Shortly after 5 a.m. on November 11, 1918, German, British and French officials gathered inside a railroad dining car in a dark forest north of Paris and signed an armistice to end World War I. Rejecting German calls to immediately halt hostilities, Allied commander Ferdinand Foch dictated that the guns would fall silent at 11 a.m. in part to allow news of the cease-fire to be transmitted to the front lines.
“There was also the symbolic reason of ending at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” says Jonathan Casey, director of the archives and Edward Jones Research Center at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. The quest to bring poetic symmetry to the conclusion of a war that was anything but poetic came at a terrible cost—the lives of nearly 3,000 soldiers, including one American private who sought to restore his reputation in the war’s final minute.
The war continued for six hours after the armistice signing.
Although the freshly signed armistice mandated that Germany evacuate France in two weeks, some American commanders refused to call off their attacks to liberate French territory that the Germans already agreed to relinquish. “Commanders were told to keep fighting all the way to 11 a.m. Some did and some didn’t based on their personal appraisals of whether it was really worth it,” Casey says. “From an American point of view there was a mixed reaction, and the Germans were surprised that the Americans were still fighting so vigorously. They thought things would be quiet. The Allies, though, wanted to show the Germans that they were going to press until the final hour so they knew they were serious about the armistice terms.”
Among the American forces told to continue the fight after the armistice signing was the 313th Infantry Regiment of the 79th “Liberty” Division. “There will be absolutely no let-up in the carrying out of the original plans until 11 o’clock,” subordinate brigadier general William Nicholson ordered the regiment known as “Baltimore’s Own” since most of its men came from that city.
On the morning of November 11, the men of the 313th found themselves on the far-right flank of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After experiencing nearly two months of uninterrupted combat, the regiment found no abatement in the hours following the armistice signing, seizing the town of Ville-devant-Chaumont, 10 miles north of Verdun. Enveloped by a thick fog, the Germans might have been obscured from sight but the boys from Baltimore could clearly hear the staccato of enemy machine guns and the howls of shells streaking overhead.
One soldier sought redemption in the war’s final minute.
Among those dodging the geysers of mud and iron erupting from the shells plugging in the mire outside Ville-devant-Chaumont was 23-year-old private Henry Gunther. Before war ripped him away from his new fiancée and a comfortable job at a Baltimore bank, life had been good for the handsome, mustachioed grandson of German immigrants. Drafted into service, he shipped out to France in July 1918 as his company’s supply sergeant, but when military censors read a letter Gunther had penned to a friend back home complaining about life in the trenches and urging him to avoid serving his country, the Army demoted him to private. Gunther’s grand-niece, Carol Gunther Aikman, says a further blow came when his fiancée decided to break off their engagement following his demotion.
The soldiers of “Baltimore’s Own” saw a sudden change in their comrade after he lost his stripes. No longer gregarious, Gunther became sullen and withdrawn. Perhaps to regain his reputation and prove his patriotism at a time when German-Americans were viewed with suspicion, he volunteered for dangerous assignments as a runner. “He was injured by shrapnel in his hand and could have been sent back home but he insisted on staying to help his Army brothers,” Aikman says. “I think this alone demonstrates his courage, bravery and dedication to his battalion as well as his love for his country.”
At 10:44 a.m. on November 11, a runner made it to the 313th regiment with orders to stop the fighting in 16 minutes. “Hold the lines at the spot, and neither advance nor give way to the rear,” he panted.
Sixteen minutes. That’s all Gunther might have believed he had left to regain his honor and prove his allegiance to the United States. While two German machine gun squads manning a roadblock counted down the war’s remaining minutes, they saw a shadowy figure materialize out of the fog. As shots rang out, Gunther threw himself on the ground but continued to crawl forward through the mud.
The Germans kept watch on the American soldier who suddenly rose to his feet and charged toward the machine-gun nest with his fixed bayonet. Gunther’s comrades yelled at him to stop as did the bewildered Germans in broken English. Didn’t he know the war was minutes from its end? If he heard the pleas, Gunther ignored them.
A five-round burst from a German gun struck Gunther in the left temple. He died instantly. His body collapsed in the mud. The time was 10:59 a.m.
General John Pershing, chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, officially recorded Gunther as the last American soldier to die in World War I, although the death toll would climb as it took several days for the news to reach remote battlefronts around the globe.
Armistice Day casualties surpassed the daily average on the Western Front.
According to author Joseph Persico, Gunther was one of at least 2,738 troops and 320 Americans to die on the Western Front in the war’s final day, most of them in the six hours between the armistice signing and enactment. Persico wrote in Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour that the death toll surpassed the daily average on the Western Front. “It seems so foolish,” Corporal Harold Pierce wrote of his experience on the war’s final day, “to keep up the killing till the last minute.”
Gunther’s was one last confusing death that epitomized a confusing war. “He probably felt shamed by his demotion to private and felt this somehow dishonored his family. He was trying to redeem himself, and when shots rang out he alone raced forward,” Aikman says. “I believe his final resting place, Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland, is perfectly named for what he was trying to accomplish.”
If Gunther charged the German machine-gun nest to regain his stripes, it worked. In addition to receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, he was posthumously reinstated to sergeant in 1923.