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November 11, 1918

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Henry Gunther was born into a German-American family in east BaltimoreMaryland, on June 6, 1895. His parents, George Gunther (1869-1919) and Lina Roth (1867-1930s), were both children of German immigrants.He grew up in Highlandtown, an East Baltimore neighborhood heavily influenced by German immigrants, where his family belonged to Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic parish. Henry Gunther worked as a bookkeeper and clerk at the National Bank of Baltimore. He had joined the Roman Catholic service order for laymen, the Knights of Columbus in 1915.

Gunther’s unit, Company ‘A’, arrived at the Western Front on September 12, 1918. Like all Allied units on the front of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, it was still embroiled in fighting on the morning of November 11. The Armistice with Germany was signed by 5:00 a.m., local time, but it would not come into force until 11:00 a.m. Gunther’s squad approached a roadblock of two German machine guns in the village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers near Meuse, in Lorraine. Gunther got up, against the orders of his close friend and now sergeant, Ernest Powell, and charged with his bayonet. The German soldiers, already aware of the Armistice that would take effect in one minute, tried to wave Gunther away. He kept going and fired “a shot or two”. When he got too close to the machine guns, he was shot in a short burst of automatic fire and killed instantly. The writer James M. Cain, then a reporter for the local daily newspaper, The Sun, interviewed Gunther’s comrades afterward and wrote that “Gunther brooded a great deal over his recent reduction in rank, and became obsessed with a determination to make good before his officers and fellow soldiers”.

American Expeditionary Forces commanding General John J. Pershing‘s “Order of The Day” on the following day specifically mentioned Gunther as the last American killed in the war. The Army posthumously restored his rank of sergeant and awarded him a Divisional Citation for Gallantry in Action and the Distinguished Service Cross. Several years later, a post, number 1858 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in east Baltimore was named after him. The VFW Post honoring the name of Sergeant Gunther has since ceased to exist.

Being of recent German-American heritage, Gunther did not automatically enlist in the armed forces as many others did soon after the War was declared in April 1917. In September 1917, he was drafted and quickly assigned to the 313th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “Baltimore’s Own”; it was part of the larger 157th Brigade of the 79th Infantry Division. Promoted as a supply sergeant, he was responsible for clothing in his military unit, and arrived in France in July 1918 as part of the incoming American Expeditionary Forces. A critical letter home, in which he reported on the “miserable conditions” at the front and advised a friend to try anything to avoid being drafted, was intercepted by the Army postal censor. As a result, he was demoted from sergeant back down to a private.

Gunther’s remains were returned to the United States in 1923 after being exhumed from a military cemetery in France, and buried at the Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore. Subsequent investigations revealed that on the last day of World War I, between the beginning of the armistice negotiations in the railroad cars encampment at the Compiegne Forest, French commander-in-chief Marshal Foch refused to accede to the German negotiators’ immediate request to declare a ceasefire or truce so that there would be no more useless waste of lives among the common soldiers. By not declaring a truce even between the signing of the documents for the Armistice and its entry into force, “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”, about 11,000 additional men were wounded or killed – far more than usual, according to the military statistics.

***

So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (1973)

***

an only son

I have slain none except my Mother. She

(Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.

 

common form

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

 

a dead statesman

I could not dig: I dared not rob:

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

What tale shall serve me here among

Mine angry and defrauded young?

 

Kipling, Epitaphs of the War (1918)
***

They had put us into ordinary third-class carriages with wooden seats, and many of the men were badly wounded and had only got out of bed for the first time that morning. Before long, what with the heat and the jolting, half of them were in a state of collapse and several vomited on the floor. The hospital orderly threaded his way among the corpse-like forms that sprawled everywhere, carrying a large goatskin bottle full of water which he squirted into this mouth or that. It was beastly water; I remember the taste of it still. We got into Tarragona as the sun was getting low. The line runs along the shore a stone’s throw from the sea. As our train drew into the station a troop-train full of men from the International Column was drawing out, and a knot of people on the bridge were waving to them. It was a very long train, packed to bursting-point with men, with field-guns lashed on the open trucks and more men clustering round the guns. I remember with peculiar vividness the spectacle of that train passing in the yellow evening light; window after window full of dark, smiling faces, the long tilted barrels of the guns, the scarlet scarves fluttering — all this gliding slowly past us against a turquoise-coloured sea.

Extranjeros — foreigners,’ said someone. ‘They’re Italians. ‘Obviously they were Italians. No other people could have grouped themselves so picturesquely or returned the salutes of the crowd with so much grace — a grace that was none the less because about half the men on the train were drinking out of up-ended wine bottles. We heard afterwards that these were some of the troops who won the great victory at Guadalajara in March; they had been on leave and were being transferred to the Aragon front. Most of them, I am afraid, were killed at Huesca only a few weeks later. The men who were well enough to stand had moved across the carriage to cheer the Italians as they went past. A crutch waved out of the window; bandaged forearms made the Red Salute. It was like an allegorical picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one’s heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all.

Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)

 

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