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Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Last Man

The First World War chewed up the flower of an entire generation of Europeans. But have you ever wondered about the last men to lose their lives in the Great War, or any war for that matter? Well today my friend you get to satiate that thirst for knowledge to a degree. But first lets get the context...so now some backstory.

In the spring of 1918 the German Empire threw all that it had left into one giant gamble to win the war. Having knocked the Russians out of the war and stabilized the Austro-Hungarians in their fight against Italy, the Germans diverted all their forces to the west against the British and the French. For the first time since 1914, the Germans had the advantage in material and manpower against the Allies on the front. However, the Americans were now starting to arrive in good numbers, so this was temporary and dictated swift action. The German command unleashed a series of brutal attacks known as the Kaiserschlacht (Kaisers Battle) that finally broke the stalemate that had existed since the fall of 1914. Both the British and the French were sent reeling back in the wake of the assaults. Indeed the Germans at one point were very close to dividing the two forces. But the German war machine could not replace the hundreds of the thousands of casualties it suffered in just the opening weeks, let alone the war material. Desertions in the Kaiser's army were becoming rampant and the home front started souring quickly as shortages of essential items grew more severe.

As the great offensives became progressively weaker and eventually ran out of punch altogether, the British and French were still in the fight. Germany had gained ground, but had not taken Paris or pushed the British against the sea. By October the British, French, and now Americans were pushing the Germans back and threatening to invade Germany proper. The German Kaiser, in a last ditch effort to earn some leverage at the bargaining table ordered his navy to go out and do battle with the numerically superior British fleet that had been strangling Germany with a blockade since early in the war. The navy refused and revolted, sparking a revolution that swept across the nation, forcing the Kaiser to flee to the Netherlands and give up the throne. By November 9th, there was a new government, a republic, and one that was eager for peace.

On November 9th at 5AM, an armistice agreement was reached, set to go into effect at 11AM Paris time. News of the impending ceasefire spread like wildfire along the front on both sides. One would think that soldiers would simply sit tight and wait for the end, but that was not case. Indeed thousands of men would become causalities in those last hours. Recent scholarship puts the number around 11,000 men killed, wounded, or missing that last day. Most of this was the result of Allied generals and officers looking for one last moment of glory.

General Wright, an American commander saw that his men were tired, dirty, and hungry. He learned that a town in German hands nearby was well stocked and had ample facilities for his men. He ordered the town taken by assault, losing hundreds of troops in the effort. This was not the only such crazy last offensive. Another American commander ordered a small bridge taken in the last hours as well. Of course the Germans, shocked by this were forced to defend themselves, often softly, as they retreated not wanting to risk their lives to defend soil they would soon abandon at 11AM.

Perhaps the saddest and best example of lives wasted would be Henry Gunther of Baltimore Maryland. Gunther was shot dead at 10:59AM as he approached German lines. The Germans repeatedly tried to wave him off but after were forced to shoot him as he continued to advance. One minute later and the Germans and Gunther may have been shaking hands and sharing cigarettes, much like both sided had done during the Christmas Truce of 1914.

 In retrospect once the fog of war lifted, many of the commanders that lost men in the last hours of the war felt ashamed. The French especially felt guilty all the way up the chain of command, so much so that the records and graves of the war dead were dated back to the 10th of November. Perhaps they feared what the French public would think if they knew the truth. The war and the way in which it was fought seems so pointless at so many junctures, but none more pointless than those final hours between 5 and 11 in the morning of November 11th, 1918.

 
The gravestone of the last man to die in WW1. This replaced the simple marker that used to adorn his grave.

Henry Gunther pictured here with his brothers in arms.

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