On November 11,1918 at 5 am an Armistice agreement was signed between the Allies and Germany in a railroad car in Rethondes - Compiegne forest, Oise, France. By this accord a cease fire will take place at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”.
Members of our association who took part to our November 8 and 9, 2008, trip whose topic was “Germans activities north east of Verdun” discovered a new monument in memory of private Henry Gunther, erected at the initiative of Mr. Pierre Lenhardt, local historian.
That stone was erected on a hilltop over Chaumont-devant-Damvillers (Meuse), a village situated about 6 miles north of Verdun, on the place where died Henry Gunther, 1 minute before the bugle called the Armistice. That Sammy is the last American soldier killed on French soil and is generally regarded as the last soldier killed during WW1.
Henry Gunther was a German-American, his parents Georges Gunther and Lina Roth were both children of German immigrants. Born in Baltimore (Maryland), on June 6, 1895. He worked as a bank employee before joining. On September 1917 he was allocated to the 313rd infantry regiment nicknamed “the Baltimore’s own”, part of the 79th infantry division. Promoted as a supply sergeant he arrived in France in July 1918 in Brest harbor.
Gunther’s unit arrived on the Meuse-Argonne front on September 12, 1918. and on the morning of November 11, is still embroiled in fighting, although the armistice accord was signed at 5 a.m. Germans occupying a road block near Chaumont-devant-Damvillers saw in the mist two American soldiers with fixed bayonets. The German soldiers aware of the nearness of the armistice tried to wave Gunther off and fired above head, but he kept going firing, and when he got too close to the machine gun he was shot and kill instantly…
It was 10.59 a.m. …!
On November 12, 1918. General John J. Pershing’s “Order of The Day” specifically mentioned Henry Gunther as the last American killed in WW1.
A few weeks before, following a letter he sent home in which he reported the “miserable conditions”
at the front and advised a friend to try anything to avoid being drafted, he had been demoted from
sergeant back to private. Posthumously his rank wasrestored, and he was awarded a divisional citation
for gallantry in action and the Distinguished service cross but not the Medal of Honor due to the reprimand received when demoted.
Buried in France, his remains were returned to the United States in 1923 and buried with all military honors at the Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore.
On November 11, 2010 a memorial plaque was unveiled at his grave site in America “Highly decorated for exceptional bravery and heroic action that resulted in his death one minute before the armistice”.
Historians keep debating Henry Gunther death. Was he a courageous hero fighting a German ambush in the last minute of the war? Was he a soldier in conflict with himself and signing his own death sentence? Or is he a victim of commanding officers ordering combats to the last minute before cease fire?
In the first case, eye witnesses interviewed by a journalist described the German ambush as warning shots fired towards the Americans running in the mist. Germans having shout in “bad English” that war was ended…but to no avail.
In the second assumption, investigations carried out during years suggest that Gunther believing he was suspected to be a sympathizer of Germany because of his background, demotion and reprimand would have expressed the most unusual will to face irrational risks. His last heroic action should have been to show and demonstrate he was and stood a “good and trustworthy American”
For the third presumption, some historians mention that Gunther’s officers would have order to take over the highlands despite knowing that war will end soon. Joseph Persico (1930-2014) an American author in his critical book “Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour” wrote “allied leaders found scandalous apologies to send 13 000 men to face death in front of a defeated enemy” Some 3000 American including Gunther lost their live that fateful morning.
Today looking through the history lens, Henry Gunther death appeared as appalling, foolish, useless !