Henry Gunther was born into a German-American family in East Baltimore, Maryland on June 6, 1895. He grew up in Highlandtown, a German neighborhood like many in the city of that era. In the year 1914, the first year of the Great War, Baltimore’s German population was 94,000, 20% of city’s population. The majority of the city’s public schools were known as “German-English” schools and up until World War I the notes from the Baltimore City Council meetings were published in both German and English, which reflected the bi-lingual nature of the community.
German-Americans in Baltimore
Most of the Germans in Baltimore were law-abiding citizens, and nobody actually questioned their loyalty. At the same time, however, they seemed to take such an avid interest in their old homeland that unintentionally they created the impression of being Germans first and Americans only second.
When the war broke out in Europe in August 1914, there was no question where the sympathies of the German-Americans stood. The fact that the Fatherland was engaged in a life-or-death struggle at once prompted them to prove their attachment to the Old Country by acts of charity. Many of these American Germans had fathers and brothers fighting for their country and the Kaiser.
These activities were observed by the non-German public with much distaste. Gradually, as the war raged on, non-German public opinion tended openly toward the Allied cause. The entry of the United States into the war against Germany became more and more probable. The enthusiastic feeling of the German-Americans, who considered themselves the hyphen between Germany and America greatly disturbed those who foresaw the war between the two countries
US Enters War Against Germany
When the United States entered the war against Germany in 1917, a wave of anti-German hysteria, fueled by propaganda-infused super-patriotism, resulted in open hostility toward all things German and the persecution of German-Americans. The names of German food were purged from restaurant menus; sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, hamburger became liberty steak. Even German measles was renamed liberty measles by a Massachusetts physician.
Super-patriots felt the need to protect the American public from contamination via disloyal music and pushed to eliminate classic German composers such as Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart from the programs of community orchestras. Some states banned the teaching of the German language in private and public schools alike. In July 1918, South Dakota prohibited the use of German over the telephone, and in public assemblies of three or more persons.
Targets of Anti-German sentiment
In this atmosphere of war hysteria anti, Henry Gunther and his family had become targets of growing anti-German sentiment. A local pharmacist accused Henry’s grandmother of being a German spy. The police took her in, but she was later released. For the German Americans in Baltimore and across the country the war years were a pretty tense time.
Being of German-American heritage and not being over-zealous about fighting former fellow countrymen, Gunther did not automatically enlist in the armed forces as many others did soon after the War was declared in April 1917. By then, Gunther had a steady job as a bank bookkeeper and had just been engaged. He had absolutely no desire to be in that war, killing Germans?
He was finally drafted in September 1917 and was quickly assigned to the 313th Regiment, which had the nickname “Baltimore’s Own” and was part of the larger 157th Brigade of the 79th Infantry Division. Promoted as a supply sergeant, he was responsible for clothing in his military unit and arrived in France in July 1918.
A Letter Home
A critical letter home, in which he reported on the “miserable conditions” at the front and advised a friend to try anything to avoid being drafted, was intercepted by the Army postal censor. As a result, he was demoted from sergeant back down to a private. Henry thought himself suspected of being a German sympathizer. James M. Cain, then a reporter for the Sun newspaper interviewed Gunther’s comrades afterward his death and wrote that “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.”
Gunther’s regiment went into action a few days after he was demoted. From the start, he displayed the most unusual willingness to expose himself to all sorts of risk.”
The last day of World War I was November 11th, 1918. Despite that day being the last day of the war, on many parts of the Western Front, fighting continued as normal. This meant, of course, that casualties occurred even as the people of Paris, London, and New York were celebrating the end of the fighting.
After three days of intense negotiations on a rail siding just outside of Compiègne, the German delegation that had been brought to the personal carriage of Marshall Ferdinand Foch was ordered by its government in Berlin to sign any terms put on the table by the Allies.
The signing was done at 05:10 A.M on November 11th. However, the actual ceasefire would not start until 11:00 A.M to allow the information to travel to the many parts of the Western Front. Technology allowed the news to go to capital cities by 5:40 A.M. and celebrations began before many soldiers even knew about the Armistice. In London, Big Ben was rung for the first time since the war had begun in August 1914. In Paris, gas lamps were lit for the first time in four years. But, on the Western Front, many tens of thousands of soldiers assumed that it was just another day in the war and officers ordered their men into combat.
In particular, the Americans took heavy casualties on the last day of the war. This was because their commander, General John Pershing, believed that the Germans had to be severely defeated at a military level to effectively ‘teach them a lesson’. Therefore, he supported those commanders who wanted to be pro-active in attacking German positions. Americans suffered heavy casualties attempting to cross the River Meuse on the night of November 10/11 with the US Marines suffering over 1,100 casualties alone. If they had waited until 11:00 A.M., they could have crossed the river unhindered and with no casualties.
With Fixed Bayonet
A U.S. Army after-action report states that, on Nov. 11, 1918, during the Battle of the Argonne Forest, Gunther’s unit, Alpha Company, 313th Regiment, 79th Infantry Division, ran into a German ambush of two Maxim machine guns near the French town of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, north of Verdun.
At the same time, a message had arrived with word that the war would be over within the hour. That’s when Gunther, visibly angry, bolted, with bayonet fixed, and charged the German machine-gun nest. At least one bullet shattered his head. It was 10:59 A.M. Gen John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, ordered that Gunther be named the last American to die on the battlefield. Five years later, Gunther’s remains were returned to Baltimore with full military honors.
But investigative reporting over the years painted a more shaded picture, one that suggests Gunther’s final heroic “charge” was as much about slaying his own demons as it was about taking out the machine gun nest. Eyewitness accounts described the so-called German “ambush” more as warning shots fired overhead. Stunned German soldiers were said to have yelled at Gunther in broken English to stop, that the war was over but to no avail. Many now believe that Gunther must have been filled with desperation or passion to demonstrate, even at the last minute, that he was courageous and all-American. Then one machine gun burst. Almost as he fell, the gunfire along the front died away and an appalling silence prevailed. The Germans who had shot him placed his lifeless body on a stretcher and carried him to his company. His comrades buried him behind the trench they occupied.
But other historians also point out that it was Gunther’s officers who gave the order to take the high ground back, knowing full well the war was about to end. Rather than sitting tight on Nov. 11, Allied commanders sent messages across front lines to attack the enemy even during those six hours between the signing of the cease-fire and its execution. Allied leaders “found outrageous excuses to send 13,000 men to their deaths against a defeated enemy”, the late Joseph Persico wrote in his highly critical book, “11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour.” Almost 3,000 Americans died, including Gunther, that fateful morning, more than were killed on D-Day.
Henry Gunther did prove himself to be a loyal soldier. The Army posthumously restored his rank of sergeant and awarded him a Divisional Citation for Gallantry in Action and the Distinguished Service Cross. Several years later, a post, number 1858 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in East Baltimore, was named after him.
Gunther’s remains were returned to the United States in 1923 after being exhumed from a military cemetery in France and buried at the Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Baltimore.