Freelance writer from Cornwall
Sergeant Henry Gunther, the last battlefield casualty of the First World War.
At 11am on November 11, 1918 the guns finally fell silent, ending four long years of misery and bloodshed unrivalled in history at that point. With the fighting now officially over, the troops on all sides could, with relief at its end and sorrow at its horror, finally lay down their arms and wait for orders to return home. The First World War was finally over. It was the last day of the First World War. For a great many soldiers on both sides it would also be their last day alive…
The fighting continued right up until the official Armistice at 11am. Distinguished American historian Joseph Persico cites a figure of around 11,000 men killed in action on November 11, 1918. Armistice Day had worse casualties than D Day, June 6, 1944. You might think, in the knowledge that there were only hours to go until theycould simply march across No Man’s Land and beyond the enemy positions, that Allied commanders would simply order their troops to hold their positions until 11am when they’d be in no further danger. Not all of them did.
The American generals were particular offenders. From the commander of American forces in France, General Pershing, right down to division and brigade level, American commanders were still attacking enemy positions right up to the last minute of the war. It was at 10:59am that Sergeant Henry Gunther of the American Expeditionary Force would be killed in action. Sergeant Gunther was the last recorded battlefield death of the First World War.
Gunther himself had a slightly chequered service record. He’d enlisted as a Private, been promoted Sergeant and demoted to Private again by the time of his death. His Sergeant’s rank was posthumously restored, so I’ll use that rank whenever it’s necessary. He was born in Baltimore on June 6, 1895, ironically with one American parent and one German. He worked as a book-keeper at the National Bank of Baltimore until he was conscripted in 1917. After basic training he joined the 313th Infantry Regiment known as ‘Baltimore’s Own’, itself part of the 157th Brigade of the 79th Infantry Division. He was an ordinary enlisted man, what the soldiers in Vietnam called a ‘grunt.’
He arrived in France in July, 1918 as a supply Sergeant, but it wasn’t long before he became a Private again. He lost his stripes after he wrote a letter home to a friend complaining at the living conditions in France and recommending his friend do everything possible to avoid being conscripted. Sergeant Gunther quickly became Private Gunther and soon found himself taken from the quartermaster’s stores to the front line. Gunther’s unit, ‘A’ Company, arrived in the front line on September 12, 1918 and were pitched into heavy fighting during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. They remained fighting right up until the Armistice officially began at 11am on November 11.
With only minutes to go before the guns would have stopped and the Armistice started, Gunther’s company found two German machine-gun posts near the French village of Chateau-demant-Damvillers. Knowing that peace was only minutes away Gunther’s sergeant and close friend, Sergeant Ernest Powell, gave his squad clear orders to take cover and keep their heads down until 11am. Gunther ignored Powell’s orders, stood up and charged the German positions with his bayonet fixed. Even the German soldiers tried frantically to wave him off, to persuade him to wait an extra minute or two until it would all be over. Gunther ignored their warnings, charged on into the enemy, fired a couple of shots and, however reluctant to fire the Germans may have been, it was him or them. A machine gun burst ripped into Gunther at 10:59am, one single minute before the official end of the First World War. Sergeant Henry Gunther died instantly. He was 23 years old.
Many have speculated on what might have led Gunther to make a suicidal and entirely unnecessary solo charge on enemy machine gun posts when simply waiting a few minutes meant he could have just walked over and taken them without risk to himself. His friends said that he resented his loss of rank and felt he had something to prove in the light of being busted to Private. The Army belatedly restored his rank posthumously, awarding him the Distinguished Service Cross and Divisional Citation for Gallantry in Action. General Pershing himself listed Gunther as the last American killed during the First World War and his native Baltimore has a Veterans of Foreign Wars post named after him.
Sergeant Henry Gunther was finally returned to the United States in 1923 to be buried at the Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore. He was the last of some 11,000 soldiers killed between the signing of the Armistice at 5:10am and its coming into force at 11am.
May all those who died rest in peace, regardless of their nationality, and especially those who died so near to the end.