the Germans saw him coming they waved at him and called out, in such broken English as they could, to go back, that the war was over. He paid no heed to them, however, and kept on firing a shot or two ... as he went. After several vain efforts to make him turn back, the Germans turned their machine gun on him."
The Army later restored him to the rank of sergeant and awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. There is a Veterans of Foreign Wars post named for him. After the war, some Boy Scouts planted an elm tree in Henry Gunther's honor in Patterson Park, across the street from where he grew up.
Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday" from noon to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on 88.1 WYPR-FM.