TheLast American Soldier Killed in World War I

War is About Killing and Dying

Wars, by their very nature, involve fighting and killing.

World War I has the reputation for being one of the bloodier wars in history with estimates of total military deaths for both sides ranging from eight to ten million or more.

Unlike past wars where a majority of military deaths were from disease rather than combat, in World War I only about a third of the total deaths were disease related with the remaining two-thirds being inflicted by combat.

Letters From the Front

All deaths in war are sad and tragic.

However, it is particularly difficult for battlefield comrades, family and friends when a soldier is killed in fighting just before the shooting officially stops.

In World War I, the final Allied casualty, an American Army Private named Henry Nicholas Gunther, was killed by a German bullet at 10:59 A.M. on November 11, 1918 - a mere 60 seconds or less before the war officially ended at 11:00 A.M. on that day.

Six Hours Between Agreeing to End WW I and Its Official End

While wars are fought by soldiers with guns on battlefields, they are formally ended by diplomats signing documents at a conference table miles from the battlefield.

There is usually a time lag between the time the agreement is signed by diplomats to end the war and the time communication of the war’s end reaches troops in the field.

In the case of World War I, the agreement specifically allowed for almost six hours to elapse between the time the diplomats of both sides signed the agreement and the agreed upon time to end the war.

German and Allied officers met for three days in the private train of French Marshal Ferdinand Foch who, since March of 1918 had been serving as overall commander of the Allied Forces.

The train itself was parked in a secret location near the battle front in the forest of Compiègne, France.

The Two Sides Negotiated a Cease Fire, Not a Surrender

On November tenth, a revolt in Germany resulted in Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia, abdicating his throne. The monarchy in Germany was replaced by a new government known as the Weimar Republic which wanted peace.

At 5:00 A.M. on November 11th, the German negotiators in Compiègne, France agreed to the terms offered by the Allies. By 5:20 A.M. all parties had signed the agreement which was technically a cease fire or armistice agreement and not a German surrender.

While news of the agreement spread rapidly, both among the troops on the front lines and the people back home in the warring nations, the agreement called war to end, not upon signing, but almost six hours later at 11:00 A.M. Paris time.

Technically a cease fire or armistice is an agreement by warring nations to stop fighting, with each holding their positions, while diplomats attempt to negotiate a peace treaty. In some cases peace is reached and the war ends while in others the war resumes.

Both Sides Fought Hard in the Final Six Hours of the War

Units on both sides used the six hours between the signing of the agreement and the hour it was to take effect, to mount offensives along much of the line.

Some of the fighting was due to units not receiving information immediately.

However, much of it was due to commanders, especially American commanders acting under orders from the General Pershing, commander of the American forces, to continue fighting until 11:00 A.M. and attempt to gain as much ground as possible in the event that the cease fire didn’t last.

In some accounts it is claimed that General Pershing was acting according to orders from Marshall Foch while others indicate that his motivation was a belief that if the Allies didn’t crush the German Army and conquer Germany we would eventually end up having to return and fight Germany again.

Whatever the reasons, many commanders had their men continue fighting and dying right up to 11:00 A.M. on that November morning.

Estimates are that almost 11,000 soldiers were wounded, killed or missing in action in the hours between the 5:00 A.M. signing and the 11:00 A.M. agreed upon halt to the fighting on November 11, 1918.

Death Toll on November 11, 1918 Exceeded that of D-Day in World War II

Deaths alone on November 11, 1918 amounted to over 2,700 soldiers.

These casualties and deaths in the last hours of World War I exceeded the casualty and death figures suffered some 26 years later in the World War II D-Day (June 6, 1944) Invasion of Nazi occupied France in which casualties were approximately 10,000 of which about 2,500 were deaths by combat.

While these casualty figures are abstract numbers, it is the names and stories of those who were the last to die which lets us feel the tragedy here.

Henry Gunther Goes from Bank Clerk in Baltimore to Army Sergeant

Private Henry Nicholas Gunther, the last Allied soldier to die in the war, was born on June 5,1895 in Baltimore, Maryland. When America officially entered the conflict with its declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Gunther was 21 years old and working in the National Bank of Baltimore.

In September 1917, Gunther was inducted into the Army. More than likely he, like many others, was conscripted for service under the recently enacted military draft.

Henry Gunther seems to have easily adapted to Army life and quickly rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. He arrived in France in July of 1918 as a supply sergeant in Company A of the 313th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force).

Within a week or two of his arrival in France, the then 23 year old Sergeant Gunther sent a letter to a friend complaining about the living conditions in the Army in France and supposedly (according to some accounts) advised his friend not to enlist.

Of course mail in war zones is reviewed by censors before being sent on, and, when the censors saw this and forwarded it to Gunther’s superiors he was immediately demoted to Private.

Henry Gunther remained in Company A of the 313th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division and November 11, 1918 found his unit advancing toward Metz, a city in the Alsace-Lorraine region of northeast France.

