The last casualty (Valor Wednesday)

| November 11, 2020

I’m posting this at 1059 hours (local) in honor of Henry Gunther. An American, he was the last official casualty of World War I. He died one minute before the Armistice ended the war 102 years ago.

Sgt Henry Gunther

Henry Gunther was born in Maryland, but to a German-American family. Though he was a second generation American (his grandparents had been immigrants), he didn’t immediately enlist as many men his age (22) did. He was drafted in September 1917.

Assigned to the 313th Infantry Regiment of the Maryland National Guard, the regiment was known as “Baltimore’s own” and was made up almost entirely of conscripted soldiers. Made a supply sergeant, Gunther was in Company A, as the regiment landed in France with the 79th Infantry Division as part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). They entered combat 12 September, 1918 as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Supply sergeants took the brunt of the unit’s grievances. There were two sizes to uniforms at that time, too large and too small. Due to this, Gunther retreated into himself a bit more than normal.

Once at the front Gunther wrote a letter home to a friend. In the letter he described the miserable conditions and implored his friend to find any means to avoid being drafted. This letter was found by the Army censors. As a result, Gunther was demoted to private.

As the following months wore on, the 313th Infantry was in heavy combat, right up to the end of the war. At 0500 on 11 November the Armistice agreement was signed, to come into effect at 1100 hours. General Pershing, commander of the AEF, ordered his men to keep up the pressure on the Germans, hoping to push them fully back into Germany before 11.

Word reached the front of the Armistice about 0900 hours. The 313th received word of the end of the war at 1044 hours, just 16 minutes before 1100. The instructions didn’t say what they should do in the intervening time.

It’s thought that maybe Gunther was looking for a chance to redeem himself. The writer James M. Cain, of the daily newspaper, The Sun, interviewed Gunther’s comrades after the war and wrote “Gunther brooded a great deal over his recent reduction in rank, and became obsessed with a determination to make good before his officers and fellow soldiers. Particularly he was worried because he thought himself suspected of being a German sympathizer. The regiment went into action a few days after he was reduced and from the start he displayed the most unusual willingness to expose himself to all sorts of risks.”

With only minutes left before 1100, Gunther’s squad formed up near a German roadblock, manned by soldiers with machine guns near Meuse in Lorraine. The exasperated Germans watched on as the massed below them and then were even more surprised to see figures exit the fog coming towards them. It was Gunther and his sergeant.

The Germans, knowing the war would be over soon, fired warning shots. This caused the two men to drop to the ground as the bullets went over their heads. Private Gunther got up and, against the direct order of his friend and sergeant, charged the enemy with his bayonet fixed.

The Germans, aware the war was ending in mere moments, tried to wave off the headstrong American Doughboy. Not just his friend and comrade behind him was yelling for him to stop, so were the Germans (in English no less). Undeterred, he continued his charge and started shooting at the Germans.

With no choice, the Germans opened fire with a couple of bursts of their machine guns, dropping Gunther and killing him instantly. The next day General Pershing listed Gunther as the last American killed in the war. He would be the last man of any belligerent nation to die that day.

The Army posthumously restored Gunther’s rank, awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross (the second highest award for combat bravery), and a divisional citation. The latter would authorize Gunther to wear a silver citation star on his World War I Victory Medal. These were later upgraded to the Silver Star when that became its own medal. Likewise, he would, as a casualty of the war, received a wound chevron. In 1932 the Purple Heart replaced the wound chevron, retroactive to the beginning of World War I. He’d also been shot in the wrist just days before his final charge, so would actually be eligible for two Purple Hearts.

Gunther would be one of about 11,000 men (in total on both sides) to die or be wounded in battle between 0500 and 1100 hours on 11 Nov 1918. Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch (France) refused to accede to the German request for an immediate ceasefire during the hours after the Armistice was agreed to and when it came into effect.

Initially buried in France, Gunther’s remains were repatriated to the US. He’s buried in his hometown of Baltimore. A stone was unveiled in 2008 to mark the spot where Gunther fell.

His grave site also received an upgrade from the German Society of Maryland in 2010.

Category: Distinguished Service Cross, Historical, Valor, We Remember

Comments (9)

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  1. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    GROUP!
    AT-TEN-TION!
    PRE-SENT ARMS!
    (hold)
    OR-DER ARMS!
    REST!

  2. 2banana says:

    Funny how first and second generation muslim immigrants don’t act the same way.

    • 5th/77th FA says:

      Thinking the same thing 2b. We’ve commented before on stories like this where the 1st and 2nd gen soldiers of WWI & II proudly served their adopted Country with Honor.

      Not sure if this guy was brave or had a death wish. Or looking for a claim to fame in being the last. Either way, a pity. Jeff Sharaar, in his “To The Last Man” WWI Historical Novel, went into some good details on the final hours of the War. Some of the ossifers were trying to protect their men and others were pushing hard.

      What was it Patton had said? “Killed by the last bullet fired in the last war ever fought.” His way of dying if given a choice.

    • SEAL TWO says:

      My uncle, who served in the infantry with Patton’s Third Army, came home from the war absolutely hating the Germans (although he mellowed out a lot during his later, and final, years). Ironically his parents (my grandparents) spoke German with one another at home – but never with their children – and at the time of WWII he still had many relatives in Germany.

  3. Sparks says:

    Rest in peace, good Sir!

  4. Thunderstixx says:

    Another reason I consider it an honor and a privilege to have served alongside heroes such as
    Sgt Gunther…..
    Godspeed to you, fine Sir and God Bless your surviving family members and the men that you served with.
    I agree that the machine gunner would be hard pressed to erase that memory from his psyche…

  5. Anonymous says:

    “In Flanders Fields,” by LTC John McCrae:

  6. rgr1480 says:

    What a story! Sad, really.

    …awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross …divisional citation…silver citation star on his World War I Victory Medal later upgraded to the Silver StarPurple Heart ….

    Okay …. why is the senior decoration, the DSC, not on the memorial plaque?