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
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.
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
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.
City of Metz, France - the objective of Henry Gunther's unit on November 11, 1918
Village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers where Private Henry Gunther died.
Compiègne, France near where train with negotiators was parked.
Monuments to Sergeant Henry Gunther
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
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
Links to Other World War I Hubs
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- World War One: The Last Morning
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- World war 1 A Day in the Trenches ww1
World war 1 a day in the trenches, a look into the daily routine of a soldiers life in the trenches of world war 1
© 2011 Chuck Nugent