On Veterans Day

Six hours can make a world of difference. Ask Henry Gunther about how important six hours can be.

Henry was an American soldier during World War 1, a part of the American Expeditionary Force, led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing. Henry, along with the other hundreds of thousands of Yanks, entered the conflict in 1918. Their arrival in France provided the boost the Allied side in the war needed. Henry and his fellow Americans ended up making the difference in the war and brought it to a successful conclusion for the Allies over 100 years ago, on November 11, 1918.

Henry was from Baltimore, and, interestingly, was from German ancestry. Maryland is still largely a Catholic state, and Henry was a good Catholic. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus in Baltimore, and he worked as a bank clerk and teller. The last day of the war found him, at age 23, in somewhat of a pickle. You see, Henry had been promoted to supply sergeant for his regiment, the 313th, known as Baltimore’s Own. His clerking experience helped him organize the unit’s supply, and he was good at it. He was responsible for making sure that the regiment had proper clothing. The US Army in France certainly had no supply shortage of equipment, and Henry was the go-to guy for his regiment.

The conditions in which the war was fought are difficult for us to imagine. The front lines were so horrendous with the constant bombardments, the lack of sanitation, mud that came up to your knees, the unburied bodies that were feasted on by rats the size of house cats…you begin to get the idea. For a good Catholic boy from Baltimore, even the conditions behind the lines were horrifying. The war had devastated north-eastern France, leaving huge scars on the land that are still visible today. Henry wrote a good friend back home in Baltimore; he told him about the miserable conditions in the war and gave the friend some sage advice: Avoid the draft at all costs.

Well, you can imagine what happened. A censor got a hold of Henry’s letter, and it certainly seemed like his advice as telling the friend to break the law. It was a poor choice at best and possibly treason at worst. As a result of the letter, Henry was busted back down to private. And, if he thought conditions were bad behind the lines, well, welcome to the front lines, Henry Gunther.

French Marshal Foch, the supreme commander of the Allies, and the representatives of the German Army had actually signed the Armistice effectively ending all hostilities at 5:00am on November 11. Messages were sent to all warring factions notifying them of the war’s end. Foch wanted a symbolic time, a poetic end, that the entire continent could point to as a fitting end to the war. He asked that the message say that all firing would cease at 11am, thus giving the war’s end a memorable 11:00am on the 11th day of the 11th month. We call it Veteran’s Day in the United States now. Originally, it was known as Armistice Day.

Henry had brooded over the demotion. He wasn’t a traitor. He loved his city and his nation. He was a proud soldier. That morning, knowing that the war was going to end before noon, Henry Gunther knew the time to show his true patriotism was running out. Perhaps he felt that he must redeem himself with his fellow soldiers and, more importantly, with himself. So, with mere minutes left before 11am, Henry fixed his bayonet and charged a German machine gun emplacement at a roadblock near Meuse, France. The Germans, to their credit, yelled at him to go back. They knew the war was almost over. But Henry would not be deterred, by God. It wasn’t 11am yet. For him, the war was still on.

Sadly, 3,000 men died in those six “poetic” hours between the signing of the Armistice and the silencing of the guns. A short burst from a reluctant German machine gunner made sure Henry Gunther was the last solider to die in World War I.

Happy Veterans Day.

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