Control of Alsace-Lorraine had shifted between France and Germany regularly through the centuries and, at the start of World War I the area was ruled as a part of Germany which had acquired it as a result of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Chaumont-devant-Damvillers Where Henry Gunther Died

A markerChaumont-devant-Damvillers, France -
55150 Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, France
[get directions]

Private Henry Gunther dies Outside of Village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers

As Gunther’s unit approached the village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers they encountered a German unit.

The Germans appear to have fired on the Americans first.

Some accounts label this as an ambush while others claim that the Germans appeared to have been firing over the heads of the Americans as if to signal them that the war was about to end.

The Americans appear to have taken cover when Henry Gunther suddenly jumped up and charged at the Germans with the bayonet affixed to his rifle.

The Germans opened fire killing him with two bullets one of which entered his brain through the left temple.

General Pershing Recognizes Henry Gunther as Last American Soldier Killed

Private Henry Gunther was the only casualty in that skirmish and the last Allied casualty of the war.

General Pershing, in his Order of the Day for November 11, 1918, officially recognized Private Henry Nicholas Gunther as the last American killed in World War I.

In recognition of his being the last American soldier to die in World War I, Private Gunther was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Like many other American dead in the war, Private Gunther’s remains were brought home to the United States in 1923 and buried in Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

Northeast France

show route and directions
A markerMetz, France -
Metz, France
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City of Metz, France - the objective of Henry Gunther's unit on November 11, 1918

B markerChaumont-devant-Damvillers, France -
55150 Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, France
[get directions]

Village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers where Private Henry Gunther died.

C markerCompiègne, France -
Compiègne, France
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Compiègne, France near where train with negotiators was parked.

Monuments to Sergeant Henry Gunther

Despite having ended nearly a century ago, interest in World War I remains high. A few years ago Pierre Lenhard, a historian and mayor of the French town of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers discovered a reference to Henry Gunther’s death in the local archives.

Feeling that some recognition of Gunther was in order, the mayor arranged for a monument to Gunther to be erected in the town. The monument was unveiled on November 11, 2008 the 90th anniversary of the end of the war.

Two years later in a ceremony at Henry Gunther’s grave in Baltimore, Maryland on November 11, 2010, a new memorial stone with a bronze plaque with an inscription stating: Highly Decorated for Exceptional Bravery and Heroic Action That Resulted in His Death One Minute Before the Armistice, was placed next to his grave in Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery.

A Simple Soldier Doing His Duty to The Very End

Henry Gunther was simply an ordinary man who lived at a time when his country needed soldiers to defend its freedom. Like thousands of others, he responded to the call and did his duty.

Had he and his unit arrived at the French town of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers a minute or more later, he more than likely would have left France and resumed his ordinary life.

However, by a cruel twist of fate he became the last of the nearly 3,000 soldiers to die in the final hours of one of the bloodiest wars in history.

For this, Henry Nicholas Gunther continues to be honored and remembered nearly a century after his fatal encounter with an enemy bullet one minute before World War I ended.

George Lawrence Price - Canadian Soldier Who Died 1 Minute Before Henry Gunther

© 2011 Chuck Nugent

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Comments 7 comments

old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

A brilliant hub, so informative and well written.

UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

This is an excellent article about the last day and Henry Gunther, the last Allied soldier killed in the war. I don't know how I missed this hub when I was looking to see if the last morning of the war had been covered. I discovered it while looking for links from my own hub.

Hubertsvoice 4 years ago

I really enjoyed this story about people who follow their duty right to the end of the conflict. The uncaring ways diplomats handle those same lives when deciding that a war is over are appalling. It seems sometimes that wars are ended only to have time to prepare for the next one.

Chuck profile image

Chuck 4 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

jimmy - I'm glad you enjoyed this Hub. It was an interesting topic to research and write about but also a sad tale. Not only for the American, Sgt Gunther but also for the British, Australian, French, Canadian and German (who died 1 minute after the war ended) soldiers who died almost within minutes of Sgt Gunther's death. I am considering doing a Hub about them as well since I have all my research.

By the way, thanks for alerting me to the typo in one of my headings - it is now fixed.

And, on another matter, be warned that once I find my inner poet, I will be posting a poetic response to your poem in your latest Hub ( ) in which you threaten to take away the top spot Patty Inglish, MS, Mary Audet and I currently occupy. We aren't about to give up easily! LOL

That being said, your "Hub that wasn't a Hub" is a great read and I am still laughing.

jimmythejock profile image

jimmythejock 4 years ago from Scotland

Thanks for sharing this interesting and sad story of Seargent Gunther, the last American who died in the war and the last American hero of WW1.

this man proved his bravery with his life and it is just a pity that he never learned about the armistice that would follow seconds later.....jimmy

FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 4 years ago

I remember in the Gregory Peck film Pork Chop Hill about Korea that this hill was completely irrelevant in a military sense and the fight continued simply to decide where the new boundary line would-on a useless hill.

HattieMattieMae profile image

HattieMattieMae 4 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

Yes war is a very destructive solution to the worlds problems. Maybe a million years from now they will decide to look back on history and understand it really did more damage and destruction than good! :)

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