Henry Gunther wanted nothing to do with that mess in Europe. Most men his age had gone wild with patriotic fever, but Henry had not. He was a young, happy man with a good job, bookkeeping for the National Bank of Baltimore, and a prominent place in his church. With a steady income and a head for business, war held nothing for him.
He was also a German. Not directly German, of course, since he probably would have lost his job had that been the case. Neither he nor his parents had been born in German, but he was the grandson of German immigrants, on both sides. In fact, his entire neighborhood in East Baltimore was German-American. No one dared voice opposition to the war in Europe, but few supported it either. Like most German-Americans in those dark years, Henry and his neighbors kept their heads down.
As happy as he was, Henry’s employment, membership in the Knights of Columbus, or business plans couldn’t stop the most invasive aspect of the war: the draft. And the draft came for Henry Gunther in September of 1917.
His organizational experience and accounting skills weren’t without benefit. Instead of turning Henry into a buck private of the 313th Infantry Regiment (affectionately called “Baltimore’s Own“), the US Army lifted Henry to the rank of sergeant and charged him with organizing the uniforms of the 313th.
Relieved beyond comprehension, Henry took to his task well. The Americans seemed to have entered the war during its last act, and by the time Henry’s unit arrived in Europe in the summer of 1918, it was just a matter of time. The Hun was losing. The war would be won.Henry performed his job well and got comfortable.
While writing to a close friend back in the United States, Henry described the filth and danger of the Western Front. Miles and miles of trenches and craters, everywhere barbed wire curled like metal brambles, the stink of rotting horses and men. Rats. Trench foot. Disease. And the deafening chaos of shelling. Henry spared no detail. The Front was Hell.
At the end of the letter, Sergeant Gunther implored his friend to do whatever it took to avoid the draft. Signed and sealed, Henry slipped the letter into the Army post.
They came for him a few days later.
It’s impossible to know if Henry had been forgetful or deliberately reckless, but he had put his name (in florid cursive) on a treasonous document. The army could easily shoot him for the letter. Not only had he tarnished the war effort with lurid descriptions of the fighting front, but he had suggested a friend avoid the sacred duty of American males (the draft).
Luckily, the Army didn’t shoot Henry or even court martial him. Instead, they ripped off Henry’s sergeant insignias and busted him down to buck private. No more soft job counting boots and pants. Henry was going to the front as a regular grunt.
Humiliation. To go from a fairly prestigious position as a non-commissioned officer to buck private and then to have them find out in his Baltimore neighborhood…The letter had been a simple misstep, an accident. He hadn’t been thinking. But to strangers, it would look like cowardice.
Henry decided that he would do whatever it took to resurrect his reputation.
As promised, Private Henry Gunther went to the front in September 1918, a full year after being drafted. The Allies and Germans still fought all along the front, but the fighting was half-hearted, with no strategic value. Word of a coming armistice had seeped through the lines, and no one wanted to risk dying for nothing. On the other hand, they had to keep fighting, or it might look like simple surrender. All along the front, rifle and automatic fire slowed, shells came at regular intervals (so enemy troops could take shelter), and marksmanship plummeted. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers waited on the politicians to politicize.
Private Gunther hadn’t had the chance to demonstrate exceptional bravery of any kind. The thought of going back home, shamefully demoted, to be the object of sidelong glances and half-whispered insults. Worse yet, given his German heritage, others might think he had acted to benefit the Germans. That’s treason. That would ruin not only his life, but the life of his family.
Henry became desperate.
On November 11th, 1918, official word trickled down to those at the front: at precisely 11 o’clock, armistice would be declared, and the war would be over. At the time Henry and several other soldiers were hunkered down in a French village, taking shelter from a German machine gun that rattled half-hearted fire over their heads, mostly to kill time. The Germans knew the end was coming in a few minutes. They only needed to go through the motions until the end.
Henry and his men checked their watches over and over, calling out the hour impatiently. For most soldiers, time had never gone so slow. For Henry, time had never gone so fast.
At 10:59 AM, one minute before World War I came to a close, Henry rose from cover, shoved his rifle butt against his shoulder and walked toward the machine gun nest. The other Americans screamed and cursed at Henry to get down, for the love of God, it’s almost over. Private Gunther did no such thing. He fired mechanically, as if in a daze, not aiming at anything. Fog has descended between the two groups. All anyone could hear was the crunch of his boots, the report of the rifle, and the cling of the brass jacket as it was ejected from his rifle bolt. And the shouts of men telling Henry to stop firing and get down.
The Germans saw him emerge from the fog but didn’t put him down right away. They fired over his head, warned him to stop and get down. Henry didn’t. He reloaded, chambered a round, fired, chambered a round, and fired. The only time he stepped closer to the German nest. His sloppy shots began striking a few feet from the enemy soldiers. Too close. They had no choice.
The German gun loosed a short burst of fire a half-second long. It was enough. Henry collapsed in this last no man’s land, officially dying at 10:59 AM on the first Armistice Day. For this final act, the military awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, given for heroism “so notable and have involved risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart from his or her comrades.”
World War I lasted 4 years, 3 months, and 2 weeks, resulting in the deaths of roughly 20 million people. Sergeant Henry Gunther, who would have his rank restored after his death, was the last.