The Last Soldier to Die in World War I

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Podcast Transcript

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the Great War, the war to end all wars, came to an end. In the preceding four years and four months, the world saw the greatest bloodletting history up until that point. 

Even after the announcement of the armistice, the war continued for several hours. 

During that brief window, thousands of soldiers died. One, in particular, died at the very last minute of the war. 

Learn more about Sgt. Henry Gunther, the last soldier to die in World War I, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

By November 1918, both sides in World War I were exhausted and spent. The war had become one of attrition. 

On September 29, the Bulgarians signed an armistice with the allies. On October 30, the Ottoman Empire had surrendered. On November 3, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had signed an armistice. 

Germany was the last remaining Central Power facing the Allies. With all other opponents vanquished, everything could now be aimed at Germany.

The Americans, who were relatively fresh, had only been in the war for a year and provided needed relief in men, equipment, and funding for the British and French. 

While the front lines had mostly been a stalemate on the western front for the duration of the war, the Allies were amassing for a new offensive.

The Germans, having been economically and socially weakened from years of war, suffering from the Spanish Flu pandemic of that year, and now alone, was at its end. 

For over a month, the Germans saw the writing on the wall. On September 29, the day that Bulgaria surrendered, the German high command notified Kaiser Wilhelm that the situation was hopeless.

On November 3rd, a mutiny of sailors in the German port city of Kiel lead to a revolution that quickly swept through the German government. 

On November 8th, a train consisting of five cars crossed from Germany into France to negotiate. 

On November 9th, the revolution that began in Kiel resulted in the abdication of the Kaiser. 

On November 10th, the German negotiators were informed of the abdication and they were given instructions to agree to whatever terms to end the conflict.

At 5:45 in the morning on November 11th, the armistice was signed agreeing that all conflict would end at 11 am. That left 5 hours and 15 minutes between when the cessation of hostilities was agreed upon, and when fighting was supposed to stop.

If this had happened today, almost all parties involved would be notified almost instantly. 

However, communications in 1918 weren’t as sophisticated. 

The announcement was made publicly at 9 am in Paris and at 10:20 am in London. 

Most of the front-line forces had received the notification and had ceased fighting the moment they received the news, but not all of them. 

Believe it or not, many artillery units kept firing after they received the news because they didn’t want to have to deal with the leftover inventory. 

In the event that the armistice should fall apart, many Allied officers didn’t want to let up, lest they give up ground. 

They wanted to push the fighting as close as possible to the appointed time at 11 am, but not violate it. This was especially true of the American forces.

Just to give you an idea, the last shell fired by the US Navy’s long railway guns was shot at 10:57:30. It was timed such that the last shell would land just before the clock struck 11.

The last British soldier to die was George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers at 9:30 am. He was on a scouting assignment.

The last French soldier to die was Augustin Trébuchon who was shot as he was running to tell his comrades that hot soup was to be served after the shooting stopped. 

However, the very last soldier who was believed to have died in the First World War was an American named Henry Gunther. 

Gunther was a reluctant soldier. Unlike other members of the American Expeditionary Force, he was drafted, he didn’t enlist. 

He was from Baltimore, Maryland and he was placed in the 313th Infantry Regiment, which was nicknamed “Baltimore’s Own”.

He was promoted to a supply sergeant and was responsible for the distribution of clothing to other soldiers. 

However, he wrote a letter back home telling one of his friends how miserable conditions were and that he should do whatever he could to avoid being drafted. 

Gunther was an ethnic German, and many were concerned that German Americans had suspicious loyalties. Gunther’s letter didn’t help that perception.

The military censors read the letter and demoted him back to private. 

To make matters worse, after his demotion, his fiancée broke off their engagement. 

On the morning of November 11, Henry and his unit were outside the French village of Chaumont-devant-damvillers when they encountered two German machine gun units. 

As they were pinned down, both the Americans and Germans knew that the fighting would end very soon. A messenger was sent to the Americans at 10:44 telling them to cease combat in 16 minutes. 

The Americans were pinned down, but all they had to do was nothing. If they could just keep their heads down until 11 am, they could get up and shake hands with the Germans if they wanted. 

As the clock ticked down, with a minute left to go, Henry Gunther stood up and charged the German position. 

No one knew what he was doing. The Americans were shouting at him to come back. The Germans were shouting at him to go back. 

After several attempts to get him to turn back, not knowing what he was going to do, the Germans fired, killing Gunther instantly. 

The time of death for Henry Gunther was 10:59 am. Less than one minute before the armistice took effect. 

The next day, General John Pershing announced in his daily orders that Henry Gunther was the last American killed in combat. 

He was posthumously restored to the rank of sergeant and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

His body was returned to Baltimore in 1923 where he was interred. 

There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the last day of the war. There were over 11,000 casualties, including 2,700 death on the war’s last day. That is as many people who died in the World Trade Center on September 11. 

In France, there was such shame about the last day of the war, that many of the graves of French soldiers who died were backdated to November 10.

An inquiry into the last day of the war found that French Field Marshall Foch actually was the one who refused an immediate cease-fire, which the Germans suggested.

As for Henry Gunther, the biggest mystery was why he did what he did? There were no possible military objects to be gained 

There are two theories that have been proposed to explain his actions. 

The first is that he committed suicide by enemy fire. If he had waited a minute longer, it wouldn’t have been possible. He was ashamed of his demotion and depressed from losing his fiancée.

The other theory is that this was his last chance at redemption. He saw this as a last-ditch effort to make a name for himself and to restore the honor he lost in his demotion. 

We will never know why Henry Gunther did what he did, but perhaps his ending was best summed up 1970 movie Patton. In one of the last lines of the film, General George S. Patton says, “There’s only one proper way for a professional soldier to die: the last bullet of the last battle of the last war.”